One can find several different dictionary definitions of theology. Perhaps the best comprehensive answer is that theology is “the rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth.” More particularly, for the Christian, theology is a situated system of teachings; "Roman Catholic theology" or “Protestant Theology,” etc. In an academic context theology is a profession acquired by specialized courses in religion and Christian studies (usually taught at a college or seminary); e.g. "He/she studied theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.”
Now, theology is a needed and useful discipline. I am not only committed to theological study but I believe it is a properly recommended course of study for ministers, priests and many non-clerical leaders (elders, deacons, teachers, etc.) In the most broad sense everyone who thinks about God at all is a theologian, professional or not.
But here’s the problem—theology is often very cold and sterile, especially when it is limited to intellectual forms and human systems of thought. What changes all this is when theology serves as a means to understanding God. In this instance it can result in a healthy understanding that we will never possess a precise sense of God thus we cannot define Him or limit Him by human concepts or systems. Joseph Girzone says about his own theological training as a Catholic priest: “I . . . saw from our extensive study of Scripture that God had a sense of morality that was much more open than the narrow, rigid morality of moral theologians, or even the Church itself” (Never Alone, 1994, 6). Because Girzone read the Scriptures and understood them in this way he writes: “That was to effect radically my understanding of people later on when they came to me with very disturbing moral problems. I could always see abundant goodness alongside the very severe moral weakness in people, and learned to treat them as whole persons and not as sinners, the way Jesus, for example, treated the Samaritan women who was married five times and did not even bother to marry the last person. Jesus still saw goodness in her and chose her to announce the Good News to that Samaritan village. Churches do not treat people that way. Sinners are very carefully avoided in our churches and not allowed to take part in the real life of the church. We do not feel comfortable with sinners and we make them feel uncomfortable by not allowing them to perform services and ministries that are open to others whose lives superficially are more in keeping with Church standards (Never Alone, 6-7).
If that paragraph doesn’t resonate with you I seriously doubt that you’ve been around the church for long. It is so self-evident that a growing number of Christians are actively serving Jesus, and clearly love him deeply, but cannot relate to the church any longer. There is, in other words, growing evidence that the church actually hinders the growth and ministry of many serious Christians.
In contrast to many of us Jesus could actually look at bad people and see their great potential for good. He could see their confusion and respond to them with love. He could embrace them and thus give them hope. He continually reached out to broken people and treated them like bruised and broken sheep who were invited to approach him even though they felt unworthy in his presence. If you do not think this observation to be correct you need to put down your theology book and read the four Gospels anew.
Fr. Girzone concludes that this is the reason why a precise understanding of Jesus is more important than all the theology courses in anyone’s curriculum. “If Christianity is merely a theological system, it will at most produce a highly educated elite devoid of anything resembling the living Christ in their personal lives (Never Alone, 7-8). Ouch, that seems very close to the reality of our own time.
Sadly, much of the theology I’ve seen taught and studied over the course of my lifetime was done to validate certain positions, biblically or socially (usually both), with regard to other Christians and (sometimes) non-Christians. It was not done to foster deep love and spiritual development and formation in souls. Adds Fr. Girzone, “We teach theology, we explain Scriptures, we enact nice liturgies, we debate public issues, we parade the streets in protest marches. . . .