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The Study of Theology: An Intellectual Inquiry or Existential Encounter?

“It is one thing to speak of God; it is quite another to know God”

Staretz Silouan of Mount Athos

Introductory Remarks

The word ‘theology’ – θεολογία – as it is used today, is a very broad term understood as one among a myriad of academic disciplines studied within a university context and covering a whole range of topics. A dictionary definition usually considers theology to be just like any other academic field of study. And so, in precisely the same way that every branch of knowledge, namely all ‘academic disciplines’ such as those of science, medicine, engineering or history consist of a multitude of subjects – separate units of an entire program of studies – that are specialized and thereby shed more light on the general object of study, so too, one would expect to find the same in the study of theology. In this regard, the term ‘theology’ today  for many is simply akin to words such as ‘medicine’, ‘economics’, ‘engineering’ or ‘architecture’.

More specifically, just as one would expect to encounter a whole variety of sub-disciplines within ‘medicine’ – such as, anatomy, physiology, psychiatry etc – so too, in the study of theology, it is thought that one would be expected to have to focus upon different theological areas (Patristic or Systematic theology, Church History, Old and New Testament studies, Pastoral theology, Liturgics etc). In other words, for many at first glance, theology is all about the study of God, an intellectual inquiry, in much the same way that geology or biology is the study of the earth or life respectively. Right from the outset, however, one needs to ask: is theology in fact simply another area of knowledge just like biology, anthropology, psychology, psephology, geology etc….? How is theology similar to the other fields of study we find in a university? How is it different? To what extent must theology assimilate to the methodologies of these tertiary studies? Or does it have its own? It is precisely these questions upon which this article will seek briefly to focus its attention.


Now, etymologically, the word ‘theology’, derived from two Greek words ‘Θεός [God]’ and ‘λόγος [word]’, means the study of God in much the same way that cosmology is the study of the world or in much the same way that sociology is the study of societies and communities. In other words, from its etymology, we would expect theology basically to be concerned with ‘God-talk’ – discourse about God or the study/doctrine of God – and as such would want to aim at leading the one inquiring into some ‘understanding’ of who God is. But we will see that theology is much more than a mere detached or objective study about God. The aim of theology is not simply to give some facts about God but is something more than that. Broadly speaking, it aims at equipping a person with all the necessary ‘tools’ or means in order that they may be in a position to be initiated into the mysteries of God, namely, not only formulate some teaching about God, but also and more importantly approach and experience God.

Before further reflection on this vision of Orthodox theology as an existential encounter, a point needs to be made regarding the content of theology. Again from its etymology, we would expect theology to be concerned only with God. However, theology is a wide ranging term and is not exclusively concerned only with God, but also with the world that God has created and the world’s relationship with God.

Or put another way, theology, in this sense, is a discipline that seeks to speak about: 1) God, more particularly God’s revelation; 2) God’s relation to the world and 3) the world’s relation to God. In other words, theology is concerned about ‘all things’ for only such a focus will do justice not only to God whom we believe is the source of all things, but also human beings whom we believe are involved in ‘all things.’ Now, even though, at first sight one may question the breadth of inquiry in theology, nevertheless insofar as it is claimed that God is the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ [Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] then theology as the study of God and his world and the world’s relationship with God must be considered in the study of theology. In this way, theology must not be content in simply studying God devoid from the world in which God is experienced and in which God has left ‘indications’ – not proofs – of his existence.

The Difficulty of the Task at Hand

As you would imagine, the task of theology is considerably a difficult one: not only does the breadth of such a study seem impossible to follow but we are at the same time essentially trying to become familiar with the Trinitarian God. How is God known? Can God really be known? If so, how? In the New Testament, for example, we read that “no one has ever seen God” (1Jn 4:12) since God alone “has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16).

Many fathers of the Church expressed the same idea: St Gregory the Theologian (4th century), for example, noted: “to speak of God is impossible and to know him even more impossible” and several centuries later St John of Damascus (7th century) epigrammatically wrote: “the divine is beyond understanding and the only thing that can be understood about the Godhead is the fact that it is beyond understanding.” And yet, as we shall see, since God has revealed himself, not only through his Son, Jesus Christ, but also to the world generally, we are able to know him, experience him and subsequently speak about him.

Consequently, in studying and becoming familiar with the world in general that God created, with his Son whom He sent into the world together with his abiding presence in the Holy Spirit we can indeed come to know God in the hope of participating in his beatitudes. And so, from the outset it is important to remember that it is only through God’s providence that we are able, indeed have the audacity, to speak about God, namely to theologize.

Theology – an ‘encounter [συνάντησις]’of another order

From all the above, we would expect theology to be focused upon seeking answers to questions such as: “what do we believe about God?” or “can God in fact be known?”, “If so, how is God known?” And in some sense this is correct; theology does indeed seek to reflect upon the mysteries of God [τά περί Θεοῦ μυστήρια]. Theology does in fact seek to present, as we noted above, the most basic or fundamental principles of faith in such a way that they can be approached, assimilated and accepted.

However, far more than simply coming to an understanding of some basic truths that make up the contents of the Christian faith – namely far more than an intellectual pursuit or simply ‘faith seeking understanding [fides quaerens intellectum]’ according to the classic definition of Anselm of Canterbury (12th century) – theology is essentially an ‘encounter’ [συνάντησις]; indeed one of an entirely other order – namely, created humanity’s encounter with the Uncreated God. Now, in order to appreciate the significance of this simple statement as an explanation of what theology is all about, one needs to analyze briefly the etymology of the term ‘encounter’ in the Greek. The word ‘συνάντησις’ is made up of the pronoun ‘σύν’ meaning together and the noun ‘ἐναντίον’ for opposite. In other words, an encounter, according to its Greek etymology is a coming together of two parties which are entirely different or opposite to one another [not necessarily against each other as the English etymology of encounter might suggest – coming from Old French noun ‘l’ encontre’ which signifies adversary or confrontation].

Approached from the perspective of an encounter, theology is essentially understood in terms of an experience or meeting of created human beings – who are perishable, circumscribable, limited etc – with the Uncreated God who is eternal, uncircumscribable and beyond any limits. The beauty of such a depiction – or even definition – for theology is not only its broadness including the experience of the entire created realm with God, but more importantly its existential character highlighting that theology is ultimately a meeting in which one comes to experience the indwelling presence of God and subsequently comes to trust and believe in God – something infinitely greater than mere intellectual understanding of certain propositional truths about God.

Reflecting a little further, we would say that theology is the study of the Church’s experience of communion with God which subsequently leads the faithful within the Church to attempt to give expression to and present their experience of communion with God.

Before proceeding any further, however, something must be said of the word ‘experience’ as it is often used but little understood. On a popular level, the word ‘experience’ has come to refer to a person’s inner feelings and emotions. Indeed, in the 19th century an entire philosophical movement emerged, known as existentialism and exemplified in philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) which emphasised the importance of immediate, real-life human experiences. Those who principally object to an experiential aspect to theology do so on the grounds that ‘experience’ is something vague, almost impossible to verify and difficult to identify its distinctive features [cf. George Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age].

However, according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, theology devoid of experience properly understood is impoverished; yet this experience must be interpreted within the context of the Church otherwise it may simply be a projection of our idealized conception of what we think God must be like but not the real God.

And it is precisely the Church which holds the interpretative framework. A classic example highlighting the need for experience to be interpreted within the context of the Church since it alone is the proper interpretative framework for our human experiences is the following: if we were to take a journey back for a moment to the time of Christ’s crucifixion – this experience for some could have been interpreted as a failure of Christ’s messianic mission whilst others may have remembered Christ’s words regarding his resurrection and therefore experienced his crucifixion as the most definitive sign of the world’s salvation. Clearly, for some the same event could have been experienced either as a failure or as the surest sign of God’s victory over death. This example shows that experience without interpretation is unreliable. Theology undertaken within the context of the Church is therefore the proper framework for making sense of experience.

The emphasis on experience – interpreted within the context of the Church – for understanding the nature of the task of theology has been to show that knowledge of God must not be seen as a process of logical deductions or, if you want, human rationalisations [that is, by reasoning], but most importantly an experience of communion with God within the context of the ecclesia. Outside of the context of koinonia, namely, this experience of a relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and indeed the entire created realm, the true meaning of theology is lost. Consequently, in studying theology we ought not isolate ourselves from this ecclesial company. On the contrary, being essentially communal, then we must strive to enter into this relationship. Theology simply cannot be studied in an alleged scholarly manner where the person remains unaffected, untouched.

And so, being an encounter of another order, we must not seek simply to learn about the doctrines of the Church in order to preserve them intact in their original form, but more importantly seek communion with God, within the context of his ekklesia [which is nothing other than His miraculous presence here on earth] and in so doing strive to provide the best contemporary expressions of the church’s teachings which are intelligible for today, which really speak to a person’s heart.

Consequently, theology is not about the comprehension of dogmas, but the living comprehension; a living vision of the faith rather than an intellectual understanding of the faith articulated and arranged as a series of logical propositions. We say that theology forms and not simply informs a person. For this reason, theology ought to form people’s lives and not simply inform their minds. All this implies that theology is a passionate discipline, an existential study, namely something involving our whole existence on a very profound level.

Think of it in this way. If theology is concerned with the God of faith, and if God really is as God is disclosed in the life, words and deeds of Jesus, then we cannot think rightly of God without recognising and accepting the radical importance of God for our own existence. To think ‘God’ and then to think ‘this is of no relevance for me’ is to have missed the whole point of theology as expressed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

By Dr Philip Kariatlis.

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