Theological Reflection and Social Action

Jonathon has responded both to Tim and myself regarding the silence in theological reflection on the Tsunami in emerging church circles. He writes:

I also think, Jay, in response to Tim’s critique that for some Christians it is more important in a situation such as this to respond with “How is God calling us to respond to this situation” rather than sit back in our armchair/lazyboy and do a little theology. There’s a time and place (and space) for the theological reflection- but in the midst of the pain and suffering, contemplating God’s direction towards mobilizing might be the better response.

I agree with Jonathon in the sense that sitting around in an ivory tower asking the “why” question may not serve the needs of those who are suffering. As The Goddess noted, sitting aroung the pool sipping cocktails and functioning solely in our heads is a problem for God calls us to action.

Yet (you knew it was coming didn’t you?), the danger in this stream of thought is to create a dichotomy between theological reflection and acts of compassion. When we move into a dualistic, “either this or that” mode of thought, we find ourselves emphasizing one area at the expense of the other, which leads to extremism.

As Jonathon suggested, the issue is not whether or not we reflect theologically, but rather to what is our reflection directed. We have already been engaged in the task of theological reflection in our desire to act. Our responses have been influenced by our theology of grace, our theology of creation (and the interconnectedness of all), and a theology of incarnation in which we understand that we are agents of God’s love and grace (the literal body of Christ). Our actions are motivated by theological reflection (either conscious or in the depths of our minds and experiences) which has gone on before. Then, in the midst of acting, we find ourselves processing and reflecting on the nature of God and our place in creation.

At the same time, to ask the deeper questions of “why” aren’t inappropriate for this time for the very reason that those who are suffering are asking those questions. As I wrote earlier, the natural response of those who suffer is to feel abandoned by God, to experience “the dark night of the soul.” I continue to believe one of the central roles for people of faith during these situations is to have faith for others when they are unable to do so. Thus, asking the question of “why”, of thinking through God’s place in the midst of disaster, is a central part of the pastoral work of being present with these others. Certainly we need to meet basic physical needs. Yet, as most any chaplain or disaster response professional will tell you, the emotional and spiritual scars are as great as the physical needs. To begin to ask “why” questions allows those of us to help those who suffer in processing their sense of abandonment.

Thus, I argue that we must be careful to not minimize the importance of theological reflection. On the one hand it seems very impractical, very esoteric, very disconnected from the needs of the “real world.” This is the unfortunate legacy of the academy, which has turned theological discourse and reflection into a profession rather than something that is practiced by all of us. Yet, the “real world” needs people rooted in that world reflecting on God’s place in that world. To do otherwise is to minimize God’s relevance in the world.

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