Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Language of Theology

In my first semester of Bible college, I ended up reading a small chunk – about 150 pages or so – of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. It was a section on the divine attributes, and I think I understood maybe one sentence in ten. (Not for the last time, I found myself wishing I could follow Thomas Aquinas simple thanksgiving for having understood every page he ever read.) Mostly I remember being annoyed. I figured I understood what Barth meant by "dogmatics", but where he got off applying the adjective "church" was less clear to me. How could this be about the Church in any meaningful way if it was so far over the average person's head?

As a very amateur theologian, I still find myself wondering about the relationship of academic theology to the life of the Church, though I might frame the question somewhat differently now. Among other things, I think that one of the reasons I was annoyed at Barth was simply that I hadn't been exposed to enough "real life" yet. At the time, the only people I'd been exposed to who really talked above my head were theologians. When I'd had a bit more experience, I discovered that lots of people talk over my head, all the time, including folks that I would have considered uneducated.

I've been reading some Patrick O'Brian novels recently, and I'm quite impressed with the command he has over the exceedingly technical language of square-rigged sailing ships. I described O'Brian's novels to a friend as being the equivalent of listening to a pair of expert DBA's argue about the right way to design a database – if you'd never heard of a database. A few years ago, when I was trying to sell my house, the carpet cleaner embarked for several hours in an extensive and learned discourse on the chemical properties of carpet fiber. The contractor who sided the same house spoke a technical language which only tangentially resembled English: among the many words I didn't recognize were phrases like "T-111", "the LP knot," "lap siding," and "baseband." I wasn't nearly as interested in what these folks were saying as they were, but just because I couldn't understand them doesn't mean that they weren't making relevant statements about an important reality. In the same way, we can't conclude from a theologian's use of dense and intimidating terms like "perichoresis" or "hypostatic union" that the reality to which they refer is nonexistent or unimportant.

In other words, any communal endeavor necessarily develops a linguistic shorthand for the concepts and objects with which it has frequent dealings, and the resulting language is quite opaque to everyone else. I'm not eager to talk some of those languages myself, but I'm generally glad someone does. And in fact, as a homeowner, it would be helpful for me to know more of them than I do, just as I suspect that most Christians would find it useful to know more of the language of theology.

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