As a young, precocious student at Morehouse College majoring in Religion, I recall sitting in Introduction to Theology class taught by Dr. Aaron L. Parker. This class made an unerasable impact in my life because for the first time, I was introduced to the concept that wrestling with one's faith is a noble undertaking. That was unsettling and unnerving considering all of my life, I was comfortable rehearsing what pastors and Sunday School teachers had taught me. Dr. Parker, who earned a PhD in Systematic Theology shared two ideas that have greatly contributed to my intellectual and spiritual flowering.
First, Parker introduced our class to a book entitled How To Think Theologically. He used this book to introduce the notion of embedded theology and deliberative theology. Embedded theology are all of the theological convictions that have been passed to us from family, spiritual leaders, and culture. Typically, embedded theology isn't harmful until it is and we can't disconnect from it logically because we are so tied to it emotionally. For instance, if I were to say to anyone who grew up in the Black church context, “God is good”, it would not surprise me if someone responds, “all the time.” It's embedded in us. Some statements we don't question or challenge; we simply accept it.
Then there is deliberative theology. The root word is deliberate. When one deliberates, she or he thinks about a thought carefully and deeply. Deliberative theology invites us to ask questions, ponder ideas, rethink cliches, discard certain opinions or explain why we hold so tightly to particular convictions. Now, when someone says, “God is good”, there have been times along my journey that I respond by adding, “Yes, God is God.” For me, goodness is God's essence. However, a mother who has to bury her child one week after giving birth to that child may need space to wrestle with the goodness of God juxtaposed to her suffering and grief. Deliberative theology grants us space and grace to question and dialogue about the things of God. Sometimes we do not need “a sermon or a lecture” we need to meditate, listen, and listen again.
The second deposit Dr. Parker made into the life of my mind was a quote from Paul Tillich. In Tillich's tome, Systematic Theology Volume I, he argues, “A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation.” This quote helped me understand that every responsible theologian, must hold the truth of God's message while making it relevant for the social location and cultural context of the listeners she or he seeks to reach. Everyone who speaks about God is a theologian. The problem is everyone is not responsible.
I believe, what Kristian A. Smith has done in this groundbreaking work offers each of us space to deliberate and helps us interpret the Christian message for this generation. It's time for people to stop cancelling other people because they dare to think differently. Smith pushes back on some ancient doctrines. It is important for all of us to learn that “doctrine” and “divine” are not synonyms. A doctrine is a set of beliefs that a group or institution in power decides everyone should agree on and repeat. Have we considered that even Jesus pushed back from the set Jewish doctrines of his day? Every time Jesus said, “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time…But I say unto you…” (Matthew 5:21–22) Jesus was trying to interpret a truth for a new generation. Smith is a follower of Jesus and his thought-provoking work challenges us to hear the voice of God in a post-modern world.