“He’s one of our praying theologians.”
I was talking with Eugene Peterson about a theologian I’d been reading when Eugene made the comment and it stopped me in my tracks. A praying theologian? Don’t all theologians pray? What a horror an unpraying theologian would be!
About the same time, Eugene had me read Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Prayer. It was a tough read. There were no techniques. No inspirational quotes. This prayer book was a theological text if it was anything at all. Then it struck me.
Prayer is theology. Theology is prayer.
Von Balthasar wasn’t just writing words about God, he was writing words to God. His book wasn’t about prayer so much as it was prayer itself. He was engaging the God he was telling us about as we read, hoping that we’d join in the praying as well.
All prayer is theology. All of it. Unfortunately, not all of it is good theology. But whatever it is, it’s honest theology.
When we pray, our theology is stripped bare and laid out for all to see.
When we pray, we reveal whether we believe God is near or very far away. We reveal how close or how distant our relationship is with him. We reveal our belief in his willingness and ability to answer our requests. We reveal what we think he’s most interested in by what we pray about and by what we leave out of our prayers. We reveal whether we believe he’s the King or a teddy bear, a cloudy nothingness or our Father. And so on.
At the same time, as Von Balthasar showed, our theology is prayer. Whatever we say about God is said in the presence of God. He hears it all, even if we’re aiming those words at one another instead of at him.
[So, theologians, how does God hear your words about him? How does he hear your eschatology? Your ecclesiology? Your approach to the atonement? Or are you too busy arguing with other humans to turn your words toward the heavenly one?]
One of my other professors, J.I. Packer, began every single one of the three classes I had taught by him with same four words: “Theology is for doxology.” Theology is for worship. Which is another way of saying, theology is prayer. And so we would follow those four words with singing “The Doxology.”
I guess it’s possible to avoid being a praying theologian. I shudder to think of the monstrosity of that. It would be like living with a spouse who never spoke to you but only about you. Divorced cohabitation.
But may we make friends with the psalmists, those great praying theologians of old. Sometimes, they shouted their prayers. Sometimes, they whispered them. But even that painful Psalm 88 is prayed. Even that final line — “Darkness is my only friend” — is spoken to God and therefore shown to be more of a truly present feeling than a truly lived belief, for God is my own friend in the darkness.
May we all be praying theologians and theological pray-ers who speak to the One we know and know the One we speak about.