Math is a remarkable gift from God. Prior to adulthood I thought of it as some combination of befuddling, boring, and cumbersome – at best a necessary evil. I’ve come to recognize its significance, though, as a set of organizing principles for the entire universe. Math helps the limited human mind make sense of the created expanse, or at least some of it. It divides and combines and sorts the world while allowing for logic and predictive abilities.
In spite of all that, only a certain kind of mind really sees beauty in math. It is necessary, imminently useful, and occasionally almost interesting. But not beautiful to most.
Mammals have skeletons to give us strength and shape. Without them we would be immobile, gelatinous lumps of flexing, twitching, grunting goo. Skeletons are crucial to the human body, the human existence. But when we look at another person we don’t think “Whoa, nice bone structure! She must drink a lot of milk.” It is the rest of the human figure that attracts us – the symmetrical features and curves and smiles and hair color. We find beauty in the sense of humor, the personality, and the wit. We would recognize none of this without a skeleton to hold it all up, but it isn’t the skeleton we find lovely.
Systematic Theology is math, a skeleton. It is a system of organizing thoughts so that finite minds can begin to understand an infinite God (in a distinctly western way, mind you). Systematic theology is a support system for the reality of relationship with God. Too often, though, it is put forth as the face of faith instead of being the framework of it. All the “ologies” (soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, Christology, etc.) you know are not your relationship with God. They are not the true story of God. They support those things for you. They need muscles and veins and organs and skin to make them alive, to adorn them in beauty.
For many people, yea most people, systematic theology is not any more beautiful than algebra. It is intimidating or cumbersome or boring or argumentative. It can even be a deterrent from connecting with God when misused. “Misused” in this instance means thrust in people’s faces, worn as a badge of honor, broadcast as the defining characteristic of faith. People don’t need a systematic, organized understanding of God to be saved. They don’t need to have their beliefs divided and subdivided. They need a relationship, a deep, personal, intimate relationship.
Systematic theology can be present and right in a person’s life without ever being noticed or labeled as such. People can have it and use it and not know it just like they do with numerous math principles every day; just like they depend on their bone structure. And that’s ok. They don’t need the theological labels and all their associated camps any more than we need to begin dividing up people based on the length of their femurs or ability to determine the area of an equilateral triangle.
None of this is to undermine the value of accurate and rigorous theology. It is to put said theology in its proper place: foundation and underpinning, organization and understanding. It would be better if our systematic theology served its purpose and showed up less.