We who passionately love doctrine know theology gets a bad rap from many in the church. It's seen as antithetical to piety, or at least distracting from the church's mission of making disciples in the world. We're accused of arrogance, arguing over trifles, and being personally cold to God and to others.
Unfortunately, sometimes we fit the description. I'm a divinity school student, and I've seen plenty of contentiousness, snobbery, and cold-heartedness among those studying to become pastors and seminary professors. I've seen plenty of it in myself as well.
Why? It can't be that theology inherently makes us this way. Theology is good. God is an infinitely beautiful, infinitely worthy subject of study. Theology helps us understand and articulate truth about God. It also helps us discern and counter erroneous teaching. Spiritual life without robust theology slips towards gullible pietism and becomes susceptible to heresy.
We don't need less theology. But we might be tempted to live under the illusion that theology alone is sufficient. Our faith is foremost a relationship with the living God. We need to complement our theology, our knowledge about God, with what may be called Thouology: direct, relational knowledge of God. "Thou" is necessarily relational; I cannot speak about "Thou"---only directly to my subject. "Thou" reminds me that God is a being, not just a subject of study.
The difference between theology and Thouology is the difference between reading a book on marriage and going on a date with my wife. My understanding of marriage certainly needs improvement. But experiential knowledge of my wife can only come from face-to-face time together. I'll learn more about her during this time, but I'll also experience her in a way that makes me love and cherish her more. In the same way, we must undertake knowing God on a personal level, interacting with him to truly learn him.
The Psalms show us the richness of a life steeped in Thouology:
- You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).
- One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple (Ps. 27:4).
- So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you (Ps. 63:2-3).
The most beautiful descriptions of our hope for the future are also expressed in terms of direct personal relationship:
- The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17).
- Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God (Rev. 21:3).
- No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads (Rev. 22:3-4).
Even the final controlling metaphor for Christ's relationship with the church---bridegroom and bride---is a "Thou" relationship. If we want to prepare ourselves for eternity, we'll begin now by cultivating Thouology. Here are five suggestions for how we can do so.
1. Set yourself in the gospel.
Guides on spirituality can be man-centered, promising that the right technique or habit will guarantee a satisfying relationship with God. But we as Christians already have access to the presence of God---entirely because of the work of Jesus imputed to us by God's grace. There is no room for pride before a God called a "consuming fire." But that same God has adopted us as his children. Preach yourself the gospel daily, reminding yourself that God has out of love already secured your relationship with him. The humility and gratitude this reflection engenders will prepare you to relate to God as "Thou."
2. Meditate on the whole counsel of God.
Meditation is deliberate digestion for the purpose of spiritual nourishment. God's Word teaches us, challenges us, equips us---essentially, it feeds us. Digesting God's Word leads us to know the God who inspired and authored it.
Theology buffs usually love the Pauline epistles. Their tight logic leads to deep study. The other genres hold truth in equal measures but different manners: messy humanity-steeped narrative, fiery-hearted prophecy, contemplative wisdom literature, and otherworldly apocalyptic all proclaim truth, all contain God equally. For us to know God fully, we must take into ourselves all the ways God has spoken himself to us.
3. Treat God as a person when you pray.
Even when we pray, we sometimes feel we're merely throwing words into the air. We confess sin, express our emotions, bring needs before God, and even plead for the salvation of others without really engaging God as if he is a real being. There's no one sure technique to relating to God in "Thouological" prayer. Either we pay attention to him or we don't. Look at him, focusing on who he is. Tell yourself he's there, because he is. Interact with him, knowing that he's really listening and may even be speaking back to you.
4. Immediately digest all theological learning into praise.
Paul concludes his renowned theological treatise in the first 11 chapters of Romans with an eruption of praise. God's sovereignty, transcendence, and mystery provoke him to worship. The student of Thouology will look up from reading a sound work of theology and praise the God it reveals. If we take what we read and speak or sing it back to God in worship, we will find ourselves more aware of God as "Thou" and with a richer understanding of the God we worship.
5. Discuss Thouology with others---especially those with a different theology than yours.
Talk of theology often settles to differences: feeling out the other's viewpoint, defending our own, perhaps gently questioning theirs. But Thouology---discussing God as he is revealing himself and relating to us---can draw us together. Thouological conversations set our hearts firmly on God. They remind us that we will all someday stand as one multitude, crying out to one God, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"