Attentive to God: Thinking Theologically in Ministry

Attentive to God: Thinking Theologically in Ministry

by Charles M. Wood, Ellen Blue

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Attentive to God: Thinking Theologically in Ministry by Charles M. Wood, Ellen Blue

How the pastor reads a situation theologically will define the possibilities for ministry now and for the church's future.

The pastor's theological lens affects every ministry task. This book introduces students to the importance of theological reflection. It tells them why theological reflection is crucial to who they are and what they do, and  it shows them how they can acquire and strengthen their capacity for theological attentiveness. Central to Wood and Blue's approach is the conviction that pastoral character and pastoral practice are mutually formative. Also through the practice of ministry the pastor's identity is both continually discovered and continually worked on and worked out. All pastors must integrate who they believe themselves to be and who they believe God is to be effective leaders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426748684
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 12/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 138
File size: 779 KB

About the Author

Charles M. Wood is Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
Ellen Blue is Assistant Professor of History of Christianity and United Methodist Studies at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Read an Excerpt

Attentive to God

Thinking Theologically in Ministry

By Charles M. Wood, Ellen Blue

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-4868-4


An Understanding of Theology

One of the best brief definitions of theology I know of is one I learned from a group of experienced pastors and leaders from various church traditions some time ago: theology is a way of paying attention. It is a way of paying attention to God, and to everything else in its "God-relatedness."

In thinking of theology this way, these working theologians—members of a national consultation on theological education—were indicating that for them theology was not, in the first place, the content of theological textbooks and treatises, nor the doctrines and traditions of their respective denominations. To be sure, textbooks and treatises, doctrines and traditions were not irrelevant for them, and they were not at all dismissive of their importance; but in their judgment the importance of such writings and the principles they embody has to do primarily with their role in cultivating and forming a capacity for attention.

In fact, through their experience in Christian life and ministry, these practitioners seemed to have come to have at least an implicit grasp of an old distinction among three important senses of theology. There is, first, theology as an activity: attending to reality in a certain way, struggling to understand, studying, analyzing, deliberating, forming judgments, and so forth. Second, there is theology as the product or result of that activity: the judgments or conclusions reached and then expressed in one form or another, in words or in actions—in systematic accounts of the Christian faith, in doctrinal proposals, conciliar pronouncements, sermons, hymns, liturgies, emergency relief efforts, campaigns for social justice, and so forth. (It may seem strange to think of some of these things as theology; but in this second sense—theology as what emerges from theological reflection as an audible, visible, or enacted expression of an understanding of God and God's relation to things—a protest march, no less than a theological monograph, might well qualify for the term.) And finally, there is theology as an aptitude (or habitus) for engagement in theological reflection: a capacity and disposition to pay attention theologically. To have this aptitude in strength, we might say, is to have good theological judgment, a kind of practical wisdom. In this threefold understanding, none of the three aspects or modes of theology are to be slighted, as they are all three intimately related and interdependent. Theological writings and doctrinal formulations, for instance, are themselves among the results of attentiveness to God and to the God-relatedness of things, and if all goes well they serve to inform and strengthen our theological aptitude (to make us more attentive) and to guide our theological activity.

Among the advantages of this brief definition of theology—that it is a way of paying attention to God, and to everything else in its Godrelatedness—is that it gives a certain visibility to the aptitude or habitus theology requires. One does not pay attention simply by deciding to. There is a discipline involved. One must become an attentive person. Theological education, in its various modalities and locations—local congregations, theological schools, internships and residency programs, and so forth—rightly centers on the development of this aptitude.

Let us try to understand a little more fully what this discipline of theology involves. We might begin by considering the scope of the attentiveness that we are exploring. "Scope," the dictionary tells us, can mean both "range" or "extent" (To what do we attend?) and "aim" or "purpose" (What is the point?). A similar duality of sense might be noted if we were to rephrase the question as, "What is the object of our attention?" Both senses are relevant here.

Our brief definition indicates that the scope of theological attention in the first sense is "God, and everything else in its God-relatedness." Implicit in this phrasing is a Christian understanding of a fundamental distinction in reality between God and "everything else": a distinction in which the "everything else" of which the world consists is apprehended as God's own beloved creation. Nothing is outside the scope of theological reflection, because there is nothing to which God is not related—as Creator first of all, but in consequence of that overarching relationship in a number of other ways as well. The content and character of that relationship is the theme of the biblical story, and the substance of the Christian witness.

It will be useful for our purpose here to introduce a further distinction of a different sort, having to do with the "everything else" side of this fundamental distinction. H. Richard Niebuhr frames this second distinction aptly when he writes: "What is known and knowable in theology is God in relation to self and to neighbor, and self and neighbor in relation to God." He goes on:

The nature of theology is most pertinently expressed by the Thomist and Calvinist insistence: "True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. But while these two branches of knowledge are so intimately connected, which of them precedes and produces the other, is not easy to discover." To the present writer it seems better to say that true and substantial wisdom consists of three parts: the knowledge of God, of companions, and of the self; and that these three are so intimately related that they cannot be separated. For self-knowledge and knowledge of the other, even though the other be the human neighbor, remain two different things.

The point of this distinction between "self" and "companion" or "neighbor," if I read Niebuhr correctly, is not to introduce any sort of binary opposition between "self" and "other." Indeed, his use of "companion" and "neighbor" might be taken as a deliberate rejection of such an understanding. It is, rather, to acknowledge an important but complex fact: that the reality to which God is related, and to which we are to attend, includes ourselves, but is not limited to ourselves. Here, the "ourselves/not ourselves" distinction has several important uses. Properly appreciated, it prevents us from distancing ourselves from the scope of theological inquiry, and makes it clear that theology is a profoundly existential pursuit. It also reminds us that created reality includes more than us—us Christians, us human beings, or whatever other more restricted category we might find tempting—but also, as Niebuhr's wording makes clear, that the "other" in this context is co-creature, companion, neighbor. Connected with this point is still another insight: that the triadic relationship, God/self/co-creature, is (among other things that may be said of it) a moral relationship.

This brings us to the question of the scope of our theological attention, in the second sense of scope: What is the purpose or point of attending to God and to the God-relatedness of things? What end is to be served by this?

If the question itself makes us pause, it may be because it has a lot in common with "Why breathe?" or "Why fall in love?" It drives us back to basic questions about what human life is like, and what we are meant for. What (to borrow the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) is our "chief end"? We may as well see where this question leads us.

The response in the Catechism is that our chief end is "to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever." In many currents of Christian tradition, the human mandate to glorify God has been articulated into a threefold calling, in keeping with the notion that we are created in the image of the triune God. The language used for this varies, depending on circumstances, but there is a remarkable consistency in the substance of what is expressed. Our human vocation is to know, love, and rejoice in God, and to know, love, and rejoice in all creation in its relation to God.

We human beings have a vocation to knowledge. The quest to know and understand, in all its varieties—exploration, discovery, research, contemplation, seeking, listening—is something we are meant for. We also have a vocation actively to love: to love God and neighbor, to will and work for the well-being of all. Knowledge serves love and vice versa. Finally, we have a vocation to joy, similarly intertwined with both knowledge and active love. Joy is not just an incidental byproduct—a guilty (or innocent) pleasure or reward accompanying some of life's events. It is a constituent aspect of our proper human responsiveness to God and to all that God has made. We are made for happiness, as Jonathan Edwards would say, as well as for knowledge and love.

I have been speaking here of our calling and purpose simply as human creatures. If paying attention to God and to all things in their God-relatedness is (as it would appear) a key and indispensable ingredient in the fulfillment of this human vocation, then all human beings are meant to be theologians—that is, meant to cultivate and exercise this kind of attentiveness in the midst of everything that they do, and everything that befalls them.

This is, of course, a Christian account of things. It is the Christian vocation to give such an account, and to give it in such a way that it becomes good news—good news for all, and particularly for those most afflicted by the results of humankind's ongoing defection from its true calling.

Because many of us (perhaps especially in American mainline Protestantism) are still accustomed to thinking of "Christian vocation" as synonymous with a calling to ordained ministry, it may be well to emphasize that in the sense in which the term is being employed here it refers to the common calling of all Christians, a calling to the "general ministry" of the whole church. The church, as a "community of witness," a "sign-community," a "kind of sacrament," is entrusted with a word that it understands to be from God, about God and God's relation to all things. That word centers in a story about Jesus of Nazareth, in whom God's covenant with all creation was definitively and visibly enacted in a way that has particular and decisive import for human beings. Through the events of that story, we discover what we are meant for, and a healing is set in motion that begins to bring us into that genuine, human life.

The church bears that story into the world in a variety of ways. The triad of Word, Sacrament, and Order commonly used in describing the character of the church's ministry suggests a way of understanding the variety involved, and may also hint at some connections between the Christian vocation to bear witness to Jesus Christ, and the human vocation to which he restores us. In the way that it engages publicly in the quest to know, to love, and to rejoice in God and God's creatures, the church aims to help the world learn to pay attention to God.

Just as the Christian church is entrusted with this witness-bearing task, so some members of the church are entrusted with particular responsibility (and also with particular gifts) to nurture the community as a community of witness: to "equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). All Christians need an aptitude for theology for the exercise of their vocation. Pastors and other leaders in the community, whether in congregations or in other places of responsibility, need an abundant measure of that aptitude in order to care for the community and see to the integrity of its witness, and to attend to their own well-being and integrity in the process. Perhaps it was their appreciation of this necessity that moved the men and women in ministerial leadership who gave me this brief definition to the understanding of theology that it expresses so well.


The Shaping of Attentiveness

Attentiveness is sometimes more, sometimes less thoughtful and self-aware. Much of the time, for those who are practiced at it, it becomes second nature, requiring no particular effort or intentionality. A theological understanding of things is almost a matter of perception, rather than of conscious investigation and interpretation. There are, however, two situations in which our attentiveness is itself likely to require a higher degree of attention: when we are learning to pay attention in the first place, or working on improving our attentiveness; and when we are facing a problem or situation that for some reason requires more deliberate scrutiny.

What informs our attentiveness? What shapes our capacity for attending to God, and guides us when we are in particular need of guidance? In keeping with Christian conviction, we should say at the outset that it is ultimately God who does so—that our learning and practice of theology, along with everything else that is good in our lives, has to do with our participation by grace in the life of the triune God, and with our being brought to understand things in the light of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit who is at work in us and all creation. When we speak of more proximate resources, these themselves must finally be understood in their God-relatedness, as means by which God is at work on and in and through us. (We must also keep in mind, of course, our own tendency to sabotage this work. More on this sobering fact below.)

One very helpful brief account of these resources is provided in a statement on "Our Theological Task" included in recent editions of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Although it is neither exhaustive nor definitive—in this context these limitations are probably a virtue, rather than a failing—the statement identifies and discusses in an illuminating way four factors whose relevance to Christian theological reflection is widely recognized in the history of Christian thought: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I will draw on this account in the next few paragraphs, in the hope that the results will be useful not only to Methodists but also to readers from other branches of the Christian tradition where these factors are also very much in play.

Though United Methodists have become accustomed to referring to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as "the Wesleyan quadrilateral," it might be better if they were to think of this group as a Wesleyan quartet. ("Wesleyan" might be traded in for some less proprietary modifier later on, but let's take one thing at a time.) The analogy with an instrumental quartet in music may be helpful. Just as different instruments are not all played in the same way and do not make identical contributions to the realization of whatever music is being performed, so the different members of this quartet are brought to bear on theological reflection in different ways, for different specific purposes, though with a common end in view.

The aim is identified at the beginning of the United Methodist statement in a way that relates particularly to the church and its ministry. "As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church's life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time." It is in order to "bear a faithful Christian witness" that we summon and employ these resources in our thinking.

What specific purposes might they serve in this enterprise of critical and constructive reflection upon the church's witness? Here, it may be worthwhile to consider three conditions that the effort to bear Christian witness, by its very nature, is obliged to satisfy, and then see how the four members of the Wesleyan quartet might come into play in addressing these requirements.

The first condition is one we may call authenticity. One way to understand what is at issue here is to take "heresy" as a contrast term. Authentic Christian witness is (by definition) not heretical: that is, it is not something other than Christian witness masquerading as Christian witness. Everything that the church is, says, and does as the church is under a mandate to represent Jesus Christ faithfully. "Heresy" is false wit- ness, testimony that misrepresents Jesus Christ. Christian witness is authentic to the extent that it is actually Jesus Christ who is the content of its testimony. "How can we know the way?" Thomas asked Jesus in the upper room discourses in the Fourth Gospel, and Jesus responded, "I am the way" (John 14:5-6). The theological question we must pursue in this respect, as Karl Barth rightly framed it, is: Does the church's talk about God derive from Jesus Christ?


Excerpted from Attentive to God by Charles M. Wood, Ellen Blue. Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part One Becoming Theological,
I. An Understanding of Theology,
II. The Shaping of Attentiveness,
III. Elements of Theological Judgment,
IV. Vision and Discernment,
V. Cultivating Discernment in Ministry,
Part Two Incidents and Situations,
VI. Learning Theology Through Case Study,
VII. "What Should We Do About Henry?",
VIII. Help Thou His Unbelief,
IX. Paying Your Dues,
X. Food + Money = Food Bank,
XI. Why Can't They Just Levitate?,
XII. A Funny Way of Showing It,
XIII. The Trinity at Trinity Church,
XIV. God's Will or God's Won't,
XV. Su Casa, Mi Casa,
XVI. Things That Go Bump in the Night,
XVII. Intercultural Retreat,
XVIII. Sleepover,
XIX. Die or Dialysis,
XX. Home, Sweet Home,
XXII. Paper Chase,
XXIII. Thin Ice,
XXIV. True Colors,
XXV. The House,
Part Three Notes on Selected Cases,
XXVI. Note on "A Funny Way of Showing It",
XXVII. Note on "The Trinity at Trinity Church",
XXVIII. Note on "Things That Go Bump in the Night",
XXIX. Note on "True Colors",

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