Ellen Charry describes theology as above all “a discipline of discernment.” Whether one begins by examining the Biblical text,
the doctrinal tradition, a personal encounter with God, a sobering personal experience, or the culture in which one is located theology is thinking through and beyond these points of entry until deeper realization of God’s truth emerge (Inquiring After God, 53).
Charry’s observation that theology is “a discipline of discernment” strikes me as altogether right. Theology, not as a body of knowledge but as a task or craft, necessarily involves the practitioner in a weighing and sifting that is certainly as much art as science: whether they are an everyday Christian confronted by a perplexing cultural text, a pastor preaching on a difficult topic, or one of us strange beings who make our home in the University or seminary and for whom theology very often takes place in preparation for classes or in the presence of students.
Learning theological discernment is certainly more easily “caught” than taught, but some intentional pedagogical strategies can invite students actively into the process. For example, I have my students in systematic theology wrestle throughout the course with Rowan Williams’ thoughts on theological method from the prologue to On Christian Theology.
On Williams’ account theology is a threefold cyclical movement that begins in the “celebratory” mode, moves to the “communicative”, then into the “critical” before coming full circle. Theology’s critical impulse should
move towards a rediscovery of the celebratory by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with, the sense of the language trying unsuccessfully to keep up with a datum that is in excess of any foresight, any imagined comprehensive structure. And the cycle begins again (xv).
For my students this culminates in a final oram exam when they apply this three-fold cycle to a given doctrine such as the Incarnation or the Atonement.
So, a couple questions: first, from whom did you learn (or are learning) “theological discernment”? Second, how does Williams’ model strike you? I like it because it is simple, memorable, and grounds theology’s impulse firmly in one’s encounter with grace. But that’s just me.
(See “Ruminations” part one here)