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Making Sense Out of Reading Theology

This article encourages methodical and reflective methods of reading theological texts in order to receive greater enrichment and nourishment from them.

Joyce Ann Zimmerman

We've all had the experience of reading a theological text (such as a scripture passage, sermon, or theological essay or book) when preparing for a sermon or presentation, writing a paper for a course, or perhaps just reading to advance our own theological insight. Or maybe we are doing some reflecting on the meaning of worship to write a mission statement for our congregation's worship committee. We've completely read a paragraph, page, chapter or article, sat back, and then said, "Now what in the world was that all about?"

Sometimes what prompts this response is plainly a matter of being preoccupied-our minds are really focused on another task. If this is the case, we simply bring our minds back to the task at hand, put aside distractions, and re-read the material (this time being conscious of disciplining ourselves to pay attention to what we are reading).

At other times, we might finish reading a theological text and not know what it is about because we have not been methodical in our reading. Reading with method is a kind of "discipline" that involves more than just paying attention; it is a methodical task which we might call theological reflection.

In theological reflection, we are reading for more than mere content (as important as that might be). We are also reading in a way that makes a difference in not only preparing for or accomplishing the task at hand, but also makes a difference in who we are and how we engage with others and the world around us. This is a kind of reading during which we appropriate the content (make it our own). This is a kind of reading which might result in a challenge to us in our beliefs or behaviors. It is a kind of reading which makes a difference in us.

We might define "method" as a recurring pattern in an interpretive process yielding cumulative and progressive results. In other words, the purpose of an interpretive method is not simply to understand a text, but to delve deeper and deeper into a text, not only understanding it better but also making the text one's own and useful in one's life by applying it to the task(s) at hand (whether that be preparing a sermon or simply gaining insight). No one method for theological reflection is exhaustive and no single interpretive approach to a text yields a complete interpretation. Most theological reflection methods have a number of inter-related interpretive moments. We stress "inter-related" because theological reflection is not necessarily a "linear" process during which we move from one step to another as each succeeding step is completed.

One simple way to approach a theological text is to put to it-and ourselves-a number of questions which guide the reflection (both when reading and when finished reading). The intent here is to get in touch with what is happening to us in the very reading (experiencing); what are we learning which is new, insightful, and helpful (discerning); and what is helpful for our daily living and behavior (doing).

Readers may detect here a similarity to the "experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding" (or, more simply and popularly, "see, judge, act") of Bernard Lonergan. While there are similarities, there is one distinct difference. Lonergan presents an epistemological method, that is, a method which helps one understand the very process of knowing. Although there is certainly value in this, for most of us engaged in various theological initiatives, we are actually interested in more than the act of knowing; we are seeking understanding of a text in such a way that it informs our worship and ministry. In the theological reflection method proposed here, the interpretive task takes the reader beyond reading the text or even simply applying it to daily life and Christian discipleship. This method is a reflective process which works on the reader who appropriates the insights into his or her self, and then follows through in some practical implementation.

One theological reflection method is suggested here, with the questions grouped under these three interpretive moments (remember, this is not necessarily a linear process): experiencing, discerning, anddoing. Obviously, ours is not an exhaustive interpretive process and as we do theological reflection, we also begin to generate our own questions.

EXPERIENCING: When we read a text, we want to become aware of doing this activity; in other words, we experience our experience of reading. In order to become aware of this experience, we must become consciously attentive to the words and their meanings. As we reflect on our experience of reading the text, we become more aware of ourselves and what we are about in our theological reflection. Thus, our experience of the very act of reading actually reveals something about ourselves to ourselves (and sometimes this experience teaches us something completely new about ourselves). Practically, as we read a text we might ask such questions as

  • What is happening to me as I read this text?
  • Does this text engage me? satisfy me? challenge me? upset me? is it worth my time? why?
  • Do I find myself motivated to read this text? Does the text itself motivate me?

DISCERNING: But when we read a text (especially with a task at hand), we are usually not satisfied simply to experience the experience of reading or simply to know words and meanings or even to learn something new about ourselves. We also seek to heighten our theological insight-we want to know what is being conveyed between the lines and what does it have to do with us and our everyday experience. In other words, we seek to understand the text, and we can do so only by discerning what the text is saying to us now, in this context. Further, we must enlarge our horizon to be aware of unity and relationships and discern what our reading has to do with ourselves, others, and the world around us. At this stage of theological reflection the reader is concerned with discerning the meaning of a text beyond simply the words and sentences. Practically, as we read a text we might ask such questions as

  • What have I seen, heard, said, done, etc. which is parallel to what the text is saying?
  • Or, is this text outside of my experience? contradict my experience? In other words, is this text truthful for me or not?
  • How would I rewrite this material from my own experience? What words would I use? images? examples?
  • How true to my own experience do I find this text? what would I rewrite?
  • What are the presuppositions of the text that I'm asked to accept/believe? Are these presuppositions true for me? If I change the presuppositions, how would that change the text and what it claims?
  • Where might my understanding of this text take me? What does my understanding open up? What is good and right for me? others?
  • What principles are presented? How do I regard them? agree? disagree?
  • What does my understanding of this text have to do with me?

DOING: Finally, to bring the interpretive process and theological reflection to completion, we must choose to do (live) in accord with the truth we've discerned from the text (and this may actually be something contradictory to the text!). This stage of the theological reflection process has to do with challenging ourselves to appropriate the meaning of the text in such a way that it makes a difference in the way we live and behave. In this way, then, whatever activity follows our engagement with a text (giving the sermon or writing the mission statement) is something which flows from us and our actual engagement with both the text and life. Our most engaging and effective ministry doesn't come simply out of our heads (understanding), but rings true from our lived experience of what we are communicating. Practically, as we read a text we might ask such questions as

  • What decision(s) does this text evoke? commitment(s)?
  • What difference might my understanding make in my life? the world? my ministry? my worship?
  • What values are at stake?
  • What do we expect of ourselves which flows from discerning the meaning of the text?

Reading theology can be a daunting task. Sometimes, perhaps, the text is simply written at a level beyond what we can discern and come to understand (and don't discount the possibility that the text is poorly written, illogical, or the author does not convey the meaning clearly). However, most texts are readable, at least with some training, preparation, or persistence. Sometimes it is simply a matter of challenging oneself to read, discern, and interpret theological texts beyond beginner levels. And, as with all things, practice makes perfect! The more we practice theological reflection, the easier it gets. This is so partly because we begin to make the method our own, change it to own our needs and strengths, and adapt it to our tasks. It is also easier because as we practice theological reflection, we begin to realize that it is never very far from leading us to prayer. In prayer we encounter our God and are washed with the Spirit's knowledge and understanding.