I’m finding myself needing to practice writing. At the risk of appearing as a learner and confirming for you my total inexperience in writing, I took up the following book, Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers, by Lucretia B. Yaghjian. It’s got incredibly clear prose, is totally encouraging, and possesses some clever exercises for sub-novices like myself. Here’s the first one from Chapter 2:
THEOLOGICAL MEMO 1: Let us imagine that you have been asked to write a “theological reflection paper” for one of your classes, but the professor has not given you explicit instructions for the writing of the paper. How would you approach this writing task? On the basis of your own understanding of “theological reflection”, please (1) define this term in one or two sentences and (2) briefly describe the kind of paper you would write in response to the assignment. (18)
I’m supposed to do this definition in one or two sentences. I’ll leave my drafts out for you to read, and keep at it, and see where this goes.
First draft: “Theological reflection” is the activity that all human persons do when considering the ways and words of God, and what they will do in response to God.
Second draft: “Theological reflection” is the active and reactive consideration of the identity, presence, activity, and communication of God performed by human persons. Sometimes this kind of reflection is done as a spiritual discipline; germane to this conversation, it is also an academic exercise of writing performed in service to the church.
Third draft: “Theological reflection” as performed by Christians (or the church) is the response to who God is in Jesus Christ and the ongoing creative presence of God in the world by his Holy Spirit. Often, this kind of response becomes enacted through academic writing that engages with Scripture, history, theological traditions, and the socio-cultural context in which the reflection occurs.
Now, I’m going to make my description. Here’s where the discussion gets linked to my 3rd draft of the definition. I find myself frequently- even with instructions and page limits- needing to keep myself in dialogue with other voices and histories in order to perform “theological reflection.” Part of this experience is intuitive: I’ve wondered who has gone before me on this journey, although I would assure you that when anyone begins a PhD and is pointed to the library, you find out abruptly that both “a lot of ground has been covered” and there are some simply wild, untouched areas of research. Fortunately, in the papers I get assigned, one gets to tread on well-paved areas of research, books, and easily accessible materials.
The other part of the journey, however, is motivated by embarrassment and experience. Those sharing the seminar with me know the name, “William Taylor,” and how I (and perhaps most of the seminar participants) made the discovery of how important history and background information often accentuates articles and exposes deficiencies within texts. I will spare the gory details as well as the hilarity that erupted upon making this discovery.
I note that a couple of other matters really need attention in my writing. Inasmuch as the instructions for the assignment are left vague, writers like myself receive a great deal of margin with which to reflect theologically. The current regime of writing within missiology does not afford such latitude. And the weekly assignment frequently insists that the paper engage with my research problem in a substantial way.
The matter, then, refers to the construction of a thesis that both takes a position and does so in an increasingly thoughtful manner with regard to my research. When you are at the beginning of your reading, this matter is both urgent and feels at times a bit impenetrable; what ends up on the page often feels superficial with regard to one’s research area. But, this matter of constructing a thesis, developing the grounds for the thesis, and making an argument for it is where I need the most work. As I often put it to the students I served in ministry: “As an engineer, it’s never too late to get an education.”
The other matter is not far from the first one: and that regards a constructive move. Whether this should be part of the thesis or not, I am not sure. I suppose- and it’s really just a guess- that historians and social scientists (to a lesser extent) probably get to skip this step. But, as one learning theology of mission, this step impresses me as essential. Perhaps, it does not always need to be present, and it could be that the constructive step can be safely omitted on occasion or that I am wrongheaded in this matter. I note with you that this matter is not within the 3rd draft of my definition. So, let me attempt a fourth draft here:
Fourth draft: “Theological reflection” as performed by Christians (or the church) is the response to who God is in Jesus Christ and the ongoing creative presence of God in the world by his Holy Spirit. Often, this kind of response becomes enacted through academic writing that engages with Scripture, history, theological traditions, and the socio-cultural context in which the reflection occurs: and develops a constructive response of mission for the people of God.
What say ye? I ‘d love to read your comments.