A Worldly Theology for Worldly Christians

Theologians think about a lot of things. They think about God, the world, and also the God-world relationship. They call this theology. We theologians have turned this word theology into a verb: “theologizing,” or “doing theology.” This is because theology is an activity. It is the act of shaping the imagination about how the world and God are related and what this means for humanity, not just theoretically, philosophically, or theologically, but especially: practically and ethically. Theology is, together with philosophy, music, and art, about how we imagine and embody time and space.

Because theology is so crucial for the practical and ethical decisions that are made, theologians spend a lot of time not just thinking about God and the world, but about theology itself. The question is than: what is the right theology? How can we create a theology that helps Christians to live their lives in such a way that justice is done to the will of God and the yearnings of human beings.

The problem is that theologians generally do not agree about the God-world relationship. In this they reflect the Christian religion they aim to represent and help. The problem gets more complicated when you realize that theologians are not interested in obtaining the answers to the same central questions but that the questions themselves differ radically from each other.

Calvinists are generally interested in the question how God can best be glorified, for instance, while charismatics think it mostly matters how one can experience the power of the Spirit. Mainline churches worry a lot about being good citizens and their theologians thus ask questions along those lines.

In all the confusion, I think it is safe to say that there are three main ways for theologians to proceed with their questioning and theologizing. Let me briefly outline the two accepted and most common approaches and then elaborate a bit on a third way that I think works better, but is not very well known or widely practiced.

Porous Theology

One way, is to be overly concerned with the world. I call it porous theology. God has become a vague reality, either because the experience of God is not taught or sought, or because modernity’s critique of revealed religion has forced God to retreat into mythical obscurity. And that is ok, such theologians, reason, because it’s all about the world. We need to live here. It’s all about ethics and collaboration with other people of good will who do not belong to our faith.

The driving question here is: how can we turn our rich religious heritage into a force for the good of society? The theology these theologians produce is usually a copy of the accepted morality of their surrounding culture but with the added bonus of a religious varnish. Under this paradigm you typically find faith communities that are porous and integrated in the surrounding world, often at the expense of distinctiveness.

Bounded-set Theology

A second way—one that I have an axe to grind with because I’ve been a theologian in this tradition until I realized I had to change—is the way that focuses on God. The aforementioned Calvinistic tradition belongs right here. One could call it bounded-set theology. The question here is God and God only: What glorifies God? What does God want from us? How can we be more like Jesus? How can we become more holy?

This way of thinking is usually accompanied by a positive assessment of the human ability to know God and God’s will. The idea of divine revelation means that God has given information, either through the book of God (the Bible, the Qur’an, etc.) or through the tradition (episcopal authority, apostolic succession, that sort of thing) and that this information is clear cut and unambiguous.

With this divine information, a set or rules is created that marks those who are in and those who are out and prescribes the expected behavior of the believer (to the glory of God). Faith communities in this paradigm tend to be very distinctive in behavior, outlook, and way of life.

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Worldly Theology

Because I find the above to ways of doing theology hopelessly wanting, I would like to propose a third way: worldly theology. Under this approach we hear a theological question that wants to identify with the world but doesn’t want to become identical with it. This is a theological approach that is certainly interested in God but assumes, based on what happens in the incarnation when God, according to the Christian faith, became a human being in Christ, that God is pretty worldly Godself. We find this God in the preaching of St. Francis to the animals and his determination to be poor with the poor. We find in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who proposed a worldly Christianity some 21 years before I was even born.

The main question is not how we can glorify God, but what the implications of God’s humility are for those who claim to be followers of Christ. God’s humility in Christ is more important than God’s sovereign glory, because God finds it more important. In the incarnation God’s love is fully and irrevocably poured out in the world.

By reframing the question this way, God and world are brought together in a unique way. In fact, they are brought together in the bodies of the Christians who ask along these lines, because, asking about God’s orientation toward the world, implies asking about the orientation of those who ask the question. If God in Christ wanted to take on human flesh so as to become completely one in nature and destiny with humanity to the point of tasting the horrors of torture and death, then what does that mean for the Church that claims to be the body of Christ on earth?

To be sure, the answer to that question entails a rejection of the porous approach that merely takes the questioner’s reality as the measure of divine potentiality and is not able to do much more than take up humanity’s broken ethics. It also entails a rejection of the search for God away from the world, because this search ends up rejecting the world, judging the world, categorizing the world as lost, and describing the world as “not -us.” It runs away from the world, hates the world, fears the world, not realizing that it is the world. This theology, for all its separating tendencies, and precisely because of them, carries the world with itself in its hankering after God in its own strength and its own imagination.


What the world needs today more than ever is a worldly theology. A worldly theology acknowledges that “God so loved the world…” and that everything that comes after that is one big powerful movement from God to the world. Sure, there are themes in, for instance, the Gospel of John that talk about the world in negative terms, as a synonym for sinfulness. Sadly, Christians have all too readily picked up on that and created a dichotomy between Church and world. They would have done well to do so contextually and thus realize that the term “world” in the Gospel of John applies to the faith community of the Jews. Indeed, the strongest and most religious believers in that narrative are potentially “the world” that Jesus warns against. Faith communities can not so easily be separated from the world.

Therefore, our focus should once again be on that world. We should do so with our minds fixed on Christ. It is the very following of Christ that we are led, not back out of the world, but into it, where the suffering are (and those who inflict suffering), where the sinners are (and us one of them), and where those who hunger for righteousness do so in the world (as do the peace makers and broken hearted). The cross is and has always been a sign in the world, planted firmly on a bleak hillside.

Away goes the obliteration, by the porous theologians, of anything distinctive to mark Christianity, but equally: away goes the arrogant separation of feigned ethical purity that marks the bounded set approach. Away also goes the rigid social ethics of an absolute divine moral code that becomes an unbearable yoke for those who can’t conform (which is everybody, really). A theology for the world, listens to the world, takes its cues from the world, because the world is all we got—and Christ in it. We need a theology that affirms life, loves the world and its people, and restores hope for creation by resisting the systemic powers of evil, by embracing those who are desperate, and by creating space for justice to thrive.

This is the world God loves. This is the world that God comes to in and through his children; every day anew. Let’s stop running away from it and take our responsibility. We need a worldly theology. Because a worldly theology cares for the world, loves the world, cradles the world, embraces the world, transforms the world, and gives itself to the world in the manner of Christ. It preaches the gospel to the animals in the forest and strives to foster a worldly Christianity in the true sense of the word.

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