What Theology Looks Like


Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).

My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.

But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.

I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.

But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish).  There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).

Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.

Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.

The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?

I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”

Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.

But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.

The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).

The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






18 responses to “What Theology Looks Like”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Fresco of Bishops by Vasnetsov in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, Kiev

  2. Thom Stark Avatar

    Thank you for this thoughtful reminder of the true nature of theology. If it is not a theology for the church, then it is pure abstraction.

  3. What Theology Looks Like

  4. David_Bryan Avatar

    I’ve just tagged you with a “Saints Meme.” If you like, post on who your four favorite saints are, who your favorite “blessed” saint is, and/or who you’d like to see glorified as a saint one day. My response is here; please post a commment there if you chose to respond to the meme on your blog. Thanks!

  5. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen — Once again your blog eerily recreates my life. I have just put down an excellent book on the theology of St. Gregory Palamas that my priest lent me. I had resolved to ask him for books of more pastoral advice as a change of pace from struggling with abstract terminology. I accept that theology is essential, because what we believe in is worked out in how we live. But I agree with you that we have to live it.

  6. […] Defining theology … in the context of where it is done … at Glory to God for All Things. […]

  7. Tia Avatar

    “Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?”

    While I applaud this insistence on a lived faith where one’s life demonstrates one’s conviction, I wonder about the nature of the “truth” that it reveals. When one sees love, honesty, kindness, compassion, patience, joy, courtesy, forbearance, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, hope, courage, genrosity, etc. manifest in someone who is Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or humanist, or atheist (and I have seen these in people of different faiths or without faith), is this also “evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel”? Or are all their virtues of a lesser order, or perhaps false, according to Orthodox theology? If not, then how can manifest virtue be evidence specifically of Christian truth?

  8. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Christ is Risen!
    I was recently at a talk on Ethiopian Orthodoxy and a dear friend brought a guest who is not Orthodox but is “seeking” God’s will in her life. Aren’t we all?
    She asked how I became Orthodox. My story is not a long one really, once I set foot in an Orthodox Church and knew the history of the Church, I understood the Truth and I converted. I have also never looked back and don’t have any fondness for what I came out of, to me that was darkness.
    I don’t very often tell people the last part because they don’t understand it, as if I am supposed to have some fondness for what went before, when I don’t. I wonder if this is because I was raised to believe that there is only the truth and eveything is false. This is hard to believe nowadays, yet I was raised that way. If its not the truth its a lie.
    If you aren’t telling the truth, you are lying. Makes for a lot of absolutes.
    Fr. Stephen writes: ” “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”
    For me it is Jesus Christ and Holy Orthodoxy- His Bride on earth.
    Now I have to find a way to live His Gospel and commandments of love. Life is not absolutely black and white all the time but the Truth is Jesus Christ. I cling to that.
    Truly He is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  9. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Very good question. You would have done well in the doctoral program! I think things are true wherever you find them. Though Christ himself is the Truth. But He is the Light that enlightens everyman who comes into the world, so I should expect to see him “displayed” in places I would not necessarily expect.

    The resurrection is finally the great “display” of the Christian Truth. Nothing else comes close.

  10. Tia Avatar

    Your response reminds me of the second stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers catch fire…”

    I say more: the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
    Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

    My commentary on this poem at http://tiatalk.wordpress.com/2007/03/23/each-mortal-thing-selves/ presumes that Hopkins, as a priest, is talking about people in the Christian world, but, on reflection, I suppose the poem could be read as referring to universal manifestations of justice which to the Christian viewer are evidence of Christ as the cause and enabler of justice.

    On the resurrection as the great display… well, if it were clearly displayed, I guess it would be! That definitely does have to remain a matter of faith, I think, given the difficulties of knowing which parts of scripture describe objective experience and which are mythic, or metaphorical, or culture-specific, or included for political reasons (Nicea), or poorly transcribed or translated, or obsolete, or the personal opinion/interpretation of the writers… etc!

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    Gee, I’m sorry, I have a good friend Tia who comments from time to time and didn’t think there would be two women with the same name. But having read your article it helps clear up my confusion.

    The resurrection, if reduced to an historical subject, would indeed be hard to “display.” My confidence in Scripture is clearly somewhat higher than you describe. I could and would add to that the encounter with the Risen Christ than has continued to be experienced into the present day. We believe that Christ is the fullness of the Truth, God in the flesh, both because of the witness of Scripture and because we know Him to be Who He said He was.

    God, in His generosity to us all, pours out grace on all humanity, such that Christ’s love is far more manifest than we can begin to fathom. I think it’s not unorthodox to say that without Grace the grass wouldn’t grow.

    I would be more specific in the manifestation of the love of God in this world. It is known mostly particularly in that such love extends towards enemies. If someone loves their enemies, I believe Christ is at work. But I am comfortable to let God judge the many things I can’t know.

    I would suggest an earlier article, “Ignorance and God.”


  12. Les Chatwin Avatar

    Thankyou for sharing this. The idea that theology needs to be lived is such a passion of mine. I appreciate your honesty.

  13. Tia Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen, no problem about the confusion – Tia isn’t yet as common a female name as some others. About the encounter with the Risen Christ – I had one when I was nine years old (I was a little precocious) and lived in its light (and darkness) for about 12 years after that, but then I read an account of a religious conversion by someone who converted from Hinduism to Islam (or vice versa, I can’t remember) and the nature of the experience and sense of relief and enlightenment that she reported was so similar to that of mine, and of many others of my fellowship, that I realised that the experience of encounter and conversion may be universal and not restricted to those of the Christian faith. Further, and respectfully because of your conviction, I don’t see how “and because we know Him to be Who He said He was” is any additional proof at all, because that knowing is entirely subjective and is claimed with just as much vehemence by true believers of other faiths.

  14. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand your point – George Lindbeck at Yale (unless retired) wrote very well and in major theological depth on the point – he had a descriptor for the position you’re taking that I think was called “emotive expressivism.” Something like that – its most essential point being that though the experience is called different things by different traditions its really the same thing. This is also put forward by those who espouse an “esoteric” position (Frithjof Schuon was the dominant figure in that school) take much the same tack – various traditions being but “exoteric” expressions of an “esoteric” reality.

    But this presumes that the experience carries no content in and of itself but that the content is something added later or projected onto the experience. The argument would hold if that were the nature of what I’m describing. But I’m not. The content does not come later than the experience but is itself a given within the experience. I might not expect that in a nine year old (I was seven when I had my first conscious encounter with Christ – and was Baptized a week later).

    Had that been the only experience, I would have certainly come to have considered in any number of ways – and possibly come to conclusions similar to yours. I certainly gave thought to such at a point in my young teen years.

    But my life has contained other experiences beyond that young encounter, and continues in an experience that, I would have to say, is not content free. The content is Christ – the Christ of the gospels and of the Church – the Christ of the saints. Were I to seek to describe this in any other manner I would not be faithful to what I have encountered.

    I think one of the attractive aspects of the position you’re describing is that it can allow everybody to be right – which is a quintessential American idea. Religion becomes relativized and subject to something else – which is in fact ultimate. In America, that something else is usually the state or a political party or an economic theory (or a variety of other causes).

    I have no way of knowing what the character of your experience was, nor what you have since learned and gone through. But it has brought you to a place other than where I am. I am more Christian now than I once was – and drawn deeper into that (particularly in the fullness of Orthodox Christianity) as every day goes by. Beyond describing that for someone, I hardly know what to say.

    Only, now I know two people named Tia. 🙂

  15. Tia Avatar

    I don’t think anyone would be able to continue living with the consequences of their conversion if it contained no content, unless they really had a pathological need for rejection by and isolation from family, former friends and mainstream society. Although my conversion experience was emotional and therefore highly motivating, it was strongly founded on a clear intellectual understanding of the Christian gospel and much bible reading.

    I experienced many further “proofs” of the reality and effectiveness of my faith over my years as a Christian, being a witness to and facilitator of many other conversions and physical and emotional healings, and was very involved in leadership and church-building in different communities, including one of the first truly multiracial churches in South Africa, based in Soweto before apartheid fell.

    All my experiences further convinced me of the truth I espoused, because my framework was adequate to contain and explain them as long as my exposure to other worldviews was limited. When I began to read and travel more widely, this was no longer possible as some aspects of reality simply could not be forced to fit any more. Do not assume that acknowledging this was easy or quick for me. Finding a stance from which I could live positively thereafter was an extremely painful and lonely process over 10 long years. I’ve only recently begun to name that stance “negative capability” after Keats, and I know that name may turn out to be inadequate. The key factor for me (at present) is personal responsibility.

    I think the issue is not to do with content or the lack of it, but with the names we give to the content. Our naming systems are impossibly inadequate for the task of codifying suprarational realities, and our attempts to do so, while inevitable as part of our efforts to make sense of our world, usually amount to no more than Babel-building, because we don’t have sufficient humility to acknowledge our limitations.

    This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is “right”. I’m not sure whether that is a “quintessentially American idea” – it may be, but I doubt whether it originated in America. In any case, I’m not an American, so my current position is not due to the undue influence over me of what you might perceive as negative forces in American thought!

    In my opinion, the state of the world offers clearer evidence that everyone is wrong, than that anyone is right! I do believe that everyone may (although many choose not to) draw some enlightenment and some sharpening of conscience from their traditions, but I do not believe that all traditions are equally right (or wrong). They (and sub-traditions within them) may be closer to or further away from the kind of love that respects all persons equally and facilitates each person’s becoming all that she can be. This love-in-action is the yardstick I choose to use for measuring truth.

  16. […] it for further comment here. If you want a bit more background, go to the previous discussion on What Theology Looks Like at Father Stephen’s […]

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    I am an Orthodox Christian – but because this is so I cannot but encourage love of neighbor and love of enemy. If someone practices these things may God bless them.

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