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"Theology deals with questions of meaning, truth, beauty, and practice raised in relation to religions and pursued through a range of academic disciplines."
--David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction
David Ford's Very Short Introduction (VSI #9) to Theology is my sixth selection of Oxford's Very Short Introduction series. I liked it enough. Not much new, but I enjoyed a couple highlights. I really enjoyed the discussion of religion's place in the modern age with our multiple overwhelming. The idea of God as an overwhelming wasn't exactly revelatory, but it also was new and expansive, so perhaps there was a bit of revelation going on.
As a theologian Ford seems like a collector. A categorizer. He would have been just as happy, I think to have worked in the Smithsonian labeling and putting caterpillar pupal casings into multiple, thin boxes, arranged from 1 to 5. His scaling of theology was certainly useful as an introduction, but it almost became predictable that in each chapter he would present a scale of 1 to 5, and ignore the edges and focus on 2-4, the center three. Always.
The basic framework of the book:
I. Describing the Field
II. Theological Explorations
III. Skills, Disciplines, and Methods
Anyway, as a short introduction the other critique was Ford's focus on Christian theology (especially dominant in Part II). I get that is a Western theologian teaching at Cambridge, so his perspective on theology was going to rely heavily on Christian beliefs given his background and his studies. However, the book would probably have been better titled 'Christian Theology: A Very Short Introduction Utilizing Scales from 1 to 5, but focusing only on 2-4'
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Ford’s short theology harnesses an interesting combination of academic rigor and activist fervor and he whips up just enough tension in his implied “what does the future hold?” that the last chapter left me wanting more.
This is a comprehensive survey of theology over the centuries and leading up to the present day. For a lay reader (like myself), it may seem tedious in parts where it explains how theology has been done in the past.But Ford sets out the practical implications of all the major concepts in Christian History, and in doing so, acknowledges the good, the bad and the ugly. The relevance of this to us today is that it opens the way for much broader discussions about God across different belief systems or lack there of. It sets the stage for future conversations among faith communities of all kinds with each other and with all those that are not in a faith community, but who are members of the community all the same.
The book poses more questions than answers, but that is alright, because it asks relevant questions and focuses on issues that we in the 21st century must address. Any discussions about community must be open to being local (on the street where we live), global (international) and in between.
Ford acknowledges that Christianity is most fruitful when it is lived out in practice, not simply sold as an ideology or part of a social clique. He talks about the changing perceptions of God and how that changes how Christians view themselves and the church in the world.
Ford comprehensively covers a spectrum of world views that can account for the views of everyone on earth in different combinations.
I think that what inspires me most about this book is that it covers the history of Christian theology and then makes Christian thought truly contemporary by placing it in amongst other systems of meaning and belief, acknowledging the value other systems bring to the world. But rather than stopping there, he points out that Christianity is more than a belief system that you can agree with or refute. It is also a lifestyle practice and a mindset.
I believe Ford’s question to his readers is not
“How do we make the world Christian?”
“What is a Christian response to the world? irrespective of how our beliefs, social status, ethnicity, creed, political opinions and affiliations differ from those we meet?
“How do we respond (optimally) as humans to other humans?, given that Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ, was human.
It is good to learn and remember where we have been so we can reconcile with all our shortcomings before we embark on tomorrow with a deeper appreciation and understanding of our world. Ford’s short introduction helps us do that.