Course excerpt: “Intro to Theology”


Theology has the task of interpreting scripture and tradition in a particular historical situation for the community of believers. That is a formal definition, the content of which can lead to very different consequences. There is no one theology, but extremely different theologies, even in one and the same historical situation.

Dorothy Soelle – “Thinking about God”

Course Objectives

By the end of this unit, you will able to:

  • Explain the basic definitions of theology, religion and spirituality and what those look like in practice.
  • Demonstrate basic skills in theological reflection.
  • Apply theological reflection to a common youth group activity
  • Facilitate some engagement with an introduction to theology for young people, and have theological conversations with them.
  • Demonstrate skills in discernment in understanding of bad theology

Intro to Theology 1

When my daughter was in middle school, she asked me “Mum, exactly what do you DO anyway? When I described what I did in the various contexts of youth ministry where I work, and that I practice theology and teaching people about that, her response was “Oh, I get it – you’re a theologist”.It’s like a biologist I guess, but with fewer frog guts. I explore what makes life, and how that makes (or is supposed to make) a difference in this world. In this module, I’m inviting you along on that quest.

The aim of this module is to help youth ministers to become theologists (or theologians), that is, people who explore, practice and teach theology to others. And no, you don’t need an advanced degree to become a practitioner of Theology. But, it is one of the most important skills that we can learn as Youth Ministry Leaders and, unfortunately, the one that is overlooked the most.

Intro to Theology 2

World ReligionsSo then, what is spirituality?  Or religion?  How many of us in youth ministry have heard young people say
“Oh, I’m a spiritual person, I’m just not religious”.

What does that mean?  We could write books and books about both of those things, but let’s explore the following brief definitions:

As long as there have been homo sapiens, we have made meaning from the world around us.  We have had a deep inner drive to connect to mystery, to story and to something ‘beyond’ ourselves and the visible world.
Our spirituality, or our spiritual practice, is that which connects us to something beyond ourselves, that is both transcendent, and transformational.
One mystic defined spirituality as “that which leads to inner transformation”.  We are touched by something that causes a profound (and positive, life-giving) movement within ourselves.

Another way to look at it is – Spirituality is our connection to the presence of the divine within us, which awakens our sense of connectedness to our self, to others, to God/the Divine and to creation/the natural world.

So where does Religion fit into that?

SAM_3841Formal religion has been around with us for about 5,000 years.  (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). As a working definition, we can think about religion as a set of practices, stories, rituals and symbols that express our spiritual life and our theology (how we understand our relationship with God and God’s relationship to us).

Formal religion is a religion that is practiced in a structured, recognized, recognizable way by a culture, race, nation or significant population that has endured over time and place.  Within formal religion there may also be an aspect of accountability or connectedness to a wider community.

Our theology (or, how we understand our relationship with God) is expressed through our religious practice. Religious practices include religious rituals (i.e. what we do at church) as well as our daily lives.

Intro to Theology 3

What about the “Spiritual vs. Religious” question?

This article from Los Angeles’ Rabbi David Wolpe, which we’ve reprinted from provides some insight. We’ve added some Canadian context in italics. If you’re looking for a conversation starter for a confirmation class or youth gathering, use this article as a springboard!

Read Rabbi Wolpe’s article here.

By Rabbi David Wolpe

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? Boosting your self-esteem no matter your competence or behavior? Then I’ve got the religious program for you.

Increasing numbers of youth identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they have some feeling, some intuition of something greater, but feel allergic to institutions. Yet as we approach Passover and Easter, it’s important to remember that it is institutions, not abstract feelings, that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.

All of us can understand institutional disenchantment. Institutions can be slow, plodding, dictatorial; they can both enable and shield wrongdoers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others.

But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities?  If self-governance is enough, let’s get rid of Ottawa, or Washington. The point is that if you want to do something lasting in this world, you will recall the wise words of French Catholic writer Charles Péguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Got a vision? Get a blueprint.

Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world.

Religions create aid organizations; as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a column in the New York Times two years ago: the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not Save the Children or Care, it’s World Vision, a Christian organization based in Seattle, Washington and Mississauga, Ontario.

Aid organizations involve institutions as well, and bureaucracies, and — yes — committee meetings. There is something profoundly, well, spiritual about a committee meeting. It involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference. I have found too often that when people say, “I stay away from the synagogue — too much politics,” what they mean is that they did not get their way . Institutions enable but they also frustrate, as do families and every other organized sector of human life. If you want frictionless, do it alone.

To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others.

No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a religious community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no communal searching and struggle, no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic.* If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work. Join in; together is harder, but together is better.



Intro to Theology 6

dorotheesoelleDorothy Soelle, a prominent theologian from Germany says:

Tell me how you think and act politically (that is, in the public sphere) and I will tell you in which God you believe.

Soelle does not mean to imply there is more than one God, but our own understanding of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us leads to very different actions, even in the same period of time, or circumstances.  How we believe in God influences our actions, and will show up in our actions, in how we live our lives and the choices we make.

In Soelle’s book “Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology” she cites an example from history.  Picture a troop train. The train is filled with young soldiers headed to the coast, in order to board ships headed for a war (in this case, a fairly controversial war). At one end of the train is a Roman Catholic Cardinal. As a military chaplain, the Cardinal is blessing the troops and praying for them as they board the train.  At the other end of the train, a group of Quakers are lying on the tracks to prevent the train from leaving. These Christian pacifists are protesting their country’s participation in the war, and in so-doing putting their lives on the line.

How are each of these living out their own theology?  You may agree or disagree with each person’s particular position, but each has what they believe is a valid and important theological position that motivates their behaviour.  To answer this question, figure out how each person in the story would complete the following sentences:

God calls me to…

Why am I doing this? How does it express my relationship with God? How does God call me to be in relationship with or to serve the world through what I am doing, my decisions, or in these particular actions?

I follow Jesus by…

How do I reflect the gospel by my actions? What am I doing that marks me as a follower of Jesus? How am I imitating Jesus’ life and actions through what I am doing? What stories from Jesus’ life does this remind me of?

Sin is…

What sin are we bringing to light or identifying through this action or ministry? How are we complicit in that? How are we overcoming that sin? What are my own sins which are connected to this? Where am I acting out of brokenness or wholeness?  In what spirit am I approaching this? If what I am doing is perceived as illegal, does that make my actions sinful? If my actions have good motives, but are tied up in complex social/cultural/political situations, how can I be clear about what ‘sin’ is or is not?

Sin can be understood as something that breaks or harms our relationships with ourselves, with others, with God and with the world.

(Yes! This is a hard question.  Exploring what we identify as ‘sin’ in any given situation reveals a lot to us about our theology – and how we understand our relationship to God, and God’s relationship to us.)

Being human means…

How do I live my life as a human being in relationship to others? How am I expressing my full humanity, or celebrating the humanity of others by my presence in this moment?

Redemption is…

What is being overcome or made whole? How will this action lead to fullness of life, participation in God’s grace or something life-giving? What is being left behind or let go of?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Personal Reflection:

Think of a situation in your own life that is challenging.  How are you living out your theology in that situation?  Answering the above questions may help you discover some answers and provide some insights into your own ‘lived theology’.

DO with YOUth:

Our next step is to engage young people in theological reflection. You can do it, and so can they! We’ll start with something familiar.

The 30-Hour Famine is an activity that many North American youth participate in each year.  As you prepare to take part in the 30-Hour Famine, try going through the theological questions we just explored in the previous section.

As I anticipate participating in the 30-Hour Famine:

  • God calls me to…
  • I am following Jesus by…
  • I understand sin to be…
  • Being human means…
  • Redemption is…

Use the ‘descriptions’ in italics (above) of each of these sentence-openers to help young people to figure out their responses.  Words like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’ are unfamiliar vocabulary for many of us – or, we have heard them for years, but never thought about their meaning beyond “sin is doing bad things” and “redemption is what Jesus did, right?”

Even if your group doesn’t take part in the 30 Hour Famine, you can probably think of some other activities where you could explore these theological questions with youth.  What about a service project, fundraising initiative or mission trip?  Exploring these questions before (during? after?) these experiences will help young people to begin to develop fluency with theological reflection.

Here’s what one teenager created out of fridge magnet words, in response to ‘what is sin’.  (which led to a great conversation!)

Here’s what one teenager created out of fridge magnet words, in response to ‘what is sin’. (which led to a great conversation!)

Tools to help youth in reflection:

Thinking, reflecting and then talking is sometimes hard, especially if it is something youth are not accustomed to doing.  They will also feel as though there must be a particular ‘right answer’ that you are driving them towards.  Avoid that.  Let them wonder and explore how they honestly answer those questions, with no agenda for ‘the right answer’.

Try these as ‘starters’ to get at initial responses and creative thinking going…

Fridge magnet poetry
Collage with magazine images or words
Visual art
Working with symbols or metaphors – an object or picture that represents ideas

We hope you have enjoyed this ‘sample lesson’. This is a small portion to give you the gist of what is in the full Introduction to Theology module (with some bonus material here that is not in the module). 

In that module there are 10 different lessons each of which include learning activities, questions, food for thought, links to discussion forums to share ideas with other Trailblazers, video links and more to develop your skills for youth ministry.  There are also ways to apply your learning with suggested activities to do with youth.

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