What is 'good theology'?

A Christian Science perspective on daily life.

Moez Masoud, the 29-year-old Muslim televangelist, had a powerful message for the 1,500 people who poured into a hall in Alexandria, the ancient Mediterranean city on Egypt's north coast. " 'We will be responsible to God on Judgment Day,' he said, arguing that violence against non-Muslims violates God's will. 'He will ask: Did you represent our religion correctly? If you feel happy that non-Muslims are being killed, this is wrong. They are our brothers.' "

Mr. Masoud and others "promote 'a sweet orthodoxy, which stresses the humane and compassionate' as an alternative to 'unthinking rage,' said Abdallah Schleifer, a specialist in Islam and electronic media at the American University in Cairo" (The Boston Globe, Dec. 6, 2007).

Voices such as Masoud's compete with those of Muslim extremists who espouse intolerance and hatred. With so much debate going on among those with differing perspectives on religion, it's helpful to ask, What is good theology?

That question is discussed by Karen Armstrong, a prolific writer on religion. She maintains that all the religious traditions agree on what makes a particular theology good. In her view: "The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology" ("The Spiral Staircase – My Climb Out of Darkness," p. 293).

Once Jesus was asked by a lawyer, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus replied, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:34-40, New Revised Standard Version). Jesus pointed out that these two commandments go together; you can't love God and hate your neighbor at the same time. If you truly love God, you'll love your neighbor.

Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, made a similar point: "The test of all prayer lies in the answer to these questions: Do we love our neighbor better because of this asking? Do we pursue the old selfishness, satisfied with having prayed for something better, though we give no evidence of the sincerity of our requests by living consistently with our prayer? If selfishness has given place to kindness, we shall regard our neighbor unselfishly ..." ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 9).

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Does practicing my religion make me a better person? Does it make me kinder, more loving, forgiving, unselfish? Does it help me see my own spirituality and that of the people I meet and work with each day? Am I conscious each day that all of us are beloved by God?

Each time we affirm our relation to the allness and goodness of God, we are also accepting the expectation that we will behave like Him because we are His children. This brings us back to the need to love God and our neighbor.

Science and Health offers steps on the path to this spiritual love: "What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds" (p. 4). Being patient with someone when we're busy, expressing humility by not thinking that we know all the answers, tenderly encouraging a friend who's discouraged, and doing a good deed such as shoveling a neighbor's walk – these are ways to make a tangible difference in other people's lives. They also provide solid evidence that we're practicing "good theology."

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