I’ve been spending some time the past few days learning (and re-learning) the dutch language. Taking up a new language is arduous, often painstaking, but at times exhilarating. Learning the new language prompted me to surf around searching for the best ways to learn. The answers were predictable: copy verb conjugations by hand, immerse yourself in the language, utilize all of your senses, and learn to translate it both ways (from English to, say, Dutch, and from Dutch to English).
Having studied Greek and Hebrew, self-studying a new language wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be (duolingo is certainly a help!). But then I reflected on my language learning experience: I can’t, other than a few bits and pieces here and there, for the life of me remember in any significant way a particular language class I took. Memory becomes hazy, and all of the classes kind of blend into a single set of blurry images flickering in my mind. The same with my English classes: how did I learn its grammar, how did I learn subject-verb agreement, personal pronouns, and the like? I can’t remember. But I find myself sitting here writing in English, thinking in English, and comprehending English with relative ease. The same (though in a much lesser way) applies to my command of Greek and Hebrew.
That’s the way language learning works: all of the lessons somehow make possible our comprehension of the languages, rewiring our brains in a way that, though unconscious of all of the grammatical decisions we are making (or receiving), the utilization of the language becomes natural. Even when, perhaps, we can’t remember how or when we have learned particular parts of the language. The language, in turn, shapes our thinking and equips us with concepts that were previously unavailable to us. We begin to articulate things and comprehend the world we live in by means of the conceptual-linguistic forms of the language we use.
The same, I argue, can be said about theology. It frustrates me often that I can’t remember the sermon I heard (or preached!) last week. The courses I’ve taken, the papers I write, all become figments of the past irretrievable at will. But all of these sermons, courses, papers, and bible reflection will have an incalculable effect, just as every hour spent on writing verb conjugations will have a positive effect on learning a new language. The shift is elusive, and perhaps impossible to identify with any precision. But somehow, at some moment, the language moves from being alien, foreign, and hard, to becoming intuitive, organic, and lucid. All of those hours of training contribute by equipping us with the conceptual framework by which we see the world – and we may not even be conscious of it. Thinking theologically is analogous to the language learner beginning to think in a new language.
Concrete instances, I think, abound. The perception of a tragedy creates in the theologically reflective person an immediate thought that, somehow, God is sovereign and is in control of this. His love means that tragedies are never meaningless or brute happenings of chance. Another person sees the same event and thinks in terms of the naturalistic turns of nature “just doing its thing,” so to speak, on humanity. Tragedy, for this person, is nothing but a human imposition on a brute event. The theologically reflective person just finds herself thinking in theological categories and in theological terms: God permeates her thinking in the same way a new language begins to permeate one’s thinking.
Perhaps, then, this is a helpful way of understanding what Paul means when he says that we ought to think of the things above, the good, the pure, and lovely. To take the mind of Christ; the good aim to be Spiritually-minded. We become, so to speak, “spiritually dry,” or, “rusty,” when theological categories cease to become a normal course of our thought life. We become callous, weak, and distant precisely because our minds fail to think after God. Theology, just like a language, requires continual reflection and usage for it to stick. And, just like language, we ought to aim to find thinking in theological terms natural to us. May God grant us this God-centered vision of all things.