In a sermon published in the collection Strength to Love, the Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed that “we have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.” With this he was not encouraging his hearers to work at achieving better test or examination scores. The context was one in which many in his country had been enculturated, or educated, in a perspective conducive to racial segregation and oppression. King’s task was to encourage his hearers to test themselves. The reason for this was so that they could appreciate and understand what they believed, how their unconscious prejudices dispositions shaped how they acted, and pull out the weeds that were periling the development of their fruitfully appropriate life of Christian discipleship.
For his own part, the Johannine letter writer exhorted the Christian community to which he wrote to “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1). The reason is that Christians just like everyone else, without realising it, can be influenced and conditioned to think and behave in ways which do not reflect the reality of their calling to witness to the love of God in Christ. “Do not believe every spirit”, the Johannine epistle enjoins. The New Testament contains numerous examples of epistles written to waken their audiences from their slumbers with regard to corruptions of faith and practice, and to induce life-long practices of purging what is problematic for the sake of a healthy habituation of what reflects the flourishing of life in the work of God’s Spirit. The letters of St John’s Revelation make for particularly disturbing reading in this regard. By engaging in careful and life-long critical reflection, especially critical self-reflection, the life of faith conducts a rigorous form of testing. Only in that way is there any fulfilment of the injunction to develop critical thoughtfulness that is disposed to the flourishing of God’s creatures. King’s homily sensibly overlaps on occasions with the warning of the Wisdom writer of the Proverb: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way.” (Prov. 19:2)
It is in this spirit that theological work happens, and by theology I am not merely referring to only those who undertake the tasks of theological teaching and research. Theology has to do with the examination of the claims made, both those made verbally in the confession of the faith and those that are ‘performed’ through the practices of the Christian life. The responsibility for that has always been greater than the community’s theological teachers. The task is one in which the community, and each of its members, engages in appropriate reflection. Proper attention is paid to what is inappropriate and distorted in their faith, purging through repentance over what can be identified as problematic. In this way any gap between desire or zeal and wisdom, or the well-ordered life of the knowledge of God, can be closed.