While my Greek and Latin skills are now rusty from a lack of daily use, I remain fascinated with how root meanings of words, as well as prefixes and suffixes, reflect subtleties of meaning that add richness to our thought and precision to our reflections.
For example, note the tendency to equate “agnostic” and “atheist” in some popular conversation about religion.
When the words are examined carefully, “a-gnostic” and “a-theist” point to quite different realities—one is a negation of knowledge (gnosis), and the other a negation of a belief in God (theos).
Listening in recent years to theological conversation in Baptist life and beyond has prompted some thought about how we regard our faith’s foundations and its implications.
It has also led to a distinction based on two familiar suffixes that we use to describe and apply labels to our thought and interpretations of God.
When we add “-ology” to the end of a word, we draw upon the Greek term for the ultimate organizing principle of the universe (logos) and imply a process of investigation and inquiry that seeks to make sense of whatever goes before the suffix.
Hence, “biology” is the investigation and advancement of understanding of life (bios), “psychology” of the psyche, and “sociology” of social structures and processes.
In each case, the emphasis is on investigation, inquiry, discovery and an ever-evolving refinement of understanding.
If the analogy holds, “theology” would be a similar process, reflective of St. Anselm’s familiar description of the theological task as “fides quaerens intellectum”—faith seeking understanding.
Rather than a fixed and final doctrine, theology is an ongoing and evolving process of refinement.
If, instead of the Greek suffix “-ology,” we add the Latin based “-ism” to a word, we find words like socialism, materialism, capitalism, hedonism and the like.
Here the suffix implies a belief system based on the first part of the word—with a commitment to the primacy of that reality in one’s perspective.
Continuing the analogy, “the-ism” would be a commitment to a particular understanding of God, which is spelled out in confessions, creeds and doctrines and affirmed by the faithful.
Theism is a result of the theological process, and it becomes a stepping stone for continuing its reflection, investigation and discovery.
We might wonder, in listening to much of the discussion that surrounds religious topics, if rather than engaging in a quest for renewed understanding, we find ourselves seeking to defend existing understandings.
In the realm of religious discussion, rather than a theo-logical quest for deeper understanding, we often seem to have a contest of conflicting the-isms.
The need to be right can become more important than the desire to seek a clearer understanding of the truth we seek.
The recent report of Pope Francis’ intention to convene a conference in the fall to examine some long-held teachings of the church draws attention to the ongoing task of theology.
Instead of the tendency to focus on the defense and preservation of the doctrines that result from theological reflection and the official acceptance of those doctrines as permanent (which is easy to see in all traditions), the kind of examination proposed is the ongoing process of “making sense of” the experience of the faith relationship as it grows through the ongoing journey.
As in any relationship, faith is always accompanied by beliefs about the relationship itself and about the other party to the relationship—in this case, God.
Faithfulness in the relationship involves letting those beliefs be refined as the relationship matures, and this is what theo-logy seeks to facilitate.
“The-isms” are necessary landmarks and guidelines along the journey, but locking onto and defending as final a particular belief about God is not a substitute for a journey of faith in God.
Perhaps one way to interpret Jesus’ word to Pharisee Nicodemus that he had to be “born from above” (John 3) might be to see it as encouragement to make the transition of focus from “theism” to “theology”—subjecting his beliefs about God to what he might discover in an openness to what God might yet disclose.
Perhaps also we can hear the echoes of John Robinson, bidding farewell to the ancestors of today’s Baptists as they left Holland for the New World in 1620: “Let us be certain … that the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy Word.”
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.