Theology as Translation and Innovation
“Clinical translation is the process used to turn scientific knowledge into real world medical treatments. Researchers take what they have learned about how a tissue usually works and what goes wrong in a particular disease or injury and use this information to develop new ways to diagnose, stop or fix what goes wrong. Before being marketed or adopted as standard of care, most treatments are tested through clinical trials. Sometimes, in attempting new surgical techniques or where the disease or condition is rare and does not have a large enough group of people to form a clinical trial, certain treatments might be tried on one or two people, a form of testing sometimes referred to as innovative medicine.” http://www.isscr.org
What if I substituted the word religious or theological throughout this paragraph? What is theology? One of theology’s objectives is turning theological dogma and doctrine into real world applications, beliefs, and practices so that believers can translate the abstract into the concrete, or better yet join the theoretical and practical into an integrated worldview. What if theologians spent as much time not only thinking about the tradition per se but using the traditions to “develops new ways” to diagnose, stop, or fix what has gone wrong with the tradition or to enhance and expand what works in the tradition? What if the standard of care for theologians was testing ideas and practices through clinical trials? As noted in the paragraph, religious people face so many strange and daunting situations (like the scientist or healthcare researcher who faces rare conditions or diseases), that they often don’t know what to believe or what to do. Theology should help people to try things out, testing them in practice (even in those really rare situations) to see how innovative beliefs/practices and tradition coincide to meet the standards of caring for God’s people. Innovative theological work requires trial and error, asking questions, and developing new ideas within communities.
For example, a new article in the LA Times and Wall Street Journal released the findings of a scientific journal that claims approximately 65% of cancers that humans have are simply the result of “bad luck,” not from the way humans live or from the environment. If I have a friend who is diagnosed with one of these cancers, and know that it is simply her “bad luck” or that it is “chance” or the way the stem cells divide, what does that have to do with her or my theological beliefs about how God acts in the world? About what kind of pastoral care I might give to her or the family? How does this information affect the way I preach and worship? The “standard of care” for Christian theologians should not simply be to offer the usual platitudes like “God has a plan for you” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Here the Christian tradition can fail the believer by implying that God’s plan for an individual is to inflict a lethal illness as part of same grander scheme. Or worse yet, that the pain and suffering of illness (from cancer to depression) is a gift of God and should we fail to “hold up” under the pressure of the suffering than we have not only failed ourselves, but also failed God. The standard of care should require Christian theologians to understand the illness, to translate the tradition, and maybe even offer some innovative beliefs and practices that help the person to live with the faith, not in spite of it.