3. Part one: Get started
Joining the conversation
When the theologian Mike Higton introduces this discipline to beginners, he sometimes likens it to a conversation over a meal with friends. In such a situation, participants listen carefully to what other people around the table are saying, then make a contribution to the discussion based on what they’ve heard. Sometimes it will take the conversation forward, or in a new direction. And just occasionally, it will steer the discussion into an intellectual cul-de-sac, from which others are required to rescue it.
What matters in the conversation, though, is that people listen to each other, take seriously what is said, and try to contribute in a constructive, fruitful fashion.
You may have heard theology being described as a conversation about God. It’s become something of a cliché among theologians to talk about the discipline in this way. But like all clichés, there’s something innately true about it.
Theology is a conversation about God. In fact, it’s the conversation about God – and the good news is that we’re all invited to join in. Because of that, it involves participants across the globe, asking who God is, how God interacts with the world, and how we can come to discern God’s presence in our lives. More particularly, it asks how we can make God better known, in and through our conversation about God.
So, consider this your formal invitation to join in with the conversation. As it happens, you’re already involved in it, though you might not have realised. By participating in this course, you’ll clearly be taking your place in the conversation – perhaps with new conversation partners.
Because the conversation about God has been going on for thousands of years it has developed some conventions of speaking and rules of engagement. That’s what this part of the course is about. To help you get started we’ll give you some tips on how to express yourself as clearly as possible, so that you can enjoy being part of the most exciting, and the most important, conversation in the world: the one about God.
We will be exploring further what theology is about, as well as expanding on the idea of theology as a conversation, in Module 1.2 (‘Introduction to theology’).
What drives you?
Make a list of your reasons for studying on this course. Why are you embarking on it? What do you hope to get out of it?
Once you have a good number of reasons, write up to 50 words on a fresh piece of paper, under the heading: ‘I am studying theology because…’. Now, pin it up above your desk, and be sure to look at it regularly.
When you can’t quite bring yourself to open a book, or when you’ve had disappointing feedback on some work you’ve produced, spend some time reminding yourself of your motivations. It could be just the boost you need.
5 - 10 minutes
Taking time off
Do you remember those ‘magic eye’ pictures that were popular in the 1990s? You may have stared at a jumbled pattern for what seemed like hours, hoping a three-dimensional image would suddenly leap out at you.
The strange thing was, the more you looked, the harder it became to see the hidden image. Sometimes, you needed to take your eyes away from the picture, so that they could rest awhile. Then, when you looked again, you’d see the wonderful picture immediately – a welcome reward for all that staring.
Theological study can be a bit like this. There will be occasions when the pieces don’t fall together, when you sit at your desk and just can’t get going. That’s why it is so important to give yourself regular breaks, to rest your eyes and your brain, so that when you return, you can see more clearly.
Take regular breaks in your study sessions, so that you don’t become too tired and lose your concentration. And make sure you also take time not to study. Enjoy days off without feeling guilty; don’t feel as if you always need to load up your suitcase with theology books when you go on holiday; watch television occasionally, or go to a football match. These moments are the equivalent of looking away from the magic eye picture – and you might be amazed at what is revealed once you return your gaze.
Reading for pleasure
One final, related point: just because you’re studying theology, it doesn’t mean you can only read theological books. If you enjoy reading other types of book – novels, say, or biographies, or travelogues – then make time for this interest. Indeed, even if all you read for pleasure are newspapers and magazines, we encourage you not to feel guilty about continuing to do so.
The reason for this is twofold. First, theology shouldn’t be all-consuming. You need other sources of intellectual stimulation to ensure you have a wider perspective on your theological work. Reading for pleasure is one very good way of making this happen. Second, you’ll actually find that no time spent reading is wasted. Pretty soon, you are likely to discover profound connections between literature, or the arts, or current affairs, and theology. In fact, you might find there’s just as much to think theologically about in books and articles that don’t claim to be about the subject as in those that describe themselves as theological works.
“Procrastination,” wrote the poet Edward Young, “is the thief of time.” When it comes down to it, we’re all well-practised at putting things off. Just look at this animation, by the brilliant ‘Tales of mere existence’ cartoonist Lev Yilmaz.
Getting stuff done
Know your enemy!
Make a list of all the things that are likely to distract you when you get down to work. Once you think you’ve covered them all, try to think of ways to prevent them from interrupting your study time. For example, if you think putting the washing on might prove a distraction, then simply delay doing it (even if it’s a perfect day for drying). Or you could get it out of the way the night before, so it’s already done by the time you settle at your desk.
By naming the things that could get in the way of your study, and by planning methods to avoid that happening, you’re more likely to get going sooner. And remember: the sooner you start, the sooner you can enjoy your free time.
Creating the perfect study environment
Establishing the right study environment will vary from person to person. This is about knowing yourself.
Some people need to study in perfect silence, without answerphones or emails or televisions anywhere in sight, and quite possibly in the middle of the night. Others can only work during the day, with a radio blaring in the background, and there are still others who are at their most creative when in the midst of a busy café.
You need to find what works for you. And when you’ve done that, try to study in that environment whenever possible. It will help you concentrate and make it easier to get stuck into your work. As a result, you’ll be more likely to work more quickly, and more effectively – as well as feel a lot less stressed.
The following exercise might help you work out your preferences when it comes to your study surroundings.
Your study environment
Consider the following questions. Once you’ve answered them all, you should have a pretty good idea about the sort of study environment that will suit you. But remember – it doesn’t need to be set in stone.
- When you have to concentrate on something, do you prefer silence, or does a bit of background noise help you focus?
- When you’re struggling to understand something, does it help to have music on to ‘lubricate’ your mind?
- Does the thought of having a phone on your desk (even if it’s not ringing) fill you with horror? Or would you find it a distraction not to know if someone was trying to reach you?
- Do you need a clock when studying, to manage your time? Or do you find it better to work without sight of a clock, so you can really get stuck in?
- What time of day are you at your sharpest?
- Do you like natural light to study by? Do you need a lamp on your desk if you’re reading? Do strip lights make your eyes go funny?
- Do you need tea and coffee-making facilities close by, and perhaps a plate of biscuits? Or do you like the excuse to step away from your desk and fetch a cup of something warm?
Before moving on from this task, think about any other preferences you have when it comes to creating the ideal conditions to study in. You may consider whether there’s a particular type of paper you like to write on (for example, blank or lined?), and maybe even a special pen. If you can identify ways to help you settle down to work more easily, it’s well worth pursuing them.
5 - 10 minutes
You’ve stilled yourself and accepted an invitation to participate in the conversation about God. You’ve worked out your motivations for studying on this course, and written them down to keep you fired up in the future. And you’ve discovered the importance of a nice cup of tea and a good (non-theological!) book.
You’ve thought about what might distract you from study and made an undertaking to prevent that from happening wherever possible. And you’ve worked out how to establish the optimum conditions in which to work.
Small wonder, then, if you’re feeling ready to step away from this module for a while. Our advice is that you take some time out. Then, before getting stuck back into the next section, try to enact all of the things you’ve learnt in the past hour. Do what’s needed to avoid distractions, and try to set up your study space in the way you’ve just identified as being right for you. It’s good practice for when you start on the theological material later in the module, and helps you to form good study habits from the beginning.