Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theology matters. (Or not.)

Get a cup of coffee - you're going to need it....

First of all, by introduction: my partner Chris and I absolutely love National Avenue Christian Church. As soon as we walked in, we were swept-up in a wave of acceptance and welcome that mirrored our previous church home, McKinley Presbyterian in Champaign. There will be lots more to say about this place, but that's another post.

While pastor Laura Fregin was on vacation, a pair of "dueling sermons" were scheduled. One was titled "Why Theology Matters" by Rev. Peter Browning, professor at nearby Drury University; and the converse, "Why Theology Doesn't Matter," by pastoral resident Matthew Gallion. Both of them defended their positions well - and clearly got me thinking.  I kept wishing I could drag them each down to Panera Bread, buy them a cup of coffee, and talk about where I agreed and disagreed.

This church has a powerhouse preacher in Pastor Fregin, and two great backups in Peter and Matthew - so even if the Disciples of Christ allowed lay preaching, I'd never get the chance to get a word in edgewise with all that talent.  So consider this a sermon-response that will never get preached, from an overly long-playing layman....

First, I am reminded of my first ministry professor, Tex Sample, defining theology as coming from theos  ("god") and -logos  ("treating of" or "thinking about").  So any time that any of us are thinking or talking about God, we are (by definition) practicing theology.  (Even the atheists among us are theologians - wrap your brain around that one!)  Theology, therefore, is the practice not of elderly white men of religious training, but of all of us. 

But what about the next question - yeah, but does it matter, in the end?

I would say that theology does matter - in the same way that a scalpel matters. In the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel can cut out damage and disease, promoting healing and restoration. In the hands of a psychotic, the same scalpel can simply slash, maim and kill. (As my favorite sci-fi writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, "It's a poor blaster that won't point both ways...")

I found great salvation and acceptance in much of Christian theology, and that saving grace kept me from taking my own life, once upon a time. But having heard the theology of "abomination" for thirty years, I know what it is to be clubbed over the head with others' understanding of God as "the one true way."  As we've seen in a number of teen suicides this last year or so, certain theologies can have the power to kill and destroy.

Here's an example of bad theology that is oft-repeated around the community of recovery: If you want to make God smile, show Him your plans.   

(And please, please, please: don't beat me up about He/Him/She/Her/It/Them...I'm just repeating what's been said, not defending the lack of gender-inclusion. Another topic, to be sure...)

This phrase is often used when someone's plans or hopes are derailed or denied, and the implicit message is often You had plans, but God has a better plan for you, and it evidently doesn't include that specific hope or expectation of yours.  It usually brings a wan smile and a "well, I guess that's just the way it goes, sometimes" shrug. It's also supposed to suggest that God has a sense of humor, which is often left out of many mainstream theologies...

 But listen to the underlying message of that cute little phrase:
God has given you free will, and the ability to make plans and have expectations. But God evidently also finds some measure of delight in setting aside the worldwide challenges of floods, wars, famine and  hunger just so He can step down off His almighty throne,  stick His finger in your particular little mess and stir it up some.
Is that really the way you want to understand the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the universe?

Me neither.

(This reminds me of another truism that I often hear in recovery communities - this one has some more teeth to it, however. 'Religion' is sitting in a church on Sunday morning, thinking about fishing. 'Spirituality' is sitting in a boat on a lake, fishing-rod in hand, thinking about God. Yes, another topic....)

Yet another example: the Hellish suggestion that the destruction of New Orleans in hurricane Katrina was a judgment and punishment by God against the city for its wantonness and sinfulness. That sounds especially good to "righteous folk" and conservative preachers, often followers of Jonathan Edwards (who wrote "Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God" in 1741). Here's the basics of this little "opportunity for growth:"
God loves "good." God hates "evil." Throughout history, God has sent punishment to people, cities and nations that are "evil." God is all-powerful. He commands the earth, sea and sky to obey Him. So if a city like New Orleans is a hot-spot for sin, evil and corruption, God certainly could cause something awful to happen to that city to punish them for their evil. (Yes, it's simplistic - but there are people who have written entire books on this. Cut me some slack, OK?)
There are lots of problems with this.  The most glaring problem for me is this: my understanding is that the part of New Orleans which was most devastated (the Lower Ninth Ward) was also well-populated with conservative black Christian churches, while one of the areas least devastated was actually the area considered Ground Zero for New Orleans' sinfulness - The French Quarter.  If you are going to accept that Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans, then it seems you also have to accept that God's targeting computer for the smiting process needs some adjustment on the cross-hairs.

(And no, I don't accept that understanding of God, either.)

So yes - I would be right there with Rev. Browning that theology, indeed, does matter. What and how we think about God does matter, quite a bit. It defines how we see not only God, but all that goes on in God's creation.

Or does it?...

I had one of those "defining moments" when I listened to two people arguing several years ago. The first person was telling how he was going to do A, B, and C; how he believed in E, F, and G; and how other people should act thus-and-so, and not like the hateful people they seemed to be.

The second person looked across the table at the first and said, "You know what? I don't give a damn what you believe - I only care about what you do.  I don't care at all what you say you are going to do - I only care about what you have done. And so far, your actions and inaction are speaking so damn loud that I cannot hear a single word you are saying." The second person then got up from the table and left. (He apparently thought the discussion was over.)

Chuck Chamberlain, in his book A New Pair of Glasses, wrote something similar:
This certain doctor called me at midnight and he asked, "What's the definition of love?" I said, "It's the same as it is at 10 o'clock in the morning. What the hell're you calling me at midnight and asking me what the definition of love is?"  But he asked again, "What's the definition of love?" I said, "You won't like it." He said, "What is it?" I said, "Action."  To talk about love is like talking about humility; you can't. Action. If you love somebody or someone, you do something for them. You just do it, and you don't make a big deal out of it. You don't make a big deal out of it.
(Chuck Chamberlain, A New Pair Of Glasses, page 131)

I "get" both of these ideas, by the way. No four-year degree or multi-volume treatise from a dead white doctorate-of-religion-or-philosophy required.

Some would say this is action speaking louder than theology.  That's exactly how I have experienced what National Avenue Christian Church does, by the way. They don't tell outsiders that as Christians, they "love their neighbors" - because they don't have to. As a fairly healthy congregation filled with traditional families, they also welcome and accept gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people - period. They don't say "feed the hungry" or "care for the poor" - they do it - through very public and substantial commitments to communities in Haiti and Mexico. The list could go on and on...

On the other hand, some might also say this is, in fact, the epitome of theology - a "show-me" theology that is Matthew 25's do-this-for-the-least-of-these rolled up with John 10's "I have come that they might have life in abundance" and John 13's new love-one-another commandment and Acts 10, with a couple loud choruses of "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" thrown in for good measure.

I won't argue whether it's theology or not. But I like it, a lot.

I can tell you this: I am done arguing whether gays and lesbians are or are not "our neighbors." I am done with listening to people argue Rapture versus non-Rapture, let alone pre-Tribulation versus post-Tribulation rapture. I am done with trying to find a way of describing the relationship of Trinity that doesn't fall into one of the many early Christian heresies (almost all of which I've heard as sermon examples before).

I am done arguing consubstantiation versus transubstantiation while people who love God are denied Communion. And I'm especially done with arguing whether "faith" or "works" are supreme - which puts me at odds with an amazingly huge portion of Christendom who love to argue about this stuff. These kinds of theologies always end up with a group who is "in" and another, much larger group who is "out," and almost always brings pain, hurt and loss-of-faith.

I have found a faith that works - loving works of the people of God,  for the children of God, regardless whether they have signed a statement of faith or said "the Jesus prayer" or confessed their sins or any other man-made limitation on God's grace.  Let this sinner, saved by grace, walk with the-least-of-these on a journey to the Kingdom of God - one that is and always will be a work-in-progress.

/*end sermon-turned-epistle*/

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see you back in blogosphere, Steve man. I won't comment now, because, as you said, it's about a whole whack of things and I have to get ready to go to work soon--catch ya later.