Monday, July 16, 2012

What is the Value of Theory?

This past academic year I taught a class on the theory of religion. Sounds boring, but the class was far from boring. We explored the way that religion and spirituality function both in the world and in the lives of those who count themselves as believers. The kind of stepping back from our own experience that is necessary is not easy. Most of us just want to live out our spirituality/religion and not worry about the bigger picture. But in this opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking about theory and how theories affect us. I want to identify a few strengths of making the stretch to be able to think this way.

1) Theory helps us evaluate our own behaviour. It is tempting to think that our religion or spirituality is perfect, completely intact, and even communicated from God. But the reality is that religion and spirituality are conversations. Yes there is something of God's initiative and design in there. But there is also a lot of us in there. We interpret, we act out, we even argue from our own personal experiences of God. That doesn't make God, or our whole religion, fall apart. Rather it lets us know that we can always get it and do it better. That is, we can always express our love for and service to God in better ways

2) Helps us bring life to our tradition so that we can better navigate tough issues. One of the most common issues that my students had with discussing theories of religion is that they come to the conversation thinking all traditions of their religion are essentially the same. No religion (or spirituality) is monolithic. The sooner we establish this reality the sooner we can begin to see what our own tradition brings to the table. So as Christians in the Vineyard, we have a lot to bring to the conversation about life. In fact, time and time again, I am impressed with the maturity and depth of the conversations that happen in our denomination (tradition). I do also think we have lots to learn from other traditions, but it is being able to think through issues that has been one of our consistent strengths. Consider the approach Wimber led us into with healing prayer. He sought to equip us using a somewhat clinical approach. Keep your eyes open. Listen to the person, listen to God. The amazing part was that those of us who inherited this tradition learned how to fearlessly pray for the sick. It is how we got better at it too. I'm suggesting that we do this for the whole of our faith experience. This is just one the gifts our Vineyard tradition has to offer to Christianity today. 

3) Helps us to not take ourselves so seriously. We take ourselves too seriously when we get defensive about our religion or spirituality. It is somewhat natural, religion and spirituality are deeply implicated in our self identity. But when we go on the defensive it reveals two things. First that we haven't really thought through the idea we believe is being challenged. When we have worked through an idea the ground is a lot less fragile. And second, we are not able to hear other people on their own terms. We take ourselves too seriously when we think that we have it all right and no one has anything they can teach us. We take ourselves too seriously when we do not listen to the voices of experience and wisdom - or worse we stop listening to God. 

4) Helps us to see that we have more in common with other people than we often think. Nothing can make us appreciate other traditions more than when we realize our common ground. Unity is not an absence of diversity, rather it is the recognition and celebration of diversity. But even apart from building unity amongst the traditions of a particular religion, realizing the commonalities of all religions lets us find places for real dialogue to happen and hopefully real witnessing to occur. As an evangelical with a desire to see people follow Jesus I am convinced that witnessing has to start with listening.

A big part of doing academic theology is working with theories. Theories can remain abstract and irrelevant - or they can help us attend to the details of living out our faith with integrity. My hope is that whenever we engage in conversations at this level, we eventually find the conversation changing our faith lives for the better.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region 

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