Monday, October 6, 2014

theology: doing it wrong

Frederick Buechner writes that, "...all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can the rough-and-tumble of his own experience with all its ups and downs, its mysteries and loose ends, and expressing in logical, abstract terms the truths about human life and about God that he believes he has found implicit there." [1]

I have found this to be true in my own life. I find the nature of God carved throughout my life experiences, sometimes in fine, deep grooves with exquisite detail, sometimes in barely noticeable scratches. I see the glimpses of the Inexhaustible One in every step of my lifelong learning journey. I see the Loving One beaming through my relationships. I see the Creator dancing in the wind as it swirls around the leafy trees outside my window. But perhaps harder to accept (and yet easier to feel) are the marks that come through failure and disappointment: painful slashes, sharp chops, and disfiguring dents that leave me changed forever, wondering if I am still whole or capable or good or even beautiful.

Getting things wrong is fine and dandy in a classroom, in a practice session, when learning to ride a bike or make sushi, but in theology...well, we are perhaps not so gracious with ourselves and with each other. However, truth be told, much of my knowledge of God comes from reading about the experiences of people like Abram and Sarai, David, Elisha, Hosea, Ruth, Peter, Martha, and Mary. They made plenty of wrong assumptions about God, about Jesus, and about the nature of their relationship to the Divine. The stories surrounding their failures contain some of the most lucid and transformative revelations about God that we find in the Bible.

Personally, my theology is always being rewritten, and I believe that's a very good thing. A changing theology does not reflect an elusive and unstable God or a God in process or a God of my own making. No, it says that God is God and I am not. I get things wrong, I misinterpret things, I jump to conclusions. We all do, but the beauty of theology is that it moves us forward in our ability to describe a relationship with the Eternal One, the Good Father, the Righteous Judge, the Lover of Our Souls. We catch increasing glimpses of glory, goodness, and mystery, and we continue to search for truth. And getting closer to the truth probably means trying a few things that won't work.  The tricky part is in recognizing when we are off-track and when things don't line up.

The four sources for theology are commonly held to be the scriptures, reason, tradition, and experience. When these four come together in harmony, theology sings with clarity and strength, vibrant with the voice of the Holy Spirit. If one of these four elements becomes a shrill voice, out of tune and disagreeable, or perhaps goes totally silent, we have to ask ourselves, "Where did we go off key?" Theology is meant to be done in community. I need others to point out my blind spots, to ask questions that I would never think of, to strengthen me where I am weak, and to surround me with their unique but harmonious voices. I have to be willing to be wrong, to make adjustments, to have my vision of God enlarged and corrected.

Sometimes adjusting our theology and our ideas about God can feel like we are being disloyal to the church, like we are betraying the Bible, like we are being asked to be unreasonable, or like our faith is on shaky ground. And yet, it is the way that revelation works: when we are confronted with an aspect of God that we had not previously considered or experienced, we must be willing to put aside our current viewpoints and embrace what the Holy Spirit reveals to us. Read the story of how Peter had his mind changed about God's view of non-Jews in Acts 10. It rocked his world!

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb and holder of over a thousand patents, famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If a theologian uttered those same words, we might think him a pretty sad example of a theologian, but I think one of the primary characteristics of one who studies God should be a deep humility. Our subject matter is the mysterious Inexhaustible One, after all!

Now I am in no way condoning throwing out the creeds or basic doctrinal tenets found in the scriptures and starting from scratch. No, no, no! We stand on the shoulders of great fathers and mothers in the faith and we must not take lightly what we read in the scriptures; tradition and the Bible are sources of theology, remember? I am simply acknowledging the fact that as we continue to seek God, we may from time to time be surprised and maybe even shocked by God's extreme generosity, by God's radical justice, and by God's power of redemption. I suspect that it will continue to be so for all eternity. But I might be wrong.

"Without faith no one can please God because the one coming to God must believe that God exists, and he rewards those who come seeking." Hebrews 11:6, The Voice

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (Harper & Row, 1982), 1.

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