In Defense of Theology as Critical to Faith

Unfortunately, many times when the term theology is mentioned, people meet the word with reactions that are not always the greatest. There may be, for one reason or another, a negative association with academics and the practice of critically thinking about God, or perhaps there may be the idea that varying theologies could challenge the safety and comfort level of one’s understanding of God. While God is inherently mystery and we can never fully know God, we can still begin to learn about God. This is, in fact, what theology is – learning about God and the various aspects of his story. Well, at least it is learning as much as we are able to!

I’ve often heard the question: “Why do we need theology when we have the Bible?” Indeed, scripture is certainly our foundation; however, scripture is not God. Confusing the two is something of which we need to be careful. Scripture, nonetheless, points to God and is the best way of understanding God; thus, we really cannot separate theology from scripture! And Christ is both the fulfillment of scripture and the fullest revelation of the Father. Still, in considering scripture we are even influenced by our own theological traditions to read the Bible through a certain lens!

One of my favorite ideas of rejecting theology is not so blatant, but rather it is a much more quiet view which says: “Theology is great, so long as I agree with it.” Implicit in that statement is that one is not actually open to considering new ideas, possibly because they may be perceived as threats to a safe and comfortable way of thinking; on the surface it appears that one enjoys the study of theology, but further down it is a cover for not wanting to critically think about other ways of understanding God.

Or we take the popularized Donald Miller approach, tending to downplay not only theology but Christian academics in general when it comes to our beautiful religion. Granted, Miller wrote an article bashing academics within Christianity some time ago; nonetheless, and although apparently toned down, he continues to perpetuate this idea of anti-“religion” and anti-“scholar.” He argues that the academics have only served to divide Christianity.

In reading his article, it is fairly easy to see that his logic fails. Disagreements occurred before; disagreements will inevitably occur again in our ignorance of God’s mystery. The new world without academics will not be a happy place because even if you get rid of the scholars, disagreements will pop up again! Only this time, there will no longer be anyone to intelligently and respectfully discuss the issues. However many people are in the world, academic or non-academic, that’s how many different views there will be about God. Donald Miller, I suppose, evidently takes it for granted that everyone will simply agree with and happily go along with his doctrine of God.

We see variations of the idea further advanced with the argument that Christianity is not a religion. This is evident in Jeff Bethke’s popular YouTube video; the young man, a self professed non-pastor and non-theologian, has now written a book on a subject which he claims he is not an expert on. The book, I’m sure, will sell. But I suppose I should give him the benefit of the doubt; Jeff, I’m sure I will find your book very interesting!

Christianity is indeed a religion, with theology being critical to understanding it and our individual and communal relationship to God. We cannot reduce the whole of Christianity to simply an American individualistic mindset of me and God, when, while the relationship is fundamentally essential, Christianity is oh, so much more; and the story of the oh, such more is amazingly beautiful.

There is a danger to reductionism; it does damage to understanding the system as a whole. To try to understand God simplistically in terms of only an individualistic relationship causes us to ignore other important aspects of our faith: community, creation, justice, mercy, history, etc. To dismiss theology and religion is to ignore thousands of years of people, tradition, and Christian thought which, believe it or not, makes at least some rational sense of the way God works. And who knows, we may actually relate to a past Christian thinker who challenges us to think in new ways, deepening our own understanding of God! We may find that we even agree with some of the movements within the stream of this great religion! We may even find that in examining theology and attempting to understand God, we are better able to love both God and our neighbors as Christ commands us.

The good news (or bad news, depending on your views) is that attempting to avoid theology is impossible. If you have an understanding of God, no matter what it is, you have a theology. Even trying to avoid certain theologies is unrealistic. There are systems of thought that have been at work shaping the way Christians think a long time before any of us were even born. This is the irony of ‘non-denominational’; it is at best ‘inter-denominational.’ Even to simply claim ‘Protestant’ is to stake an identity in a type of western, non-Roman Catholic theology. Lutheranism, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Arminianism, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity, etc.: the list goes on. Some type of theology has shaped you. It is why I laugh when people like Donald Miller and Francis Chan claim that they do not subscribe to one particular view; in their writings, it is clear which traditions have influenced them. They perpetuate a subtle, and at times not-so-subtle, Calvinist understanding of God. They also perpetuate a type of modern fundamentalism, influenced by John Piper, that hints: “My system of Christian thinking is simply the right system of Christian thinking; that’s the bottom line.”

I write all of this not to bring down Donald Miller, Francis Chan, Jeff Bethke, and John Piper, but to point out that we are all in some way influenced by various theologies. And although I disagree with Calvinist thought, I will still love them as my family in Christ.

The challenge is for each one of us to learn to recognize these influences and ask ourselves the difficult questions of what we truly believe and why we believe it. Do we believe something about God simply because we have been influenced to think in a certain way? Or do we believe something about God because we have truly chewed on it and struggled with it in our own journey of faith?

I am Wesleyan-Arminian in my thoughts concerning God; after wrestling with various issues and questions, it is the tradition I’ve found I agree with the most. I am well aware of the Wesleyan-Arminian theological influences I’ve grown up with in the Church of the Nazarene; however, it is not just a way of thinking I’ve blindly accepted. If someone arrives at Calvinism or Lutheranism or Wesleyan-Arminianism or Roman Catholicism or Coptic Christianity in considering God and wrestling with whatever questions presented themselves in their journey in Christianity, then I respect them in their decision. Ultimately, the best view is not to consider a world where everyone blindly agrees with Donald Miller’s version of God, but to have loving conversation within the theological traditions of the Christian religion so that we may grow stronger together.

We are all influenced by theology. We all have our own theology. Are we willing to learn and wrestle with our theological influences? Are we willing to consider the implications of what our own theology really means? Are we willing to be challenged to grow in our understanding of God, shaped by Scripture, yet also filter through various theological ways of thinking?

We really cannot forget how Jesus responded to one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, regarding the greatest commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'”

Perhaps theology is a discipline which we should not be afraid of after all, but an area for each one of us to embrace whole-heartedly as we continue in our own understanding of building a relationship with God.

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Sexuality: Calling for an Authentic Conversation

by Ben Cremer

I have been mulling over several of Walter Bruggemann’s essays as of late. His exposition on our contemporary culture brings forward several needed elements that are essential for an authentic dialogue over the topic of human sexuality. In our mainstream culture, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds this topic; and the culture as a whole seems bent on keeping it that way.

We live in a culture that endlessly advocates and calls for freedom; specifically in this case, sexual freedom. What causes me to be apprehensive is that, as many people are demanding freedom in our mainstream culture, not many seem to explicitly contemplate over the ‘kind’ of freedom being demanded, or more importantly, in what is our mainstream culture’s understanding of freedom rooted? When I bring up the topic of philosophy in a conversation with acquaintances, it is generally met with a look of fatigue, disregard, or even an eye-roll. This seems to be the norm of how philosophy is perceived in mainstream culture – philosophy just doesn’t bear authority over how we understand reality. I think this general disdain towards philosophy is in defense of a deeply ingrained belief: the belief that we as individuals determine our own reality. Brueggemann helps us by showing how this belief and our culture’s understanding of freedom were shaped through a particular… philosophy!

Brueggemann rightly portrays our mainstream notion of freedom as comprised of several strong philosophical ideas. In summation: Descartes’s establishment of the human doubter as the norm of truth, Locke’s presentation of the human person as a rational, free decider, and Kant’s framing of the human as the autonomous actor and the one who shapes functional reality. He then writes, “This Enlightenment ideology has received its popular form in a Freudian theory of repression in which human maturation is the process of emancipation from communal authority that is extrinsic to the individual person and therefore fundamentally alien to mature humanness. Thus the human goal is movement beyond any restraints that come under the category of repression.”

Naturally, in our culture of freedom, we despise anything that calls for unquestioned and thoughtless allegiance. Yet, as good children of the Enlightenment, we have given our unquestioned allegiance to this fantasy of unfettered freedom – that we should be held accountable to no one. This idea shows itself in how our mainstream culture regards and expresses the nature of human desire. All that seems to be presented in mainstream culture is that humans have desires, individuals have a right to express those desires as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, and anything that hampers this right of expression should not be tolerated. Consequently, this unquestioned allegiance to the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom presupposes our unquestioned allegiance to the whims of our individual desires.

This talk of human desire is necessary because of how much it plays into our mainstream culture’s understanding of sexuality. Much of how we define sexuality is framed within the context of feeling or desire. Much of what is determined about one’s sexual orientation begins, at least basely, at how a person feels towards the opposite, same, or both sexes. In mainstream culture, no serious questions are being asked on where our desires come from, how they are formed, of what are they comprised, how do they manifest themselves, how are they to be managed or, heaven forbid, can we be deceived by them? No, our conversation begins and ends with the individual’s right to determine and maintain a sexual identity. People will cheer the exercise of this ‘right’ as a sexual freedom not seeing it for what it really is, isolation. Sexuality at its core is an interactive expression – a way of communicating the self to and with the outside world. So, when we leave the deciphering of sexual identity completely up to individual desire through the lens of the individual experience, all that can really be accomplished is eloquent terms of sexual preference. Because the fantasy of the Enlightenment relegates individuals solely to silent experimentation within society by denying ambiguous thoughts and questions and a robust sexuality demands robust and open communication.

This isolationism is one of the reasons we have the puzzling argument in mainstream culture over being “born this way” and the idea that it is by “individual choice” that one’s sexual identity is formed. As if the two can really be separated and set against each other! Everything about who we are regarding how we relate to and identify ourselves within the outside world from the moment of birth is a conglomeration of genetics, brain chemistry, culture, physicality, biology, point in history, and choice. Individual choice has no say over the aforementioned human building blocks. Simultaneously however, one cannot live without making a choice somewhere along the way to participate or not to participate in a particular way of being in the world. Thus, attempting to make a distinction between choice and birth is reductionistic and harmful. The former denies free will while the latter denies the nature of growth. The irony of this fantasy of unfettered individual freedom is that enacting within it causes a legalistic relationship between our true self and our desires. For to make our unique, irreducible, unrepeatable identity known, we force our selves to pigeon-hole, reduce, and endlessly repeat a declaration of self to the outside world to maintain integrity and a place within it that isn’t subjugated to an authority. How often must we relearn Icarus’ lesson? That the freedom given to us through the wax wings of individualism, however intense, powerful, and passionate the flight may be, will always melt away in the heat of reality, leaving us in a shocking freefall alone. Our lives were brought forth through community, and for us to decipherer an authentic identity of self, including our sexuality, must be through an honest engagement within a loving and challenging community.

Our mainstream culture is made up of many separations of our own making. We have scripture separated from history and thus from the Church; the Church separated from Christ; spirituality separated from religion; information technology has helped us separate labor from learning; and we have the identity of the individual separate from community. These separations are neither loving nor challenging but deceitful; for they all detach the object from its context. Freud understood that sexuality is a sphere of endless inscrutability, the arena of our true selves and the place in our life for deepest deception and pathology. If we continue to operate under the assumption that the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom is the best atmosphere for the individual, endlessly praising the burden and isolation of self-determination, then we will continue to not ask hard questions of ourselves and others regarding sexuality. If we continue to deny that human desires can be self-deceptive we will continue choking on the idea that authentic sexuality is based on the ‘theory’ that unfettered human desire manifests pure truth. This illusion will only ever leave us with lifeless sexual ethics. We will continue to have raging disputes between equality and condemnation among individuals who think they are debating over sexual identity but are actually only debating over their differing understanding of how the unfettered human desire should be interpreted and expressed. Our culture is bent on producing autonomous individuals rather than fostering authentic persons.

If this continues, it will not matter how many governmental legislations are passed or not passed. Individuals will still be left secluded and alone left to forge out the ambiguity of sexuality on their own. This recipe will not only suppress an authentic understanding and expression of sexuality based on examined desires but will maintain coercive behavior that crushes and often misdirects true desire and cuts people off from authentic community. Many so-called religious folk have done great work in carrying out this coercive behavior under the banner of their fidelity to God. But Brueggemann tempers this condemning behavior with this corrective of enacting an authentic fidelity to God regarding sexuality. He writes, “such a perspective requires much more than embracing traditional mores, because fidelity means something quite different from “abstaining” or “staying married” or “being straight”. It means rather being in a relation that is genuinely life-giving and life-receiving, where the work of neighbor regard is practiced. And covenantal freedom means finding modes of fidelity congruent with one’s true self and the capacity to be emancipated from “legal” relationships that are in fact destructive and hopelessly demeaning.”

A word to we Christians: Humanity is made in the image of God: three holy persons, not Enlightenment individuals. No person of the Trinity is exploited, reduced, or oppressed by another person of the Trinity. But rather each person of the Trinity pours themselves out for the other—an authentic community. We, as human beings, were hardwired to reflect an image. If we choose our own way apart from God, we won’t stop reflecting an image; we’ll simply begin reflecting something else. Just as Adam and Eve found out in the garden, this type of “freedom from authority” will always lead to oppression and exploitation of others as well as ourselves. Apart from God, we do not know what nature to reflect and grow in to. Thus, ambiguity will then be our nature and ambiguity is what we’ll grow in to. We cannot be free to express or know our true self, including our sexuality, unless we are “dead to Christ” (emphases on WE). The unfettered freedom of the Enlightenment keeps us shackled to the haphazard whims of our human desires, even giving us ‘rights’ to do so, offering only a dismal cycle of perpetual ambiguity leading to oppression for ourselves and from ourselves to others. We must no longer accept these lifeless ethics of sex but make space available through humble service for us all to express our true self, no matter how we understand our self to be at the given point when it engages authentic community. Our mainstream culture’s unfettered freedom does not offer hope because it does not offer authentic change but rather smothers it. We have hope in Christ, because we are changed by Christ. In the midst of the authentic love of Christ in his body the Church, through humble body-to-body service of neighbor, we as both servant and neighbor are able to, as Keirkegaard wrote, “face the facts of being what we are, for that is what changes what we are.”

*Ben Cremer is the College Ministries Pastor at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene and blogs at Constant Investigations. Ben is a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University where he earned a B.A. in Christian Ministries and a M.A. in Spiritual Formation. He is also a graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary where he earned a M.A.T.S. with an emphasis on Church History and Christian Thought.

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.