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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A Lesson in Holiness: Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D.

The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness.   Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands.   And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!

In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.

But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.

Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.

When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.

I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness.   We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin!   It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.

The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is!   Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?

If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.

Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion.   We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.

We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.

Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.

Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.

Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.

Christ was beaten, suffered, and died.   He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.

Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.

Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.

Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.

As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning  – but practicing the positive – love.   Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?

Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.