(01) What Do We Do With Theology? (9.10.06)

Theology sermon #1—Psalm 146; Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-14

Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – 9/10/06

It strikes me that there are two basic ways to relate to the lectionary texts when you use them for sermons.  The first way is to seek to let the texts set our agenda.  In this approach we seek to be respectful and submissive, to listen and have scripture speak to us.

The second way to relate to the lectionary is to seek to force the texts to fit our agenda, to pick and choose, paying attention only to the parts that say what we have already decided to say.  This morning I am taking this second approach….

I’m afraid I’m not completely kidding in that my sermon topic did not come from reflection on the passages for today.  I was glad to read them and see that they can help me out.  I have asked several people to read three passages for today (a couple are condensed).  Right after the readings I would like to do a little word association, spending a few minutes having people say what words come to mind to you when you hear the word “theology.”  Our scripture passage may perhaps stimulate your thinking along these lines.

So, name a word or two that comes to mind for you when you hear the word “theology.”

I didn’t know what to expect when I asked this question.  These are a few words I thought of: “big picture,” “what matters,” “thinking,” “muddy,” and “self-satisfied.”  Maybe this one too: “paycheck.”  I do recognize that it may seem a bit self-serving for me to preach sermons on how important theology is, since I make my living as a theologian.  This recognition is not going to stop me, but it makes me feel a little better to provide you with an excuse to take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

So, beyond word association, what do we mean by “theology.”  These are some possibilities.  Theology is an academic discipline.  One takes classes in theology.  One gets degrees in theology.  We have theology departments.  To be a theologian one must have specialized, graduate school training and be able to use technical, insiders-only language (with words such as soteriology, ontological trinity, and hypostatic union).

Or there is this definition.  Theology is a collection of formal written doctrines of belief issued by various Christian bodies – creeds, confessions, statements of faith.  If you want to know what Mennonite theology is, you read the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective formally adopted by the Mennonite Church General Assembly.

Or, theology is the elaboration of official beliefs for an organized religious group that serves as the basis for determining which beliefs are acceptable and which are heretical, who may be considered inside the circle and who is to be outside.

Or, theology could be defined as the study of what theologians have written.  This would be parallel to how Robert Pirsig describes philosophy in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance.  He coins the term “philosophology” – which philosophy as the study of what philosophers write.  Maybe we could say theologian-ology, theology as the study of what theologians write.

All of these are valid, perhaps – at least as descriptions of how the term theology is used in actual practice.  However, I have something different in mind when I talk about theology.

I will define theology in this way, having two parts.  Our theology is made up of the convictions that matter the most to us.  We all have a hierarchy of values and commitments, things that we see as the most important things in our lives.  At the very top of this hierarchy is our god, or gods.  So, first of all, theology describes our priorities, our most fundamental beliefs and values.  The things we order our lives around and devote our best energies toward.  Then, secondly, theology is when we reflect on and articulate these values.  Theology is how we understand and describe our most basic values.

Let me give an example.  My mom’s theology had a lot to do with her commitments to love her children, to help the fourth-graders in her classroom feel acceptance and an excitement about the world they were part of, and to create beauty through her music, her painting, and her crafts.  She wasn’t particularly articulate in putting this theology into words, but she did talk about the importance of unconditional love toward her children (both biological and in school) and how this stemmed both from her sense of her own mother’s love (and her father’s love) and her understanding of God being a God of love.

Defining theology in terms of our actual values, I would suggest that if we were to talk about bad theology or false theology, we would mean mostly dishonest theology.  Dishonest theology is when one’s stated beliefs and values are quite a bit different from the values that actually determine what one does.

It would be as if a certain political leader on the campaign trail states that Jesus is his favorite philosopher and then turns around once he is in power to start several wars and seek as much as possible to hurt, even destroy, his enemies.

All of us grow up internalizing beliefs and commitments that are passed on to us by our families and communities.  We may call this “embedded theology” – a set of values that we have maybe before we can even talk, mostly beliefs that seep into our hearts with no self-awareness at all.  I had a friend once who told me that her strongest concern growing up as a Mennonite was “what will other people think.”  This ranked about at the top of her hierarchy of values.  But it was certainly not a value she chose.  It was deeply embedded long before she was self-aware at all.

We take our various elements of our embedded theology with us our entire lives – it is simply part of who we are.  And for some people, embedded theology is all that is ever needed.  They stay in the same communities around the same people all their lives and face few threatening questions or traumas.  For most of us, though, our embedded theologies are not enough.

When we face a world that is bigger and more diverse, when we suffer, when we face questions and struggles that shake us up, when we are simply asked by someone else who does not share our background what we believe and why, then we must move from embedded to what we could call deliberative theology.  Then we think and apply and expand and understand and answer.

I think of myself as an 18-year-old, packing up and leaving home for the first time.  It wasn’t like Oregon College of Education was the city that never sleeps or populated by many people not from small town Oregon, but after living my whole life in a village of 150 people fifty miles from the nearest movie theater, I wasn’t exactly sophisticated.  And it was scary – what do I really believe, how can I make sense of what I am hearing from these Vietnam War vets, these kids who grew up in Portland, my dorm neighbor smoking those funny-smelling cigarettes?

Hopefully, as we become more self-conscious about our theology, we will mostly find that the things we absorbed as children are right for us.  Hopefully, the move from embedded to deliberative theology will mostly be a process of affirmation – but with a sense that we know what and why we make the affirmation.  But for just about all of us, there will things we need to cast aside, or at least revise in major ways.

As we become more self-conscious about our hierarchy of convictions, and are exposed to other people with other theologies, we will become aware that we have a whole mess of things to sort out, many options and choices.  William James wrote about life in the modern world being lived amidst the “blooming, buzzing, mass of confusion.”

Hopefully, what we realize, too, as we grow in self-consciousness, is how many things that seem obvious and familiar are not necessarily things we want to affirm.  For me, the big self-awareness of this type came as I learned more about the Vietnam War during my college years in the early 1970s.

My parents were World War II veterans, patriotic in a somewhat understated way.  My Baptist pastor preached continuously about the close ties between faith in Jesus and faith in America.  So I resisted the idea that my self-identity as a God-fearing American patriot might be in tension with my self-identity as one who wanted to have Jesus’ teaching be my central source of values.  I am glad that through my friends and through writings I discovered, I gained some strong encouragement to make the choice, deliberately, to choose to seek to make the gospel central over country.

One big problem with many of the ways of thinking about theology that I have mentioned is that they allow us to focus only on beliefs, only on doctrines, only on what we say we believe.  This is why it has been possible for so many people over the past 1700 years to proclaim their belief in Jesus as savior while at the same time fighting wars, owning slaves, abusing their children, and destroying the earth.

It seems obvious to me, if we are talking about Christian theology, that our ordering point should be Jesus’ life and teaching.  I would add a second, complementary ordering point – our vision for wholeness in our lives and the lives of all creatures.  We look back at what Jesus said and did – he shows us God as nothing else does.  And we look forward – how can we envision being whole?

However, in the actual history of Christianity what seems obvious to me has not usually been obvious for traditional theology.  Going clear back to the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps first formulated only one hundred years after Jesus’ death, we see an amazing omission.  This is how what matters most about Jesus is concisely stated in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead.”  What’s missing?

The Creed jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” straight to “crucified under Pontius Pilate” – as if what matters most theologically are Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.  It totally leaves out Jesus’ words and deeds.  No wonder Christians found it so easy to confess Jesus as Savior while living in ways that contradicted how he lived and how he taught all his followers to live.  No wonder theology became the domain of experts, focused on abstract ideas, and the tool of institutional control and boundary marking.

I am suggesting something very different.  Theology is something all people do.  Our theology reflects our commitments that shape how we actually live in the world.  Christian theology, as a self-conscious task, looks at the ordering of our values and convictions and actions in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.

If we approach theology as I am suggesting, this is what it may include.  (1) We engage in self-reflection and conversation that helps each other (those who agree that we want Jesus’ life and teaching to be our core, but everyone else who also cares about being self-conscious about their convictions) to clarify what our values truly are.  (2) We seek to know ourselves better and discern how closely our lives actually fit with our stated ideals.  (3) We work to find ways to name our true convictions, to hold them to the light of day, to test them and revise them.  (4) We grow in our understanding of what kind of people we truly want to be, how better to become such people, and what hinders us from doing so.  (5) We learn better and better what our gods actually are, and how to differentiate the God of Jesus from other, lesser gods.

By helping us work at such self-reflection and conversation, some of the traditional Christian doctrinal categories may still be useful.  At least they will provide the framework for my future sermons.  These doctrines (such as Christology – the doctrine of Jesus Christ; ecclesiology – the doctrine of the church; and anthropology – the doctrine of humanity) must not be made into absolutes.  They are at most tools, aids in helping us reflect on real life and real practices and real values.

However, the doctrines can help us make sure we think about the life of faith more fully, that we consider many different aspects of how we live and think and relate to one another.  And, more importantly, doctrines can help us be self-conscious about thinking about our theology (our highest values) in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.

This is what I will be trying to do.  Using the life and teaching of Jesus as our key for both reading the Bible, reflecting on Christian tradition and understanding and adapting what we want to be most important in shaping our lives. With Jesus as our clue, we will find a lot in the entire Bible to help us in our sorting.  Just take the three texts we read earlier.

Psalm 146 contrasts trusting in princes with trusting in the Maker of heaven and earth – emphasizing that they are alternatives, trust in one or the other.  The Lord sides not with the princes but with the oppressed, the hungry, prisoners, those who can’t see, the bowed down, resident aliens, orphans, and widows.

Mark 7 gives a typical account of the kinds of things Jesus did – responding to human need and bringing healing to the daughter of a non-Jewish woman, showing his inclusiveness, and to a man who was deaf.

And finally, the great text from James 2 condemns people in the church favoring the wealthy over people in need, asserts that the core of the Law is love of neighbor, claims that since mercy triumphs over judgmentalism people of faith must practice mercy, and famously insists that faith without works is dead.


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