Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In the valley of the dry bones....

I got this from Wounded Bird, who got it from nakedpastor.  And let me just say, yeah, we should be humble in our theology, but let me also say so few of us truly understand or properly employ theology that any attempt to encapsulate it in an image, is inevitably going to go wrong.

And this goes pretty wrong.

I used to have this argument with a friend in seminary, who had come to Christianity literally by conversion (I was born and reared; a very different course) through the fundies.  She dumped the fundamentalism but kept the resistance to "theology" as something too intellectual or too abstract for truly reaching God.  To each her own, of course, and we discussed the subject, we never violently argued about it.  But it's a curious argument to me, seeing as how much Christian doctrine and teaching and understanding over 2 millenia is built on theology, and how it's impossible to read the letters or the gospels of the New Testament and not be fully engaged in matters theological.  But somehow, especially now, theology is something wholly other that we'd be better off without, if we could just figure a way to slip this sinful state and state pure in the presence of the God of Creation (if not of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Which is to say just to identify God is to make a theological statement.  God tells Moses "I am that I am" is how he is to tell the children of Israel who has sent Moses to liberate them.  If that's not a theological statement, I don't know what is.  How do I set that aside in order to reach the presence of God?)

Well, now I'm seeming churlish and perhaps a bit resentful; and I don't mean that at all.  Nakedpastor isn't wrong in this cartoon; it's just the simplification of theology until it can be something we can stand apart from, that is wrong.  Aquinas reportedly had a mystical vision at the end of his theological career which, he said, made all he had written appear as straw; and he never wrote again after that.  But this raises several interesting issues:  was that vision a result of, or in spite of, his theological efforts?  And either answer you give, is a theological answer.  You may prefer a very simple reply; you may deplore the complexity of theology, especially of systematic theology (which is only one branch of theology, not the whole of the subject), and take the very Protestant stance that too many words get between the soul and God, rather than make God clear to the soul.  You could cite centuries of mystics, many of the Roman Catholics (ironically) in support of your claim.  But if God is the simplest of all, as Leonard Bernstein's Celebrant sings in "Mass," what happens when the simplicity encounters reality (as it does in "Mass")?

That's one way to go.  The other side of the issue is exemplified by Chris Hedges. I've never attended Harvard Divinity School, I don't know what it emphasizes in its degree programs, but I assume from the works of Chris Hedges where he details his life as a divinity student and a pastor, that there is no small emphasis on the abstruse and abstract subject of theology.  One could use Hedges, unfairly, as an example of how a Harvard education does not prepare one for ministry (I sometimes think Hedges is still living out, and with, that disappointment).  But that's the usual response of fundamentalists and "evangelicals," that seminaries and divinity schools teach one how not to believe in God, and the usual culprit is theology, which somehow keeps you from appreciating, or even approaching, God.  Not that most fundamentalists or evangelicals put much more emphasis on the knowledge of God, emphasizing as they do knowledge of what it takes to earn the salvation of God ("Let Jesus into your heart!") and to keep that salvation.

But that, too, is a theology.

Which would bring us back to the cartoon, wouldn't it?  Because surely that's an example of our theology holding us back from truly apprehending God; or of theology reshaping God in our preferred image (as a non-fundy/non-evangelical believer, I'm very comfortable in saying I don't recognize the God "they" worship).  But the critique of that position, comes from theology; the correction to that position, comes from theology.  Any apprehension of God at all, any understanding that what we have experienced is not delusion nor demonic, comes through theology.

Miserable creatures that we are, who is there to set us free?

Be careful; your answer will involve theology.

By now you are convinced that I am just playing Socrates, employing what Walt Kelly once described as the "buckshot use of the curved question."  You are convinced of that if you are trying to challenge my argument; if not, you're just going along with me, which is not fair to you.  But consider the idea that theology is merely a ball and chain which we must remove in order to "rise" to the Good (oops!  Sorry.  God.  Got too Platonic there), much as we must shed our mortal sight in order to leave the cave and see the true things (so there was a reason for that Platonic knee jerk reaction).

So the upshot of the image is that either I need an faith hacksaw to cut away my chains, or I need a belief incantation to transmute the base metal of the ball into a balloon.  Either way, I've got to stop letting it hold me down.

Okay.  But how do I know what is holding me down is not valid, if I don't have the structure of theology to enlighten me?  Do you see this woman?

That was Jesus' question to Simon, the Pharisee.  Jesus used the prostitute who wept over his feet to make a theological point to Simon, a student of Jewish teachings (not properly theology, since theology is a Greek concept, and Simon was in the Hebraic, soon to be Jewish, tradition).  Any challenge to one's idea of what God demands or desires, is a theological challenge (at least in Christian circles).  Luke uses the story of the anointing to make a very valid theological point:  that a blessing from God is bestowed, not earned; and that just as God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike, God is free to bestow blessings as God sees fit.  Any statement about the nature of God is necessarily a theological one (unless it's a matter of philosophy of religion).  But does my theology hold me back from seeing that?  It can; Simon's does.  It is also, however, theology that allows me to see the woman has not earned her blessing, she has simply been given it.  Merely by asking the question "Do you see this woman?", Jesus is violating all manner of religious and social taboos.  He is a holy man, and he is making himself unclean by allowing her to touch him, even just with her hair and tears.  He is a holy man, and he not only acknowledges the woman among the men, but speaks directly to her, and blesses her.  Merely by asking that question Jesus is raising all manner of theological challenges.  There are almost too many theological statements being made there to count.  How are we to interpret this correctly, if not theologically?

And how much of that theology holds me back?  And how much of it helps me to see?

"My theology" is even a bit of a misnomer.  If I have "a theology," it is necessarily part of a larger discourse, or it isn't theology at all, it's merely a set of personal preferences.  My personal preferences as to the nature of God and of my relationship to God is certainly a ball and chain if I don't submit them to challenge, if I don't place them before the community of believers and allow them to be critiqued.  For one thing, we are back to the distinction between the demonic and the divine, and we needn't believe in demons to understand the distinction.  The person who is guided by the "voices" in his head may not be demon possessed, but he is certainly cut off from the community of others.  Any claim to an experience of God is invalid until the community of believers validates it, and yes that can mean the validity of snake handlers as much as it means the validity of the occupant of the Papacy.  No man or woman is an island, especially in these matters.  Theology is a construct and a conversation, participated in by many voices over 2 millenia and the 7 continents of the world.  "My theology" may be the theology of Protestantism or Orthodox Christianity or the Coptic Church, but it is never mine alone, or it is not "theology" at all.  Indeed, the cure for "my theology" is not "No theology," but theology itself.  If you think theology is only what you believe, U R DOING IT WRONG!

As example, I humbly submit George Zimmerman, who says the shooting of Trayvon Martin was God's plan  That is a theological statement; and it is "a theology."  But it isn't really theology at all; and it isn't theology that is keeping George Zimmerman from truly reaching God; if anything, it is lack of theology.

Which puts us back to the nature of theology.  Theology is complicated, and yet God is the simplest of all.  Well, maybe.  God is simple when I get to define the terms of the discussion.  God is simple right down to having a plan for the life of Trayvon Martin that suits my life story and maybe even lets me off the hook, morally if not legally, for murder.  But if that simple story doesn't suit the family of Trayvon Martin, whose story gets to prevail?  Immediately we are involved in a tangle of competing interests and perspectives, and suddenly even "my theology" can't be as simply represented as a ball and chain that holds me down from reaching God.  Maybe nothing is so simple, and what I consider essential or important, is really only essential or important from my point of view.  And how valid is "God" if "God" is merely a construct of my solipsism, as so many critics of religion claim?  How do I escape that trap without consulting a community of believers, and by what system or construct do I classify and assess their responses, their perspectives, their competing theological claims?  If I don't do it with theology, how do I do it at all?

You see, what you do is theology; what I do is faith.  Mine, being simpler, wins.  And if you agree with me, you have faith, too.  If you don't, you're being held down by your theology.  My theology is no theology at all; which makes it better.

Nothing always trumps something.  Except, as Lear says to Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing, speak again."  Beware of that, though, because immediately you respond, immediately you speak again, you will be involved in theology.

And there's the problem:  if I subject your beliefs to critique, I'm "doing theology" and it's unfair or unkind or harsh or even unGodly.  And it can be; but so can ignorance and blind faith.  But without critique, without evaluation by a community of believers, what do you have, except nonsense?  Science always has adherents who claim science is superior because it is tested by peers, but there's nothing unique in that.  The only difference between the work of Aristotle and modern science is the lack of reverence for the observations of Aristotle.  There are precious few assertions in theology which have been accorded the reverence that was given to Aristotle for so many centuries; indeed, we haven't yet reached the break even point between the years of fealty and the years of criticism where Aristotle is concerned.

But theology will not allow me to reach God.  It simply won't.  Theology will, however, allow me to know when I have reached God.  Call it Hamlet's dilemma.  Visited by a ghost who resembles his dead father, Hamlet is charged with avenging his father's murder.  But the murderer is Hamlet's uncle, now King of Denmark.  How does Hamlet justify this murder to the people of Denmark?  They might accept the burden of the son to avenge the father, but on what evidence does he justify regicide?  The word of a ghost who has only spoken to Hamlet?  What if the ghost is a demon, trying to destroy Hamlet?  How can he be sure?

Hamlet doesn't dither because he is weak in character; he delays because he's put in an impossible situation, literally damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.  To whom can he turn to evaluate his situation, to determine if what he has been told is true, or is mere delusion?  Few of us are Abraham who, being simply told to go, will follow.  We may not be as skeptical as Thomas, but we need some reason to believe.  We need to have something to say, some argument to make, some explanation for our faith.  We need some kind of theology, or the experience of God can simply be a devastating one.

Mother Teresa famously suffered the absence of God throughout her life in India.   Theology did not offer her the comforts the absence of God's presence removed, but it gave her a vocabulary and a structure for her thoughts and feelings on the matter.  Doris Grumbach wrote a small, spiritual memoir about an experience she had as a young woman, an experience she was, and is, convinced was an experience of the presence of God:

What happened was this:  sitting there, almost squatting on those wooden steps, listening to the quiet,  I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seem to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight.  (Even then I realized the hyperbole of these words, but I could not escape them.)  It went on, second after second, so pervasive it seemed to fill my entire body.  I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it.  Then with no warning, and surely without preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: f or the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.
 The rest of her book, rather like Julian of Norwich's experience, or that of Simone Weil (to whom Grumbach feels a kinship), is spent trying to understand that experience, and put it in the context of her life.  Is that a theological pursuit?

If it isn't, what is?

Theology can be a dry pursuit.  Kathleen Norris despises it; she metaphorically spits on the ground whenever she mentions the word in her books.  Yet I find her books theological, in the best sense of the word.  Theology can become the pursuit of distinctions no one else cares about, but even from those distinctions, wisdom can break through. That theology comes after the call of God to Abraham, or the burning bush speaks to Moses, or an itinerant rabbi speaks to Peter, is of no matter.  Peter has to decide, later, what it is he has been left to do.  He has to decide whether food can be clean or unclean, and who can be invited to the table:  children of Abraham alone, or Gentiles as well.  That decision, is decided in the realm of theology.  It is still debated:  who is welcome to the Eucharist?  Who, indeed, as undergone a Christian baptism?  These are not minor matters, because whatever peace the presence of God may bring, it's absence does not leave behind peace.  I have noted in my copy of Grumbach's book:  "...Luther is supposed to have said that not once in his life had her prayed entirely undisturbed by any distracting thoughts."  The author of those words is Søren Kierkegaard.  

Theology is those distracting thoughts; but it is also the way we try to find release from those distracting thoughts; even as that, too, can become a way of distracting ourselves.  For some, theology is the thicket of thorns we need to escape; for others, the only route of escape is to push through.  When the pursuit becomes an end in itself, it is helpful to remember the experience of Aquinas.  But it is also useful to wonder whether that experience came in spite of Aquinas' life long efforts; or because of them.

One answer is as valid as the other.


  1. Cartoon = funny
    Cartoon = oversimplification
    Cartoon = a bit of truth
    Cartoon = hyperbole

    Why can't I enjoy the drawing for what it is? A cartoon. If the cartoon did not include a bit of truth, it would not be funny. What the cartoon says to me is that my concept of God (or theology, if you will) is not actually God, and the reminder helps keep me humble. I don't believe my enjoyment of the cartoon is evidence of disdain for theology...but that's me.

  2. Seems to me that Christian theology is, most fundamentally, reflection on Christian revelation--how the teaching of Jesus in the scriptures and the Church is to be understood, how it is to be applied, made consistent, and related to other imperatives and experiences.

    Such reflection can bring us closer to God, or can be used as a defense against Him. And when we continue we sooner or later reflect, not only on the content of revelation, but on the value of reflection--does understanding itself get in the way of love and reunion? How important can an activity be when the vast majority of Christians have neither the time, nor the wealth, nor the inclination to reflect beyond the rudiments of prayer and charity?

    So though I instinctively balk at suggestions that theology is something inherently violative of divine simplicity, I understand the objection in the fact that a child or an illiterate adult may certainly be a better Christian than me. Reflection is not the only way to God--except, perhaps, for the reflective. But, I think, to tell the reflective, "Your own questioning imperative keeps you from God," is as much a sin as telling the more simple man, "You cannot know God unless you have a firm grasp of biblical, systematic and historic theology."

  3. One thing I've learned from living in Houston: when you are in a public space, you are always in someone else's way.

    I mentioned my friend from seminary at the outset specifically to identify my bias in this matter. She approaches her religious beliefs from her conversion experience; that is her touchstone. My religious experiences followed from my attendance at church, not in spite of it, or did those experiences lead me to church. I have always pursued a theological approach to God, but that isn't to say it is the only approach.

    So I specifically avoided any sharp definitions of theology, except as "words about God." No doubt the great Christian mystics would find me too dry here, and the great theologians would consider me far too imprecise to be meaningful. But having drunk deeply of the wells of historical, systematic, and biblical theology, I find them all wanting (indeed, biblical theology is now taught as almost as bootless a pursuit as logical positivism; both had such serious limitations at the beginning as to be mules; tough, enduring in some ways, but incapable of producing offspring.). In some respects my admiration for theology is like Molly Ivins' love for Texas: it's a harmless affliction I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. And rather than veer off into my critiques of systematic theology or Paul Tillich, I decided to stay vague and imprecise.

    Must everyone be systematic, historical, or biblical, in order to truly believe? Heaven forbid. Rather, let us expand the confines of the conversation, and recognize that even the songs of the birds are praise to the Creator, and find our theology there as well.

    My friend and I get along after all these years because we agree to disagree. I don't consider her thoughtless, and if she considers me too frigidly abstract and ethereal, she doesn't mention it except in a loving spirit. My point in mentioning her was to identify what I think is a common weakness in using the term "theology": that is is an abstruse and hyper-technical field which speaks only to its devotees, rather in the same manner as the Anglo-American schools of philosophy.

    To the extent that is true, I'd rather theology follow the model of the Continental schools, which at least try to ground their concerns in history and literature and life as she is knowed. True, it produces the impenetrable prose of Derrida and the ponderous weight of Foucault, but whaddya want? Eggs in your beer?

    So if I try to ground my theological musings in a cartoon, the better to begin a conversation, forgive me my errors and don't hold it against me. I'm a jackdaw, I just grab at whatever shiny thing catches me eye, and pick it up, and caw about it.

    I should learn how to preach to the birds, so my words will be translated into song.

  4. Robert, I'm guessing that our main disagreement here is about whether the cartoon is funny and hits home in some way.

    Although it's not at all the thing to quote oneself on the internet, I offer this short post from a couple of days ago:


    Yesterday, as I walked still in daylight, the waxing gibbous moon was already high in the sky. The gorgeous sky was pastel blue and the clouds pastel pink from the sun lowering in the west. Then, seemingly in a few seconds, the clouds turned bright orange and the sky a brilliant aqua. The clouds further east became smoky blue. What a splendid and ever-changing panorama. Oh did I ever want a camera to catch the colors and shapes! But perhaps the better thing was to embrace the moments for what they were at that time and place and not try to hold on to them except in my memories.

    "The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." (Psalm 19)

    That one experience of the presence of God in God's glorious creation was worth hours of reading or musing on theology. I say that even as much of my present reading includes theological works (loosely defined). Even today, as I remember the spectacle, I feel a stirring within me.

  5. I get the same stirring (from time to time) reading theology.

    Just discovering the works of Kierkegaard in high school was a revelation, an epiphany.

    There are shortcomings to such experiences, of course; but then again, the last time I read Grumbach's memoir of her epiphany, I found it profoundly depressing, and Mother Teresa expressed such sorrow and despair about the loss her her mystical experiences it is heart-breaking even in a third-person account.

    I saw your post in the original; it was lovely. But it's no less lovely if I point out that, thanks to Romanticism, we all understand (or accept) that revelations of God can come through experiencing nature (an experience impossible to a pre-Industrial Revolution culture, frankly, although the Psalmist still writes of the storm that makes the people shout "Glory!"), and likewise we all but insist no such revelation is possible through the teachings of theology.

    And a critique of a cartoon is not a critique of the cartoonist, or of those who like the cartoon. As I say, mostly it just opened a conversational door for me.

  6. I get the same stirring (from time to time) reading theology.

    Me, too. I would never insist that God does not reveal Godself in the teachings of theology, because I have met God there. At times, we come upon God in the most unexpected places.

    And I quoted the Psalmist about my experience, who was, as you note, pre-industrial.

  7. "One answer is as valid as the other," but only insofar (I think) as consultation is had with the community of believers, a crucial step often skipped over.

    It's also important to note that we are using finite means (thoughts, our ability to express those thoughts, and even language itself) to approach the Infinite. We're not going to come to a complete understanding. We not even going to come to a complete expression of our own experience. But it's in the community of believers that we will get a full expression and understanding.

  8. It's also important to note that we are using finite means (thoughts, our ability to express those thoughts, and even language itself) to approach the Infinite. We're not going to come to a complete understanding. We not even going to come to a complete expression of our own experience. But it's in the community of believers that we will get a full expression and understanding.

    If not a full expression, as close as we're ever going to get. Damned Platonic dualism!

    “Let us then content ourselves with seeing, as well as we can, what we are permitted to see, and reason upon it to the best of our limited understandings, as well assured that whatever is, is right.” --Sir William Hamilton, an early vulcanologist, in 1794. My source calls it an example of "scientific modesty."

    Funny how very close science and theology actually are.

  9. Whoops, I meant to say a "fuller" explanation, not a "full" explanation.

    Read and review.
    Read and review.
    Read and review.
    Read and review. (Times 25)