Is theology always a golden calf?

To what degree is theology an outgrowth of its context?

A student of church history is taught early on that the great Christological debates of the early church grew out of the cultural brew of late antiquity. The proclamation of Christ ran up against the philosophy and world-view of the Greco-Roman culture. Out of this encounter eventually came the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian definition.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions and studying his theology, you can see how pressing questions of the day created crucibles in which theology was clarified and refined.

We might say these doctrinal truths were always lying in wait to be discovered — like pure silver hidden in the surrounding rocks. But you don’t have to go far into church history to see the way local and particular concerns give shape to theology in ways that can have lasting influence.

And so, I wonder, to what degree we should understand theology as the product of its times and circumstances.

This kind of question has been pressed quite forcefully in the last 50 years by feminist and liberation theologies of various kinds. My introduction to these forms of theology has come through the work of theologians concerned with disability. What I see them doing is placing a priority and primacy on experience as the source of key theological questions and the standard by which theological answers are judged useful.

It is writers such as James H. Cone, however, who put this in the most pointed terms.

For instance, in the introduction to his book Risks of Faith, he writes about his struggle to articulate a theology that was responsive to his deepest concerns as a black man living in the 1960s. He writes that his education at Garrett and Northwestern did not prepare him to respond to the questions black people of faith were asking.

I found myself grossly ill-prepared, because I knew deep down that I could not repeat to a struggling black community the doctrines of the faith as they had been reinterpreted by Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and Tillich for European colonizers and white racists in the United States. I knew that before I could say anything worthwhile about God and the black situation of oppression in America I had to discover a theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African-American people.

When I read Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome, I hear a similar commitment to making the experience of the disabled the test of theology. In Yong’s case, the commitment to experience becomes a strainer through which scripture must be squeezed. It leads Yong to find much of scripture unhelpful to his theological project and leads him to suggest new readings that fill in the silences of scripture with the experiences or points-of-view of those with disabilities.

I am tempted to say that all these are instances of a canon within a canon becoming the touchstone for all theology. The idea of a canon within a canon is not new. What I see here is an expansion of the idea of canon. For some theologians the canon within the canon is a particular book or the particular reading of a book of the Bible. For others the canon within the canon is the experience of being black in America or a woman or poor in South America or mentally disabled.

I think Cone would argue that the received theology in the Western church is based on the canon of white (straight?) (male?) European experience.

From these points of view, then, what is theology other than the momentarily popular opinion of whatever person or group happens to be writing and speaking right now?

How do I know I’m not dancing in front of a golden calf?

Is theology always a golden calf?

God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

God is not cuddly

Boundaries are good

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, NIV)

In August, I wrote a post that came out of a seminary experience that had been leaning hard on inculcating a love of pluralism. The post was a piece I read to the class. It was called “Edges are good.”

It was a bit of a cry of desperation. It was also an attempt to articulate something that I have been struggling to grab hold of for the last few years.

The Bible speaks a great deal about edges and boundaries and separation. The act of creation itself is described in Genesis 1 less as creation ex nihilo than as the kind of thing a fan of the Container Store would do. It is separating light from dark and dry from wet. It is bring form out of formlessness. Creation is the establishment of boundaries.

In many other places in the Bible, the importance of boundaries is stressed. The importance of property lines come up throughout the Old Testament. The need for demarcation of sacred space is a constant theme. The concern over insider and outsider is rehearsed over and over.

Of course, this is not the only theme. The talk of boundaries is counter-balanced by talk of hospitality. Outsiders can become insiders. Every city wall has a gate. The sheep pen does as well.

But the boundaries — while permeable — remain. If not, chaos ensues. The walls come down. Wolves run off with the sheep. Things fall apart.

This is not a hard concept to acknowledge intellectually, but I think we as United Methodists often struggle with it in practice. We are a denomination that is uncomfortable with boundaries, and so we attract people who struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries. And our congregations and denomination suffer for it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this on Facebook. Fences may not make good neighbors, but they do keep the next guy’s pigs out of your tomato garden.

By all means, we need gates. But here is the truth I’m trying to make a part of my heart and not just my head: Edges are good. Boundaries are good. Fences are good.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.

Boundaries are good

Torah and the church?

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5, NIV)

I’ve had my two semesters of required Old Testament study, and still I struggle with the proper way to understand the application of Torah to the church.

What are the best books you have read on this topic?

What other resources have helped you?

Torah and the church?

We don’t need no thought control?

This Facebook post by Rachel Held Evans has a lot of likes from a lot of people I know.

Reading her post. I find myself having a reaction I have frequently to spiritual and theological commentary. I usually find myself agreeing with a lot.

Yes, good news must be good news to the poor or it is not good news.

Yes, theological reflection is not the private reserve of white guys with PhDs.

Yes, everyone is qualified to talk about faith.

But in these agreements, I know that Evans is not really agreeing with me. Her point is not these simple truths, but a polemical one. What she is arguing is that these young white theologians she has in mind “seem” to think certain things and those things are bad. She is painting with a pretty broad brush here and speaking in generalities, so it is not exactly clear how she knows what these people think. It would be helpful if she’d quote or even name her targets. It is hard to know if her adversary in this argument is a straw man, a phantom, or a actual person expressing the actual arguments she is putting in their mouths.

But putting this aside, I do have a deeper question about this argument.

What I’d like to know from Evans — and I guess the question I have for my United Methodist friends who liked the post — is how do we hold her statements here up against a fairly broad based conversation in the church that we have done a bad job of catechesis for the last 100 years and that our people are largely biblically illiterate.

I recall the words of that straight, white — but old so perhaps not unclean in Evans’ eyes — theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who said that his students come to his classes without minds formed well enough to have anything interesting to say. And yet, Hauerwas would argue strongly that the most interesting thing the church does theologically is be the church in the midst of the world in all its diversity.

There is a movement in the church — not by any means a universal one — to raise standards and requirements for membership. A lot has been said about the need to teach our people the doctrinal foundations of our faith.

Doesn’t the very notion that people need education and training in order to be well-grounded Christians run counter to the sentiment of Evans’ post?

Or is there a way to hold the two together that I am not seeing?

We don’t need no thought control?

Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of Scripture. This is a complex task because it is no means clear how the many ways of expression in Scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of Scripture, the refusal of Scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read Scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of Scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is “thinking?”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words

If I were to rename this blog, I would be tempted to steal a phrase from Hauerwas and call it “Rage Against the Silences.”

Rage is not really my thing, but I love that turn of phrase. It speaks to me out of the same place that “An arrow through the air” does. It also capture the desperation I often feel when confronted with silences in my life. To sit in the presence of silence — especially the kind you get when you really want speech — is a discipline I have barely begun to develop.

I don’t think John Wesley was very good at abiding the silences, either.

I was baptized in a United Methodist Church without ever being exposed to Wesley. I later went on to read and study Wesley’s theology as an amateur. As I consider what I have learned from this work, I do wonder whether Wesley fell prey to the temptation of the of the theologians that Hauerwas mentions here. Did he fill up the silence of Scripture or steamroll the conflicts in the interest of constructing a method? There is a sense in reading Wesley’s theology that it works too well. (I know Calvinists will howl about that last line. That’s okay. Let them howl.)

Wesley’s theology is brilliantly constructed to speak to the spiritual condition of people conscious of sin, mindful of wrath, and desiring to know the way of salvation. It is practical and carefully articulated. It shows all the signs of being developed by a skilled practitioner and careful observer of the human soul. It is well engineered and elegant.

But like any finely crafted machine, it does not work very well at things it was never designed to do. For instance, Wesley just waves his hand at the question of salvation outside of Christianity. He neither condemns nor saves Muslims and Hindus and Jews. He merely says that is a question for God and not for him.

I respect that answer, but I do not find it terribly helpful in multi-faith America.

Or to hit even closer to home, Wesley’s theology is so dependent on cognitive processes, that I wonder how it speaks to those who by age, injury, or disability cannot form the proper mental states to participate or cooperate with grace as laid out by Wesley.

There are ways we might answer that, but Wesley does not help us at all with those answers. His concern was with the machine he was building, and he does not speculate about other problems, or at least nothing I have seen in his works shows such concern.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Wesley. I’ve learned far too much from him for that. But I do wonder how to properly receive him. I wonder this, in particular, because I take quite seriously the vows of ordination the church may one day ask me to take.

How do I reside in the silences of Scripture while remaining an heir to the fabulous contraption Wesley constructed?

Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption