Monday, March 15, 2010

Theology matters!

Ok, so what would you expect a budding theologian to say? ;-) But, I think it's important to point out a few basic theological principles, which can be found in any introductory theology text, or heard in any theology 101 course -- and that's not the same as a religion 101 course, by the way.

The reason I feel the need to state these principles again is primarily due to some of the feedback I've received (not comments on this blog) regarding my recent skewering of Glenn Beck's comments (admonishing people to leave churches that speak using the language of "social justice"). Admittedly, my comments have been a bit provocative, but I think Beck himself would probably be OK with that. After all, he's built a media empire on making provocative statements! :-)

Anyway, some of the feedback from supporters of Beck takes the following form: Essentially, I am taking Beck's statements out of context, over-exaggerating his claims, and haven't understood the theological basis for his views. To this sort of claim, I can only respond: No. Beck is wrong to make the above statements. And here's why.

1. Theology is not a democratic process. As Christians, we don't simply get to interpret God's revelation in the way that we happen to prefer. I realize sometimes that happens, but it's not what Christ ever intended. Christianity is not utilitarian. Scripture isn't meant to be interpreted according to whatever political/religious/sociological/psychological paradigm seems to be working best for us right now. We have to compare our views with the response to revelation offered by the Church, which ideally is a proper reflection of Christ himself.

2. Does this mean that Church leaders, or ivory-tower theologians, get to tell Christians everywhere what to believe? Of course not. It simply means that, in every instance, what Christianity means - and how we live as Christians - must be held up in the light of Scripture itself, and then interpreted through the Church (with a capital C). There are various approaches taken in order to accomplish this goal, and often there is disagreement, but everyone who takes Christianity seriously has some set of guidelines by which they determine their faith - and "whatever seems right to me" is NOT one of those guidelines.

3. Unfortunately, too often, many of us, even without realizing it, opt for autonomy in matters of theological discussion. We have good reasons for this - we've heard about the terrible crimes done in the name of Christianity, we are suspicious of corrupt preachers, there are so many competing views it makes it hard to decide, etc. But, none of this makes it appropriate to adopt my own agenda when it comes to Christian theology. My own agenda may have some value, but it also must be submitted to Scripture, and to the Church, if I am going to remain a committed member of a Christian community. I don't get to do whatever I want.

4. So, what do we do in the midst of all the confusion regarding what Christians believe and how Christians should live? We must - all of us, not just theologians - seek out good theology! Theology matters - and good theology all the more!

5. How do we do this? We begin by examining the paradigm through which we are currently viewing our faith, and see whether it needs adjustment. This is a constant process, and there are several things that have typically been emphasized by Christians throughout the centuries as ways to provide adjustment:

Scripture: What does the Bible actually say about X? Not just a few cherry-picked verses, but the Bible as a whole... what does it really say? This is a more complex process than any of us would like it to be, and it required serious study, which is something - I hate to say - many of us have neglected as Christians.

Tradition: Where there is a lack of clarity regarding Scripture, we can ask, what have other Christians throughout history said about X? Is there a consensus or have views changed? If so, why? It's not like there aren't a plethora of sources here - read the early Church fathers and mothers. Read Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas. Eastern Church leaders like Nicholas of Cusa and Maximus the Confessor. Thomas a Kempis, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley. If you want more modern works, there's Schleiermacher, Barth, Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Pannenberg, Rahner, and John Paul II. And that's just scratching the surface. Find out what all these respected people had to say. Or just get an overview of their thoughts.

Reason: Are there good reasons for, or against, X? Have those reasons been taken into account? This can become complicated, as reasons given often beget more questions. But it is vital that we approach issues with as much objectivity as possible when we are debating an issue. Otherwise, it becomes a matter of opinion, and you know what they say about opinions. :-P

Experience: It would be wrong to say that experience doesn't matter in theology. In fact, it matters a great deal. But experience must always be examined in the light of the other guidelines mentioned above. The experience of a certain church may be a genuine move of the Spirit of God. Or it may be a mistake, created by a false spirit or simple human "mob mentality." But, in our desire to develop autonomous theology, too many of us give priority to experience, and this creates all sorts of bad theology, because - as I already stated - my opinion or agenda does not equal Christianity. And just because I can get a group of several hundred people to agree with me for a few years, doesn't mean I have found truth.


What does all this have to do with Beck? Simply this. I believe Beck is wrong for the following reasons:

First, he misuses Scripture. He provides no solid Scriptural backing for his statements. This alone should make Christians suspicious of his statements. Second, he is not even considered a part of the Christian Church as traditionally defined. Since Beck is a Mormon, his statements can have no authority for Christian theology. So even if he did quote Scripture in its proper context, his statements should not be taken seriously. Third, given that Beck has no authority, Scripturally or otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that he may not know what he's talking about when it comes to Christianity. In fact, this is the case: he repeats the common false assertion that Christianity is about "you." He is simply falling into the trap of autonomous theology.

So when Beck tells Christians to leave their churches, he is really stepping into a discussion wherein he has no business. If churches are abusing the concept of social justice - a concept that has a rich history throughout Christianity - that is something churches need to discuss. Beck is certainly welcome to his opinion, but his opinion should carry no weight within the Christian community. It is an "in-house" discussion, so to speak. And while getting input from outside voices may be helpful by providing a perspective we hadn't considered, when those outside voices tell you to leave home, they are simply wrong, and to listen to them is bad theology.

Thus ends my diatribe. If you've made it this far, I appreciate your attention.

No comments: