Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Everyone's A Theologian

Everyone is a theologian. The problem, in church as much as out of it, is when we refuse to admit it. Whether someone wishes to give their theology (or more properly: the God behind that theology) precedence in their life is another matter---but everyone is a theologian.

Denying this is particularly unhelpful for those want to try to talk about (or live for) God with one another. For the sake of making a few points, but not in the interests of stereotyping, I'm thinking of three basic people here (all of which typify my own posture at different times):

The average church-goer (that's me) who doesn't want to get too bogged down in theological concerns or get entangled in questions but opts instead for 'the spiritual life'-- That Christian is doing theology (not only in this decision but also in every spiritual activity thereafter). And, I might add, depending on the aggressiveness and the context of this stance, this church-goer may also be trumping other theologies in the process rather than meeting them under mutual submission to the Word of God with the trust that God will be true though we all may be liars.

Now, there can be all sorts of reasons to not get involved in theological discussions at any given time. My concern isn't that everyone needs to nose into every theological discussion or that action be paralysed by indecisive contemplation. My concern is when we pretend we are not theologians, in order to run with our preferred theology.

The academic church-goer (that's me too) needs to think about this as well. It may be that the academics are doing hard-core theology full time and, as recognized by their churches, may have a certain teaching role for the church as a result. But that doesn't excuse them from considering the theology of the average church-goer and taking it into account. If God is who our Christian theology says God is, there may be some things not learned in the textbooks of time, but in the pews and the prayer meetings.

Everyone's a theologian. But that doesn't mean all theology is academic, nor does it mean that academics are the head of the church. It means that all church-goers should pay special attention to careful theology, and vice-versa, with Jesus Christ at the head of all our faith seeking understanding. Saying everyone's a theologian can not be my thinly veiled attempt to tilt the deck so I can trump every discussion with my latest quote from Schleiermacher.

The atheist or agnostic (and who am I kidding if I don't admit that much of the time that's me too?) is an obvious target of my claim as well. I already talked about all this a bit in my last post. [I'm not trying to pick a fight with my atheist friends here, but am trying to finally articulate something on my own blog that I've been proposing in other conversations for a while now.]

In my comments on the last post I quoted an excerpt from Karl Barth, from his posthumously published fragments of the uncompleted fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics. Therein he makes some points and poses some questions of atheists specifically, but later includes that church-goers are perilously in need of facing these questions as well.

He says that there are some you can talk with and some who make talking to almost impossible. To put it very simply, the ones you have difficulty talking to are the ones who reject all talk of God that is not their own. For Barth that is a real problem not only in the atheist-theist conversation but in the theist-theist conversation.

We are either all confronted by God from without, or we are all just asserting our own ideas. These need not be totally mutually exclusive, and some ideas may prove more sound than others, but none of us simply possesses a knowledge of God. At no point is any of us not in process of doing theology.

Thus, the ones who can talk to one another, says Barth, are those who "confess frankly and freely without any such camouflage" that they have a certain idea of God in mind that they are rejecting (or mulling over, or believing). Furthermore, they will confess that they have certain conceptions of reality that they are running with, which include a certain degree of unproven premises and entail the telling of certain stories about how the world works or doesn't work or ought to work.

As Barth puts it: "With such a one it is possible to agree at least on who or what he is trying to deny [or defend]. Does he have in mind the God of a philosophy or metaphysics? Or the God that he regards as the common coefficient of all the religions known to him? Or the God whom he remembers as a shadowy figure in some Christian church and theology -- perhaps because this has badly proclaimed God to him or he has badly understood it?" (Karl Barth, The Christian Life, p. 290)

It seems to me that if we want to talk about God or live together in relation to that discussion we're going to have to get straight who or what we are talking about or not talking about. We're going to have to do some theology. I'm not saying that to argue that from there on its an open shut case and I win and you don't. I'm just saying we need to confess that everyone's a theologian, and come to grips with how it might be possible to proceed.


Anonymous said...

Third last paragraph - regarding "the ones who can talk to one another":
In my experience, vulnerability and authenticity are some of the main keys to doing theology together - but so often people do theology under the guise of a win/lose competition - and in a competition, vulnerability and authenticity are guaranteed way to lose.

Personally, in the times when I put up a front, it's been in order to see if the others are "playing the same game as I am". Playing by the same set of rules. Because, if they're not, I'm not interested.
And in part I think that's fair - no?
(Thinking back to Jesus saying, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things")
Or does that make me "average church-goer"?

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

One thing that I like very much about this idea of everyone being a theologian is that it asks everyone interested in participating in theology to think hard about their ideas of God and how they arrived at holding those ideas. I think any honest thinker, faced with that task, will end up admitting that even talking about God is complex business and requires a great degree of humility. Unless, of course, your God or your ideas of God are empirically provable.

Arguments of any sort often resemble a butting of heads between people speaking different languages. He's speaking about God in French, she's speaking of God in English, etc -and no effort is made to find common ground. "If you only spoke English, then you'd understand." "One day the holy spirit will open your eyes." Stuff like that.

Jon Coutts said...

Jon, I'm not sure I know what you mean about "putting up a front". If you mean you are checking to see if an honest discussion is going to happen before getting too embroiled, then yeah I think there's something fair about that. But perhaps you can say more? The link with Jesus' statement is interesting.

To be clear, I don't mean "average church-goer" pejoratively. The anti-theological theology veiled in 'spirituality' talk is more at issue. Basically, for all the distinctions that might be helpful, I don't like the divide.

Matthew: That's a poignant line: "I think any honest thinker, faced with that task, will end up admitting that even talking about God is complex business and requires a great degree of humility. Unless, of course, your God or your ideas of God are empirically provable."

This isn't meant to contradict what you said there, but it led me to think: If one thinks God must be empirically provable, that certainly can't preclude honesty about the complexity of even such a (at first glance straightforward) proposition. I'm not sure anything is empirically provable, as far as it comes to finding a view of the world to run on.

Thanks for engaging. I am getting close to articulating something that's been nagging at me for years here, and I welcome the opportunity to have it tested and thrown about now that I've been able to kind of put it out there.

curtis said...

The most frightening aspect of what you have put down here (and I venture an assumption here based on my experiences with Christians) is that the majority of people would fall into the category of "the average church-goer". I include myself, no judgement here.

The thing that is frightening about that, is that one's theology is then often based on loosey-goosey feelings found in the moment, is based on emotion, or comes from the current flavor-of-the-week-author whose words impacted our lives.

I think that all of us have an obligation to sit and truly delve into what it is we believe and why we believe it. What credibility or effectiveness will we have if what we "believe" is fleeting and changes it's focus at a moment's notice? This is not to say we become entrenched in our beliefs, simply "figuring it out" and stubbornly maintaining our determined status quo for the rest of our lives, but rather making a decision to engage in what it is that makes us live the way we do.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Excellent thoughts Jon, and very well put. Yes, this is the kind of thing that I tell other Christians when they balk at the notion of atheists who think of themselves as theologians (e.g. Slavoj Zizek).

This is also the reason why I constantly go back to the statement that God alone is orthodox. That is to say, God alone has true knowledge of Godself. This doesn't preclude theological thinking (quite the opposite I think!), but it does require that we be honest with ourselves and our dialog partners.

Anonymous said...

"Checking to see if an honest discussion is going to happen before getting too embroiled"
That's about right, I think.
Pretty much I'm willing to engage with anyone openly and honestly at least once - even if I know I'm going to get stomped on for it. But I think it gets to the point where some people just aren't worth doing theology with - as per that Jesus' quote.
It just like that guy at men's league who won't call fouls - eventually I just stopped playing when he's on the court.

And come to think of it, isn't that why many "average church goers" are the way they are? At least in my context, it's not that people don't want to do theology - or that they don't think they need it - it's just that previous pastors and others have never played fair with them - never shown them that it can be a joyful experience when theres no fear in the give and take.

Also, as an aside, I prayed the "Forgive me for what I'm about to say" prayer during this past Sunday's sermon - talking about healing - definitely appropriate...

Jon Coutts said...

Curtis: Thanks for the comments. Are you the Curtis I think you are?

You made a good point about the legitimate fear of having views that are "fleeting" one hand or "entrenched" on the other. I don't think a platitude on either hand or one that holds them together neatly will do here. I think it would be all too easy to spout a cliche about balance or something here.

I do think that along with the fear of God that keeps us from entrenchment in our views there should also be mentioned a trust in God that keeps us from anxious flipping to and fro. That trust comes solidly from the Christian conviction that God is good, but can also derive from a similar idea that the most general fear derives from: If God be God, let Him be true and let me confess that I'm a pilgrim theologian in this world.

I suppose I could go on, but that's the direction I take your comments. Comes in line with what Colin said, now that I think about it.

Colin: Yeah. I definitely want to make a distinction between decidedly Christian theology and that which is not, but, yeah.

Jon: You prayed it out loud? : )

You said: "it's just that previous pastors and others have never played fair with them - never shown them that it can be a joyful experience when theres no fear in the give and take."

That is one of the best things I've read in a long time. It gets at something I was trying to say to myself, and didn't quite say as well. Thanks for that.

I definitely find it frustrating when I'm in conversations with people and I know that I'm the only one who sees truth as a conversational enterprise. Thus I have to be willing to be talked down to in order to have the conversation. I think a certain Christian sentiment calls us to be willing to do that, and to be patient and unanxious and self-giving about it. But you are right to point to that quote from Jesus which calls for prudence and reminds us of the truth that sometimes the best way to talk to such a person is to not play the game.

Great thoughts all. A million new ones are produced by your comments.

curtis said...

I am who you think I am.

When I first thought about the topic, my thoughts were focused on credibility. Though some of that credibility is based on the annoyance of a flip-flop, I am more concerned about the forming of an opinion or viewpoint without proper method. My fear is that there are too many Christians who will spout something off based on raw emotion or opinion rather than on truth.

At a recent elder's meeting we reviewed policy with regards to our benevolence committee. Granted it has been too long since this document was updated and so you have to take some of the wording and instruction with a grain of salt, but a lot of it was harsh. Truth, but harsh. The world is a more tolerant place and Christians are still struggling to find the balance of truth and how to live it lovingly, but it is a glimpse of the greater problem.

Where does this need to share our opinion (or in the case mentioned, form policy) as definative come from? Is it simply a need to feel wise? Spiritual? Is it an unhealthy method of conversation or debate? I imagine we've all said something at one time or another that, upon reflection, didn't end up being in line with our convictions. But we were so sure at the time. Weren't we?

I liked the comment about "joyful experience with no fear in give and take". How many have not sorted out what they believe because they were afraid to even ask a question due to the sure agressive response? How many aggressive responses come from a fear of not knowing the answer? If we could all be committed to sitting down for a healthy discussion with openness to other's thoughts and ideas we would be so greatly strengthened. We would live our lives as we should, with new-found accountability and could freely discuss truth issues based on more than the ideas of the flavor-of-the-week author who struck a chord with us but didn't quite develop what was brewing inside of us.

What if? That's been my thought lately. What if were were all better equiped and sought truth together? What if we really wanted to be transformed? We'd be able to tackle questions like the one Jon has posed originally and would feel more adequate to deal with the questions asked of us and challenge the lies both within and outside of the church's walls.

Jon Coutts said...

i'm so glad you are that curtis. almost didn't recognize you outside the realm of trash talk.

I think the point you raise about policy is related but is also somewhat different from the broader questions, simply because it often can't be left indefinite and open and undecided forever. Decisions need making, and we are not called to paralysis. Thus it is where differences of opinion become perhaps more pressing. And that is okay, in my view. In my opinion churches need precise and yet sparing and fluid policies, and needs to take great care in finding consensus on what those would be. Anyway, to the broader issue, you asked some great questions there....

"Where does this need to share our opinion ... as definitive come from?"

You raised some possible motives there and I think all of those are possible factors, certainly. Perhaps not entirely bad, in their place, either.

I like the idea of sharing opinions as a responsible and yet honest (as it relates to one's degree of conviction) contribution to the community that wants to not only understand but to make decisions and act together.

Even at my most boisterous moments I want to have that contribution-to-the-whole to be my primary motivation. But I'd also like my way of communicating to convey and encourage that approach as well. And that isn't easy.

These kinds of conversations need a lot of mutually extended grace. If seeking truth is a communal enterprise then grace and truth go together more than maybe we even realize.

I was going to comment on the last two paragraphs of your comment there, curtis, but I ended up highlighting it all to cut and paste, and then realized I had no way of improving on it or adding to it. You've nailed it there. Well said.

curtis said...

Policy is by no means a sticking point for me. I just thought it was an interesting example of un-gracious Christian living being defined on paper. More of a symptom than the actual problem itself. I wish I had a few quotes from that baby. Turned my stomach just listening to it read. I also fully agree that policy is better than paralysis and an acknowledgement of a need to adapt and "roll with the punches" is such a necessity.

Contribution to the whole should be something that develops and becomes the norm with maturity. I don't know that I would have thought of that phrase on my own, but I strive for that also.

A component of making that successful is the development of community (I won't pretend to have read all of your posts, but I've seen it mentioned). Unfortunately in the overall scheme of things, there is a decided lack thereof. How can a conversation happen if we don't really know one another? Instead, assumptions are made about a person as they discuss and the judge and jury inside of us often dismisses their case based on a lack of effort to truly understand them. With all the distractions we have in our lives, this is only made that much more difficult. How can we extend grace to the person who gets overly boisterous if we don't understand where they are coming from? Anyone who studies should careful to consider context. The same should be true for personal interaction. Conversations hold little hope of that being accomplished due to the enormous distance in the emotional connection between many of us. Granted, this is not always possible, but I think it needs to be considered.

I can improve on the final two paragraphs ... I actually even meant to come back to correct. Biblical basis. Not the kind where we come back after to double check against our answers, but an immersion in it and it's truth so that the answers come from what has been woven into our very heart and mind. I assume that this is stating the obvious, but I failed to mention it as a compass, and fear the same happens far too often and causes some of the difficulty as we reference an author before we reference God's Word.

Jon Coutts said...

Curtis, once again I'm not sure I can add anything except to point anyone reading toward your comments.

I didn't figure I was disagreeing with you about policy. You say it was about the benevolent fund policy? I think I can imagine the conversation.

I think that maturing as persons and learning community are the kinds of things that make this sort of ongoing theological conversation (and all around speaking the truth in love) possible. Totally. But how does that happen? I really think that in a church setting---since you've always got a need for learning and maturing, the community is always in flux, and is always also learning and maturing---that Christ's forgiveness and reconciling work have to be the backbone or the beating heart of all worship and service. I don't just believe this for pragmatic reasons, although those realizations are part of it, but from reading the Bible. I'm spending three years of my life trying to research and write about this very thing.

Thanks Curtis. Your carrying on of the dialogue was really helpful for me, as I'm striving for this type of approach and conversational maturity in my own life and not finding it so easy.

As for the Biblical basis bit, yes, definitely. Most times I'm talking about an author it is because that author helps the light of the Bible shine on a particular situation or time. But, I remember a meeting about the benevolent fund where we were getting into a quagmire of talk about the pragmatics of the thing and someone got out a Bible and simply read from (I don't know where actually) Isaiah 58 or the Sermon on the Mount or somewhere. It didn't absolve us of the decisions that had to be made in our time and situation, but it cut through the crap, exposed the elephant in the room: our captitalist presuppositions, brought everything back into focus, and got us on track with being a Church rather than an organization. I think that many a church meeting could benefit from such, dare I say, "brave" moments.

Trev said...

I don't know Jon, I've read this post over a few times...and something about it just feels off.

I'll admit, it could be my own biased desire to NOT be called one that's affecting this post but...

Doesn't it cheapen a word such as "theologian" when you throw everyone into its category? I mean, if everyone's a theologian, why have the word? Or is that your point; to say that to be human IS to be a theologian?

I will concede that there are certain theologies that I have thought long and hard about and will readily reject, but I'm not countering these ideas with my own theology (at least it certainly doesn't seem that way). I just simply find the notion of the supernatural to be absurd. I have no set premise for what a god should look/act like which I measure other theologies against because I don't assume "god". All versions of god/theism/deism/mysticism etc fall into the same category in my mind. This category being the "believing in things that can not be detected by any of the five senses" category. Or another way of putting it would be the "make believe" category.

I'm sorry if that comes across as condescending, but when I hear about gods, devils, witches and trolls, I think "fairy tale".

Would you say that me having this category is, in its very essence, a form of theology?

If I were a learned scholar of theology, I think I would be offended by someone suggesting that everyone's a theologian.

I've had a few thoughts about the human body and how it operates; this doesn't make me a doctor or biologist. I've installed hundreds of feet of drywall; but I wouldn't dare call myself a drywaller. I've conjured up a few philosphies (probably none of which were original thoughts); but I wouldn't dare call myself a philospher...

In conclusion Jon, my question to you: If having a thought about a god is enough to make you a theologian, and everyone's done this...why should the word even exist? Or why not simply say everyone's everything?

We're all doctors? We're all drywallers? We're all philosphers?