You, Theologian : Where We Begin

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As we accept our call to be theologians, the next logical question is to ask what that means. Many in the Christian community will default to the image of the sequestered scholar, surrounded by mountains of books and poring over the scattered papers piled before him. Theology, in this narrow view, is a field with high barriers to entry, only to be approached by a select few while the rest of us wait to receive their wisdom. Nonsense. This stereotype is not only damaging to the faith, it is flat out wrong. Go look in a mirror Christian. There is a theologian. Regardless of background, social group, education, or denomination even, you and I are called to be theologians and our theology is formed in two ways. One is by our experience of being a Christian. This is known as our embedded theology.

Our first order theology comes from the Christian environment that surrounds us. This environment, usually our church and this immediate community, usually drives what we believe about our faith. Since every church believes itself to be living by Christian principles, the initial framework of how we think about faith is organized on a similar framework to that which guides our church. The practices, stated doctrine, and general atmosphere give us some idea of what it means to be a Christian. We trust that those who developed the doctrines and traditions knew what they were doing and this confidence tells us we can accept these things without too much worry.

This is as far as many believers will ever go. If our church teaches it, regardless of the initial reasons, it’s good enough for us. Embedded theology works well for a while but some cracks in the firmness of the foundation begin to show when it is challenged. The first challenge often arrives in the form of a comparison between our church and our neighbor’s church. We may worship within a tradition that has a dry tradition toward alcohol and so we live as teetotalers. One fine summer day our neighbor Ed invites us over for a barbecue. Ed and his family are Christians who go to a different church but we still look forward to some fine fellowship. Knocking on the door brings Ed quickly to answer it, swinging the door wide with the hand that isn’t gripping his beer. Beer! Your embedded theology sends a message to your brain: smile, but watch this guy carefully since you know that no Christians use alcohol.

The barbecue is fine and later, as you nurse your third cola, you get a chance to talk to Ed alone. “Say Ed,” you say. “I noticed you drink beer.”

“Yep, I have a couple now and then. Why?”

You don’t want to lecture (but secretly you do) so you put a big smile on your face and say “Well, my pastor speaks against alcohol at least once every couple of months. I was just wondering how often yours does.”

“I’ve only heard him talk about it once.” Ed replies and takes the last sip of his beverage. “He taught us that the Bible talks about drunkenness but doesn’t say we must not drink alcohol. Didn’t Jesus drink wine?”

So it seems that some Christians do drink alcohol. How can the Bible teach both things? We trust our embedded ideas but often find them quickly challenged.

Second order challenges are much more difficult for this type of theological thinking. Imagine the family of the child who wandered away at the beach and got too close to the surf. She was swept out of reach of her searching parents and they lost her. How will the shallow theology of our community answer this tragedy. Why did God take the child? Were the parents secret sinners who were being punished? Was the child herself punished? Embedded theology is usually to fragile to deal with something like effectively. To come to grips with a loss like this requires a depth in the answers. It requires an intentional approach to theological questions. It requires that we practice deliberative theology.

Deliberative theology begins work right where we are by setting forth to reflect upon our embedded convictions. We question the beliefs that we have taken for granted and seek to place them among the spectrum of Christian belief on a subject. The deliberative approach looks into the various positions and seeks to understand that which is most satisfactory. Sometimes this is easier said than done since seeking answers outside of our narrow understanding can lead to challenges that we would rather not face. Beloved traditions and beliefs can be toppled in an instant and many will retreat to the shallow end of the pool when this threat becomes too real.

Sadly, we discover our need for a more intentional approach to theological thinking when the deeper tragedies of life occur. Our embedded beliefs prove unsatisfactory to answer the questions we have and we embark on a quest to understand. When we are prepared to set aside simply believing what we are told to believe and to make the effort to understand why we believe what we believe, we finally grow and mature as Christians. We see God as more than just Daddy. We seek out a deeper knowledge of His revealed nature and character. The result is a more satisfying faith and a more complete worship. We are living out our calling.

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You, Theologian

image I’ll move right to the conclusion. You and I, if we are followers of Christ, are called to be theologians. We, as Christians, have a tendency to assign this title only to a small sampling of our community, perhaps to pastors or scholars but this is wrong. To be a theologian has little to do with academic achievement or vocational calling. Rather, it has everything to do with processing all of our thoughts and actions through the filter of what we understand it to mean to be a Christian. To put this another way, our decision to speed a little on the way to work should be processed not only through the filter of civil law but through the notion of what it means to be a Christian who is disrespecting civil law and representing Christ as you do so. The witness you and I present to the world in the course of our daily lives reflects our understanding of the faith. We are not given the luxury to compartmentalize and separate life from life in Christ.

Theology is not some arcane art, to be grasped by a select few who have made the epic journey across the wild and unforgiving seas, fighting dragons as we go. Theology is the knowledge and understanding that you and I have of God. Theology is dual-faceted and it encompasses our doctrine and the resulting practice that comes from applying that doctrine. Doctrine can be generally defined as our beliefs about the nature of God and His actions, who we are as His created beings, and what He has done to restore our damaged relationship with Him. To the extent that we find our understanding in line with those of historic Christianity is the degree of our orthodoxy. The behaviors that result from this understanding are the external display to those around us of what our doctrine is. Orthopraxy defines our allegiance to our doctrine through the act of daily living. Say and do are not separated in theological reflection.

The tools of theological reflection are within the grasp of all Christians. We find our content in the sixty-six books of the Bible, the revealed word of God to and for His people. We bring to this content an assent to our personal biases and suppositions and are honest in admitting how they might tint our reflection. Finally, we bring our faith to bear on the whole of the endeavor. We believe in God who has revealed Himself to us in numerous and varied ways yet remains elusive. We have yet to be privileged to see Him face to face and so we trust. Here, we come full circle. Some have described theology as faith that is seeking understanding and this is is an excellent baseline definition. To understand what you believe and why you believe it and then apply this structure to your life, this is the task that you are called to Theologian. Godspeed.

 

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Friction Free Worship

As I’ve thought more about the impediments introduced by the church coffee shop and bookstore, I see a great deal of value in moving in the opposite direction of the “mall church” trend and instead designing a friction-free worship environment. This would be one which leads a worshipper directly from the narthex to the chancel (or in modern language, from the doorway to the altar) with as few obstacles as possible. Consider this passage from Isaiah as we reflect on the intentional design of our celebration event;

A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. (Isa 40:3)

and this one

And it will be said: “Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people. (Isa 57:14)

image Each of these verses serves the larger context of the passage in describing the movement of the Lord to the holy place in which He meets with His people. Because He is the King, his people’s desire is to smooth the way for their meeting by removing obstacles and straightening the path so that there is as little friction as possible in His movement toward the destination.

I’m getting the feeling that the ‘all-in-one’ church design is beginning to deter from the core reason for the Sunday celebration. We may not all agree but from the perspective of a pastor, my understanding of the Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday as it applies) gathering is the corporate worship of God. With this objective placed properly in the hierarchy we can then clearly examine the effect that other activities might have on accomplishing this goal. For example, an issue I raised in an earlier post has to do with the distraction caused by the church coffee shop. It has a certain stickiness, an attractiveness that introduces friction on the path to worship. I am tempted to stop and enjoy a cup of coffee on my way to sanctuary, perhaps justifying it as fellowship, rather than moving deliberately toward the altar, physically and mentally.

When we introduce friction in this manner, we are placing obstacles in our people’s preparation and attendance to worship. Their minds can become distracted from the purpose of the gathering and thus, they become not fully present to God. Our task as the called leaders of the Church is reduce rather than increase any friction between God and His people. Must we do away with the coffee shop or the bookstore? No, they serve a purpose in the community of the church and the lives of the congregation. Perhaps we might consider closing them before and during the worship gathering and opening them afterwards to contribute to the fellowship and growth of the family of God. In doing so we accomplish two things. One, we establish the priority of the corporate worship event and practice in the life of the Christian and two, we make straight the path for the worshipper’s heart so that there is a frictionless path from the door to the altar. What do you think?

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