theology


What should I post about my friend’s (whom I’m calling here “Speakerguy”) invited series of lectures at the evangelical Christian college where I’m on the faculty? Why have so many here reacted with shock, anger, or offense? Why are members of the religion faculty throwing around words like “heresy,” “cult leader,” and “unorthodox?”

This is a guy who has devoted his life to calling Christians of privilege to reorder their lives toward working for social justice and solidarity with the poor. This is a message that resonates around here. It’s one of the reasons I like working here: for all of our inconsistency and hypocrisy, we still take these ideas seriously. What went wrong?

jesus dinoThe problem as I see it is theology. Speakerguy’s final evening lecture touched on a challenging and surprising theological idea, prompting further questions from students in the follow-up Q&A. Then everyone went crazy. A few walked out. Students clustered together around the auditorium afterward, confused and angry. Our New Testament prof’s head looked like it might burst like an over-ripe tomato. My teaching assistant, who loved Speakerguy and made a big deal over our history and friendship, texted me from her phone: “Too bad about your doomed tenure review. It was nice knowing you!”

The dismissive accusations I’ve heard the last 2 days of “classical liberalism” and “old social gospel dressed with new arrogance” sound absurd to me. This is a man who wrapped up his lecture by declaring allegiance to and inviting worship for the resurrected Christ, God incarnate, savior of humanity from our sins. This covers a minimum of 2 or 3 creedal affirmations that would make a classical liberal choke.

I think what it really comes down to are four boundary-crossing theological opinions. They are not tightly held by my friend, and he never once invited anyone to abandon any theology of their own to accept his. As far as I can tell, in the eyes of many in my community, he simply believes “wrong” about the following 4 areas:

The Bible

  • clip bible Speakerguy said that all Christians find the God they are looking for in scripture. Whomever expects to find a vengeful, capricious, bloodthirsty God will find scriptural passages that describe this God. Anyone who needs a non-violent, all loving, perfectly forgiving God will find that God in the same book. He says most people simply ignore the parts of the Bible that contradict the God they want. He included himself, and didn’t seem bothered by this.

Sovereignty

  • clip hand string He said the idea that God controls everything that happens in the world is observably false. It’s obvious to him that all kinds of things happen all the time which are in direct opposition to what God wants to happen. And he went on to say that the reason God doesn’t stop these horrible things from happening is because God can’t. God’s love for everyone prevents God from forcing them to make different choices.

Hell

  • 1hell-thumb.jpg Speakerguy thinks there’s a Hell. He thinks he’s seen glimpses of it in the neighborhoods where he ministers to the sick and abused people of society. But he thinks one day Hell will be empty, that God’s love will never stop trying to save everyone, everywhere, living or dead, no matter what. He says the kind of God who would turn his back on people in Hell is not a God who deserves his worship.

“The Gays” (TM)

  • clip men Speakerguy says to stop obsessing about homosexuals, to just give up these unimportant battles. Homosexual people can’t live whole lives if they’re required to cut off all hope of connecting with a lifelong, loving relationship. Speakerguy says he would bless the marriage of a gay couple without a moment’s hesitation.

Provocative? Oh yes. Challenging and flamboyantly stated? For sure. But heresy? Outside the bounds of creedal Christianity? Give me a break.

This kerfuffle speaks directly to my earlier posts about what theology is for. When did we elevate believing the right theological propositions so far above the work of following Christ? We’re saved by faith through Christ, not by our theology. The evangelical obsession with narrow theological boundaries to the exclusion of people transformed by the saving grace of God expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (this describes Speakerguy perfectly) has really got me down today.

Not just because Speakerguy is my friend. He spends his days facing down drug dealers and working with kids in some of the worst situations a human being can experience. An indignant, judgmental college professor is not going to leave any marks on him.

Rather, I’m frustrated and discouraged because I live and work here. The people at this school are my friends and colleagues. And although I disagree with some of what my friend argued here this week, I don’t disagree with very much of it. Naturally, this worries me.


Picture by The Searcher via flickr

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about theology lately, exploring Anabaptist ideas amid Emerging church controversies. Much of the rageblogging done against people like McLaren and Tony Jones is filled with accusations about believing the “wrong” things about the atonement. So I’m glad that Josh Brown’s blog tipped me off last month to North Park professor Scot McKnight’s book in Abingdon’s series on emerging theology, A Community Called Atonement.

In evangelical churches for generations, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement has held a privileged position over other possible interpretations about why Jesus “had to die.” Not that I was ever told about it growing up evangelical, but there are a number of other, quite different, explanations of what could possibly explain Jesus’ execution (theologically speaking).

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An easy spot for traditional church folk to pick at Emergents’ claims of “orthodoxy” (more on this weaponized word in a future post for sure) is to press the issue of penal substitutionary atonement – which Emergents are not particularly fond of (Lord knows, I’m not!). See Tony Jones’s recounting of his lunch with John Piper to get a sense of the conflict.

So I’ve been trying to learn something about Anabaptist theology’s work on the atonement. I’m happy to discover once again that there’s probably a reason why an emerging church-flavored person like me is so comfortable with the Mennos. They have a broader theological view of atonement, and don’t seem to equate penal substitution with the gospel.

It seems like the theological work being done these days is in two broad areas:

  1. identifying the theological history of Anabaptism,
  2. and some robust new thinking and interpretation by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.

The History

It’s not easy to get a clear picture of Mennonite theological history, for many reasons outlined in this helpful Frances F. Hiebert article from Direction journal. From my reading of Hiebert’s historical survey, I think emerging Christians would be right at home with Anabaptist thought on this subject. While most Mennonites (but by no means all) recognized some truth to penal substitution, this was by no means the whole story for them. Early Anabaptists understood this “forensic” model as only one facet of a complex and mysterious culmination of God-human relations. From Hiebert’s article [emphasis is mine]:

But to them, that model was inadequate or insufficient. It concentrated chiefly on Christ’s death and had been reduced to a passive or forensic doctrine which concerned only a change in humanity’s legal status before God….To the Anabaptists, however, atonement meant much, much more. According to Pilgram Marpeck it was far more than a legal transaction in the heavenly court. It … referred to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through the work of Jesus Christ. It points not only to Christ’s death, but to all the various phases of his activity on behalf of humanity including his ministry, his death, and his resurrection…. This comprehensive view of atonement is in contrast to both Catholic and Protestant traditions that have held a forensic doctrine of atonement in which “all that is really necessary for the salvation of humankind is a qualified (pure) victim.”

The New Thinking

Some of the contemporary work on this subject I’ve read is from J. Denny Weaver, a professor from Mennonite school Bluffton College, in Ohio. This article outlines a modification he’s made to another historical atonement theory called “Christus victor.” Weaver’s so-called “narrative Christus victor” theology removes the contradictory blood-thirst from God’s role in Christ’s death, and sets the entire enterprise in an against-the-empire context that I hear leaders in the emerging church speak about often.

In my previous post, I tried to explain the anxiety and restlessness I sometimes feel working at an evangelical Christian college. It’s frustrating to me that people around here judge me based on my theological beliefs. What they are usually saying is that they think I’m not really a Christian, and therefore some kind of threat to the cohesion of this Christian community.

Next month a friend of mine is coming to speak on my campus who has been drawing controversy lately by publicly espousing theological beliefs that identify him as outside the boundaries of what many of the colleges he speaks at find acceptable for Christians.

I was telling this to a colleague at lunch this week, and he responded by saying that the word “orthodoxy” means “right belief,” and Christians have been protecting the faith by making judgments about one another’s theological beliefs for two thousand years. He said “If your friend finds it too hard to believe the right things, maybe he’s in the wrong religion. Being a Christian is easier than that.”

Obviously, I took this personally, because I’m assuming my colleague would say the same thing about me if he knew that I hold a theology that probably fails parts of his litmus test for believing the right things.

I don’t care how easy people say it should be for me to follow Christ; in my personal experience I find it very hard! I struggle with weak faith, confusion about the Trinity, laziness and bad character, the existence of evil, injustice and suffering. I work out my theological conclusions in response to these struggles, so that I can remain faithful. If I believed some of what people tell me I should believe about (theology buzzword alert:) soteriology, eschatology, divine ontology, etc., I wouldn’t be able to stay a Christian at all!

I’ve found tremendous hope and help in the Mennonite church. Fellow Mennos care about and frequently ask me about my mission. “Following Christ and building the Kingdom of God!” is my usual answer. They ask me what I need in order to do that. There are many things I need: discipline, humility, meditation, good advice, submission to God’s will, community support, and more. And also I believe theological ideas that people judge me for.

Parts of my theology is awkward, and unpopular, maybe even incorrect or incomplete. But what those beliefs do is help me be a better, more faithful Christian.

This is “what theology is for” in my life. It’s to help me understand and follow and serve and submit to the will of Jesus. Not to draw boundary markers for club membership. I care very little for the theological opinions in the heads of most of the people I work with at my college. I simply care if they are healthy and at peace following Christ and building the Kingdom.

I wish I had more of a sense that people around here could look at me that way if they knew all that I believe.

I take comfort in the confidence that the Mennonites will let me stay in their group if ever the college I work for tells me to leave. I’m still working out what this means in the long term.

A friend (someone who isn’t a Christian and doesn’t work in academia) asked why I feel so much stress and anxiety working at an evangelical Christian college, since:

  1. I grew up an evangelical Christian,
  2. went to Christian college,
  3. and have an energetic and unapologetic love for Christ.

Trying to answer her was helpful for me in the clarifying process of putting a lot of jumbled thoughts and feelings into words.

My unease is generated by the question “What is theology for?”

In much of my experience of religious communities and organizations, theology (i.e. “beliefs”) is useful to the group by identifying and enforcing boundaries. Beliefs identify who is within and who is outside the criteria bounds for group membership. Boundaries aren’t crossed only by how someone acts or what someone does. They’re also crossed by what people think, what their opinions are, and what they believe.

thology model 1

For me – and all of my colleagues – Jesus is at the center of my spiritual life. We’re all in the game because of Christ’s love for us, because of the transformational new reality this love creates in us, and because of the love we have for Christ in return.

But there are many other religious beliefs a Christian might have, apart from being saved by Jesus. You know, there’s stuff to believe about the Bible, free will, evil spirits, miracles, economics, etc. Stuff related to Jesus, but not the same as Jesus. That’s why, even after we join the exciting journey of following Christ, there is still plenty of other theological work to do. The universe is a big place and we can ask theological questions of just about any part of it.

I worry that my personal take on these other theological ideas will serve the purpose of limiting my inclusion in the group. (What’s exclusion look like? Being endlessly argued with and judged, blocked in the college promotion process or, worse, eventually refused tenure – i.e. fired.)

One reason this is so frustrating for me is because I work out my theological ideas specifically to help me keep Jesus at the center of my life.

Theology model 2

I guess I don’t think theology saves me. I think Jesus saves me. Obviously this is a theological idea, but Jesus isn’t a theology.

And I guess my Christian mission is not to follow some theology. My mission is to follow Christ. This mission is supported by theology, but the mission itself isn’t theology.

That’s why, when people imply I’m not a very good Christian because I have the wrong theology of [whatever], I don’t know how to respond. It’s in those moments I realize we are not even in agreement about what theology is for.