a theological post

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I’m going to coin a word. I’ve done the essential research involved and found that in fact Google does not have a single instance of this word.

Before I get to it, I’m going to explain it. Suspense, you see, makes for better reading, and in a theology related post a person needs all the tricks for better reading that can be had.

I’m taking a class on Jurgen Moltmann right now. One of the tasks in this class is to write a short paper on his theological method, on the way he approaches writing about theology. This is what makes theology so fun. I’m asked to determine how to write on how he has determined to write on how God has determined to write. But that’s besides the point.

One of the problems with this task is that Moltmann is brilliant. Another problem is that he’s well, “imaginative”, or in other words does things that others in his guild don’t really appreciate. He’s not all that into the rules.

The rules have a pattern for writing theology, which is why it’s called systematic theology. There’s a system to be had, and worked with. You start with a basic premise then work your way onwards and upwards filling up volumes with a coherent discussion of who God is and what he has done in this world. Depending on the starting point and the assumptions made along the way a theology can look quite different from another theology, but the key to a good theology is not ruined by these differences. Rather what makes a bad theology is that it is incoherent. It doesn’t stick well together, and the pieces don’t match.

So, theologians try to punch holes into each other’s theologies, trying to find the points at which a seamless system reveals seams and cracks and holes. These then can be the basis of an enlightening research paper that gets said discoverer tenure.

What doesn’t always matter is how the theology then intersects with our lived lives. Part of the problem too is that because the study of the Church is within theological purview, the church is made to fit within the same coherent set of meanings, and symbols, and concepts — and becomes an inflexible entity that serves the goal of coherence.

The problems we face are not as much dealt with by the theology as much as they are asked to be quiet and fit in with the theology already established. This leads to friction between who we are and what we think we are supposed to believe.

Friction is a key word here. We’re all in motion in time and in space. We live lives that have a past, a present, and a future. We live lives that are constantly brushing up against other people and other realities. “If I only could be left alone!” we cry when frustrated, the frictions of life grating us to thin wisps of being.

God too, we can say, is in motion. That’s a little trickier concept because he is eternal and infinite, so there seems to be no place for him to move to. However, that’s not exactly the case because God created time and space, and in this time and space there is movement. Indeed, within God himself, some have argued, there is movement. If we see the Trinity as being composed of eternal relationship, and thus eternal interaction, God is in constant motion. Maybe even defined by this constant motion. In theological terms this movement is called, among other terms, perichoresis. It’s a word that can loosely be defined as a dance. The Triune persons are in an intricate dance with themselves, as they also intricately involve themselves within the constantly moving life of this world.

When God interacts within history there is friction. Just ask Jesus on the cross. Or the Israelites in the wilderness. When humans interact with God there is friction, just ask the prophets or look at the letters of Paul. With all the movement these interactions create a divine friction that wears down the other. God becomes angry. Humans become broken.

Systematic theology is a study of God in a vacuum, in a way. It dispenses with the complicated parts that real life encounters in order to develop a coherent system that describes what is, if what is were within a controlled lab setting. This approach gain coherence, for the most part, but does it by setting aside another seemingly important theological goal. Theology should not only be coherent it should have integrity.

Theology should mean something to this world, to our present problems and to our present issues. It should speak into the life I am living this morning if it is to be a real reflection of the revelation of the God who acts.

Which brings me back to Moltmann. His approach, it seems, involves a willingness to discard coherence in his quest for integrity. This drives theologians batty, but it results in a theological discussion that is immediately applicable. He starts with a problem, not with a premise. Instead of moving forward then, and only possible getting to the point where he discusses real life issues, he moves backwards from the problems. He sees a theological solution, an integration of God within this world, and then has to find the “equations” that justify having such a solution.

This sounds disordered, but isn’t as much because God has done much the same thing. He tells us who he is. He acts. He tells us what to value and who to value. He does not start with a systematic expression of his divine reality.

All of Christian revelation begins with an end that forces us to work back to the beginning. God just doesn’t really worry about answering our questions. He’s much more inclined to have us answer his questions. Answering God’s questions is what happens, or should happen, in the life of the church and in our own spirituality.

So there is friction between the questions we want answered and the questions God wants us to answer. Theology and the Church part ways at this friction.

But theology isn’t content with this situation. Neither is the church. The Church tries to get theology to address its problems, theology tries to tell the Church what problems it actually has, which are problems theology can coherently answer.

Meanwhile each individual, each particle, and God himself are in constant motion. There is friction.

When the Church itself cannot address problems, or indeed creates problems, it is a sign the friction has increased and become a hindrance. Auschwitz is a massive point of friction for a German nation that had prided itself on a very, very advance theological conversation. How could a spiritually, socially, and culturally mature nation devolve into such barbarism? Friction. There was a disorder in the movement, and while it seemed to be running well, it instead was being rubbed down into chaos and disorder.

The built-up conception of God did not adequately address real life, and could not reach into the lives of massive desperation that surrounded all of WWII. Theology lost all integrity in the concentration camps.

Yet that doesn’t mean theology has become empty or lost all worth. The problem wasn’t with the Theos, God — the problem was with the logos, the words that were used about God. The words used were in friction with the Logos who was sent as God’s prime revelation within history. It was the words that were wrong. This is true despite the fact that pre-WWII German theology was immensely coherent. They just weren’t coherent with God. And they certainly weren’t coherent with humanity. There was no integrity. That created friction.

We see this now. We see the errors of words by the actions they provoke. We see the results of seemingly ivory tower conversations put into practice by experimentalists, often with cultural and social disasters resulting.

Moltmann was shaped by the Auschwitz reality, not as a Jew but as a German soldier, who lost his own friends defending an indefensible cause. In his POW camp he saw the importance of integrity, and over the years has been willing to sacrifice a bit of coherence in order to constantly keep in sight the pressing problems that humanity inflicts upon others, and upon God himself. The very disorders that characterize suffering in this world are not merely accidental by products of sin among us. They are key indicators of points of friction between God and humanity.

Some of this friction, especially in Christian societies, comes from being caught too much on individual parts of God’s own motion. An over-emphasis on Christ seems noble, except that such often creates destructive hierarchies and distorted power structures, as people assume that Christ needs representation, not in love but in power. An over-emphasis on the Father creates legalistic cultures that rhetorically reject the Law as found in the books of Moses, while instituting whole new laws that try to regulate every part of life so as to bring approval from God. An over-emphasis on the Spirit brings storms and heresies. Each person becomes a power for themselves, and unrestrained in their enthusiasm. They become unmoored, and victims of potent spiritual realities.

The problems point to the frictions. Particular problems can illustrate potential sources of frictions that should be addressed so that the movements of God and man through time and space can be addressed both theologically and practically. How we address problems relating to leadership, or poverty, or psychology, or nature, or whatever seems to break down our theological integrity in this world seems to be now an extremely vital task. Systematic theology has created coherent systems which provide foundations. There is not too much new left to be said. What has to happen, however, is that these theologies need to be probed for their points of friction, to discover how when practically applied they enhance or break down society, culture, and relationship.

If there is friction then that means we are stuck on something. It means we are caught up in disorder, and even small disorder can cause huge problems in our constant movement. The most potent friction is, of course, sin. But that’s not the only friction. Sin can arise from other frictions, such as a disordered view on how the Spirit does in fact work in this world, or a misconception of Jesus’ mission on this earth, or a dismissal of God’s work in his created world.

Friction can arise from very earnest intentions. But it’s still friction. And friction causes problems. So, it must be addressed. And only by seeing aspects of the world that are not what they should be according to God’s original intent can we discover specific points of friction. This is what Moltmann attempts to do. Theological integrity seeks a frictionless surface between God and this world, so that what we say and what we do really and truly reflects God’s kingdom in the present, and helps bring transformation.

What this means, basically, is wholeness. A theology that is without friction allows for, results in, psychological, relational, and societal wholeness.

Which brings me to my word, and a word which I think should become the primary motivation within Emerging circles and others who seek to, first of all, have integrity in this world. Words about God are not enough anymore. Theology is not a strong enough goal. Instead we need to study the frictions.

Which is why we need not only theology but also theotribology.

“Formally defined, tribology is the science and technology of interacting surfaces in relative motion and all practices related thereto.”

Theotribology, then is the exploration of the interactions between God and humanity, within this world and with each other.

As you can tell by this roundabout post, the concept still needs a bit of work. Just had to write this now as a starting point.

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