“In the Gospels, sickness is part of the understanding of what it is like to be a real person. For wherever the Savior appears, the sick come to light… They come out of the dark corners of cities and villages to which they have been banished, out of the wildernesses to which they have been relegated, and into the spotlight where they reveal themselves to Jesus. Thus Jesus sees the internal and external disabilities of the people. Jesus comprehends us, not from our sunny sides where we are strong and capable, but from our shadow sides, where our weaknesses lie.” ~Jürgen Moltmann
Category Archives: theology
I think the goal of theological writing is to be transformed.
If I’m not being confronted and shaped by what I’m reading and writing about, then I’m not doing it right.
If I’m writing to applaud and celebrate my understanding, I’m not doing it right.
If I’m closing myself off to others in the midst of writing rather than showing grace in my writing and the rest of my life, I’m not doing it right.
If I’m writing in a way that is dismissive or attempts to dominate through my language or arguments, then I’m not doing it right.
If there are times I’m filled with excitement about what I’m learning, I might be doing it right. If there are times I have to step back and assess my heart and make changes in my responses, then I might be doing it right. If at the end of the day, I am celebrating Christ’s goodness rather than my own intelligence, I might be doing it right.
Having a good vocabulary, a lot of intellectual training, decent writing skills, and lots of study is good, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good theology.
It is in the pursuit of prayer, humility to admit and learn from mistakes, to seek transformation of one’s whole life in the context of Christ’s calling that one begins to be a good theologian.
May I learn from what I read and may I learn from what I write, not just typing out words but seeking to live out the words of life in every moment and space.
Then, and only then, will I be on my way to being a theologian.
Theological truth is the truth of God’s relationship with people and it is the fruit not of learning but of experience. In this sense all theology, properly so called, is written in blood. It is an attempt to communicate what has been discovered at great cost in the deepest places of the heart–by sorrow and joy, frustration and fulfilment, defeat and victory, agony and ecstasy, tragedy and triumph.
Theology, properly so called, is a record of a person’s wrestling with God. Wounded in some way or other by the struggle the person will certianly be, but in the end that person will obtain the blessing promised to those who endure.
The theologian in this respect is no different from the poet or dramatist. All of them must write in blood. Yet, what the theologian is called upon to do with his experience is different from what the poet or dramatist does. Obviously it is different in form — the theologian qua theologian does not write poems or plays. Their idiom is more abstract.
They have to translate their experiences into ideas and then arrange those ideas in as logically coherent a form as they can, so that reading their work is much more obviously a sustained intellectual effort than reading poetry appears to be or seeing a play.
It is not, however, only in form or idiom that the theologians’s work differs from that of a poet or dramatist. Its centre of interest is always different and in two ways.
First, the theologians’s primary concern must always be God’s relationship with humanity, and any relationship a person may have with other people or the world they live in must always be subsumed under that primary relationship with God.
Secondly, the theologian has been nurtured by a tradition of belief and practice and all the time they must relate their insights to the tradition which has nurtured them. However first hand, and in that sense original, those insights may be, they cannot be entirely out of the blue. They have to connect in some way with insights already achieved.
H.A. Williams, from the foreword of The Risk of Love by W.H. Vanstone
After having said, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” Jesus says, “From the breast of the one who believes in me, as Scripture says, rivers of living waters will flow.” Rivers of living water will flow from the heart of the one who has trust in Jesus and believes in him!
This, of course, reminds us of what Jesus had said to the Samaritan woman: “The water that I will give will become in the person who drinks it a spring of water welling up to eternal life!” So, the water that Jesus gives us will become in us a wellspring or a fountain that gives life to others.
Through the Spirit we have received, we can transmit the Spirit. Waters will flow forth from each of us to give life, if we trust Jesus and thirst for the living waters that only he can give us.
The mission of Jesus is to announce the Good News to the poor, to help the poor discover their value, stand up, find their dignity, and grow in love.Jesus has chosen us to live his mission. He wants our hearts to be wellsprings of living water, loving people nad helping them achieve their goals.
Thus, when we announce the Good News to the poor, it is not to tell them, “Jesus loves you,” but rather to say, “I love you. I commit myself to you in the name of Jesus.”
~Jean Vanier, The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship, pg 50-51.
In an earlier post, I made a big deal about how Wheaton was wrong about putting Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave. I still think they were wrong. But, it’s not a simple issue.
“It is!” you might be saying to yourself. “You’re just an academic who makes a simple issue not simple.” Which might be true, but not in this case. I started studying theology because people told me simple issues were simple and a lot of issues weren’t simple at all.
Some issues are simple. Did Jesus rise from the dead?
It’s a yes or no question that some theologians have made more difficult because they want their no to still be a yes. If you say no to that question, you’re not a Christian, not in any meaningful, historical sense of the word. Paul sets this out in 1 Corinthians 15.
Some issues are complex, and we reject attempts to make them simple. Why is there suffering in this world? Why does a 8 year old get leukemia? Why did that city get destroyed by a hurricane. Why did this man get Parkinsons?
Because of their sin? Because God is vindictive?
Some issues are not very simple, but are made to sound simple and then just cause arguments.
When should we baptize someone who is born into a Christian family?
The Bible gives us examples of people baptized when they are adults.
Clearly adult baptism is right! The Bible also gives us examples of whole households being baptized when the patriarch becomes a Christian. Clearly babies were baptized!
Then bring in the issue of original sin, and what happens at baptism, and there’s a few more considerations.
Making a complex issues simple led to major divisions in the church about what God wanted. If it’s simple, then the person who disagrees is not “one of us.”
So the problem at Wheaton. Which goes beyond Wheaton in highlighting how theology and faith are dealt with in our society.
For the next little while, I’m going to add some more thoughts and maybe conversations on this topic, because it’s not as easy as some think and I think it’s a key moment in learning how to listen to each other.
Especially when the anger and disagreement comes out of how a word is being used.
That’s the trouble word. Same is one of those words that means something and nothing. Same is same, but not always exactly the same. How much difference can same absorb?
Back in September, this issue came up in a blog I occasionally follow. I responded with a few posts arguing Islam and Christianity are talking about different gods. Which makes my recent response even more curious given that I’ve yet to change my mind and still affirm what I said in both places. Same opinion, different arguments. Lest I fall into more confusion, here’s that earlier exchange:
A commenter wrote: “Like Christianity, Islam is based on Judaism, and it is all the same God; just different names in different languages…. How on earth do you share the same story elements, but not have the same God?”
Here’s what I wrote in response (compiling a few different comment posts):
“How on earth do you share the same story elements…”
Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Jim likes Golden Retrievers, ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, worked as a law clerk, then became a judge, rising to the Supreme Court.
Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Likes Golden Retrievers ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, decided he hated the legal system and organized a militia which sought the overthrow of the government.
Same initial story elements, different Jims.
It’s an understandable argument, that Islam and Christianity have the same God, but at what point do similar starting points and general claims diverge into different subjects?
Christians say Jesus is God. There’s no room for that in either Judaism or Islam.
So, there’s a fundamental identity issue. Did this God choose Isaac or Ishmael? That’s a huge distinction in action and subsequent history that reflects in a very different pattern of salvation, life, worship. At a certain point, it seems there’s different content behind the title “God.”
I don’t think we should say Tash is Aslan and Aslan is Tash.
“What is so difficult to understand about that Mohammed said the Jew’s God was his God?”
What’s so difficult to understand that the Jews disagreed with this? And to see Mohammed co-opted and changed the narrative. I get that people say there’s a similar title going on, but the key is that the title is being attached to very different sorts of characters.
If I started saying that Jim is a neighbor of mine and has promised me $5000 a month for the rest of my life, but the Jim you know doesn’t have that much money and doesn’t really know me, you’d say I must be talking about a different Jim, or that I’m simply wrong about who Jim is.
Clearly I should ask Jim. Do you have his phone number? I could use the money.
A few weeks ago, I did an interview with Cory Piña for the Fuller Seminary website. That’s only accessible to students, staff, faculty, and alumni, so I asked if I could repost it here. Cory graciously said yes (well, he actually said, “You are absolutely welcome to!”). So here it is. Enjoy!
Patrick Oden completed both his MDiv and PhD (Systematic Theology) at Fuller. You might have seen his name around, and maybe even had the pleasure of taking a course with him. He’s been teaching online (and a little face-to-face) for us for the last few years, now as an Affiliate faculty member.
Patrick recently had a book published, representing the work of his PhD thesis. It’s called The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann.
Here’s Patrick, telling us more about writing, Moltmann, and what it means to be a Transformative Church.
CORY: Now, you’re not a first-time author. You’ve published a few books before – something I’m willing to bet a good chunk of our students would like to do. So I’ll ask on their behalf: How do you do that?
PATRICK: Just do it! There’s never really a good time to write, though I made use of my single status after finishing my MDiv, taking time being underemployed and writing a lot. I got in the habit of writing 1000 words a day, usually in the morning. Do a little bit like that each day, after a few months there’s a rough draft of a book. While in school, that’s pretty impossible to keep up, but classes can be a way of absorbing research, finding streams of interest, books to read later, ideas to pursue. A lot of what I’ve written had its beginnings in class work, both articles and books.
CORY: Am I right that The Transformative Church is the work of your doctoral thesis?
PATRICK: Yep. There were some sections moved around, some honing and editing, mostly cleaning it up, making it even more readable. It’s very much the same overall content. I also had to put together an index. I never even thought about how indexes are put together until I learned that it’s the author’s responsibility. A lot of authors pay people to do them, or have their research assistants do them.
CORY: I know you have a whole chapter on this, but can you briefly summarize what you mean by “The Transformative Church”?
PATRICK: Sure. There’s roughly three different ways to “be” the church in a given society. Conforming, where the church doesn’t look or sound that much different from their surroundings. The church is projected from the context. Second, there’s the sectarian approach, where the goal is to separate, in practices and thought, if not physically. The church is called to be fully the church in and of itself, with practices primarily contained within the community of faith. The church is projected to the surrounding context, as an example for the context.
Finally, there’s the embedded approach, where a church community participates in, but not validating the whole of, a context. This latter is what I see as transformative.
In becoming a messianic people in the context of community this extends beyond the narrow bounds of church with and into the neighborhood. Those who are being formed into the likeness of Christ, participate with the Spirit in transforming their context. It’s active and engaged in, with, and among their environment, incarnating within each context, bringing the good news in a holistic way that shapes the context with a different narrative, that of the Kingdom.
CORY: How did you arrive at that name?
PATRICK: I had to come up with a title. And while my initial interest was sparked by my involvement in and study of the emerging church movement, the movement that still uses that name has morphed into something different, while others have separated into different streams, like the missional, neo-monastic, or fresh expression groups, among others.
So, I didn’t want to use a worn out and imprecise term like emerging, and I didn’t want to have a mass of different movement names. So, I spent a couple weeks trying to figure out what the underlying ecclesiology was about, and how the various strands could be tied together in how they approach church models.
Also, emerging is really vague. What’s the goal? The idea of formation, becoming more like Christ, was combined with an involvement in and with a specific context, so the formation extended wherever each person went, whether work or school or public places. The term transformative fit exactly what I was trying to describe.
CORY: What does this all have to do with Jurgen Moltmann?
PATRICK: Back in 2003 or so, I’d pretty much given up on emerging church stuff. I was connected with it since the 90s, though it wasn’t called that. I was frustrated by what I saw in practices, which often had a rhetoric that didn’t match the practices. It was still hierarchical in value not just function, and there was a lot of dysfunction because so much of it came out of angst against the past and vague instinct where it was going. I liked the idea of it, but thought it was being co-opted as another church growth model, and promised a lot more than it was delivering.
Then, I started reading Moltmann in depth. I had read a couple books by him while in seminary, but then started reading his works more thoroughly, later auditing a class on his theology. Even though Moltmann had never heard of the emerging church, there was a strand of ecclesiology through all his books that really sounded a lot like what I had experienced and heard from the emerging and missional folks. Yet, his thoughts were coming out of very deep and well-developed theological themes. There was the depth I was looking for.
One PhD later, I’m even more convinced that there’s a shared ecclesiology that came out of very different contexts and motivations. A move of the Spirit? I think so!
CORY: You travelled to see Moltmann in person when working on your thesis. Again: How do you do that?
PATRICK: There was a bit of a hiccup in financial aid during the 2010-2011 school year, and I wasn’t able to afford to register for a Spring class. I was on a full fellowship, but even those got knocked down during the financial crunch.
Then, Fuller came through with more funding and I was able to take a class. There was not anything immediately relevant on the schedule and so I thought about doing a directed reading that would feed into my potential dissertation. Who with? Who better than the topic of my dissertation. Think bold!
Moltmann had endorsed my first book, so we had kept up some correspondence over the years. I wrote him and he wrote back and said he would do it! He doesn’t use email or any electronic communication, types on an old typewriter, so the only way I could pull it off was to go to Germany.
I went with my wife, Amy, who was working for Fuller at the time as well. We made a grand adventure of it! A delayed honeymoon as well as an academic opportunity. I got married in January 2009, between Fall and Winter quarters in my first year of PhD work, which didn’t offer very much time for a honeymoon. Amy had been a missionary in southern France (Montauban) for four years before we got married, and had a lot of friends there.
Then we spent about five days in Tubingen, and I walked about a mile from our hotel to Moltmann’s house for three afternoon sessions about about two hours each. He was extremely gracious and very helpful. He corrected, sometimes challenged, and often encouraged my musings, providing a very strong foundation for writing.
After Tubingen, we traveled to Leipzig and Prague, where Amy had other friends. All her contacts meant that we had two weeks of free housing during the three weeks we were over there. A wonderful blessing of God from beginning to end.
CORY: I’m assuming your work on this thesis/book represents something for you besides being a criterion for your PhD. If this contribution does what you want it to do, what would that look like?
PATRICK: Indeed! I realized long ago that the only way for me to make it through academics is to get excited about what I was working on. And while the lavish lifestyle and wide acclaim that comes from finishing a PhD are great, there’s definitely more I hope the book accomplishes. It’s an academic book, so I don’t expect a wide audience, but even still there’s three ways I hope this presses discussions forward.
First, one of my hopes with the book and my own continuing work is to push past the divide between systematic theology and what happens in Christian communities. There’s theology happening in every direction, but increasingly people assume systematic theology is irrelevant or esoteric. Very few people outside of theological academia have heard of Moltmann. Meanwhile, forty years ago magazines like Time or Newsweek would have articles about Wolfhart Pannenberg, Moltmann, and others.
What we believe about God affects almost every aspect of our daily life, intentionally or unintentionally, and systematic theology needs to find a way back into the conversations of church life, and personal transformation. With this too, theology has lost some of its own direct connection with the questions and issues and responses of contemporary life, so it needs dialogue with what’s going on in churches and communities. In other words, my hope is to show how theology and practical Christian life inform each other and need each other.
Systematic theology has historically been written in contexts of church life, responding out of and back into issues of immediate concern. Only recently has it been narrowed to primarily academic contexts. Or maybe it has narrowed itself, not passively but in discouragement about reception or in light of wanting to gain favor in the broader academy. I think theology is most Christian when it is directly relating to the life of the church, of the people, and of this world. I hope to contribute to this return. That’s why I study, teach, and write about theology at least.
Second, my hope is to point towards Moltmann’s long interest in ecclesiology, which seems to be a driving passion throughout his works, often indirectly. Like with any theologian, there are a lot of misconceptions based on partial readings or secondary commentaries, so in looking at the whole of his work, my hope is to show how his work is coherent in his method and goals. The book serves as a summary of his works seen through the lens of a doctrine of the church, and maybe will help readers see something new or get excited about reading his works in more depth.
Third, as I say in my preface, my hope is for and with the church. When I finished my MDiv I was very discouraged in my own church experiences and becoming very cynical. I left ministry before I completely burned out in the midst of a lot of dysfunction and church politics. This book shows why I hope for and with the church. It points to ways the church can be transformative for people and communities in this present world, showing examples of how this is being worked out in both theology and practice.
Having been part of the emerging church and missional conversation for a while, I knew they were onto something, but there was not a lot of theological support as we find with established church traditions. So, I wanted to show there was theological justification behind the missional/emerging/Fresh Expression impulse. Moltmann offers a rather complex, if not comprehensive, study of Christian theology that leads right into the kinds of expressions we see in these churches. His approach involves a Christian community that is embedded in their neighborhoods, part of the life of the broader community, living out the messianic mission in the midst of focused community and wherever daily life happens.
CORY: If students want to contact you about PhD work or writing books, or visiting Jurgen Moltmann, can they do that? How should they reach you?
I’m always open to questions or conversation. A book represents a lot time and a lot of one’s own heart, so it’s definitely encouraging to hear from people who have read it or want to know more about the process that led to it. The best way to reach me is through email: email@example.com.
“The task of the professional theologian is not to tell the church what is good for it but to listen carefully what the Spirit of truth who indwells the church is saying through the people of God.
Elitist theologians who fail to recognize what God is doing among his people by his Spirit are no better (and are perhaps worse) at recognizing what God is doing in the world.”
~Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology, p 30
There’s a curious little story in the book of Acts about a man who wanted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon was his name. Later, he was given the title of Simon the magician: Simon Magus.
A lot of stories and traditions have built up around him, with the early church seeing him as the earliest, and greatest of heretics, distorting the Apostolic faith and presenting a Gospel that was not of Jesus.
Read the passage for yourself: Acts 8:9-24
Three wise men, Magi, visit Jesus giving gifts. This unwise man in Acts, Magus, doesn’t reject Jesus but wanted to co-opt him. He wants to take the gift and use it for his own fame. He was powerful, he was popular, he filled stadiums and people bought his books. Jesus was a method for him to keep this up. That there was power, a Spirit, was even better. Let’s buy this power, he thought, get the authority through a transaction, and get even more popular.
Peter, filled with the Spirit, replied to Simon: “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.”
“This” ministry, is the ministry of God, the ministry of the Kingdom: Father, Son, Holy Spirit in the unified work of redemption and re-creation. Simon had a ministry, but not “this” ministry.
Having a ministry is still very common. A lot of debates develop over who can and who cannot be part of such a ministry. Men with power and authority make and enforce rules who can be in or who is out. Born of the right status, right gender, with the right privilege, with the right education, with the right culture or custom or… name your limitation.
The pattern of ministry, often in the name of Jesus, restricts as much as it has empowered. This is your role. This is your place. This is your identity in Jesus. The this of such limitations is not the expression of the ministry Peter was talking about. The ministry Peter was talking about was the ministry of the Spirit.
That’s why I don’t believe in men in ministry. Men have all sorts of reasons to get into or stay in ministry. Did you know that clergy is #8 on the most popular jobs for a narcissist? That means for better or worse, the role of a minister offers the bounty a narcissist seeks.
That’s not to say all men, or ministers, are in ministry because they are narcissists or for other misplaced reasons. Not at all! But there’s a difference between those who are in it for the right reasons and those who are in it for the wrong reasons.
That difference is the Holy Spirit.
It’s what Peter had, and it’s what Peter wouldn’t give to Simon, because Simon wanted to make Jesus a tool.
It’s what made Peter different in Acts as compared with the Gospels. The Peter who betrayed Jesus in the face of shame became the Peter who confessed Jesus in the face of death.
The Paul who persecuted Christians became among the greatest teachers of Christians.
The man who was an outsider, Cornelius, became the insider. This man who the leaders otherwise rejected–a Gentile!–was invited in the church by the Spirit because the Spirit gave a gift to him that the leaders could not deny.
I don’t believe in men in ministry because men are untrustworthy, given to insecurities or grandiose self-praise, they make rules and patterns, enforcing their own voice while dismissing others. They categorize and use the systems of society to determine the shape of the body of Christ.
I do believe in the Spirit in ministry. Which makes it important to determine how the Spirit works, where the Spirit works, in whom the Spirit works. If someone is aligned with the Spirit, they may or may not be in public or vocational ministry, that is not for me to determine. They will be involved in the ministry of Christ in some way, as that is the way the Spirit works.
If the Spirit gives gifts, it is not our part to deny or reject or diminish such gifts. It is our part, as the body, to celebrate these gifts, to whoever they are given.
Which is why, in Acts 18, we find Priscilla correcting Apollos, a gifted man taught by a woman who had the gift of the Spirit. She corrected him and set him on a course of his own Spirit led ministry.
We have Mary, the first in the NT to be filled with the Spirit, the first in the NT to communicate Christ to the world, giving birth literally, a move of the Spirit in the ministry of a woman.
Jesus talked about the Spirit, the living water, with the Samaritan woman at the well. She had at least 3 religious strikes against her: Samaritan, divorced multiple times, woman.
She then tells her whole village about Jesus. As John puts it, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
We have the first witnesses of the resurrection, women, speaking of the life of Jesus to those who did not yet see or believe or understand.
God chooses women to be in ministry whether this is allowed by our systems or not. God sometimes chooses men to be in ministry as well.
The real issue isn’t men in ministry or women in ministry. If a man or a woman pursues ministry for their own selves, they are not part of the ministry of Christ. If the Holy Spirit is working, in a man or in a woman, then that is the ministry of Christ.
It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit I believe in.
It’s not the woman or the man who makes a ministry this ministry that Peter was talking about. It’s the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit works, there is Christ, and where Christ works, there is the Kingdom, and where the Kingdom is, there is the new life in and with God.
To be aligned with this Kingdom, one must be aligned with this ministry, the ministry of the Spirit who gives gifts to women and men to participate together in a shared community of Christ, participating with Christ in this messianic mission of transformation.
Not all churches, not all ministries, are aligned with this mission. We must, like Priscilla did with Apollos, explain to them “the way of God more adequately.”
Late last year I started a brief discussion on theology as a prophetic task.
- Part 1: Theologian as Prophet
- Part 2: Theology as Prophetic Insight
- Part 3: Theology as Prophetic Orientation
After a very busy and distracting last couple months, I realized I had one last part. One that hits close to home for me, maybe how I got my own start in theology.
I don’t go to a Pentecostal church nowadays, but I consider myself Pentecostal still, in that I went to Foursquare and Assemblies of God churches growing up and in high school. I still hold to their embrace of the broader expressions of the work of the Spirit and value the inclusive participation.
I think my time in a Pentecostal high school group radically shaped my own sense of purpose and renewal in God’s work. The pastors, John and Denise Fehlen , encouraged students to take part and treated us like real people, not targets or objects to be pushed through the system. He took our words seriously and led in teaching and opened for discovery as we sought to find our own way in prayer and response.
After high school, I went off to Wheaton and something changed in me. I tried going to a Vineyard church for a while, but that didn’t stick. Even as I had some very clear epiphanic moments, times in which the world seemed so utterly more real than other times and I felt a profound sense of God’s presence, I also had moments of feeling God’s absence, silence, with this a lot of emptiness and depression.
My emotional and spiritual life was a roller coaster. I couldn’t find words to understand or express what was going on. Deep depression, mixed with a deeply discouraged hope that God truly was, just not for me. Not for me.
How do I pray in light of that? How do I worship who I didn’t feel love, where I didn’t feel comfort, how I didn’t experience life?
God was shaping, molding, excising me. I was truly taxed beyond my measure, a measure of mine but not of God who sought to provide more, with more. First, I needed to be depersonalized, unselfed because my self was oriented in myself even as I sought God to use and fill me. To live is Christ, I prayed to understand. This is what God taught, but I did not know how to respond or how to explain it to others or myself.
That’s what tongues is supposed to express, to be sure, the unutterable groanings, praise or lament, bypassing the intellectual and verbal parts of the brain and tapping into the differently rational, emotions and responses and groanings of life’s mysteries.
I tried to keep up the display, the speaking words I didn’t know, the ecstatic responses, but there was a wall developing between me and those. Not in my faith, in my expressions.
I felt a clear and present impression not to speak in tongues anymore.
Not because I thought that it’s a wrong practice or I lost my faith or moved on to the next stage of ecclesial sophistication. Something different.
It was wrong for me. Tongues is meant to express that which we can’t find words to express. I was being told to find the words.
What words? The words I didn’t have words for? Yes. Find them. Learn them. Use them.
Emotions? Find the words for what you are feeling. Spirituality? Find the words for what you are experiencing. Scripture? Find the words for what you’re finding. Maturing in God? Find the words that pull it all together and use language to say that which may not have been said before. Summarize. Clarify.
I felt that was where God was leading me, so I’ve rarely used tongues since then in my own prayer or worship. God wanted, wants, me to find words that connect the utterable with the unutterable. An impossibility, I thought.
Then I realized who initiated this calling. The work of the Spirit of the Word of God. God speaks the unexisting into being, and so the tools we have been given in our language can point towards the same reality, finding the words rather than succumbing to the groanings.
Translating and putting into words the unutterable groanings, translated tongues, this is what I now see as a task of theology, my hope and goal that I’m still working out. Theology is both a task of discovery and discernment, digging deeply into the sources of those who likewise sought to express God. And with this, discerning how the Spirit is shaping me and thus becoming the kind of person who contributes coherent words.
In the previous posts, I referred to the church bulletin notes from a sermon long ago. Here’s the last section of those:
God Acts to Restore His Own Name
Therefore, God acts to redeem Israel again, but not for their sake but for the sake of his name which he must redeem. He is going to sanctify–or make holy–his name in the world by sanctifying his people.
But when he restores his name by returning his people back to their land, what will keep them from defiling his name all over again?
God is going to do three things:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you…”
“I will give you a new heart…”
“I will give you my spirit…”
1. In light of this, part of the task of theology is the diligence about God’s name. This requires words because there are people who are doing things and speaking words that distort God’s name.
People who are racist, people who are sexist, people who speak words of salvation in public and words of oppression in private, people who lead others into corruption, people who use the name of God for their own gain, committing violence against others in the process. Theology is in the business of cleaning the church and cleaning the rhetoric, a task of discernment and clarification and, sometimes, confrontation.
Cleaning isn’t just about making sure people have the right beliefs, so too theology isn’t just about orthodoxy.
What are the right inner reality, the emotions and heart, of a person? An angry, bitter, aggressive, dismissive, person is not walking in the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering. So, there must be orthopathy. Calling out vanity, narcissism, arrogance, hate, frenzy, impatience. Otherwise, theology is a noisy gong and a clanging symbol, causing headaches to many.
With it there is also a cleaning of orthopraxy, pointing out wrong actions such as violence, corruption, lawfare, abuse, etc.
Theology must say, “This is wrong!” to people to who are using the name of Christ to build their own authority or hide their evil actions towards others.
We have to say this about our own selves too, the words of God pushing us to abandon our own misbehavior or misconceptions. We are to clean and be cleaned.
2. Theology can’t just be about saying what is wrong. We’re not in the business of nagging or complaining. Theology speaks about God and God rejects the insufficient for the sake of the wholly sufficient, the evil is called out because it is hiding the good and it is the good that we are called to pursue.
What are the right thoughts, the right feelings, the right actions we are to take hold of in our present realities? Who are we to be in light of conflict and terror and frustration and injustice?
How do we respond in a way different from the world, neither accepting the actions or the passivity of the systems as options, but finding the way of Christ in redeeming the past in light of the future in our present?
3. Theology isn’t just about words, it’s about power, and so while there is a task to call out what has gone wrong and point to the Kingdom way forward, there is also a task of empowerment, encouragement, a cheerleading task, a space-making task
We call with and through the name of God in, with, and for others so we together tap into the many-giftings of the Spirit in living out the pattern of the Messianic mission in our contexts.
All this requires words, words that find the way forward, words that clarify missteps and wrong speakers, words that empower others and disempower some.
Theology is, I think, a prophetic gift in searching deeply and persistently for the words that “edifies the church.” Finding the words that may not yet be formed in words, putting into language that which may not have found coherence in expression, speaking to others that which they may know is true but do not know how to say or think or feel or act.
In this, theology goes from an academic enterprise to expression of the Word through the Spirit as a gift, a responsibility and a task to be pursued in the power of the Spirit, only through the power of the Spirit if it is to be truly Christian theology.
My current book project is looking at liberation theology for those who are in a context of domination and control, finding meaning through negating or oppressing others.
A lot (certainly not all!) of church work is oriented in a pattern of oppressing, oddly enough. There is a hiearchy of not only function but also value, where leaders become, essentially, the Spirit for their community, telling people what to think, how to act, where they fit, where they don’t fit. A few speak, many are silent. A few are active, many are passive. Even as this passivity becomes a topic itself of speaking, the passivity is enforced by the models. Rhetoric can only go so far in the face of practices. Idealized roles become infused with theological priority of ordination, the Word goes forth from a single message or speaker.
Meanwhile, the Spirit always works from below, rising up from the gathered people, many tongues, many voices, the Word most fully an expression of all, the Body infused by the Spirit. The body of Christ is not many-headed. There is one head, all the parts together expressing together the movement of God in the midst of a context. Experiencing this is the experience of liberation. Here’s how I end my first chapter:
We are liberated when we participate with each other in becoming fully who we each are made to be. We liberate when we help others become, we are liberated when we let others participate in our becoming. Thus, liberation happens for the oppressed and the oppressors together, the one taking up as the other lets go, each creating space for the other, resisting the depersonalizing tendencies of social systems as they engage in the truly personalizing movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.