Let me start this reflection with a statement you may find difficult to believe. I can be quite self-righteous and arrogant at times. I do not mean to be, and in fact I try hard not to be, but self-righteousness has a way of just dripping out of you when you least expect it. Mercifully, in most cases the dripping process is a mental one. Someone does or says something, and we think about the hundreds of ways we could have done it better or said it better. Unfortunately, in some cases the dripping process moves from the mental stage to the verbal stage quite naturally, creating havoc on its path. Someone opens their heart to us, and without giving it much thought, we begin to judge, criticize, label, or sermonize. Usually, it is only much later that we realize how insensitive our response was, and how we wasted an opportunity to help our friend deal with a difficult situation.
There is a similar process that can take place in any field of study, such as theological exploration. There is a healthy and productive way of entering into a theological conversation and there is an unhealthy and unproductive way of doing so. The healthy way is as follows: As you read and interact with authors, or listen to preachers or teachers, you take a side in relation to the argument they are making. You begin to develop your own arguments in favor or against the author’s reasoning and you begin to make lists in your mind of their hits (things you agree with) and their misses (things you disagree with.) Then, if interested in the subject, you may educate yourself further, read more, speak to the person you are trying to understand (if possible,) and look for other sources that would further inform your position.
Once you have given a proper audience to the other argument, you engage and become a part of the theological conversation. You may do this through writing or teaching; through conversations with the person whose argument you are trying to advance or dispute; through small-group discussions, etc. In short, theology is done within a community of hearers and readers who are believing, praying, worshiping, and practicing Christians. Theological exploration is a conversation within the Church and for the benefit of the Church. It is for this reason that theology is a serious business. After all, God is the very subject of our exploration.
The unhealthy way of engaging in theological exploration is as follows: A person reads as little as they need to read to form an opinion and stops there, or they hear the first five minutes of a sermon and realize they have heard enough to classify the preacher and give him a label. In the rare cases when they read beyond the basics, they read sources that support their limited opinions and labels. There is no honest desire to get to know the other person’s position in a deeper way, and they may feel ready to offer their uneducated opinions immediately, without the hassle of having to inform themselves. They let the dripping of their arrogance and self-righteousness cloud their judgement and begin placing people whose books they have skimmed through, or whose sermons or articles they have barely read, into categories like “Liberal,” “Conservative,” “Broad,” etc. Then they may go one step further and engage in generalizations (all his books or sermons are heresy,) character assassination (he is a prejudicial homophobe,) labeling (he is an East Coast Liberal,) and caricaturizing (he probably believes in the Easter Bunny too,) etc.
Lost to the unhealthy way of engaging in theological exploration is the fact that theology is a communal affair, done by the body and for the body of the Church. Lost to this way of thinking is the fact that grace (and its derivatives and associates: mercy, compassion, charity, kindness, and love) is a foundational pre-requisite for any authentic, God-centered theology. Grace must precede and follow all theological inquiry because true theology is always about God’s grace. It is out of grace that God reveals himself to us in creation and in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is out of grace that Jesus willingly goes to the cross to save humanity. It is out of Grace that God’s Holy Spirit remains as Christ’s presence among us to the end of days.
Grace-infused theological exploration respects the dignity of all people, including those with whom we disagree. It does not avoid doing theology for fear of offending others, but it uses language that builds a dialogue. When it needs to challenge, it does so directly and charitably. When it needs to rebuke, it does so in Christian love, avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above. When it needs to acknowledge faulty thinking or uncharitable behaviors, it does so with honest contrition and with a desire for transformation. Above all, Grace-infused theological inquiry acknowledges that we do not have the whole truth. We look through a glass dimly, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Until that day when we will come face to face with the whole truth of God, we must acknowledge with humility that people are more important than their theological views and affiliations. As members of the Body of Christ, we owe each other a fair amount of compassion, grace, and love.
This is a lesson I am trying hard to learn, and I pray that you will join me in my efforts to place love above any theological or political positions.
May God continue to bless you,