Archive for April, 2011

Coming Clean

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

So how much does our own personal experience influence the way we form our theological ideas?  I like to think that the primary reason I hold certain theological ideas is because I have carefully studied the Bible and my theological views are consistent with what I find there. 

 I’d like to think that but then I am reminded of two axioms that I am inclined to follow:

1) There is the Bible and then there is my understanding of the Bible.  My understanding of the Bible is theology, not the Bible.  The Bible stands over my theology and judges it, thus the need for humility when announcing my theological ideas.

2) All theology is ultimately biography.  In other words, it flows out of my life with all of its twist and turns and inconsistencies.  I did not receive my theology from an angel, or a burning bush.  It did not drop out of heaven as a travel drive already formatted with everything carefully and systematically organized.

Yesterday I had an experience that reinforced my impression that our personal experience plays a significant role in shaping our theological views. I am not suggesting that our experience shapes our views for good or bad per se, but it certainly provides us with a perspective that can be true but not complete.

I’m teaching a theology course and we were discussing eschatology, Christian ideas about what the end of all things will be like, or, as I like to call it, “speculative  theology”.  The conversation turned to how our views of God’s kingdom influence the way we view the world and our purpose here in light of God’s final purposes.

 So, the topic could be bluntly stated this way:

do we save everyone we can ensuring that they get to heaven before this whole shooting match goes up in a great ball of smoke and fire

or,

do we address the many problems afflicting this world applying biblical principles of justice and peace?

Two of my students found themselves on different sides of this issue, though their stated views were nowhere close to the hyperbole I used to define the conversation.  At first the conversation focused on attempts to reconcile the mandate of evangelism with Jesus’ teachings and the OT prophets’ call for justice, but, toward the end, both students shared that their views were heavily influenced by their experience.

One comes from a denomination that so focuses on getting people to heaven that social justice issues are seen as, if not a waste of time and resources, a diversion from our primary purpose of getting people saved.  This student found this focus shallow, narrow and far short of Jesus’ teachings and the OT prophets’ call for justice.

The other student came from a denomination that had so allied itself with the social and political issues of a minority community that it had uncritically adopted the religious views of that community (these views were essentially pantheistic) in order to create a feeling of solidarity.

These students realized that we were not just talking about the Bible, Jesus, or the OT prophets.  They were dealing with the personal experiences that had shaped their understanding of the Bible.  Once they each shared their experience there seemed to be an “Oh, okay I see…” moment.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if many of the visceral and mean spirited conversations happening among Christians would change if we were willing to come clean and share the experiences that are often at the heart of the “Bible truth” we believe so strongly?