My Life in Theology

Karl Wallenda, the famous wire walker, described his time on the wire as that point when he was really living and everything else as waiting. This comes close to describing my relationship to theology. Theology is simply talk of God. As I see it, two things make up the key elements of the Christian life – the walk (or following Christ) and the talk of God along the way. Though the walk and the talk cannot be clearly delineated, it might be said that the talk is at once the impetus for the walk and what informs the walk. When I am talking of God as I am walking along the way I feel that I am doing what I was put on this earth to do. It is my equivalent of being on the wire. This is not something peculiar to me or to a certain class of Christians; rather I think this is precisely where the deep joy of the Christian life enters in and it is to be the feeling and attitude of every Christian.

In the story, The Fiddler on the Roof, Topol dreams of sitting in the synagogue discussing the finer points of Torah with the rabbis – he dreams of a life in which he did not have to milk his cows and go about the business of making a living. It is not that Christianity relieves us of this responsibility but milking the cows and making a living are no longer definitive of who we are and what we are about. Christianity is not a supplement to our main activity of earning a living but has become our main activity. “Doing theology” is one way of describing the content of this activity.

The writer of Hebrews describes the activity of the Christian in the way Topol dreams. The Sabbath or seventh day activity is not simply one of the days in the week for the Christian but we have entered into the Sabbath – Today we have entered into His rest. Our life is no longer defined by the six days of work which make up ordinary time but we have entered that special time in which God has ceased His labor so as to take up redemptive activity – the very point of human history. So too, we are to cease one kind of labor and activity and we are to enter into redemptive activity. In this time the Words of life fill our conversation and our thoughts and are definitive of our relationships. “Redeeming the time” does not mean we become frantic to accomplish more work. It means we have entered into Sabbath time and we have been relieved of the heavy burden constituting the work and life of those outside of this time. Deep conversation about God (and the various modes that conversing might take – witnessing, teaching, preaching) – or taking up the Word of God and walking is the Sabbath activity we are to be about. “Theology” describes this process (for me it is a verb or practice – it always contains a doing).

The question of whether one needs to do theology to be a Christian is like the question if one needs to eat to be human. You can go without for a while but the fact that you are here means you have already dipped into the bowl. You may be living off of the processed, manufactured, or synthetic stuff. You may be consuming and passing along undigested material. Milk demands no awareness on the part of the infant that consumes it. The meat requires serious preparation, lots of chewing and digestion, and is best done with a host of companions around a large table. Theology is the feast which binds the fellowship together and it is that joyous occasion in which we partake in the meat of the Word. We might have our popcorn friends with whom we discuss entertainment (the perennial inanities of those consumed by hoops and goals). True friendship forms around the meaty sustenance of the Word.

Theology, as the dialogue which is our primary engagement as Christians, speaks of the necessity of a dynamic synthesizing (of Old and New, apostolic teaching and tradition, of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and ultimately of all things). Theology was once known as the “Queen of the sciences” as all knowledge was brought together in the foundation of Christ. The University was formed with the understanding that there is a uniform theological understanding into which all knowledge can be integrated. Theology is the means of integration and the point where the synthesis is realized. As Nicholas Lash has described it,

To think as a Christian is to try to understand the stellar spaces, the arrangements of micro-organisms and DNA molecules, the history of Tibet, the operation of economic markets, toothache, King Lear, the CIA, and grandma’s cooking—or, as Aquinas put it, all things’—in relation to that uttering, utterance and enactment of God which they express and represent. To act as a Christian is to work with, to alter or, if need be, to endure all things in conformity with that understanding.

This synthesizing point ultimately involves the synthesis of persons into a unified understanding and united body. As the Word is exegeted we are drawn together through conversing over the Word into the Word. The first theological conversation demonstrates the process.

In the case of the walk to Emmaus, Christ is the exegete, the means of exegesis, and recognition of the resurrected Christ is the end of the process. The law is made to come alive as it is synthesized or understood through the person and work of Christ explained by Christ. Christ is not absent from the exegetical synthesis taking place. He is not a static object added onto the Old Book. He is there with them in the walk and the talk and who He is becomes clear when they break bread together. So too in the present; who He is becomes clear in the walk and talk that unfolds between us and the promise is that He is there in our midst. We are joined together as friends through the Word in the Body of Christ. As we break bread together, the real presence of Christ is there in his Body constituted through the brothers and sisters on our right and left.

The great joy of my life (I do not mean to sound as if it is coming to a close) has been the friendships that have formed and which I continue to enjoy which are focused on a continual exegesis of the Word. The conversation constitutes the deepest of relationships as we are joined together in an unfolding of who Christ is. My vision of heaven – the move from glory to glory in Paul’s description – would be friends setting out together on a walk which would be filled with conversation burning with the recognition that another was there in our midst. The expectation would be that at the end of this walk we will break bread together and we will definitively recognize the One on whom our conversation has centered.

No More Reformations – Just Singular Individuals Called from the Herd

The nephew of the deceased interrupted the service at the graveside to object to the entire procedure. “No Turk, Jew, or Muslim, would be forced to submit, against his will, to the rites of a religion which he had rejected,” he cried out. “What is this ‘official Christianity’ then?” asked the young man. “It is the great Whore, Babylon, with whom all the kings of the earth have fornicated, the wine of whose whoredom has made drunk all the peoples of the earth. . ..” The young doctor explained that the deceased had refused to participate in the official worship of God and so, accordingly will have reduced his sins, in his own estimate, by one – “namely the sin of participating in making a fool of God by calling the Christianity of the New Testament what is not the Christianity of the New Testament.” 1 Continue reading “No More Reformations – Just Singular Individuals Called from the Herd”

Arriving at Peace in the Land of Silence or How to Drain a Mud Swamp

How I lost an original, though not fully worked out, notion of peace as a new Christian and then arrived, again, in middle age at an understanding of non-violence is not a process I can narrate in detail. I guess I lost my original notion of Christian peace simply through circumstance. My father explained his understanding of Jesus command to turn the other cheek through a story: “A preacher teaching on this passage is suddenly slapped by someone. The preacher immediately punches the offender but then explains – now I have turned the other cheek.” Being of a literal frame of mind and not attuned to the finer points of hermeneutics – I may have missed the intended facetiousness of the story. A “masculine,” anti-communist, right-wing, nationalistic Christianity was modeled – we lived in Texas. My sense that we should be at peace with the land and God’s created order, though we may need to kill off some of our fellow humans, somehow survived a bit longer. Ultimately, the nationalistic forms of American Christianity proved to be a corrosive sort of mud swamp to my first (naïve) understanding of Christianity. Continue reading “Arriving at Peace in the Land of Silence or How to Drain a Mud Swamp”

The Mystery Revealed

A guest to my class on world religions was asked to address the subject of mystery. Being an academic who had spent his life studying the desert fathers I thought a good way to begin the discussion would be to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate notions of mystery. My request that he do this fell flat, as he indicated he had never considered the issue. I had just finished teaching a section on Zen and felt it was important to say what the Christian mystery is not. Having spent 20 years in Japan it would not have occurred to me to presume to teach on the role of mystery without distinguishing its legitimate form and function. My experience with this guest speaker, however, seems to typify a growing phenomenon. Continue reading “The Mystery Revealed”

Whence the crack in the mirror of the Word?

Are the writers of the New Testament a reliable guide as to how we should read the Old Testament and thus understand the Bible? At a more basic level, is the Bible coherent? What one encounters in much of biblical scholarship is lack of an implicit trust that the Bible is a book which tells a story in which beginning, middle and end form a coherent whole. Continue reading “Whence the crack in the mirror of the Word?”

Genesis through John – The Exposure of Myth and the End of Dualism

I believe there are multiple implications to reading Genesis and the Gospel of John together, in the manner I proposed in my last blog. As I demonstrated, it suggests that the purposes of creation, as posed by John Walton, were always that the world would be the meeting place of God and humans (the cosmos as temple). The Gospel of John’s picture of re-creation confirms this in the first two chapters (describing re-creation over seven days) culminating in the foreshadowing of the marriage supper of the Lamb (or the culmination of creation’s purpose) in which the fellowship or joining of God and man is on the order of a marriage (the Church joined to Christ). In this blog, I suggest that the combination of John and Genesis also gives us the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo (and here I am departing from Walton) and in addition serves to explain how Genesis and John combine to provide a counter ontology to every sort of dualism. Continue reading “Genesis through John – The Exposure of Myth and the End of Dualism”

Rereading Genesis and the Bible

Several years back Beret, my favorite son-in-law, was studying with John Walton at Wheaton and he bought me his book The Lost World of Genesis One. While I liked the book, I was not convinced of its premise until I did something Walton, as typical of Old Testament scholars, did not (and perhaps could not) do – I began to read Genesis through John. I was teaching the Gospel of John and in preparation for the course it occurred to me that the Gospel writer and the O.T. scholar were treating Genesis 1 in a similar fashion. Both consider the creation account in terms of its theological purpose. John is concerned to show that Christ as Creator (he quotes Genesis – “In the beginning”) is inaugurating re-creation with his incarnation. Continue reading “Rereading Genesis and the Bible”

The Universal Problem of Death and Its Cultural Manipulation

Having spent more than twenty years in Japan it became obvious to me that there is a basic difference as to what is thought to constitute a person in Japan and the United States. The obvious difference, pointed out by Ruth Benedict, between a guilt culture and a shame culture frames an entirely different dynamic of human interaction. The primary obligations of ko (obligation to the father), chu (obligation to the emperor or cultural authority), and kanzan (respect for authority), mediated through amae (dependence) which is primarily focused on the mother begins to get at the way in which the individual is defined through a web of relations. As I began to dig into these differences and how they had been developed and set forth, it took me through the work of Takeo Doi to his teacher and mentor, Heisaku Kosawa to Freudian theory. Kosawa visited Freud in Vienna and proposed an alternative to the Oedipus Complex and was the pioneer in importing Freudian theory to Japan. Doi would become the prime interpreter of all things Japanese and would become the leading thinker in a movement to define what it means to be Japanese known as nihonjinron. Continue reading “The Universal Problem of Death and Its Cultural Manipulation”

There Is No Sexual Relationship Versus Being Joined to Christ

The conclusion of Jacques Lacan that “there is no sexual relationship,” is due to the fact that one cannot coordinate the reality of the human body with the ego.  The sexed body provides a mode of relating which cannot be coordinated with the mental or symbolic order.  Sex and gender seem to be a realm apart from the concept I have of myself; so, the way I would relate to the other is not sexual but through the symbolic realm of language – yet this realm falls short of establishing a complete (full-bodied) relationship Continue reading “There Is No Sexual Relationship Versus Being Joined to Christ”

How Should We Then Live As Peaceable Christians?

A Virtual Round Table Discussion with Ryan Hemmer, Jason Rodenbeck and Frank Dugan III.

I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.” Stanley Hauerwas (speaking at Duke Divinity School on election day)

Paul:  I am writing this on Wednesday after the election results came in early this morning. This political season has not only brought out the division in the country but a division among Christians.  The approach of Ryan, Jason, and Frank represent three notions of how to negotiate this breach.  Ryan suggests that we not succumb to the cycle of seeking short-term solutions to long-term problems but asks, as Christians, what practical political action we are to take.  Jason describes his personal response to the situation and concludes that the solution is only in rightly understanding the cross of Christ. Frank agrees with Jason but suggests we may be expecting too much of the principalities and powers to ask them to follow the Sermon on the Mount. Continue reading “How Should We Then Live As Peaceable Christians?”