October 20, 2018
A few years ago my wife and I were invited to a family reunion with our Dutch relatives. It was a pleasant and delightful gathering. While having a before dinner drink, one of my wife’s uncles approached me and said he had an important question for me. He then withdraw from his pocket a small stone with very colorful lines in it. “Now,” he said “can you explain this to me?” I looked at it, rubbed my fingers on it, and said with a polite chuckle: “a lovely little stone and very colorful, but that’s all I can say.” VERY disappointed he turned away from me and walked over to my wife. “I thought you said your husband knew something about geology!” “No!” She replied: “Not GEology but THEology!”
Yes I do theology… and we all should do theology… We cannot survive without theology. Up-date-theology helps us understand and live our Faith. Outdated theology distorts Christian belief and misconstrues Sacred Scripture. Our theology has to be contemporary and credible. Retro-theology and ritual are more like geological stones. Human life, however, is nourished with living bread not colorful old stones.
Good theology interprets our Faith experience in contemporary language, symbol, and ritual. It leads to life-sustaining ministry and healthy institutional structures. It promotes authentic Christian behavior. Good theology helps us grow in our understanding of who God is for us and who we are with God for each other. Good theology stimulates us, sustains us, and calls us to growth. Defective or often passé theology disorients people and distorts the Gospel. God is not a hard-nosed old judge, ready to send people to hell. God is, to use a Jesus theological image, a loving “abba” – “Father” not an imperial disciplinarian. And no, women were not created inferior to men. Wives are not divinely ordered to be subservient to their husbands, nor are women ministerially inferior to men. (One really does not need male gonads to be a Catholic priest. The whole idea is preposterous if not downright disgusting.) Protestantism is not inferior to Catholicism. Gays are not innately disordered.
Outmoded and defective theology, at the institutional level, creates a loss of credibility and a moral leadership vacuum.
A very disordered theology of ordained ministry that stressed clerical power over people, rather than service, has directly contributed to the decades-long sexual abuse of children. Sex abuse is first about power and then sex. According to a recent CBS News report, a quarter of U.S. Catholics say that clerical sexual abuse reports have now made them personally question whether or not they will remain in the Catholic Church. The Catholic ecclipse.
Right from the beginning, our early Christian communities were nourished by a number of different theologies, each addressed to a specific Christian and culturally-based religious group. The four Gospels are the prime example.
The Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the Gospels as we have them today. Each time the authors adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural-religious backgrounds of their listeners.
Mark’s Gospel was written for Gentile Christians in Rome. They suffered Roman persecution but
also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who considered themselves superior to Gentile converts. Mark portrays Jesus as the authoritative Son of God, with little reference to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel According to Matthew, on the other hand, was written from a Judeo-Christian perspective. For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history.
While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was
more focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is
a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal
recognition in the Roman Empire. Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly
needed in our own contemporary society. The Gospel According to John differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways. John uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism.
A variety of theological viewpoints is basically good, as long as people are (1) in conversation with each-other, (2) understand and acknowledge that a variety of viewpoints is legitimate, (3) don’t get locked into just one viewpoint, and (4) remember that the focus of any theology is our Faith experience.
When I was a younger Catholic growing-up in Michigan in the 1950s , the church was locked in a nineteenth century theology that, by way of example, still had a hang-up about sex. (Some Catholics still do, especially some who wear colorful uniforms.) I remember a page from our 1950s “Baltimore Catechism” which basically said that if you wanted to be a really good Christian you should avoid sex. Married life was “good” but no-sex religious life was “better.” (You can still find the illustration on the Internet.)
Theology changes and evolves as does our understanding of Christian tradition and human self-awareness. Theology must always change so it doesn’t get locked in a static particular cultural time frame. Theology challenges contemporary culture. It doesn’t canonize it, however. I have many Asian Christian friends who ask why they have to worship using European liturgical symbols and rituals….A good question. We must remember as well that the historical Jesus was not a pale-faced European but much more black than lily white. And, by the way, he had no problems accepting women as his disciples. So what is the basis for contemporary sexist prejudice and hangups? Send a letter to Rome.
Time-bound theology often tries to squeeze God into a narrow theological box. (My opening illustration.) God is bigger and richer than any theology. We are made in the “Image and likeness of God.” Distorted theology says that God is made in OUR image and likeness. We need liberation theology, black theology, queer theology, feminist theology, etc. to express the broad range of reality.
We need to disconnect from old theologies that supported patriarchy, power, sexism, and homophobia. Christianity is not about power over people but empowering people to take responsibility to love the other as oneself. Power over people is not a virtue, whether in Rome or Washington DC. History shows again and again that, in religion and in civil government, absolute power corrupts absolutely. My comment, by the way, is not about being a “Republican” or a “Democrat.” It is about being a decent and ethically responsible human being.
The contemporary theological challenge calls out to all of us. Contemporary believers – you and I — need to continually reflect and ask the big questions: who or what is God for me today? How do I understand Jesus today? How can I be a genuine follower of Christ today? And….where do I find the joy and support of a community of believers, who share my hunger for living bread?
[The God in a box cartoon is by David Hayward and used here with his explicit permission.]