26 August 2008

Good theology and other idols

I've been mulling over a thought for (at least) a couple of weeks, since a friend said to me, "The theology behind 'X' is sound." The "X" she was referring to happened to be something that had caused people I love (and me too) some not-inconsiderable pain, in the real world. But she was right. The theology behind it is very sound. It's excellent theology; right and good and joyful theology. Which makes it all the sadder, from my point of view, that we turned it into a damned idol.

So here's my thought. It's not all that original, but it's been taking up space in my head:

GOOD theology, when codified, legislated, and ossified, can very easily shackle, choke, or smother the gospel. This is idolatry, and the devil finds it delightful.

This happens all the time. Allllll the time. In "liberal", "mainline", "high church", etc. contexts, the ossification is typically in the realm of structure and practice (but also doctrine). In "conservative", "evangelical", "low church", etc. contexts, the ossification is typically in the realm of doctrine (but also structure and practice). Charismatic-types typically have a mix of practical/doctrinal idols, and all kinds of permutations occur all over the Church (including the "emerging church".)

In so many of these cases, the underlying theology is good. It was good, contextual, appropriate God-talk driven by sound, faithful interpretation of scripture, tradition, and Spiritual inspiration in a particular place and time.

But then we dumb monkeys did what we always do: we made an idol. We started thinking not like Christ, but like Caesar, and decided to do our fellow members of (some segment of) the Body, present and future, the enormous favor of deciding stuff on their behalf, and putting in place structures to guarantee that they would not have to bear the burden of re-thinking that stuff. (Of course, we spared them not only the burden, but the freedom to do so.)

So we made doctrinal statements, and confessions, and canon law, and constitutions, and books of [prayer/discipline/whatever], ensuring that the firm foundation of our real, good, wise wisdom (or, more likely, that of the generation or two just preceding us) would not just be available to future generations, but constrain them. Like the grasping stone hands of a centuries-old graven image.

* * *

A frequent criticism of the "emerging church" is that we're too critical: we're too much about what we're against, not what we're for. We live too much in reaction to the past, not in hope for the future. Frankly, in my experience with this "emerging" conversation, that is sometimes, but not generally, a fair critique.

But quite honestly, I do feel like this is a needed calling within the Church: Pointing out these idols we've created, gently opting out of their grasp, and by that example showing that they are indeed idols, not "real" gods, however good and true and helpful the theology that birthed them.

And, paradoxically, I think it's hopeful. Freedom from these calcified statues of theologies past is a good thing. It opens up all kinds of possible futures for the gospel and the kingdom. And, it doesn't have to mean abandoning the richness, the wisdom, the goodness of the theology at the core of these artifacts. It gives is the freedom to build on those theologies, or to cultivate new growth from their soil. It's not just hopeful, it's, like, giddy-hopeful.

But it's painful, too. We love our church-idols. They make us feel safe and secure. A lot of the time, we don't even know they're there, but they are; they surround us. Breaking free of them seems almost always to be a cause of suffering. It takes a lot of love and grace. A lot. More than we've got. Loving God, help us.

And Loving God, please guard us "emerging" monkeys from the idol-making that we too find ooooh-so-tempting.


Image credit: zen (rights)


P3T3RK3Y5 said...

two theological constants:

firstly - i am not a monkey, ok mr??? we are made in the image of god the bible tells me so.

secondly - laws fail. all laws.
except the law of love.
that one never fails.

Tim Mathis said...

Who says monkeys aren't made in God's image as well? I love monkeys.

I also enjoyed the commentary, Mike.

Anonymous said...

Good point Mike. Anything which place in greater authority than Christ himself causes us to become idolatrous. This was of great concern to Barth who worried even of the idolatry of the Bible over and above the worship of the Word made flesh in Christ.

The solution of course is a right understanding of the role and place of scripture and theology and tradition within God's revelation of Himself to His creation. I understand the Theologian not as much as the discoverer of eternal truth (humans can only discover what God chooses to reveal of Himself) but as that person who proves, analyzes and translates that eternal Truth which is always available through the Word in Christ and the Spirit and the Scriptures and traditions and community of the Church into the context in which she or he is found. In this way theology-as-translation (though not Gods' truth) is never set in stone, codified, legislated or ossified and hence ceases to become a shackle, but a guide and hence takes on its right (and limited) role in the body.