Monday, June 08, 2009

Not So Fast in Dispensing With Doctrine!

Theology and Ministry

A sermon preached in St. Stephen and The Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2009

Anglican Christians, generally speaking, are not stirred by doctrine as much as we are by worship. Sometimes we are accused of not even having any doctrines. I hope that by the time we have finished with the liturgy today you will know better. Today is the one day in the whole year that we focus on a doctrine. We call this Sunday “Trinity Sunday,” falling always a week after Pentecost Day. But we have no other feasts—not officially, at any rate—that celebrate doctrines or teachings.

When we do focus on the Trinity, it is sometimes not in the most helpful way. I don’t even want to count the number of sermons I have heard on Trinity Sunday that either lamely try to explain the Trinity or that declare exasperation with the complexity of Trinity. Today, I want to draw back a step or two and look with you at the issue of why having a theology is important to ministry.

As I continue to look with you at ministry as fundamentally the way we live our lives in the light of God’s Truth, offering all that we are and do to God for the sake of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, I am struck by the way theology shapes action and behavior. You may think you don’t know what theology is, and you may be convinced that you not only don’t own one or even care to. But trust me: theology is the, or a, or your “word about God,” your understanding of God, whatever that is. Even if you aren’t too sure about God, your very uncertainty impacts (and not necessarily negatively) your actions and behavior. Even the atheist has a kind of a-theology—an understanding of the God not to be believed in.

Theology is essentially a story. Whether or not it is a good story depends partly on how well it is told, and partly on the storyteller. Limiting the focus just to Christian theology, we can survey the field and fairly readily see that there have been (and are) some pretty awful theologies floating around. For example, there are all the theologies that see God as essentially at war with creation. Matter is opposed to spirit. Therefore do not trust anything material. Very strange. Then there are theologies that emphasize the afterlife to the point that everything is judged by whether or not a belief or action will help or hurt your chances of getting into heaven. And there are other theologies that only take the positive aspects of existence into account, without dealing with negative, dark, shadow-side of reality. These are just three possibilities out of dozens of really bad theological possibilities.

What difference does any of this make? Let me illustrate with a couple of cases. Suppose, let us say, that you have a theology in which you view the human race as the central feature of the natural world. God, you might think, really created the world principally for the enjoyment of the human race. It has no intrinsic value. Such a theology acts not only to validate, but to encourage the destruction of the natural world. Climate change is of no importance, except as a matter of concern and convenience for the human species. Other species can live or die. God is uninvolved and unconcerned. God, rather, is concerned only about narrow choices of personal morality. Now, almost no one really believes that hook, line, and sinker. But you can readily see that, if a person or group tells such a story consistently, they come out at a very different place from the person or group that holds a theology which sees humans as being accountable to God for the way they tend to the natural world.

Take another example. If your conception of God is that of a being that metes out judgment according to strict standards, it is quite likely that you will develop a theology that creates not a little anxiety about how well a person measures up to God’s standards. If “heaven” is contingent on meeting those standards, the thrust of that theology is likely to inspire behavior in accordance with God’s perceived will. If, on the other hand, your understanding is that God’s judgment has already been issued and that humanity has already been saved, clearly what motivates you to behave ethically is not your struggle to achieve an afterlife in heaven, but rather thanksgiving for what God has already given you.

So, if theology is important, what kind of theology is actually helpful? In a word, a Trinitarian theology. And what is that? It is an understanding of God that holds three important dynamics in equilibrium. One is the notion of God as a supremely transcendent Being, at the core of the universe, the creator of all. The second is the experience that God has been revealed most thoroughly in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The third is that God is present and active here and now in all people, but especially in the community of faith centered in Jesus. We traditionally speak of the Trinity as one God in three persons. Although the language is not necessarily orthodox, I would suggest that we can get at the central idea by speaking of God as the Truth manifesting itself in at least three distinct but interdependent ways. God is transcendent. God is also revealed in human life, especially in that of Jesus. And God is accessible and real in the present. To emphasize any one of these things over the other two is to create a story that inevitably leads to a lop-sided theology that is apt to produce or at least encourage lop-sided behavior.

What would it look like if we were to have a Trinitarian theology undergirding our ministries? First, we would likely live with the understanding that not all truth can be squeezed into rational categories. We would hold that God is greater than any of us. We would accept the fact that there is a “givenness” to the universe: limitations and laws and even the irrational are part and parcel of the reality we live in and live with. Life is not all about human beings. We are a part of creation, certainly not the only part, and dubiously the most important part, despite our powers and possibilities. We would see that there is an overarching Benevolence which spans all life.

We would begin to feel more comfortable with Jesus, realizing that, for Christians, Jesus is indeed what makes us unique. Rather than debating about whether Jesus is the only way to God (which is a poor way to spend time), we would see rather that, for us, Jesus is the connecting link between divinity and humanity, so much so that we say he fully embodies both. Divinity and humanity live together in him at peace and in harmony. We would see Jesus as our model, and that his life, death, resurrection and ascension form a story that is the pattern or our own stories. We would find ourselves living, breathing, eating, drinking Jesus, forming our minds and hearts in him, until we reflect his his life to the point that people would know him because they knew us.

And we would have a pneumatology, a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which understands God as not only transcendent and other, not only as historically located in Jesus of Nazareth, but every bit as real and as present with us here and now. We would understand that God did not stop with Jesus, but continues to unfold Truth through us. We would reckon with the fact that Jesus said, “I have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now. I will send to you the Spirit, who will guide you into all truth.” We would see ourselves caught up in an ongoing revelation in which our lives and our experiences became the vehicles through which God is discovered and known as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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