The Spiritual Landscape
Theology and White Noise
It is difficult to explain to people why theology might be important—even critical to their spiritual well being. To many it is a pointless exercise.
That's understandable. Theologians have done a poor job of communicating with the larger Christian community. We have persisted in using obscure language. We often fail to do the hard work of translating our work and explaining its relevance. Worse yet, we have often misrepresented the Gospel and the church.
I have devoted my life to the subject and even I am forced to confess that there are times when theology is the moral equivalent of white noise—the easy repetition of phrases that sound sophisticated, ground-breaking, and edgy—but (truth be told) mean very little or don't accurately represent the Gospel.
Take, for example, this language that has been cited over and over again from Rob Bell's book, Love Wins:
The gospel Jesus spreads in the book of Luke has as one of its main themes that Jesus brings a social revolution, in which the previous systems and hierarchies of clean and unclean, sinner and saved, and up and down don't mean what they used to. God is doing a new work through Jesus, calling all people to human solidarity. Everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism . . . To reject this new social order was to reject Jesus, the very movement of God in flesh and blood.
I have great respect for Mr. Bell, but there is a lot of misleading white noise in this paragraph:
- No, Jesus was not bringing a social revolution. Jesus brought the Kingdom of God. That has social implications, but they are a secondary consideration—or part of its larger embrace.
- The problem with the systems and hierarchies of first century Israel was not that they didn't mean what they "used to mean." The problem with the systems and the hierarchies was that they didn't serve the goals that God intended for them. Jesus cut through the confusion and asked over and over again: What is God's will?
- To the extent that Jesus was speaking to a social order, the social order to which he addressed his message was very different from ours—politically, socially, and religiously.
- Human solidarity is not the point of the Gospel. Again . . . the point is the establishment of God's Kingdom and the vindication of God's purposes. We get to go along for the ride and the coming of the Kingdom transforms relationships, but our solidarity with one another is not the point.
- Equals? That depends on what Mr. Bell means. Equal in that we are all loved of God. Sure. Equal in that God's grace is available to us. Yes. But equal as in the same? No. In fact, part of the Gospel's demands is that in the Kingdom of God we find a way to care for one another across those differences.
Does all that theology make a difference and should it matter to people who don't "do" theology? Yes, for at least two reasons:
One, theology frames what we think that God is doing and how we should respond.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/
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