Everyday Theology (Talk at Missio Alliance Gathering April 2013)

“Everyday Theology” Roger E. Olson I believe that discipleship is the field of theology; if theology is worth anything it must be to guide discipleship in the real world of everyday life. By the “real world” I mean the social context in which God has placed you or where you find yourself whether you believe God put you there or wants you somewhere else. There you are; how to be the best disciple of Jesus Christ possible in that social context is the question. As I see it, there are two wrong approaches to integrating theology and real world discipleship. One is what I will call the “recipe approach.” Beliefs are like recipes for life; they’re pre-made and handed down or found in a book. They presuppose you have a well-stocked kitchen with all the right ingredients and utensils. But what if you don’t have cumin or metric measuring spoons? Some books of theology, including some of the most popular ones, are like recipes—presupposing our thinking about God should hover timelessly above our everyday lives. What if there’s no connection? The other wrong approach is what I call the “Etch-a-Sketch approach.” That was my favorite toy when I was a child; I loved to while away the hours of a road trip in the back seat just turning those knobs to see what would appear on the screen. If I didn’t like it, I’d just turn it upside down, shake it, and voilà!, it’s again a blank screen to be filled by whatever. It’s a game without rules or even a book of instructions. Some theologies are like that, including some of the most popular ones—apparently invented without any guidance mechanisms other than what seems to work or is pleasing. Somehow we need to integrate the two approaches or take the best of each into one that is guided by God’s revelation, the theodrama of God interacting with people that we find in Scripture, but open to new light and insights from everyday living. How might such an integrative, faithfully improvised discipleship theology look? First, I’m convinced to make it work we must be equally aware of two realities—the biblical narrative which, as theologian Hans Frei said “absorbs the world” for us, and the real world in which we live, work, eat and play. We shouldn’t allow our social context and everyday routines to absorb the Bible; the Bible must be allowed to speak its own message. Twisting it to fit our preferences and justify our desires is to do it violence. On the other hand, the biblical message must be interpreted and applied realistically, read in the light of what’s real in everyday life. Second, these two realities must be constantly brought into contact with each other; our lives of Christian discipleship cannot be compartmentalized so that we leave God and Scripture behind when we go to class, work or play and leave those when we go to church or into our quiet time. They must inform each other, shed light on each other, challenge each other and continually speak into our lives, not with two voices but one. A better analogy would be the sight of two eyes—binocular vision. The challenge of real world discipleship is to develop binocular vision with the two eyes seeing as one being the biblical message and the realities of everyday life. So let’s examine how this might work by looking at Christian discipleship in relation to communication and connectedness. One relatively new facet of everyday life is that all things are always interconnected. In light of the internet, cell phones, outsourcing, space travel and quantum physics, we now know and experience that there are no isolated monads. Everything touches and intersects with everything else, even when it doesn’t want to. There’s no longer such a thing as assuming what I do alone in front of my computer is my business and no one else’s—unless I’m simply in denial. The reality is that wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re affecting nature, other people and, presumably, God. This interconnectedness of all things must inform our thinking and believing about God. The idea of God as immutable, impassible, actus purus, the “Unmoved Mover,” removes God from reality as we know it. It makes God unreal. To be is to be related. That’s a basic fact of contemporary life. Thinking of God as not like that, as isolated and untouched by interconnectedness, is to think of God as unreal. That’s an unreal, even if existing, God. It doesn’t seem that that God touches or intersects, let alone really interacts with, the everyday world we know and experience. At the same time, the biblical story of God informs us that the interconnectedness of finite things, the many networks of which we are parts, do not imprison God as if God were bound up in it. If God is just a factor within the interconnected network, then God is of limited value and not the great creator and sovereign God of that story—hardly worshipful. What that means for the Christian, then, is that interconnectedness is not in and of itself an adequate analogy for God. What the biblical story reveals about this is that interconnectedness, real as it is, is incomplete. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a community, not a network. We are created for community, not mere connectedness. Discipleship means taking interconnectedness and, with the help of God, turning it into community. Wherever we find ourselves in the everyday world of connectedness, our job is to draw on the resources of God to touch the parts of it we experience and have some degree of power over, bringing them into relationship, not mere attachment. Let’s draw that down to something very specific and concrete in everyday life: “Facebook.” Facebook is, of course, not an isolated thing; it’s part of a much larger phenomenon of interconnectedness that includes cell phones, e-mail, skyping, facetiming, and web blogging. We take it all too much for granted, as if it’s not really a big deal. “It is what it is,” as my students like to say. In other words, “just take it at face value, don’t think too deeply about it, accept it and come to terms with it.” I think “It is what it is” is a poor response to any reality with which we are confronted as Christians. It’s a way of pushing away the challenge to think about it and wrestle with it, to reflect on it and decide about it. It seems to me that if Christian discipleship in the real world means anything, it means being reflective and never simply accepting new realities, or old ones, as givens and refusing to subject them to critical examination in the light of the gospel. Of course, discipleship also requires critical reflection on versions of the gospel, especially new ones, in light of the biblical message, in light of Jesus Christ, and also in light of the world we live in and must deal with. So, if “It is what it is” isn’t a healthy Christian response to Facebook, what is? Facebook might reveal two things. First, its popularity points to people’s need to have relationships beyond their ordinary ones. Apparently human beings are eager to know others and be known by others. We are made for fellowship. Facebook can be a great tool for actualizing a basic need presumably built into us by God. Second, its many abuses point to people’s inherent, or acquired, self-centeredness and tendency to corrupt whatever they touch. Every good thing is capable of being twisted. Too often what could be a wonderful tool for fellowship becomes something else—a high tech instrument for self-promotion, guile, guilting, propaganda and insulting. Does Facebook tell us anything about God? My thesis here is that it should. If God is the God of all creation, as Christians all believe, then we should view Facebook as part of God’s creation and therefore in some way mirroring something of him. I’m not engaging in or promoting natural theology here; Scripture, interpreted in light of Jesus Christ, is our primary source and norm, the authority that trumps all others. But if Facebook is a product of creation, something that has come about within God’s good creation, it either reflects something of God’s character or it is totally a result of the fallenness of humanity. A pessimist might say it’s totally a result of our fallenness, but that seems overly negative to me. Facebook has a distinctive feature; it’s constructed around the idea of “friendship.” In John 15 (verse 15) Jesus says to his disciples, and I take it to us, “I no longer call you servants…but friends.” German theologian Jürgen Moltmann rightly argues that, ultimately, God wants to be friends with us. Of course, we can’t take every popular idea of friendship and attach it to our ideal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but apparently God is, in Christ, “friending” us. There’s something very spiritual about Facebook at that point: people friending each other. But what we need to do, as Christians, is fill that with gospel content. Here is how I would put it: Facebook is an instrument of social networking, but God wants us to turn it into an instrument of community. As my late friend Stan Grenz loved to say, the image of God in us is our need, desire and capacity for community. And community is not only one of our highest goods, but God’s as well. God wants friends. The Trinity is God’s already and always community, but the entire purpose of creation is to have others for Father, Son and Holy Spirit to “friend” into their fellowship of love. At its best, then, Facebook can be a tool of mission, not just in the sense of using it to “spread the gospel,” but also in the sense of using it to bring glory to God, our higher purpose, by creating community, God’s highest purpose (because that’s how he chooses to glorify himself). Facebook, then, can point toward something about God already revealed in the biblical story. It sheds some new light on it. Now, what can gospel-centered discipleship say about Facebook? Like everything else in God’s creation, it is affected by the fallenness of the world. Something that has great potential for good is easily abused, twisted, corrupted and used for evil. And Facebook is often abused, twisted, corrupted and used for evil. How? Instead of using it to create community, to fulfill God’s purpose for it, some people, even some Christians, use it to create distance between themselves and people and between other people and each other. That happens when it is used to destroy reputation, to criticize and condemn others. Perhaps the most subtle abuse of Facebook is its tendency to promote disembodied and therefore non-intimate relationships. There is at least one Facebook “church.” Many people, including Christians, spend more time on Facebook than interacting with people face-to-face. You can give an offering on Facebook, but you can’t take the Lord’s Supper there. You can watch and hear a sermon, but you can’t put your arm around a person’s shoulder and hug them and pray for them directly into their ear. Facebook is a perfect vehicle for Gnostic religion and spirituality. It can lead into belief that “virtual” friendships and relationships are real in the same way physical ones are. If Christianity is anything, it is a very embodied and physical religion. The incarnation and resurrection reveal that. In all of this, my aim is to talk about practical discipleship matters. First, no Christian should use Facebook as if it were not relevant to Christian discipleship. The first and most important question to ask is: Can this be brought under the lordship of Jesus Christ? As the old saying goes, there is not one single square inch of reality over which Jesus Christ is not Lord. So, in a sense, Jesus is already Lord of Facebook. But the question is, what does his lordship say about it? Can it be used to help us enjoy God and glorify him? Can it be used to actualize our God-given human potential? Can it be used to build community among people? I think the answers are all “yes, but….” Because of its abuses and our natural human inclinations, Facebook should not be used carelessly, unreflectively, without discernment. To be even more specific, Christians should strictly avoid allowing their Facebook pages or uses of Facebook to become avenues of escape from the intimacy of physical association, face-to-face encounter and interaction. Christians should realize that this is “virtual reality,” which is a form of reality but not a substitute for embodied reality. You can’t smell a person through Facebook. You can’t touch a person. You can’t taste through Facebook. Facebook is limited to two senses—sight and maybe sound. Can you really comfort another person via Facebook? I have my doubts about that. Facebook time should be limited and Facebook should be kept in its proper place—as a tool and not as the world, the social environment itself. It’s not the “village green” it may seem to be. It can be a tool for friendship, but it’s not the appropriate space for all friendship. On the other hand, used rightly, under the Lordship of Jesus, as a tool of reflective discipleship, Facebook can be used creatively and constructively to encourage, affirm, inform, even transform people and relationships. My purpose here has not been to talk about Facebook per se; I only use Facebook as an example of everyday life and how to integrate theology into it and it into theology. Every aspect of everyday life should be treated the same—reflectively in light of Jesus Christ given to us through the biblical narrative and identification of God. Above all, we must begin with the assumption that everyday life is, the routines are, a gift of God; otherwise we fall into Gnosticism and otherworldliness. That’s certainly not to say every aspect of everyday life is a gift. But, in general, everyday life is a gift even if it is also a mixed blessing. God wants us to enjoy it and glorify him in and through it. But I’m convinced God also gives it to us for him to enjoy our enjoyment of it. How we live it, act in it, use it, affects God. During the last few decades Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have argued for “virtue ethics” to supplement, if not replace, “rule-based ethics” and “consequence-based ethics.” Virtue ethics emphasizes character formation, becoming good people, over rule-based ethics. Christian rule-based ethics asks, for example, “What would Jesus do?” Christian virtue ethics asks “What kind of person should I be to be like Jesus?” I argue for the same kind of shift in theology—from one that asks “What propositions should I believe in?” to one that asks “What kind of thinker should I be?” The Apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. That was his way of not being conformed to the patterns of this world. He didn’t say “Learn these fifty propositions” or “Learn this theological system;” he said “Have a certain kind of mind shaped by, conformed to, the person of Christ.” Everyday theology is what grows out of developing a mind, a way of seeing the world and thinking about things, conformed to Jesus Christ, shaped by the biblical message, but using imagination as well as information to faithfully improvise the fourth act of the play in the routines of life.

  • http://GoodReportMinistries.com Ivan

    Dear Dr. Olson:

    Your latest post, Everyday Theology, is an absolute masterpiece; especially the comments relating to Facebook. I urge you to forward this to the official executives of Facebook. They should be very happy to hear what you have said about their popular social medium.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Ivan. I suspect Facebook officials already have employees who have software that makes them aware of all mentions of Facebook on the web. I’d be surprised if not.

  • Drew

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    This isn’t on topic, per se, but I have a request of you. I have someone who asked my opinion of yours and Dr. Horton’s “For Calvinism” and “Against Calvinism” for someone who is looking into the issue. I have read both and wholeheartedly recommended them! However, I would love to recommend something that specifically gives a positive treatment of Arminianism rather than just against Calvinism. I am currently almost finished reading your “Arminian Theology” (which is also excellent!) but I am afraid the book assumes a working knowledge of specific terms such as “prevenient grace” and previous knowledge of the basics of Arminian theology. Would you still recommend it to someone you would assume has no previous knowledge of Arminian theology? Do you have another recommendation that lays out a solid case for Arminianism with introductions to people terms and ideas (perhaps a book of yours I’ve missed)?

    Thank you in advance!

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t think I was assuming any previous knowledge of Arminian theology when I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. I define every technical term (e.g., “prevenient grace”) at its first use. I wrote it for literate Christians who simply want to know what Arminian theology is–even if they have no previous knowledge of it. However, as an academic, I know I’m prone to assume too much sometimes. I’m sure there are other books (like mine but written more popularly) but I haven’t read them. Perhaps someone else here can jump in and recommend one.

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