Theology and White Noise

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

For example, the Gospel is not a social project; it's a divine project with social implications. That makes a difference: God is after something far larger than the structure of our society and no social order can claim to be God's order. Therefore, it is not enough to institutionalize a given political order, and we can't discharge our responsibilities as Christians by simply voting in a particular fashion. God is after the whole of our lives and only the people who embrace the Kingdom will understand it. Don't expect a social utopia embraced by the world. That is not what God is after.

Two, theology matters because you are doing it too.

For sometime now I've argued that everyone does triage theology. Each of us moves through life with limited time and resources making theological judgments about what does and doesn't work as a way of describing what God is like, and what God wants of us and for us. More often than not, we don't couch those judgments in textbook vocabulary, but we do make those decisions.

Thinking clearly and as accurately as possible about those ideas shapes the way that we pray and live. And failing to think clearly about it can have its liabilities.

It can compromise our understanding of the Christian message. It can foster self-destructive understandings of God. It can legitimate vengeful and mean-spirited attitudes toward others. It can misshape the way that we live. Distorted understandings of God can rob us of the pleasure and joy that lies in a life lived out of a fuller appreciation of God's will for us. It can narrow our understanding of the Gospel's purpose.

Worst of all, perhaps, misleading theology can deprive us of a living relationship with God who created and loves us. It is hard to watch people live in spiritual and emotional agony who are deeply alienated from a god who is more the product of bad preaching, than the Lord of life. White noise is not just boring. It is spiritually dangerous.