Our lecturer had run a little late for seminar yesterday, so our good program director took up some time with an interesting reflection on the ecumenical nature of the course. As you may be aware, my Friday seminar for the M.Th. program includes ministers and ordinands from a variety of traditions, mostly Baptists and Anglicans. The program directors are a Baptist who concentrates on mission and interfaith dialogue and a Jesuit priest.
Our director was commenting that in theological inquiry, "of course I'm right, but I think in listening to others I can become more right." I must say, most of us can probably own the former comment, and would do well to own the latter. He continued to make the point that "the idea of a path is built into the idea of theological 'rightness.'"
Is it, I wonder? I certainly like the notion. Is the goal of theological inquiry - this task of thinking and asking questions about God and talking about it together - really to say things that are "right"? If we consider that a worthy goal in itself, I daresay that our souls are in peril.
Being right is not what theology is for. This work of thinking and talking about God (which is the work of all the baptized!) must be done in a posture of humble listening to God and listening to one another. If theology is good for anything, it is knowing God better. But knowing God isn't a matter of knowing right things about God, but responding in obedience and love to the things we hear, and I am beginning to understand that this requires learning to speak with a certain tentativeness about this nearly unspeakable love.
I'm happy to sit for awhile with the notion that theological "rightness" should be understood in the context of a path, life with the God who is always drawing us into deeper communion with Godself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What does this mean for the rules of "civil" theological discourse on blogs (of all things)? And if we're going to talk about being caught up in the life of the Trinitarian god and being re-formed in the love and life of that God, should "civil" really be the goal?
Please read the short essays that two of my friends have just published on the matter. They're both wonderful, and I think effect some very similar points, with different and needful emphases.
Katie challenges with a very clear and unfortunate picture of how we can treat brothers and sisters with whom we disagree:
... from a very young age we humans are extremely concerned with being right. I understand that. I spend a lot of time afraid of being wrong, which in essence is the same thing. Why do we fight so much? Because EVERYONE is wrong to SOMEONE. What I am not saying is that everyone is right. What I am also not saying is that everyone is wrong (although I guess I think that in a sense we are). The sooner we stop fighting and start talking, the sooner we may actually learn something.- Katie, "Them's Fightin' Words"
Let's start with the truth. That is, the truth as you, or I--in all sincerity--understand it. You do understand, do you not, that the truth as you understand it is not the same as the truth as many others understand it? Nor will it ever be. This is not to say that truth is "relative", or that it does not matter, or that you should not care about it. It is merely to state the eternal fact that there will always be sincere and honest differences among us. I would humbly suggest that some people, more than others, need to get used to this fact, and actually become okay with it.- Thoughts On The Way to the Abbey, "That's What Christians Do."
. . .
"Jesus said, "By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you bicker endlessly and destroy each other while the world all around you goes to hell in a bucket."
Antony and Alan have an interesting dialogue in the comments as well, discussing the nature and role of a teaching office in such a context.
I don't think of myself as being overly-concerned with being "right" in my theology, at least not as some kind of end in itself. I can, however, do just the things that Katie and Antony are talking about, without even realizing it at the time.
Christ have mercy.