I chose the title of my blog today for two specific reasons. One of those is clearly unimpressive, in that as I grabbed my clothes out of my drawer this morning, enroute to work this “old man” out, my favorite shirt entitled “Bad Theology Hurts People” was the shirt that said “Please, pick me”! And since some cool theologians market this shirt, and it grabbed my fancy when I first discovered it, I realized I absolutely had to have it. So there.
The second reason is much more purposeful, in that I profoundly, indisputably believe that it is a true statement. One in which I have been both on the receiving end of, and that I have also witnessed as the reason for the shipwrecked faith of far too many would be, lifelong disciples.
And to be honest, it’s no easy thing to grapple with. For to not be a victim of it takes an awful lot of time and effort that most are either unable or simply unwilling to give. What I mean is that it has taken me well over 50 years to read the ancient book of God through many, many times. And at least 30 of those said years were spent studying it rather meticulously in order to extract many treasures from its goldmine, and to also avoid the equivalent landmines thrown into the mix. And somewhere in between are distractions that can send people on wild goose chases, causing them to miss the forest of an actual coherent talking point or two, for the endless trees of “gotcha” minutiae as ammo against theological sparring partners, and a whole lot of other poor souls thrown in.
In fact, as I write this, in my own pilgrimage on this narrow path, I too have occasionally been smitten with these landmines which have periodically led me to damn near blow my faith to smithereens. Age is of course a good teacher here. And in the words of one of my favorite long-distance tutors, Paul F.M. Zahl, I have found that any theology that does not also bear witness to lived human experience, is in fact no theology at all to make any fuss about.
Now I fully realize that what I am unpacking here is much too much for a patient reader to contend with in a blogosphere rather than a book (food for thought), but perhaps I can put a few thoughts neatly in a theological drawer somewhere to keep one properly dressed for the road ahead. So here goes.
I grew up in an evangelical, bible-believing church where I was taught that grace was amazing, Hell was a real place to be avoided, evangelizing others was a cover charge for staying in the fold, and supporting missionaries was equivalent to sainthood. Fast forward to today, and there is not much in that dogma that I don’t agree with, properly understood. However, unpacking these things in a way that both bear witness to the whole of what the scriptures teach (a key point in avoiding bad theology), and that the many representations of the church also adhere to, is a most important exercise. And then to somehow communicate these things in a way that occasionally even makes sense to those not on the narrow path, is a purposeful art not many care to participate in. This to me is a travesty.
But he truth is, the bible says a lot of things, but what it does mostly is tell a story of God’s unhurried and blood-stained accomplishment of the redemption of man for all who will but receive it. There’s much more to say about this to be sure. But for now, what I am trying to say is that it takes the vast mountain of what the scriptures teach, and the village of the church’s attempt to get it right, in order to give us the proper lay of the land. For as the song says, it is a fountain flowing “deep and wide”, and it is also one gushing with refreshment to all who care for an expedition that will take a lifetime to complete.
Some Bad Theology Examples if You Please
Now I know that was a lot to unpack thus far to still not say very much. But what I am trying to convey here, first of all, is that prerequisite number one for “not” getting on the bad theology bunny trail, is to recognize that God can chew bubble gum and talk at the same time. And if we are going to be in lock step with him on the narrow path, we should also enroll in that class as a first order of business.
For instance, God, for the record, is a “both and” kind of God, and not necessarily always an “either or”. God speaks both clearly, and cryptically; and resigns to the fact that both of those are worth our endeavor to work through for the ray of light that await us. In addition, many scriptures have a main thrust, but also simultaneously have applicable meaning in a lot of other ways. Many of these are fully understood by the keepers of the keys (the universal church), and many others are like a lover playing hard to get; who sometime down the road will eventually open a door to us that we will be invited into with open arms.
Now to be sure, the Holy Spirit is a guide into all truth, but having the scripture as our primary compass (Yes, Martin Luther was right here), and a few seasoned teachers across the kaleidoscope of the church both in person and through pen, is a most necessary starting point. And the purpose as you might have guessed, is to make sure, well…that you and I don’t hurt people with our theology. And patience is definitely a virtue here.
Secondly, I think not too far from here, is the great temptation to side-step the hard work of a proper hermeneutic and instead throw the towel in with a particular Christian flag where the heavy lifting has already been done for us. It’s so much easier to find a system that jives with our fancy on all issues (enter the exhausting number of protestant denominations), instead of entering the Berean school of asking questions and searching the scriptures for ourselves to ascertain the living water that awaits those with a very big cup.
This is especially hard for Americans, who also, somehow partially birthed from Protestantism, have a rebel flag ready and waiting to part ways with anything that doesn’t scratch their newly found itch. This is of course tricky, because if we search, and we ask questions to the powers that be that are holding these flags with a vice-grip, we will find ourselves on the outskirts with the three branches of the church. The result is often aloneness and feeling as if we have somehow rejected God himself. And for the record, these are awfully difficult waters to traverse through and still keep one’s faith intact. Trust me I know. Yet what I have found is that many who are willing to drink this bitter cup are also the best teachers of the class. The end result is graduation into the bigness of God, rather than making God very small, particularly to those who desperately would love to know why we are still talking about Jesus in the first place.
Lastly, I believe that holding on to the treasure we find on the path loosely is also a good practice. Both for our own navigation ahead, as well as to continue to ensure we don’t hurt people with what we find. Age is a good teacher here again. For as we grow in the faith, there are hills that we would have once surely died on, that now seem to have lost the conquest appeal they once had. Instead, what we end up finding is that nothing beneficial grows there. And most of all, we find that God is not there at all in the way that we once thought.
A Parting Word
At the time of this writing, though I am still just a humble old dog looking for crumbs from God’s holy table, avoiding bad theology has been a costly exercise for this Heinz 57 breed. Though equipped with some gifts to speak on the ways of God, and enough school loan debt to crash the U.S. economy, my frustration with the three branches to the point of periodically having to part ways has hurt me far more deeply than it has them. And though I am still a miserable sinner saved by grace alone, who through that gift found the one who can heal me throughout my life, perhaps the greatest wound I have had is the inability to fit into any of the manifold expressions of the church as one of their very own. Perhaps being a rebel with a cause still keeps me from blindly kissing the ring of compliance in order to stand up in their circle and say “Thus saith the Lord”.
But at the very least, I can come to you and share what I have learned on the narrow path, and what I am still learning. And the truth is, even though the price for me has been great to get here. Here I stand. And the reason is clear. It’s because I don’t want the greatest truth I have ever found on this earth, to be the very thing that ends up hurting the people God is still desperately searching for.