Wednesday, January 22, 2014

the sum total.

"The trouble with the way religious leaders of Jesus' day believed, however, was that their confidence in their beliefs didn't point them to the source of life.  Instead, their confidence in their beliefs was itself their source of life...Instead of marrying God on the basis of their confident beliefs, they married their confident beliefs about God."  Greg Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt
I've been angry, disillusioned, heartbroken, over a number of things once taught to me as beliefs essential to the Christian faith.

A few, to serve as examples: evolution is unquestioningly incompatible with Scripture.  Historical veracity of every story included in Scripture is essential--if it didn't actually happen, our faith shatters.  The Bible is inerrant, so find a way to make everything in its pages consistent.   Revelation is a literal prophecy of the last days.  Heaven is a place to which we escape, so taking care of the earth isn't a high priority--"this world's not our home."  The Christian story is best understood in terms of a legal transaction (versus a covenant agreement, which is much more relational).  A hierarchy between men and women, as quietly affirmed by church leadership positions and interpretations from the pulpit of a few culturally-bound letters to the earliest churches (more here, and my latest favorite response from the beloved Ms. Bessey).

 These days, my beliefs often oppose the stance I took growing up; at a minimum, my perspective on various issues has certainly become more nuanced and grey.  I've seen shifting and growth in my outlook on everything from science to gender issues to atonement to eschatology to how to read my Bible.  Yet I must confess, even as strongly as I feel about all these changes--when I read this lovely and brilliant book about certainty and doubt by Greg Boyd, I was struck by the way I continue to find life in my beliefs.

I feel quite desperately that I need to get it right--and not only be on the right side of things, but also be able to articulate my perspective brilliantly.  This can be a source of anxiety for me, actually: the desire to be able to explain myself when challenged or questioned.  If I could carry around notes all the time, I would.  Reading widely from an offering of theological books and blogs these past few years, I find myself trying to memorize the words of McLaren or Wright or Nouwen or Bessey or Hatmaker--attempting to learn by heart the turn of phrase or a subtle wording of a particular concept so I can draw upon it later to prove my point.  

(It's that last bit that is so troubling).

This anxiety I feel in trying to have all my points perfectly polished reveals how habitual it has become for me to try to find life--affirmation, connection, love, meaning--from believing the right things (and articulating them in a compelling manner).  I don't usually see my beliefs as leading me into intimacy with Jesus.  More often than not, I find myself simply wanting to be right and convincing.


How do we marry God, and not our beliefs about God?  How do we move toward relationship and covenant with God, rather than remaining obsessed with mastering a technical understanding of theology?  Or another way of putting it: are beliefs the means to an end, to something beyond themselves--or do they, insidiously, become the end?

On the one hand, learning about theology has been beneficial for me because it has, from my perspective, corrected once-harmful understandings I held of God and of the Christian story.  In better educating myself about the Christian scriptures and the Christian tradition, the way that I live, spend my money, relate to people, pray, serve, and prioritize my time is affected and transformed.  Changed belief can make room for the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Yet another example: in coming to believe that the Christian hope is not about escaping our "bad bodies" and the "bad material world" in order to enter the more holy, immaterial spiritual realm of heaven, I have instead come to affirm the goodness of God's creation, as declared in those first pages of Genesis.  I see care of the earth as part of my calling as a follower of Jesus--especially because Scripture speaks repeatedly of God returning to redeem and set right God's creation (not blowing it up and starting from scratch).  (N.T. Wright says it much better in his wonderful book).  To put it simply, my idea of heaven was once that of escape into the clouds; now, I have hope for the entire universe, believing the resurrection seen in the body of Jesus anticipates what God intends to do for all that God created.

On the other hand--I am so easily swept up arguing my point and checking the boxes for the "right" way to understand God.  What is the point of all this studying and reading and blogging?  To make my case for finely tuned theological points?  This is why it can be dangerous for me to dive so deeply into my self-taught theological education.  I can forget the purpose of all this learning.


I know (but still struggle to accept in my bones) that without love, I miss the entire point.  If I can eloquently argue my theology but don't put all that stuff about love and forgiveness and mercy into practice, I'm an annoying buzz, a clanging gong.  I know God prefers a flexible heart to inflexible rules and rituals.  I know the kind of fast desired is one of mercy and setting right injustices.  I know the sum total of the law is love.  But I still can long to be smart and articulate and well-spoken more than a person of love.

 I also remember all the religious people who knew their Bibles and were more committed to their systems and concepts than to the God who had put on skin to stand before them.  They didn't recognize God in the flesh, for all their education.  I try to remind myself of them often because I see so much of myself in their commitment to head knowledge, all the while misunderstanding Jesus.

I am hopeful that beginning to notice these tendencies in myself is the first step to changing them.

May all the beliefs and books and Scripture passages lead me somewhere beyond themselves, that I might know God.


  1. I think I often put myself into a similar dichotomy - know and love Christ vs head-knowledge and theology. but what is beautiful, and in your prayer at the end I think you acknowledge this, is that these studies of theology and Scripture can (and should) lead us beyond, lead us deeper into the love and truth of God.

    But oh, what a balancing act it is. It's tough and takes alot of prayer and interior silence to work through it all. my busyness and preoccupation with busyness, I sometimes neglect. But I do believe that prayer with God and conversations with fellow Christians is how we can find some peace and balance.

    I recently started an extra discussion group for some of our teens who wanted to dive deeper. When I was praying/thinking about what to call the group I was lead to call it "Mercy and Truth." As we discuss theology, I want them to understand that none of it matters without the love and mercy of Jesus. As you said, love is the sum total...without it we are nothing but a clanging gong. I feel that I have been lovingly convicted by Pope Francis in this matter. It all needs needs to lead back to Love - our studies, service, ministry, relationships, our beliefs and attitude toward the world and people around us...everything. All must be seen through the light of Love.

    Good questions, Sj. How do we marry God and not simply our beliefs about God? I'll carry this with me and also be praying for you.

  2. YES. I love that you wrote about the need to have the answers, I feel that is such a human struggle. I too feel that, and I like that you expressed it with much vulnerability.