Friend of mine, an Englishman born in Sri Lanka and now a Talmidic Jew (a Jew who follows the Way of Jesus) wrote what he called a “personal theology” of God’s ultimate plan for us as humans and the reason we’re here on this planet. His theology to me was of less importance that what it did for him in his life. He has Asperger Syndrome, which is a form of autism that makes normal human relationships and social discourse extrememly difficult. His personal theology allowed him to see the beauty, even the necessity of his circumstances in order to fulfill his purpose in God’s plan. And he really is a beautiful person–one of the most beautiful I know. If his theology allows him to live Jesus’ Way to such an extent, how can I argue? It’s his, after all.
The senior pastor of one of the mega-churches here in Orange County who just stepped down for at least 6 months to re-evaluate his life, told a friend of mine that he was “post-theology” at this point in his life. It was an interesting way to put something I’ve been experiencing myself increasingly for the last couple of years as I’ve tried to pastor and teach both within and outside a formal church setting. I’ve taken certain beatings for my beliefs/models through this period, and I’ve been thinking about this whole concept and process of theology to which I’ve dedicated a great part of my life. I’m now convinced that theology is simply our best expression of the inexpressible, our attempt to make sense of things we just can’t know herenow. Or better, a way of describing the experienced action of God in our lives. And so, by definition, it’s all only partially accurate at best, and complete nonsense probably more than we’d ever want to imagine. And yet we fight wars both large and small, kill, excommunicate, and generally hurt each other’s feeligs over these models we construct–not realizing that no one has it all right anyway. Do we really think that any one of us has it all right? That we really have God all figured out? As Thomas Aquinas said, “A comprehended God is no God at all.” And to paraphrase Brennan Manning, I wouldn’t want a God I could understand.
But having said all that, theology is still necessary and useful if we put it in its proper place in life. Our own personal theology can be beautiful in that it can drive us forward in love and help us see over the disabilities life has handed us or we have handed ourselves. Like my friend, we can use the lever of theology to see God more clearly moment by moment. Or not. Theology is a two-edged sword that can cut the other way and debilitate us further, if misconceived or misused. And so I’m at the point of just wanting to know the tree by the fruit as Jesus instructed. Anyone who is caring for children and treating others with respect and love is someone I want to know, someone I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with anytime, anywhere. The rest just doesn’t matter. If our intellectual understanding of ultimate reality is what ultimately saves, then truly, God help us all. No, our understanding doesn’t matter in such things except as the means by which we get to the point in our lives that caring for children and showing respect and love for each other becomes vitally important. Getting to that point. That matters.
And how do we get there? How do we develop a personal theology? It’s in our own prayer life that we become convinced, that we see clearly something that we know to be true. A Catholic priest once told me this when I was trying to argue a theological point from the Bible about 15 years ago. He help up his hand and said, “All I can tell you is what I’ve become convinced of. Go become convinced of what you’re convinced of.” I thought it was a cop-out at the time. Now I know it’s the only way to live this life. Our personal theology will come out of our personal experience of God in our lives. There is no other way to learn such a thing, because such a thing is not transferrable between humans. What we become convinced of is ours alone. Our ruby slippers. We may find ourselves lined up with someone else’s conception, but we all must arrive under our own steam. Teaching theology, as I still do, really is a contradiction in terms, but at the same time, I realize that in order to help anyone to get to the point that they are willing to let go of everything they think they know in order to become convinced of what God is really showing them, we need the classic tools of theology to deconstruct old forms rather than to construct new ones. Take us down to ground zero, to the moment where God really lives.
The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu once said, “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish. Once the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch a rabbit. Once the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. Once the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”
The purpose of theology is to catch God, to get us to the point of trusting God enough to fall back into his embrace and experience who he really is and not who we might imagine him to be. And once the personal experience of God is grasped, then the theology can be forgotten. In this way, theology is properly formed and useful. If not, then not. Theology is not and never should have been a litmus test for our acceptability to God. Or to each other. That’s abomination. We can properly use theology to build belief, and belief to promote faith, and faith to produce experience and trust in God. Then wrapped in his embrace, as Paul Harvey says, we get the rest of the story. And we become convinced, and our lives begin to shine–full and heavy with sweet fruit. Beyond words. Beyond ideas even. Spirit to spirit. Heart to heart. Life to life.
Where can I find a person who has forgotten theology?