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Dave Brisbin

Tables and Trees

Decades ago, I met a Christian who converted to Judaism, eventually becoming a reconstructed first century Jewish follower of Jesus. He spoke of his personal theology, a stated set of personal beliefs.

I’d never considered such a thing.

Growing up Catholic, theology belonged to the church, as if God had written it, and the church discovered it, parceling it out each Sunday. Unquestionably true, the idea of a personal theology was blasphemous. We had no permission to think personally.

Yet here’s Jesus overturning tables in the temple and cursing a fig tree for having no fruit. Both stories pointing to the fact that the Jewish system of his day had become bankrupt, fruitless, unable to guide its people to authentic spiritual encounter. Jesus gave himself permission to explore his own beliefs, lived and taught out of that conviction, exposing the defects of his tradition. And where did that tradition come from? If you roll back any religion to its inception, you get to one person. A person who had life changing spiritual experience, which they lived and taught and people followed.

All theologies begin as personal theologies—attempts to express an inexpressible experience of the infinite in a finite life. But when we come to that religion as a follower, what we experience first is the expression as it has been handed down, not the experience. Heresay…which won’t be useful unless or until it guides us to our own experience. Once theology becomes institutionalized, it becomes a closed loop, no longer pointing to life changing experience, but to its own law and ritual, as if they were such experience themselves.

Any theology only becomes useful once it has become personal.

Once you’ve memorized the phone number, you can burn the slip of paper. Once the law is written on your heart, you can forget the rules. The purpose of theology is to catch God. Once God is caught, theology can be forgotten—we can meet God without a middleman. But we’ll never know this until we give ourselves permission to get personal.

Permission will never be granted by those in power to overturn our tables of old thinking or kill our trees of unfruitful action.


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