“Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” The words are from Jacob, the ancient patriarch. Barbara Brown Taylor quotes them in her most recent book, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009). Barbara, who gave the commencement address to our 2013 graduating class, goes on to say: “People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers” (12-13).
Theological doctrines usually trail along in the wake of the encounter with God, but we should never forget that the doctrines were not intended to replace the God we encounter or the practice of the presence of this God.
According to Father Andrew Greeley, “The theological voice wants doctrines, creeds, and moral obligations. I reject none of these. I merely insist that experiences which renew hope are prior to and richer than propositional and ethical religion and provide the raw power for them.” Greeley, who died last week, argued that religion “is the result of two incurable diseases from which humankind suffers – life, from which we die, and hope, which hints that there might be more meaning to life than a termination in death.” Peter Steinfels, in his obituary for Greeley (New York Times, May 30, 2013), comments, “Before religion became creed or catechism… it was poetry: images and stories that defy death with glimpses of hope, and with moments of life-renewing experience that were shared and enacted in communal rituals.”
As a theologian, I have often reflected on the role of theological doctrine in the Christian life. Not everyone thinks theology is a good or even faithful endeavor.
For instance, Franz Overbeck, a Church historian and close friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, believed that theology was in fact the death of Christianity. Overbeck preceded Albert Schweitzer by several years in saying that the Christianity of the early church was apocalyptic and eschatological (that is, that Christian faith was about the end of history in Jesus Christ), and that this (what he believed to be) authentic Christianity died out when the last of the original disciples of Christ died without experiencing the second coming of Jesus. Overbeck influenced a number of theologians, not least Karl Barth, (Barth’s Epistle to the Romans figured into last week’s blog).
While Overbeck makes a persuasive argument (as did Schweitzer after him), I prefer to understand theology as a kind of reflective exercise on our encounter with God.
Through theology, we are trying to make sense of Who it is we are encountering. Even the most complex of theological doctrines are really responses to religious experience.
The doctrine of the Trinity, for example: although it is easy to get bogged down on questions of “hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” (and other technical issues raised in the stratosphere of higher Trinitarian research), in fact the doctrine of the Trinity is just trying to make sense of the fact that we believe the one we have encountered in Jesus Christ is none other than the God who created everything out of nothing, who spoke through the lips of ancient Hebrew prophets and promised to redeem the people of Israel. This God, we believe, continues to touch our lives, even after Jesus’ death. Our experience with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit gave rise to doctrines about them, doctrines that try to preserve the mystery of the God whom we have encountered. But, again, the doctrines are not intended to be our primary focus and they certainly should not replace the encounter with God.
This takes us full circle back to where we started, with Barbara Brown Taylor’s thoughts on “waking up to God.” She reminds us that the stories we learned from the Bible tell us of what it means to meet God in the world. “The House of God,” she writes, “stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I will never know. I am not in charge of this House, and never will be…. Like Job, I was nowhere when God laid the foundations of the earth. I cannot bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion…. I am a guest here, charged with serving other guests…. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars” (13, 15).
Theology is an inevitable part of a Christian practice of the presence of God. But it is always secondary, an act of reflection; it is a servant of faith, not its boss. We want to know and understand Who meets us between the lines of the Bible or at the Lord’s Table or in a dawn breaking slowly over a salt marsh. But the God we want to understand is and always will be beyond our kin, or else it is not God we are meeting.