In the last two posts I claimed that believing is not the prerequisite either to following Jesus or to belonging to the community of faith. In both cases I said that believing can and does enhance these other priorities, but that believing has to play second fiddle to each. But this time I want to let believing shine on its own. Believing doesn’t always have to be the wingman; sometimes it gets to lead.
Before I can do that, however, I have to ask a question or two. First, why are so many lay folk afraid of the word “theology?” For that matter, why are so many pastors afraid of it? I teach weekend courses to bivocational pastors, folks who pastor one or more congregations while holding down a full-time day job as well. I always start my theology classes by asking the last time they used the word “theology.” Other than to tell someone about the class they were about to take, practically none of them have used the word in a long time. When I ask why that is, they generally shrug and say that it’s just not a word their church members like that much–and hene they feel out of touch for using it.
If I were to unpack that statement, I’d say that church folk don’t use the word “theology” that often because it strikes them as somehow inauthentic or pretentious. At the least, it feels foreign, like something people in ivory towers talk about, but that has nothing to do with them. As someone who has been in love with theology since my first undergraduate theology course a long time ago, I regret this situation. Theology should be neither a burden nor an irrelevance; it should be a joy, and for one simple reason: because it’s one of the ways we get to love God.
Just as we’ve figured out in recent years that there are a lot of different kinds of intelligence, so it’s become clear that we don’t all express our love of God in the same way. Some folks love God most with their hands, loving God by serving God’s hurting world. Some love God with their hearts, finding themselves most happy when their emotions are engaged, often in lively worship. Still others love God with their spirit, communing inwardly with the Divine. And then there are those who love God with their minds, finding themselves closest to God when they are pondering and discussing the meaning of who God is and how God moves in the world.
Just as I think that all of these are valid ways to love God, I also believe that most of us find one or two of them more conducive to our own spiritual makeup than the others. That is a perfectly natural thing, and simply reflects the diversity of gifts among God’s children to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 12. But here’s the thing: just because I might find one of these ways to love God more in tune with my personality does not mean that I get to neglect the other three. Regardless of where my spiritual “sweet spot” lies, God nonetheless calls me to serve, to feel, to commune, and to think.
The branch of the Christian family tree in which I grew up had no trouble loving God with their hearts, but the mind stuff was another story. Simply put, we believed that you couldn’t feel your faith too much, but you sure could overthink it. We were afraid that if you thought too long and too much, you’d think your way out of believing. Looking back, I have to see this as a profoundly faithless attitude, as if the God of the universe could somehow be defeated by human cleverness.
More troubling still was the way this attitude closed off the possibility of loving God with the mind. Throughout its history God has granted the church teachers whose role is not simply to lead us into truth, but to model for us the intellectual love of God. Folks like Augustine and Macrina, Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich, John Calvin and Susannah Wesley, James Cone and Letty Russell; these and so many others have, by their probing, pushing, questioning, considering, and debating deepened their own love of God and that of all who have known their work. Folks like these are often known as theologians, and the description fits, because we remember them for the quality of their thinking about God. But they considered themselves first and foremost believers, engaging in that same intellectual love of God to which you and I have been called.
You don’t have to have an advanced degree, you don’t have to know big words like pneumatology and eschatology (although it wouldn’t hurt if you kept one or two in your back pocket); all you have to do is stop to think, to ponder, to reflect. All you have to do, in other words, is to open your mind and heart to the questions of what all this means. If you do, God will lead you into answers that, in their turn, will produce more questions, and more answers still. And before you know it, you will find that believing is just another way to love the God who believed in and loved you first.