Three Tasks for Theology

When my brother-in-law was about five he used to love telling a knock-knock joke: Knock-knock. Who’s there? Amos. Amos who? Amos bit me!

Then he would roar with laughter. He thought it was hilarious. He didn’t realize he was leaving out an important syllable. The joke was supposed to be “Amos-quito bit me.”

I know plenty of folks who have the special talent “to mar a curious tale in telling it.” Many of us can sing a song out of tune and still somehow manage to get the words right.

Theology is reflection on the meaning and content of our faith, it is scrutiny into the adequacy of the way we articulate our faith. Sometimes we explain it poorly. That doesn’t mean our faith is defective; it’s just like singing a tune out of tune. There’s nothing wrong with the song, but our singing of it is not very appealing.

Theology is not only the business of professionals; all of us should examine the way we articulate our faith. Theology has three main tasks; the trick is keeping them in balance.

The first task is to communicate the meaning of our faith to those who do not yet share it. To do this effectively we first have to understand the people with whom we wish to communicate. That means we have to be good listeners before we speak.

Paul the apostle called it “becoming all things to all people.” Paul Tillich called it the method of correlation: trying to find the questions people are asking before we give our answers. Then we can try to express the good news in a way they can understand.

The temptation is to package or market the gospel in a way that gives away too much, that compromises something essential. It is the temptation of trying to appease rather than challenge.

The second task of theology is the ongoing work of reformation. Put bluntly this means recognizing that a lot of things we are doing are wrong and a lot of what we are saying is bunk. The followers of Christ are always like his first disciples, people of little faith, short-sighted, hard-headed, and slow to learn. The church is always in danger of corruption, and is always in need of renewal. So we have to continually go back to the sources and ask What are we missing? What are we getting wrong? What are we distorting.

The third task of theology is conservative. We didn’t invent the faith; we inherited it and are entrusted with the mission of passing it on whole and intact. In trying to be relevant or trying to correct the faults of others, we risk losing something essential in the historic faith.

Anne Rice described her hesitance to embrace Christianity after she began to lose faith in atheism. The way other Christians expressed their faith struck her ears as wrong and she wondered how she could associate with them. For example she said, “How could I join with fellow believers who thought my gay son was going to hell? . . . How could I affirm my belief in a faith that was itself so characterized by argument and strife?”

Her answer was, “Well, what happened to me on that Sunday that I returned to faith was this: I received a glimpse into what I can only call the Infinite Mercy of God.”

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Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa’s letters, which are to be published by Doubleday next month as Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, reveal that she was tormented by doubt throughout her fifty years of ministry. The editor of the book believes that her doubts “maker her more human.” (For more, click here.)

Malcom Muggeridge came to faith in God by investigating Mother Teresa’s work with the poor in England. The only journalist mean-spirited enough to criticize her work has been Christopher Hitchens.

How do we account for doubt in the heart of one of the world’s great saints and servants?

In the Bible, of course, anyone on whose life God has a claim, i.e., all followers of Jesus are called saints; but let’s allow the use of the word in the popular sense: a saint is a hero of the faith. I will read the book when it comes out, but for now I will risk a few guesses.

1. Great people have great faults and great struggles.

Michaelangelo’s David was made from a piece of flawed marble. The sculptor used some of the cracks in the piece to form natural lines in the masterpiece. In the same way, as St. Paul says, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Saints are damaged earthen vessels God uses carry the treasure of his love. (Lucy Fuchs has an interesting blog post on saints here.)

2. Cycles of doubt are part of the life of faith.

It is true of many of the heroes in the Bible. Job, famous for his patient acceptance of suffering, cursed the day of his birth. Jeremiah complained to God, “You deceived me.” Paul spoke of a time when “we despaired even of life.” St. John of the cross spoke of the dark night of the soul. Jesus on the cross prayed a prayer from the Psalms of David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of us experience moderate, short-lived cycles of faith and doubt. Most of us experience a mixture of some faith and some doubt at the same time. Teresa had an extreme cycle: one year of visions and fifty years of doubt.

3. The nature of her ministry may have contributed to the depths of her doubting.

Mother Teresa lived with, identified with, and shared in the sorrows and sufferings of the poorest of the poor, the most wretched of the forsaken and dying. If one taught a prosperity Gospel in which God is on the side of the rich and powerful, in which wealth and health are signs of God’s blessing, such a Gospel could be self-fulfilling. People would pay to be confirmed in their complacency. It would be easy maintain faith in a Gospel of comfort, as long as one was comfortable.

But it’s a little harder to maintain confidence when one believes that God is on the side of the poor, the dying, the godforsaken. It is harder to maintain a joyful faith when one identifies with those who feel abandoned by God.

4. Faith is commitment more than it is positive thinking.

Teresa exhibited in her life what one philosopher called, “long obedience in the same direction.” Her refusal to give up when her faith had apparently left her is in itself a form of faith.

HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION III

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

A friend who taught a survey course on the Bible at a community college mentioned that the students were surprised at “how bloody” the Old Testament is. In addition to Israel’s frequent wars, the death penalty was apparently required for several crimes. Hostile critics of faith see this as incredibly barbaric, while enthusiasts for capital punishment see it as a divine mandate. Both fail to read the Bible historically. A historical reading would reveal several facts:

1) Capital punishment was widespread in the ancient world for a variety of crimes including religious offenses and insults to kings and governments. It was a bloody, cruel world. When all the facts are considered, the laws in the Old Testament represent a great restraint on death and cruelty. Death, for example, is never the penalty for property crimes or insulting a king; as it was in other nations. Bodily mutilations are common penalties in the laws of Hammurabi but (with one rare exception) are not prescribed in the Torah.

2) The rhetoric of the Middle East is considerably more uninhibited than that used by English speaking politicians. For example, when David heard of a man who murdered his neighbor’s pet lamb, he cried out, “The man deserves to die!” Then he adds the strangely anticlimactic “moreover, he shall repay fourfold.” David could not literally execute the man; the law only provided for a monetary fine–but he could express his outrage in angry rhetoric. Our national leaders might express outrage at an NFL football player arranging dogfights, but they wouldn’t say, “he deserves to die.” That kind of language is reserved for talk radio.

3) In many of the passages that say someone guilty of a sin, such as blasphemy, “shall surely die,” God is the presumed enforcer of the law. In other words, the commandment is a warning, “God will get you.” If blasphemers do not in fact drop dead, it is to be taken as a sign of God’s mercy, not a call for human intervention. Joe Sprinkle has shown that such commandments are a vivid way of teaching morality, appropriate to the ancient culture of the Bible. (see here)

4) In other cases, such as negligent homicide, a ransom was allowed in lieu of death.

5) In ancient Israel, capital punishment for murder was administered by the next of kin of the victim. The case was tried before a court. If the accused was found guilty, he was turned over to the “avenger of blood,” i.e., the next of kin who had the social obligation to kill the murderer.

6) The testimony of two eyewitnesses was required before any capital sentence was given.

7) In historic Judaism, the courts were extremely reluctant to order execution. The Talmud declares a Sanhedrin that hands down a verdict of death once in seventy years is a bloody court.

If we understand capital punishment in the Torah historically, two conclusions become clear. First, from a redemptive movement perspective, there is clearly a move away from automatic instantaneous retaliatory violence. Compared to neighboring civilizations, the number of cases in which capital punishment was applied was clearly restricted. Further, precautions were taken to assure that the penalty was not applied to an innocent person.

The second conclusion that becomes clear is that the law of capital punishment places a high value on human life. Because a human life is valuable, because human beings are created in the image of God, nothing can substitute in value for a human life. As a moral principle, “a life for a life” is still valid.

In applying capital punishment today, we still need to be guided by two facts.

First, Christ taught us to seek reconciliation rather than vengeance. He himself paid the debt that murderers and all sinners owed. He offered his life in exchange for the guilt of the world. The early Christians in the first three centuries were opposed to capital punishment.

Second, we do need to remember practical factors. Our legal system is imperfect, and the state cannot give back a life wrongly taken. The fact that several death-row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence should be a sober reminder. The fact that capital punishments places us in league with “Axis of Evil” nations like North Korea and Iran, should also be a sober warning.

Giving the state the power of life and death is giving it too much power.

Opinion polls show that American citizens deeply distrust the officials they have elected. Why would we grant these same politicians the power to take life?

THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IN THE BIBLE

What do fundamentalists and atheists have in common? Fundamentalists sometimes quote the Bible and say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Atheists assume this attitude is taught in the Bible itself. Both groups assume the Bible is an authority to be accepted by blind faith whether it makes sense or not. Both groups assume that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible is simple. Both ignore the historical aspect of the Bible and its interpretation.

Apart from a few passages, such as the Ten Commandments, the Bible does not claim to be dictated by God. The Bible portrays the complex interaction between God and humans over long periods of time. The interaction includes presence and absence, revelation and mystery on the part of God. It includes human seeking, groping, and grasping for God along with human resistance, dullness, and stubborn refusal to accept God’s will. It includes a process of learning and growth, punctuated by periods of regression.

Does the Bible stifle critical thinking or encourage it?

People who have a fundamentalist attitude toward the Bible, whether they are believers or atheists, have never read the Hebrew wisdom literature–or at least they have never read it with any literary sensitivity. The book of Job deals with the problem of suffering; but it does not solve the problem or answer the question why. Rather, the book invites the reader to enter the debate. The book of Ecclesiastes raises questions about the meaning of life and avoids giving easy pious answers.

Jesus challenged people to think. He taught that the commandments of God are not to be enforced in an irrational or inhuman way: A farmer would pull a lost sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath day; in the same way followers of Jesus are allowed to do good on the Sabbath day, to heal, to save life.

The rabbis likewise interpreted the commandments in a way that is intended to preserve life rather than to harm. The Mishnah teaches that the commandments must be interpreted in ways that repair the damage in the world. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ article at http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/).

Those who ignore the historical nature of the Bible assume it endorses slavery and capital punishment for trivial crimes. Both are untrue. The Bible recognized the existence of slavery and gave laws to mitigate its abuses and provide protection for slaves. For example, the fugitive slave law of the Torah forbids returning a runaway slave to his master and commands providing sanctuary. Those who ignore the type of rhetoric used in the Middle East assume that the ancient Hebrews actually stoned rebellious sons; yet Jewish sources record no record of that law actually being carried out.

The Bible encourages critical thinking on several levels. Biblical texts criticize theological traditions. In the ancient world the sun, moon, and stars were worshiped as deities. In Babylon the sun is Shamash the god of justice. The moon was the favorite deity of Abraham’s one-time home of Haran.

When the creation of the heavenly bodies is reported in the Bible, they are not even given names; the sun and moon are simply the big light and the small light. The stars are almost an afterthought, “moreover, God made the stars.”

The prophets challenged the religious practice of their times. God is not impressed with loud praises and sacrifices. He desires justice.

The Bible is also critical of nationalism and military pride. The whole critique of idolatry is not only about the theological question of who is the true god. Idols are symbols and instruments of oppression.

The writers of the Bible never tell us to turn off our brains. Instead they challenge us to think through the implications of faith in an unseen God who sides with slaves, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the crucified.

NEXT WEEK: The Historical Interpretation of the Bible