Finding theology: I’d like to straddle the fence, but from which side do I climb up?

I am tired of what theology does to my social life!  Perhaps my weariness is one reason why I accepted the invitation to assist in the birth of a Brazilian Center for Missiological Reflection.

Theological positions are important for some people.  Not long ago, a good friend warned me over coffee about the dangers of “Open Theism.”  I was unaware of Open Theism.  So I looked it up.  I found lots of mostly negative portrayals.  Google took me to descriptions of Open Theism only by people who wanted to tell me what was wrong with it.   I found no Open Theism advocates.

When I asked another friend about it, I was surprised go hear that he supported it.  He
said that Open Theism helped him renew his faith and hope in the ultimate victory of God: “In light of all that I have learned about the Kingdom, its presence in our midst and the implications of its reality on for our daily life,  Open Theism helps me participate responsibly in the expansion of the Kingdom of God.”

He gave me this video so I could hear the other side of the argument.

Even after hearing both positions, I couldn’t resolve them.  Listening to the arguments left me confused.  It also left me with a relational dilemma:  Which side of the fence should I climb–so as to firmly straddle it?

The premise that we need to get our theology right is problematic.  It leaves us in a wrong relationship with God, with others, and with the Bible.

For anyone who has tried to read it, it should be obvious that Bible is not a theology book.  It includes almost no categorical statements of philosophy.  Rather its fundamental claim unfolds through a rather messy story that involves many generations of messed up people, a variety of cultures and historical periods, multiple languages, and many ideas about God and the gods.   It contains a claim that God made a promise to bless all the families of the earth and further suggests that the promise will be fulfilled through a complicated relationship that emerges between God and people.  The story is further complicated by the fact that, despite the promise, the problems of the world continue unabated.  Worse yet, God’s people seem to contribute more than their fair share to those problems.  It even authorizes us to wonder whether the promise to bless–made so long ago–is serious.  Why is humanity so messed up and why do so many humans live such precarious lives? As the story develops, slaves and migrants become primary agents for change.  One hopes they will prevail but they never quite seem to do so.  Still, as I read the story, I find that I am inspired to find ways to join God in the mission and I want to invite anyone who will listen to participate in the challenge of living for the good of the world.

In this light, the idea that I need to find a proper theology so that I can wield its terms as a weapon to place a border between those who worthy and those who are not, becomes rather ridiculous.  Instead, the story motivates me to understand what God is up to now.  I am challenged to remain open to let the spirit take me into situations I am quite unprepared for.  I feel the need to allow the text of the Bible to challenge (question) the direction of my life.

If we want that promise to be fulfilled, it seems to me that we each need to be laser-focused on recognizing how we are being written into the story of the cosmos (that is, the creation).  As we do so, we might find that God violates our favorite theology and genuinely surprises us by leading us to engage with people we never expected to even know.

So, what about Open Theism?  Open Theism seems designed to go head to head with what its advocates consider to be “inadequate theologies.”  In a very real sense, this is just one more version of the same claim: “we are right and you have been wrong all along.”  So-called new ideas are being deployed to replace old ones.

Theology deserves to be called arrogant when theological systems enter into conflict with each other.  But it does not mean that theologies are entirely bad, or that good theology is unimportant.  The best theologies are just words, written in philosophical terms, but those words represent real encounters with God.  When philosophy interacts with the Spirit, the Word, and the World in a particular time and cultural setting, it produces some amazingly challenging literature.

But the Bible also represents encounters with God, but it does so in what is arguably a more accessible style.  It relies almost entirely on non-philosophical terms.  Rather it uses a variety of literary forms to tell a story.  The storyline emerges out of experiences, not out of philosophical certainties, that take place over many generations, in many places, and in multiple languages by people who believe God and mainly by people who do not.  Belief is important but, actually, the Bible implies that each person has a place in the story that it tells.  Theologies, on the other hand, rely on frameworks that are accessible to some and not to others.  The arrogance of theologies will be shortlived.  Each theological framework must account for how well it makes room for troubled people to experience the goodness and mercy of God.

In my own case, theology seems to get in the way of my efforts figure out I am supposed to live in a way that is consistent with the hope that God will fulfill his promise to bless all the families of the earth.  I walk with God more intimately and freely when I move away from trying to make the world and people conform to theological ideas.  I am a better person when I am “doing missiology.”

Doing missiology requires going back to the story.  It requires entering the story anew upon every encounter with others.  Thus, missiology becomes  “situated reflection.” We start where we are and we try to figure out how to follow God into His mission.  Our answers are accountable to the Spirit and to the Word for allowing them to push us out into the world around us.

“Missiology” is a relatively new discipline.  It was originally called the “science of mission” because it was conceived of as a research-based activity. Today missiologists continue to be committed to research because the mission activists are hungry for help with the practical challenges they face and they appreciate when research is pragmatic. Nevertheless, missiological reflection is primarily an openness to God that seeks to understand and participate in the unfolding story by which God is delivering blessing to all the families of the earth.  Missiology inquires into our experiences of the story because we want to live fruitfully as the people of God while the promise is being fulfilled.

The continuing arguments about whose theology is right and whose is wrong wear me out.  They weaken my sensitivity to God and keep me from letting God take me somewhere new, and into experiences that I never could have imagined.


Valdir Steuernagel is a Brazilian pastor and he talks about the missiology we could be doing:

Let’s work on getting our responsiveness to God right, more than on getting our theology right, for the sake of moving toward the new creation.

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