Theology as Conversation

“I’ve got a problem with orthodoxy!” So began a recent and really enjoyable conversation with some of the congregational leaders in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod (ELCA). The pastor who made this declaration went on to explain that he finds theological doctrines regularly stifling to the kind of vibrant questions and conversations about the life of faith he encourages his congregation to have.

Which led to an extended discussion about the possibly of thinking about the history of theology itself actually as an extended conversation, a conversation that began long before we arrived on the scene and that will continue well after we’ve departed.*

We might regard doctrine, from this point of view, as providing something of the grammar and vocabulary of the conversation. But while grammar and shared vocabulary makes intelligible speech possible by providing some basic ground rules and boundaries, it serves best, I think, more as a persistent guide and map than as an overbearing judge or ironclad contract. Because, while it’s easy to forget in the present moment of speaking, grammar and vocabulary change over time. Words are added, others left out. Grammatical rules change – where once a split infinitive was forbidden, it is now entirely permissible (though I still try to avoid them!). Further, grammar and vocabulary are also highly contextual – different groups speaking the same language apply rules differently and have their own idiomatic expressions, and conversations themselves often make sense only in relation to other culturally conditioned conversations.

So also doctrine – it changes over time and, indeed, can only be understood in its own time and context. One of the examples we discussed was the sacrificial theory of atonement advanced by Anselm. It’s hard to appreciate Anselm’s work if we don’t receive it as a strong response to an earlier conversation about the cross that imagined the work of God as ransoming fallen humanity. Further, what passes as the sacrificial, or substitutionary, theory of atonement today owes as much to Aquinas and Calvin and more recent theologians as it does to Anselm. The conversation, in other words, moved on and continues to grow and develop.

At its best, the church invites us to continue that conversation, not by silencing earlier voices or being silenced by them, but rather by adding our own voices. And our contexts will matter as well. When I was writing Making Sense of the Cross, a good friend and wonderful theologian who read an earlier draft noted that my reaction to regarding the cross as a ransom (which wasn’t much more faborable than my reaction to viewing the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice) might be very different if I lived under conditions of oppression, or struggled with addiction, or was imprisoned. In such situations, she reminded me, ransom and liberation are powerfully meaningful metaphors. Our context shapes how we think, believe, and speak.

If this is the case, then maybe we should treat doctrine – the creeds, central beliefs, and catechisms – less as lists of things we must believe to be a Christian and more as confessions of faith that seek to prompt in us wonder and curiosity and invite us to consider what might be possible if these confessions are true.

And so for all these reasons I also want to invite our people not simply to assent to the church’s teaching but instead to wonder about it, to question it, to be honest about what is difficult in believing it, and to consider the possibility of actually living it. True belief, I think, grows only in the space created by the freedom to question.

But how far can this conversation go? Even admitting that doctrines change and that tradition is perhaps more flexible than we give it credit, at what point does an inventive turn in a conversation lead so far away from its source that it is no longer recognized as related to the original conversation? Or, if we think of Christianity as a story, how many plot twists can there be until it is no longer the same story?

Isn’t that precisely the question folks are asking regarding recent discussions about homosexuality? Some fear that this twist in the conversation betrays previous speakers and the grammar they had arrived at, while others see it as a natural extension of some of the important, if at times under-represented, voices in the ongoing conversation we call Christian theology.

And isn’t this also – to explore a very different example – the question raised by Mitt Romney’s candidacy? Or, more to the point, his faith as a Mormon. Most Mormons offer their faith as a branch of Christianity, while most Christians do not regard it in the same way. Conservatives have often labeled Mormonism a cult, or at best a sect – a deviant and unorthodox split from Christianity – while progressive like myself have been more likely to treat as a different religion altogether. Its grammar seems too different to me, it’s vocabulary too foreign, to describe it aptly as in continuity with the Christian conversation. But who decides whether Mormon voices are extending the Christian conversation or starting a new one?

Questions like this – and the uncertainty they foster – prompt some to cling to what we might call a strict orthodoxy and thereby declare opposing opinions or new twists in the conversation as heretical. I understand this inclination. If there is no agreed-upon grammar, no set vocabulary, we fear not simply that we will have nothing to say but that we will lose the capacity for meaningful speech altogether.

Still, I’m increasingly convinced that we need to risk “misspeaking” if we are to find an authentic Christian voice today. Mistakes, after all, are the way we learn, and I tend to trust the larger Christian tradition that spans both geographical and temporal bounds to take care of itself. When I recall all the varied and convoluted twists and turns the Christian conversation has taken thus far – and that it still finds a way to speak meaningfully – I feel less pressure to curb our current questions even when they run far afield. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong opinions about these matters, just that I don’t have to offer them in a way that rules the strong opinions of others so quickly out of bounds.

I’m reminded of the sage counsel of my first professor of Church history, Philip Krey. On our first day of seminary, Phil addressed us not just as entering students but also as budding theologians with the following observation: “You need two things to be called a heretic – wrong teaching and a position from which to do damage to the church.” Then, after a significant pause that gave him the opportunity to sweep his gaze across each of us, he continued, “And none of you is in a position to do damage to the church.”

There is a tremendous and salutary freedom, I think, that comes from not taking ourselves too seriously, trusting the larger community occasionally to straighten us – and itself – out, and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and nurture the ongoing conversation we call Christian theology.

With that in mind, it seems like the best thing to say next is, perhaps, “So let’s talk.”


*Using conversation as a metaphor isn’t novel – Kenneth Burke introduced the metaphor to describe philosophy a half-century ago – but it is useful…and fun.