As a frustrated writer and teacher, and someone who loves doing both, I recognize a need in churches to teach folks how to reflect theologically. The single biggest reason for this, quite honestly, is that I believe church hierarchies have done the local church member a grave disservice by allowing them to excluse themselves from the conversation. Increasingly, the theological discussions surrounding potentially contentious issues have occurred in denominational ivory towers, leaving the average church-goer divorced from the process of contemplating God’s place in any controversy.
There seems to have developed an attitude that only trained and qualified clergy, and the most mature elders in some instances, have the capacity to truly understand the theological implications of any number of church initiatives and stands. A case in point might be the Presbyterian debate surrounding an upcoming constitutional amendment. Where is the basic discussion occurring on this subject? On the floor of presbytery meetings, which is not so much a problem as an indicator.
The estimates vary, but it seems anywhere from 50% to 80% of churches have not discussed this change anywhere except in the parking lot. What this invariably means is that there will be a decision by each presbytery in regard to a decision by the denomination (actually General Assembly, but not everyone will know what that is) that will result in either a change or no change in the Presbyterian Church (USA) constitution. And, 50-80% of church members will know nothing about the arguments and dialogue, except what they read in slanted, partisan newsletters or hear in the coffee room. The church members, mostly perfectly capable of theological reflection, simply are left to wonder why an important decision was made. There is no more perfect plan to increase the number of Monday morning quarterbacks.
As I said, I love to teach. I especially like to teach people how to sift through ideas to find the place they can be comfortable. I spent twenty years teaching opticians how to be the best they can be, in the hope that each and every one would surpass my expectations. I did this not by teaching them facts, but how to use facts to think outside the box to find new and creative solutions. You see, for me, there are two purposes for learning something – either to do it or teach it. Either one gives what has been learned life – it is still capable of growing and changing.
A fact, by its nature is fixed – it can change no more. Because of that, there are far fewer facts than most people think. Many facts are theories with a strong likelihood of being right – strong, but not iron clad. When I was a young lad in grade school, oh so very long ago, I learned that the smallest particle was an atom – that was a fact. A fact that was, in very short order, proven wrong. As of 1964, it became a fact that the smallest particle was a quark, which is infinitesimally smaller than an atom. A quark was not actually observed, however, until 1995. Now, it is no langer a fact, since there are smaller particles that have been theorized to exist.
We are very free in ascribing to ideas and theories the moniker of “fact”. “Facts” are, many times, things that are known at any point in time that have a high probability of being right. Now what could complicate that more than starting to discuss facts about God? At one time it was considered a theological fact that God not only approved of slavery, but required it. It was a theological fact that God created women and people of color to be subordinate to white males. It was a theological fact that interracial marriage was a sin. Each of these facts have eventually been assumed to be wrong, which begs the question, “Why did we think they were facts in the first place?”
Theological reflection is a process by which “facts” are considered in light of what we believe to be true about God and God’s will, but with an attitude of humility that says, “we can really never know.” Theological reflection, then, does not deal with facts, but with faith. And my job, as I see it, is to walk alongside, teach and dialogue with people as they constantly work out their faith in fear and trembling – that is, in uncertainty of any fact. If we could do this more in churches, and do less pontificating about theological absolutes, the actual church-members would be the ones driving changes in theological and/or denominational “rules”.