Critical to the development of a theology is the starting point – the experiences, learned biases, cultural preconceptions, and possible misconceptions which permeate our basic understandings – essentially our social locations. Social location, however, is not the only or final determinant of worldview. While being almost a stereotype of dominant culture – a predominantly white, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, heterosexual, fully-abled, protestant male – the life I have lead and the choices I have made mitigate my foundational attitudes. The experiences of my life, as well as probably some basic character traits or even flaws, have worked together to make me suspicious of the absolute values and beliefs that authorities and culture promulgate.
Just as rules need to have the flexibility to bend with circumstances that do not fit nicely into a predefined pigeon hole, absolute theological tenets fail miserably in many situations. Foundational to my own theological construction is the belief that one can know nothing absolute about God. I can believe that what I know in faith is true – I can even believe that what I know may be more true than what someone else believes – but I cannot know that my belief is based on any actual reality of God’s identity or agency.
My starting point for theology has to be intellectual humility – understanding my limited to non-existent capacity to know with any certainty the nature of God. While I may be committed to the tenets of my theology, and convinced of the appropriateness of my praxis in response, I cannot presuppose that I am the arbiter of God’s will. Therefore, that humility should also translate into a willingness to dialogue with people who may hold different views, and to avoid the temptation to absolutism; to avoid viewing my own beliefs or anyone else’s as universal norms.
That being said, however, each of us assumes that belief is somehow tantamount to knowledge, just as I did in the foregoing sentences. The images we conjure up, fed by imaginations set aflame by our various sources of theological reflection, become quite literal for each of us.
A case in point would be a discussion a few years back with participants in a Sunday morning study group. In discussing the essence(s) of God that make us images of God, Jim spoke of his belief, based on scripture, that God “breathed” life into our bodies, and that God’s breath then permeates our being with God’s essence. Cathy, after explicating her concept that God is energy and that God’s essence in us is our energy, criticized Jim for being too literal in his interpretation of scripture.
Jim, a Christian with a high regard for the authority of scripture, could rephrase his understanding in Cathy’s terms, “Breath – oxygen – is the catalyst for all energy expended by humans – it is the primary source of energy’s combustion. I could understand breath as energy.” I asked Cathy if she could do the same in Jim’s language. Angry, she refused, saying that she could not do so in good conscience, since she has little appreciation for the authority of scripture. I then asked the group whose concepts were more literal. Initially, everyone agreed that is was Jim’s. Correcting my question, I said, “I didn’t mean scripturally literal. Whose image is more concretely fixed – more absolute and unchangeable?” In discussion, it became apparent that most saw Cathy’s non-scriptural concept based on “more scientific knowledge” (her description) as actually more literally defined and inflexible than Jim’s.
As just illustrated, theology can always tend towards tyranny – a process of dictating, and attempting to enforce, what is and isn’t orthodoxy or even, in the case of many contemporary theological schools of thought, orthopraxis. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the rallying cry for reformed churches, is just as applicable to the individuals who make up the church who must always view their own theological development as a reformative process.
This continued reformation occurs on multiple levels. My own theology is constantly under scrutiny for notions that are in need of reformation – those that limit or constrict my understanding of God as opposed to liberating it. My theology, as it develops, should then re-form my actions and ways of being in the world. Absent a change in praxis, theology is just spiritual titillation. Changes in my theology should be reflected in the way I teach or guide others to wrestle out their “salvation in fear and trembling” (Phi 2:12), and in the way I act in community and the world. In that way, reformation is concentric and communal. Lastly, reformation is communally reflexive – the changes that occur in the thought and praxis of my concentric communities should, in turn, automatically initiate other cycles of reflection on my part.