Theology That Matters | Sojourners

Theology That Matters

When I was in high school as part of my participation in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, I had to write what was called an "extended essay" -- basically an essay of the (then) extremely daunting length of 4,000 words. Since such a task seemed horrifyingly difficult at the time, I somewhat snarkily choose to write about hell. More specifically, I explored the difference in pre-modern and modern worldviews through a comparison of Dante's and C.S. Lewis' portrayals of hell in The Inferno and The Great Divorce. I could probably fill 4,000 words right now in describing all that I didn't know about history, theology, and literature when I wrote that paper (it was high school), but what it really boiled down to was my inability to embrace an eschatological vision of the "already and not yet."

My worldview of the time assumed that my faith was only in something yet to come, some final end and blessing (or punishment) that God would bring about some day. To that end I completely missed the message in both writers that there is a tangible significance to faith in the here and now -- that God is already at work in the world and is inviting us to join in on that endeavor. My mistake was understandable as it is the same mistake that continues to be made over and over again in the church today. We as people are always tempted to the extremes and have difficulty grasping paradox and mystery. The idea that God's kingdom has come and is coming doesn't fit into our nice and tidy systems, so we gravitate to one extreme or the other.

For some it is denying the supernatural consummation of all things by proclaiming that this world and our mission to do good in it is all that we as Christians are called to do. Others, of course, go to the opposite extreme and are so heavenly (or hellishly) minded that they sometimes even refuse to care for the needs of today. We see this manifest in the recent debates stirred by Love Wins. I've found it most interesting that often those who are most insistent that God punishes people to everlasting torment after death are also the ones with the least inclination to do anything about the absolute hells on earth people currently experience. When confronted with extreme evils of oppression and injustice -- like human trafficking, genocide, mass rapes, racism, and sexism -- the response (if any) is that one day (in heaven -- if they can get in) God will wipe away every tear, and then they will receive the release from oppression that Jesus said he came to fulfill. Either extreme denies God's ability to be God. Either it claims that God isn't the source of all things to which we will ultimately be reconciled to, or it claims that justice and love are not part of God's essence. When God exists just for the now or just for the future, we lose God.

The problem with extremes is that we start to assume that only the extremes exist. I've discovered in speaking to groups that depending on what sort of group I'm speaking to I get accused of being too evangelical if I mention how our acts of faithfulness matter in regards to God one day reconciling all things, or I get accused of being too liberal if I speak about serving the needs of real people in the here and now, because all I should be caring about is what happens when they die, or alternately about moving beyond the constraints of the now and reflecting the pure goodness of God rightly. In this view, it has to be already or not yet. Apparently embracing a theology that translates the divine drama and the hope of consummation with God as an act of ongoing mission to the world that demands our self-sacrificial participation isn't a valid position in the world of extremes. Third ways that promote a "both/and" approach are a lot messier and harder to navigate, and so, therefore, are not merely rejected, but simply ignored. It is easier to promote simple theologies that place how God works into nice and tidy boxes, than live in the tension of trying to understand and respond to a paradoxical already, and not yet.

The thing is I don't have the patience to deal with theologies that pretend that God doesn't have a larger plan of hope, or that don't bother to work for God's tangible kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Theologies that are so inward focused that all they seem to care to do is draw lines of who gets saved, or who's a heretic, or who is too modern or liberal or whatever. God is bigger than such pettiness. I appreciate Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's comment that in her view, "theology is best understood