Why call yourself desperate theologian? (continued)
In part one I shared how my previously propositionalist faith did little to help in the wake of the grief Christie and I experienced after the loss of our first child (Jordan Taylor) to miscarriage when we were at SWBTS. We moved back to Plainview during the summer of 2000, after only two years at SWBTS. Having already lost our first baby in 1998 we had already tasted the grief that comes as a result and had some time to work through the grief. We had also been blessed with the birth our daughter, Damaris, in October of 1999 and while we still grieved the loss of JT we moved back to Plainview (believing it was God’s will) with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future. However, even though we still believe it was God’s will for us to move back, our time in Plainview turned out to be way harder than we had ever thought. In 2001 and 2004 we lost two more babies (Micah Jayden and Noah Avery) to miscarriage. This time served as an extended “dark night of the soul” for us both (and making things even more difficult, we also had a couple of adoption attempts fall through, struggled to plant a church, all the while I was finishing up my first Masters degree at WBU). The grief from the loss of our babies will always be with us (it can be no other way for a parent that has lost a child) but it was during this time that it was the deepest and most profound. It was also in the depths of this dark night that my desperation grew stronger than before and the propositions made even less sense. In a very real sense, in the deconstruction (to put it in postmodern terms) of my propositional/systematic form of theology I had to do theology out of the context of my experience with the dark night and desperation: in essence “desperation theology.”
- I was desperate for a theology that could hold my doubt, depression, questions, and unbelief. [As a note here, our struggle with desperation and doubt made a lot of people noticeably uncomfortable. I think a part of this is that we have to relieve ourselves of the pressure of always having the right thing to say…especially when there is no right thing to say. I believe that in pursuit of a propositionalist theology many evangelicals have neglected developing a theology of presence – a theology that can equip us to sit in silence, if need be, with those that suffer and/or doubt. While most seemed ill equipped to do this with us we were blessed with friends whom we are indebted to like the Efrain and Jennifer Gonzales who did offer us their presence without pat clichés. Also, while this probably deserves its own blog post, here I’ll just say that I think that most Christians have a hard time with doubt because they too readily assume that it is the opposite of faith, or what we might call “unfaith.” But doubt, questioning, and unbelief are not the same thing as unfaith nor do they necessarily lead to unfaith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather a part of the faith journey. In the midst of doubt faith is all one has to hold on too.]
- I was desperate for a theology that has as much to do with spirituality as academics.
- I was desperate for a theology that was connected to real life, one that could bridge the gap between the academy and the church.
- I was desperate for a theology that could enable the body of Christ to be a genuine incarnational community.
- I was desperate for a theology that went beyond the propositional; however, at least in the beginning, I did not know what such a theology would look like.
(re)Discovering the Triune God
My theological journey took me right through the middle of desperation and doubt theologically. There was no going around, up, over, or under it…only through it! I know it seems counter intuitive but instead of driving me away from theological study, my doubt and desperation drove me into more theological study. Really, the study of theology was how I coped; it was in essence a form of “therapy” for me. And it was in this journey that I came to totally redefine my approach to theology in response to my points of desperation (listed just above). During this time I read, read, and I read some more. Along the way I rediscovered the richness of the church fathers (whom I just glanced over as an undergrad) as well as more contemporary theologians. Those who know me know that my favorite theologian is Stanley Grenz. It is through Grenz that I discovered a theology, and a theological method, that is grounded in and centered around the triune God as the Divine Community. For too long God as Trinity had been diminished in systematic theology to the point of being reduced to the equivalent of a propositional doctrinal safeguard (much like even what happened with Christology and Pneumatology). For some theologians the Trinity only appears as little more than a footnote while still other modern systematics have a section on the Trinity but which seemingly has no interaction or impact on the other doctrinal sections. In other words, while these theologians believe in the Trinity we can not properly call their theologies “Trinitarian.”
This seeming absence of the Trinity certainly was evident in my experience growing up in church. I can not remember hearing even one sermon, nor any reflection at all on the Trinitarian nature of God, or any discussion of the importance of Trinity for ecclesiology or people made in the image of God. It seems that the modern church suffered as much from the absence of the Trinity as did modern systematic theology! There are many reasons for this I think. One is that while God doesn’t really fit into anyone’s propositional box in general, the very idea of God as Trinity totally obliterates our propositions as ever being adequate to hold who God is. I found this to be ever so true. While in the beginning my propositional faith could not stand up in the presence of my experience with grief and doubt, when I (re)discovered God as Trinity I found that propositions in general were way too small in the face of the triune God. Second, I think that in the rush to propositionalize everything many Christians fail to accept the mystery of the triune God. I mean, there’s not much mystery to a powerpoint or a “5 steps to ????” sermon series. I can not overstate how much we need to learn from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, who never lost their Trinitarian grounding, and speak often in their music, worship, and liturgy of the mysterium tremendum involved when we tiny, puny humans approach the triune God of the universe.
Grenz though presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which Trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section but instead permeate all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis (which I also glanced over as an undergrad), or our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that Trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the Triune life) spoke directly to my desperation and doubt. I found Trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of Trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God I had not known previously. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology, and ultimately (re)discovered the triune God. In this sense Trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into a Trinitarian spirituality that can not be separated from and is bound up in Trinitarian theology. I had not (and still have not) captured all of who God is, but instead the situation was reversed: I became captured by the triune God. I think that may be a pretty good definition of what we might call “desperation theology” (and theology in general perhaps), not trying to somehow propositionally capture God but being captured by God. Maybe we should all be desperate theologians!
Concluding Theological Primer
When I have discussed this with certain people in the past they have not only been concerned about my experience with doubt but also about my views on propositionalist theology (believing that propositional truth is somehow the highest form of truth). So, it occurs to me that some may come across this and wonder, “Why is this guy saying all these terrible things about propositions?” or, “How can this guy claim to have faith when he clearly dismisses propositions?” or even, “How can he claim that he holds to biblical truth saying some of the things he says?” If you are reading this and you find yourself with questions like these, its ok, I have been asked questions like these more than once in person. And hopefully, I can put you at ease. My plan is to of course unpack this more over time but here some brief statements concerning my approach to theology.
First, I embrace what might be called a post-propositionalist theology. This does not mean that I have summarily done away with propositions but simply placed them in their proper context. The move from propositional to post-propositional is a move from propositions as the sum and substance of theology and faith to a narrative theology and a narrative faith. The issue is that all of the propositions we believe about God and theology in general are embedded within and share an organic relationship with a larger narrative or story. We do a great disservice when we treat theology as “whatever the Bible says about ???” and then proceed to draw (or rip!) out propositions from there. I am not saying that there is no propositional or cognitive element to theology or faith, that propositions do not exist or are not important (I have plenty of propositions I believe). What I am saying is that these propositions come to us through narrative, specifically the biblical narrative and narrative of the incarnation of Christ who can never be reduced to any proposition, and must be lived (not simply formulated) out in the context of our personal narratives. In short, without their narrative contexts propositions are at the least in danger of distortion and at worst dead.
Second, in my move to a post-propositional, narrative theology I came to treat the Bible differently…as well, narrative. In this I no longer see myself as looking at the Bible in order to glean somehow timeless propositions (and thus, in a sense, standing over the Bible in authority), but see myself as looking along the Bible as narrative, seeking to conform my personal narrative with the narrative of biblical triune discourse (thus seeking to be under the Bible in posture and shaped by the biblical narrative in practice). This narrative of living along the biblical narrative naturally leads to missional living as we participate in the missio dei (or mission of God) and the narrative of the kingdom of God. [As a historical note: I am indebted to Logsdon Seminary and Crosspoint Fellowship in Abilene for their embodiment of missional living and giving me a place to develop and embody my theological reflections.]
Third, as a result of this I could no longer view the theological task as simply gleaning propositions from scripture as is often the case in traditional systematics. In a sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as a involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see the theology as my/our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God that is Trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature. I don’t have the time to unpack this presently, but this is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in Trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.