A Tribute to My (Courageous) Wife on Mother’s Day (2012)

A Note on Skipping Church on Mother’s Day

To start things off, a confession: As the heading confirms, yes, we are skipping church on Mother’s Day.

I will just be bluntly honest, Mother’s Day is difficult. From talking with others about their experience I know that we aren’t the only ones who experience Mother’s Day (and other special days) this way. It has been from the beginning … from the very first Mother’s Day after our first miscarriage when we lost Jordan Taylor in September 1998. I remember Christie asking if we really had to go to church that first Mother’s Day after losing Jordan. Since then we have lost two more babies (Micah Jayden in January 2001 and Noah Avery in January 2004) and had some failed adoptions (the by far most devastating being our little Kerioth Cherie who left our home in March 2003 – the details of this particular story are still almost impossible for me/us to talk about with others).

So, yes, Mother’s Day is hard … terribly hard, especially for Christie … and there is nothing wrong it being hard. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but not everyone seems to understand. Many well meaning folks express concern that we haven’t grieved in a healthy manner and ‘gotten over’ the loss of our babies. They bring up the so called ‘stages of grief’ as evidence of our need to ‘move on’. But while the stages of grief look good in a textbook they rarely mesh well with the actual human experience of loss and suffering. Still others are concerned that somehow Christie and I have a ‘codependent’ relationship. Besides questioning popular understandings of codependency … I would prefer the more biblical/theological ‘one flesh’ description of our marriage. A ‘one fleshness’ cultivated and fostered as much through the intimacy of shared suffering and grief as all the other forms of intimacy we share. Others are concerned that Damaris, who we refer to as our miracle child, will get the impression that she is somehow less important than Jordan, Micah, Noah, or Kerioth … or that somehow she will feel less loved simply because Mother’s Day is difficult. The simple fact here is that honoring the grief we feel and being honest about our lament in no way mitigates against our love for Damaris. One does not cancel out the other.

Now, I will admit to feeling a great deal of frustration about this and I try to balance it with the understanding that most folks are trying to express their concern for us as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. But on the flip side it genuinely feels like a good many, perhaps uncomfortable with our experience or perhaps trying to find something to ‘say’, try to play amateur psychologist, analyzing our grieving patterns instead of seeking to enter into our experience and journey with us. I recognize that it will be difficult for many to ‘get’ what we are doing here. A friend even told me once that it seemed un-American to skip church on Mother’s Day. As a way to foster further understanding, at least to a degree, what I would like to do is to invite the reader into our story and into our experience (and in particular the experience of Christie).

So what’s this all about? Consider for a moment three different calendars that can mark our time. The first one is the consumer calendar operative in American retail (secular or Christian) complete with its own holy days. Some of these holy days have been co-opted (ie, Christmas) and others are often popularly called ‘Hallmark Holidays.’ Mother’s Day is probably the most popular of Hallmark Holidays. I am not suggesting people shouldn’t honor their moms, wives, etc on Mother’s Day (note: Damaris and I were sure to get Christie a gift) but I do think its important to realize the place of Mother’s Day in the calendar and liturgy of American consumerism. This is the story in which it is embedded. The second is the liturgical Christian calendar which also has its holy days and seasons (Advent, Christmas, and so forth). By observing the seasons one is able to live into the story of Christ. The third calendar for us is one formed from the anniversary dates for losing our babies, along with their would be due dates, and along with the dates when Kerioth came to our home and then left. These dates embed themselves into our story forming a rhythm of grief and a constituting a liturgy of lament. What I want people to know here is that what we need is not to somehow ‘get over’ our grief but to contextualize our grief and experience in a bigger story – not the ill suited aforementioned consumer story – but the story of Christ. So, in our experience the liturgical Christian calendar and the rhythm of grief and lament go together.

The decision to ‘skip church’ on Mother’s Day is about more than it being difficult to be in a place where one’s grief or loss is forgotten, barely mentioned, or tagged on as an afterthought. For many who have lost children this is what Mother’s Day is like and what it will be like this morning in a great many churches. And today is not about hiding from the world, from church, or anything else for that matter. This may be surprising to some but ‘skipping church’ like this is a way for us it is way to both celebrate and lament. We do celebrate (we really do!) the gift and miracle that Damaris is to us. We lament that we are without our babies and that Damaris is without her brothers and sisters. We celebrate that the resurrection is true … and that because of this we will see our babies one day (true resurrection hope – this is why the consumer story won’t do, why we need the story of Jesus!). The anniversary dates come with their expected regularity and the world doesn’t stop nor does life cease moving because of them. It became clear then to us that we needed a day set apart for us to stop, to remember the loss, to share in lament, to celebrate our hope, and to honor the grief, to do the hard thing of celebrating and mourning at the same time. … as a family. Mother’s Day has become that day for us. We ask for your prayers on this day, and after this day we ask for the greatest gift we can think of – that those reading would continue to simply enter into our experience and journey with us.

She’s the Courageous One!

The picture here is the Mother’s Day gift Damaris and I got for Christie. (She has a running joke anytime a gift getting occasion come around about what Willow Tree figurine I am going to get her this time. Yes, I may suffer from a lack of creativity and I know Willow Trees are easier. In my defense, they are easier because she likes them and she doesn’t complain.) When I saw this one I knew that I had to get it for her. Its called ‘Courage.’ Since Christie is easily the most courageous person I know, I felt we couldn’t pass it up.

A quick story: Having recently seen the movie Courageous, a coworker of mine was praising me recently about how ‘courageous’ I am in taking care of Christie. Her take away from the movie it seems was that (in her words), “Men are naturally braver than women and are supposed to be courageous FOR their wives. Its not the wife’s job to be courageous, that’s the man’s job. That’s a part of his leadership and I see that you do that for your wife.” Needless to say, Christie and I intentionally practice mutual submission in our marriage so I have some qualms about what my co-worker said to me (as well as the movie itself). But rather than go into all that with my co-worker, I simply said this,

“Throughout our shared journey of grief and suffering, Christie has consistently amazed me. I can say without exaggeration that my wife is the most faith filled person I know. I learn more from her about what it means to follow our liberating King Jesus in the cross shaped way of suffering than from any other person or book. Thank you but I’m not the really courageous one. She is. She’s most courageous person I know.”

When we lost Jordan and she looked around for grief support surrounding miscarriage and found little to nothing, she courageously started her own online miscarriage support group ministry. From her experience of loss and grief she reached out to minister to others. That’s courage!

When she felt called to take her place as a woman in ministry and as a chaplain and when she and I were being ordained together by our church she handled opposition and disagreement from others in what can be a veritable minefield with poise and grace (I was honestly not so poised or graceful). Again, courage!

Many will know that in addition to grief and loss surrounding our babies she also has Fibromyalgia. Unlike you and I, there is not a day that she is pain free and some days it is completely debilitating (especially since we are without health insurance currently). Her experience here with grief, loss, and chronic illness has put her deeply in touch with her own frailty, fragility, and finitude – that is, with her own humanness. (This perhaps explains why she was/is such a good chaplain. It seems to me we need more pastors/ministers in touch with themselves in this way.) This takes courage!

Despite her own pain and suffering she can often be found rushing headlong into her concern for the other. I was amazed in her first year of CPE/chaplaincy at some of the cases that she recounted to me, especially the tragic ones involving children. Her dependence on God amazes me. This is courageous!

And the reality is that our experience can be kind of ‘heavy’ (this is what another chaplain I worked with told me one day). I have come to see how the invitation into our experience might be intimidating to others. My chaplain friend is right, our story is kind of heavy. We can’t help it, we can’t change our story. The reality of this causes me to sometimes hold back. I’m afraid of the reaction if I invite another into my story. Christie though, while not perfect, seems to do this more naturally than me. She takes the risk of inviting others into her experience and demonstrates an openness to the other that inspires me. I think this is why she is so good a spiritual care. Courageousness in action!

She demonstrates her courage through her engagement of the medical system (and now the disability process). Its an act of courage to even step into the ‘system’ and the inherent way that it acts to depersonalize and even dehumanize. And just recently she listened as a doctor at a local clinic told her that her Fibromyalgia was simply in her head and that the best prescription was a positive mental outlook. Despite her tears from, again, another doctor that seemed to skip the class on bedside manner and listening she stayed engaged and did not back down. This takes heavy doses of courage!

And she is always trying to move outward toward others as best she can to find places of community and incarnational space wherever she can. Since we moved back to Abilene she has found a place at a local yarn store (which of course involves knitting). She is an extension of Crosspoint and the story of Christ in this place – incarnation. But she also knows that the more of this she does the more ‘consequences’ there will be later when her body needs to recover. You might say that currently for everything she does there is an equal and opposite negative reaction in which she has to recuperate. This means she (and we as a family) must budget time and energy. Yet she presses on. I have rarely seen anyone as tenacious for community as my wife. Not only does this take vulnerability but courage as well.

Finally, she’s willing to admit she is afraid sometimes and that she needs the strength of another – particularly the strength of our suffering, liberating King Jesus. Oh that more of us were really courageous enough to genuinely do this and not pretend (I’ve been a hospital chaplain too so I know pretending when I see it). It’s perhaps a strange paradox that its takes a great deal of courage to admit that one needs help and that one feels afraid. But its this vulnerability and courage to come face to face with her own frailty, fragileness, and finitude that makes my wife one of the most genuinely human people I know. In my opinion we need more people in this world with this kind of courage.

So, as we take our day as a family to remember, to grieve, to celebrate – I simply want everyone to know that my wife is the most courageous person I know. And through her courageous faithfulness she teaches me more and more every day about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

[Edit: Be sure to read Damaris’ tribute to her momma here.]

May you all have a blessed Mother’s Day.

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 3

This is the third part in a three part series exploring I why call myself the DesperateTheologian. Parts one and two can be found by clicking on the links. I am probably the world’s most sporadic blogger, so this series has been extended over quite some time. A large reason for my blogging unreliability I think has come from not really knowing what I wanted to do with this blog. I do aim to start posting regularly. However, I don’t make any definitive promises and I hesitate to specify what ‘regularly’ means – life does tend to happen you know. In this post I have three main aims. The first is to pick up where I left off with the “Concluding Theological Primer” in part two and to share some more thoughts about how I see theology and my general theological agenda (this makes up the bulk of the post). The second is to give some ideas as to what I want to do with this blog. And the third is to give the reader some idea what they may find here.

[Note: Some of this a repeat from post two. My plan is to edit all three parts together into a single piece and post it in the ‘WhyDesperateTheologian’ page to the right and tab up above.]

Captured by the Triune God – Theology as Spirituality

In part two of ‘Why DesperateTheogian’ I shared about the deep struggle with doubt and grief in the wake and midst of Christie and I losing three of our babies to miscarriage (there were also a couple of devastating failed adoptions during this time – long stories I won’t go into here). It was in the midst of this journey through doubt and grief that I sensed within me a growing desperation. To be honest this sense of desperation is hard to pin down and describe. The best way I can describe it is that I was desperate in the same way that a suffocating or drowning person is desperate for air or in the same way that a starving person is desperate for food. The only thing was, at the time, in the midst and depth of the grief and doubt, I had a very hard time specifying what I was desperate for (I gave a list in part two but it’s important to note that this list is the product of subsequent reflection over time). What I did know was that my formerly propositionalist theology was not really much of a help. I see it as an act of divine providence then that I came across Stanley Grenz, who remains my favorite theologian.

Grenz 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 in a systematic theology but instead permeates all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis, or (all too briefly defined here) 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 grief 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 (as triune) I had not known previously. In fact, it was if my desperation was being transformed – from that of the loss of hope to that of the finding of the ultimate ground of hope and the longing for deeper participation in the divine life. 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 that would give me some answers and alleviate my desperation, only to have my desperation transformed in the (re)discovered of the triune God.

In this sense trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into what is a trinitarian spirituality that is bound up within and can not be separated from trinitarian theology. I make no claim to have captured all of who God is; instead quite the opposite. I have been captured by the triune God. Some may feel that captured is too strong of a word here, perhaps to Calvinistic even. However, in my experience it fits perfectly. You see, in the depth of my grief, doubt, and despair I was quite helpless and powerless. I had no strength left to hold on to God on my own. I had to give up any pretense I ever may have had about ‘holding on to God’ in my own strength, capturing God, or making sense of things through a theological system alone. No, as I look back the only thing that held me (us really, myself and Christie) together and in place, as it were, was the grace and triune love (perichoresis) of God. I found that despite my lack of strength, this was a love that would not let me go.

The Nature of Theology

Theology and spirituality must be interwoven into the same fabric. Theology happens not through the mere systemization of propositions but when one ceases trying to capture God and is instead, having been drawn in by inexhaustible love and grace, captured by God. Apart from its divine source theology is really a rather weak thing. The would be theologian should be aware that theology is not something to be used to control God. Much of modern theology has been concerned with formulating doctrines through rationalistic methods, boiled down into the form of propositional statements, which are then formally systematized. Theology done (up)rightly should recognize that doctrines are not and can never become an end unto themselves without significant theological distortion and reduction. While, negatively, we can certainly avoid saying false things about God, as well as positively saying many true things, what we say will always have a sense of inadequacy. The triune reality of God is more grand and mysterious than any proposition can communicate. This is not a Sherlock Holmes type mystery that we solve by the use of our rational powers alone. God is not a puzzle that we find the answer too. In reference to the triune mystery the key words are not ‘problem solving’ or ‘sytematics’ but drawing, relational participation, and indwelling. We speak of God, not in the pretense of having God figured out, but because we can not remain silent about the triune God revealed to us ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. What must be understood is that what we call doctrines only function properly if the would be theologian is willing to hear from God. One should never confuse doctrinal formulation for either theological or spiritual depth. The intertwining of theology and spirituality ought to lead us to the intertwining of deepening knowledge of God with deepening communion of God which is expressed in a holistically embodied theological existence.

In contrast to the rationalistic, propositional, and systematic expression of theology found throughout much of modern theology I find it helpful to speak of the nature of theology in other terms as well. It is important to note here that rationality (or the use of reason), systematics, nor propositions are bad in and of themselves. They only become problematic when theology is reduced to these things as theology’s sum and substance instead of viewing them in a more holistic manner. Thus, contra the reductionism of rationalistic, propositional, and systematic modern theology I prefer to see theology as:

Not merely rational but…

  • relational – flowing from and embodied in communion with God and others, conversational in nature.
  • reverential – theology done under God’s sovereignty for God’s glory alone.
  • reserved – recognizing our own limits and the irreducible nature of God’s truth, epistemic and theological humility.

Not merely propositional but…

  • phronetic – practical wisdom expressed in ‘fitting’ theological virtues enabling us to make ‘fitting’ theological judgements about the true, the good, and beautiful.
  • prosaic – practical wisdom that is incarnated in everyday life, theology that can move from the prose of Scripture to the prose of contemporary culture.
  • perichoretic – theology that above all else finds it ground, grammar, and goal in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Not merely systematic but…

  • situational – the recognition that all theology arises within and must be ‘situated’ in particular forms of life and cultural contexts.
  • systemic – each aspect of theology is interrelated, intertwined, and interwoven with all the others and can not be neatly separated but must be considered in relation to each other.
  • story centered – realizing the importance of narrative context and situatedness for the theological task, the central narrative being the narrative of Christ.

The Shape of the Theological Task

Here I repeat something that I’ve said often in other contexts: we are all theologians. In one 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! The question is what kind of theologians we are going to be. This brings us back, I believe, to the interdependent and interwoven character of theology and spirituality. Theology is about making us into a particular kind of people…or if you will; a particular kind of theologian – the kind that love (up)rightly, as well as know (up)rightly and do (up)rightly. The task of theology itself is a kind of spiritual discipline that is just as much an art (if not more) as it is Wissenschaft. The task of theology is a kind of spiritual discipline involving just as much prayer and contemplation (again, if not more) as academic study, a discipline that weaves these things together into the tapestry of life. The kind of spiritual formation resulting from such discipline is, then, our continued response to the reality of being captured in and by God’s triune love and grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world and God’s mission in the world. Such formation involves the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the grand theo-dramatic narrative of redemption and has its source in the divine life of God. As such it can be nothing other than wholly theo-logical!

To this end of forming and shaping us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ are the development of theological virtues such as humility, trust, receptivity, and patience (and we could name others), but the one that stands out to me the most (perhaps because it seems to be in such short supply these days) is the virtue of wisdom. These theological virtues not only work to shape us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ but in turn also shape the way we carry out the theological task. Theology is not just about producing really smart people. Rather it is a discipline of wise discernment which leads to wise living as well as the development of what I like to call fitting ‘theological instincts’ which contribute to what I referred to above as a ‘holistically embodied theological existence’ lived to the glory of the triune God.

Such a theological vision will necessarily emphasize the interdependency of theology and praxis. The dominate model it seems in modern theology has been to split or divide theology per se (which is viewed as a kind of theory that is usually propositional) and praxis (as represented by ministerial or ecclesial practice). In this, the theory and praxis are treated as rather distant cousins that one must choose between. However, I do not believe this should be the case. Theory and praxis should never be divorced, dichotomized, or bifurcated from each other, for while they are both distinct expressions, theory and praxis are both endemic to the theological task and intertwined with each other. Ultimately, the interplay of (up)right loving (orthokardia, being), (up)right knowing (orthodoxy, thinking), and (up)right practice (orthopraxis, doing) contribute a holistic theological hermeneutic for life itself. In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see theology as my/our participation in the divine, trinitarian life of God that is trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature.

The shape this theological praxis takes is first of all trinitarian. Though it may seem a rather obvious thing, the triune God must be the center of theological discourse. However, God as Trinity went conspicuously absent in much of modern theology. One of the most important theological tasks I believe is the re-discovery, re-embracing, and re-living of a robustly trinitarian faith. In particular, a theology of participation is a trinitarian undertaking flowing from the triune identity of God as the ground, grammar, and goal of all theology. It is connected to the divine life (the perichoresis of which Father, Son, and Spirit are all communal participants) having been drawn into this participation in the divine, triune life ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is nothing other than participation in the trinitarian praxis of God.

Second, this theological praxis takes on a narrative shape. Such a participation in God can only be expressed in narrative form by participating with God in the grand, triune theo-dramatic narrative in the world. An important theological task here is to re-member, re-connect, and re-flect on the narrative dimension of theology. Here theology is not so much about the systematization of propositions but instead involves the interplay of the biblical narrative as the norming norm of theology, church tradition as the hermeneutical trajectory of theology, and culture as the embedding context of theology. A theology of dramatic, participative narrative theological praxis works to connect us with God’s very life as well as draw us, within our own particular narrative and cultural contexts, into the wider triune theo-dramatic narrative revealed to us within the biblical narrative ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, this theological praxis takes on a missional shape. Trinitarian praxis and narrative praxis find further expression in missional praxis. As God is active in the world, He is shown to be the missional God who calls His people into not only dramatic participation in His narrative but into missional participation and praxis, which must be grounded in the divine life (perichoresis) of the missional God. Theology as a way of life then is participation in the triune life and praxis of God that brings us into participation in God’s triune narrative and sends us outward in missional praxis to the world ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. It is here, in the area of missional praxis (connected to and flowing from trinitarian and narrative praxis), that the church is faced with the need for wise contextualization. An important theological task here is for the church to re-think, re-form, and re-imagine its ecclesial, missional, and (flowing from this) incarnational presence. As a result we can not divorce the theological task from the ecclesial context. As such theology should never be done in the ‘ivory tower,’ but must always be ‘ecclesial’ in nature, contributing to the trinitarian, narrative and missional praxis of the church. The church, in my view, should be a missional community of missional theologians who worship the one, true missional God.

To summarize then, I have come to see theology as both personal and corporate (ecclesial) participation in the divine triune life of God that is characterized by trinitarian praxis (our participation in the triune, communal life of God), narrative praxis (our participation in the grand triune, theo-dramatic narrative revealed within the biblical narrative and person of Christ), and missional praxis (our participation in the triune mission of God). In this I envision a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional theology that gives rise to a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional spirituality and way of living. 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.

My purpose and Agenda

So…why a blog? This is a question that I have been thinking about for awhile and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with this blog. With the question of why I refer to myself as the DesperateTheologain explained, the next question is why do I want a blog? Here are a few of the reasons that should give you an idea as to what to expect here at DesperateTheologian.

  • To share about the intersections between my story and theology. I realize that there is a widespread aversion to ‘theology’ among many and that the mere thought causes the eyes of many to roll back into their heads. At the root level I think that many who have this reaction simply don’t see in theology any relevance or import for living in the ‘real world.’ I will admit; this conception may have been well deserved in a host of theological expressions. But in my opinion, theology should never be divorced from the rest of life. I have found theology to be not only immensely practical but crucial. I want to explore the interwoven nature of story and theology (what we might call a storied theology).
  • To help me organize my thoughts. Some will be more organized while some will be me “thinking out loud” and perhaps even incomplete at the time. As a part of this, I do a lot of reading, mainly theological in nature. I am hoping this blog can provide a creative outlet for me, theologically speaking, that will help me process the thoughts from my reading.
  • To develop my ideas and hopefully maybe even get some constructive feedback from others – but only if you promise to be nice.
  • To keep myself in practice as far as writing is concerned. I don’t envision this being strictly academic in nature (I don’t plan on footnoting everything, who has the time) but I don’t want it to be non-academic either – if that makes sense.

Research Interests: Finally, these are some of my interests in my theological research that just may find their way into a blog post at some point.

  • Developing a theology of community that can find application within the church in the postmodern context.
  • Postmodern theology.
  • Post-foundationalist theology.
  • Gender issues, sexuality, and marriage from a trinitarian perspective.
  • The relationship between Trinity and scripture.
  • Philosophical/theological hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy/theology.
  • Theological ethics.
  • The ‘self’, theological anthropology, and the imago dei.
  • The contemporary emerging and missional conversations.
  • The intersections of trinitarian theology (my main area of interest), narrative theology, and missional theology.
  • And I’m sure Stanley Grenz will warrant a few posts as well. 🙂

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 2

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.