This is my attempt to make some sense of a struggle at work in my mind and in the wider Church. For the sake of argument I will be generalising and using stereotypes, so forgive me…
So let’s start with some background. Sometimes I fear that my present situation will result in some kind of theological personality disorder (and don’t you dare say schizophrenia, it’s a totally different thing). I attend a reformed evangelical church, with a very strong emphasis on Bible teaching. My own theological position has strong Reformed and Calvinist leanings, and I have generally held to the old war cry of the reformers ‘Sola Scriptura, tota scriptura’ – ‘Only the Bible, all of the Bible’ for the basis of my ‘theology’ – (for the purpose of this exercise I’m treating theology as an umbrella term for interpretation of the Bible, understanding of God and a ‘Christian outlook’ on life). Beyond this I have even been influenced by the (what some would call extreme fundamentalist and right wing) Christian Reconstruction movement. Broadly speaking my theological position could be described as a ‘systematic theology’. Bearing this in mind, most of my life and ministry is spent among emergents, charismatics, fans of liberation theology, left-wing, and generally non-‘sola scriptura’ type people. So basically I have feet deep in both the liberal and conservative camps, and yet I don’t fit into either of them. And I’m not alone.
As my diploma in Theology, Mission and Ministry with the Church Mission Society progresses I’m becoming more acutely aware of this dilemma. I started thinking of Christians as fitting somewhere on a two-dimensional scale between liberal and conservative and trying to figure where I fit, and if there’s a right place. And no I’m not into this post-modern ‘what works for me, works for me, what works for you, works for you’ crap. We live in a world which needs answers not loose platitudes and theology ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’.
Broadly speaking here are the main characteristics of each end of the ‘scale’ I created in my mind:
Strong Bible handling
Passionate about maintaining purity in one’s own walk
Strong stand on ethical issues
More focused on talk than action
Strongly engaged in social action and reaching out (great commission, justice etc)
Welcoming to outsiders
‘liberal’ attitude to maintaining purity
No solid answers to ethical dilemmas
Wishy-washy and inconsistent
There are real strengths in both camps, and I wonder, is it possible to find a middle ground with out sacrificing one or the other?
The more I have thought and studied scripture (conservative) and prayed and meditated (liberal) on this issue, the more I have begun to wonder if I am looking at the dilemma all wrong. Maybe even thinking of it as a ‘di-lemma’ is wrong. You see us westerners just love to compartmentalise everything, and we also love a bit of dualism. This is probably largely due to the influence of greco-roman philosophy on our education and way of thinking. To many non-western cultures the very idea of thinking in such a divided way is anathema.
I wonder if there is a ‘third way’? Socially active and theologically sound? Forward looking but rooted in history? Maintaining a good walk while reaching out to others?
Maybe I need to think about it not so much as a scale but as two components to a healthy structure. To save time let’s paint in broad strokes and use instead the terms ‘Orthodoxy’ (right thinking) and ‘Orthopraxis’ (right action). Why is it so rare to see strength in both of these areas? Dare I say it, how can one have a right practice without basing it on right thinking? Unless one counts the cost the building will never finish. And equally how ‘right’ can our thinking be if it isn’t expressed in action – ‘Let us not just love in words, but in deeds and in truth’. It almost comes down to the ‘faith-deeds’ paradigm of James.
So maybe we should think about it more like this:
Equally important structural members in the building of the Kingdom.
At this stage though, I still feel the need to lean on my starting point, for me it has to start on a foundation of Orthodoxy, the port we set sail from on this great adventure of faith, because without it we’re probably starting off in the wrong direction. On this basis I came up with the idea of Orthodoxy as basis and Orthopraxis as an outworking thereof. For me the concept of Christian Orthodoxy is rooted in God’s Word as revealed in Scripture. As Van Til put it in his ‘Introduction to Systematic Theology, “Fundamental to everything orthodox is the presupposition of the antecedent self-existence of God and of his infallible revelation of himself to man in the Bible.” The ‘Neo-Orthodoxy’ of Karl Barth et al lends itself, in my opinion, to a transiency of thought and theological relativism. This to me carries the self-same dangers as post-modernism which I briefly highlighted in my introduction.
Reading some of James K A Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” has helped make some sense of the mess, although I don’t fully agree with his conclusions. Smith argues that the anthropological starting point of most Reformed Theologians has only been a step further than the existentialism of Descartes and the like. To view man as “I believe therefore I am” is more sensible, and takes into account that certain presuppositions shape our interpretation of what we see, thus our central beliefs shape how we think and respond to the world. But this predominantly “World-view” focused understanding of Humanity still focuses on the intellectual side of man’s being – the ‘higher-path’ consists of developing a Christian Worldview. My issue with this is that, as Smith rightly asserts, this leads to ‘Christian professionals’ preoccupied with thought, academic study, preaching and the like, with little focus on action, and doing the works essential to Christian life as described by the epistle of James. It is an essentially self-centred view. His contention, however that man is primarily liturgical in nature, and the habits and practices of life are the basis which our Orthodoxy grows from, is both a step too far for me, and still a primarily dualistic view.
Grappling these ideas led me to start thinking about how our theology and action influence one another, and how the two can actually fuel one another. I came up with the following diagram as an exercise in making sense of my thoughts, which incidentally bears a striking resemblance to Laurie Green’s “Pastoral cycle” in “Let’s do Theology”. Maybe this is an indication that this way of thinking is a logical outcome of recognising the tension. At first my thoughts on his cycle were that it could be a very useful model for developing a theology of practice, and for developing a theology for particular works and initiatives. As recognised by a few of my classmates, this model is a good working practice for the maturer Christian, but fails to recognise the essential presuppositions required to start the process. Without solid foundations this method could lead way off-piste, and therefore a strong scriptural grounding is essential to maintain healthy theology in the process.
In reflection on all this, where I have come to for now is a recognition that the dualistic theology ‘scale’ is both unhelpful and by its very nature divisive. Too much emphasis on either ‘end’ is unhealthy, but developing a balanced theology and spirituality seems like a journey toward Christian maturity. I’m beginning to see ‘Doing Theology’ as a never ending whirlpool of Orthodoxy leading into Orthopraxis, which in turn influences and leads one back to Orthodoxy.
For example: We read throughout Scripture that care for the poor is an essential outworking of the Christian faith. This is a theology. We then take the brave journey to encounter and love the poor, which in turn could challenge some of our theology, and lead us to more questions. Again we return to reflect on what God says about the poor, how to help, and beyond that we begin to question why there is poverty. This in turn could lead us to reflect on issues of justice and politics, leading us into action in these areas and so the cycle continues. One cannot, I contend, have an ‘orthodox’ theology of poverty until one has journeyed among the poor, until one has witnessed the particular significance of the gospel message in their situation, and the response which their redemption leads to. I have picked on the poor as both an obvious and presently relevant topic, but I feel the same could be said of most theology and practice. Even Van Til concedes that “it is true of theology that it gets it’s facts about God almost exclusively from the Bible. We say almost exclusively, because we also learn about God from nature” and by extension our experiences in the creation.
I contend that women and men are not exclusively believers, thinkers or doers, our existence comprises of all these things. And so therefore a true Orthodoxy is evidenced in Orthopraxis, and vice-versa. How ‘good’ can one’s theology of poverty be without leaving the classroom or chapel and getting hands dirty on the street? Let us not be “Armchair Theologians” as Liberation Theologian Leonardo Boff put it, who “can count every hair in the beast’s coat but never look it in the face”.
And as we embark on this non-dualistic quest, I hope we see a whirlpool of change. Faith leading into action, action deepening faith. Contemplation and study inspiring action, and action fuelling contemplation and study. Let us abandon our dependence on ‘theology professionals’ in their ivory towers, but instead build a ‘body theology’ as we, the mobilised Church, walk with Christ incarnationally in His world.
Just a few thoughts from a crazy brain trying to join the dots.
Join me if you like in a prayer for the butterfly-minded:
Lord of truth, maker of all things,
Lead us into understanding, but don’t let us set up camp.
May we pursue righteousness in our lives, and may we love the unrighteous as you do,
May our faith fuel action, and may the outcome inspire our faith,
Be the starting and finish line of our race, and may your Holy Spirit refresh us along the way,
May we be inspired by your Word, and by the runners who went before us.
Hold all our dilemmas together in your mighty hands,