Monday, April 19, 2010

A theology of humility

This is my contribution to the "What Is Emerging?" synchroblog facilitated by Julie Clawson.

I don't consider myself a theologian, but I've always liked hanging around them. Growing up, whenever my parents would take my brother and I to church parties, I would inevitably end up hanging around the room where the adult men would be talking theology. I absolutely loved reading and books and language, and listening to the language and ideas of these men was endlessly fascinating to me... as was the fact that I was the only kid, and the only girl, that wanted to stay in the room. With the guiltless narcissism of a small child, I figured that this made me a little better and a little smarter than the other kids, and possibly than the women, too.

Somewhere along the way, though, I began to realize that understanding and being interested in theology was not only *not* something that made a person popular with other kids, but that there was something about the exercise of doing theology in this way that wasn't right. This became a big struggle for me internally in my teens as I navigated through family troubles and clinical depression. This talk of God that was so fascinating to me didn't really seem related to the God that I cried out to in the depths of the depression and confusion of adolescence. *That* God saw me in my darkness, and that God comforted me. That God seemed particularly close when I was particularly fragmented, confused, and especially when I just gave up and admitted that I was pretty much permanently broken and sinful and that this wasn't going to change.

On the other hand, the God of the Room Where the Men Sat was an extremely tidy God of Perfectly Logical Answers. He was an Ordering God, who put things in their right place and made sure the lines stayed straight and everything was at the correct angle. He was the sort of God that didn't allow dust to settle on the bookshelves and who straightened pictures on walls.

I lived like this for a while, with two completely different Gods, not wanting to reject either. I couldn't reject the first God... He'd literally kept me from killing myself... but I couldn't reject the second God, either, because my entire theological (and quite a lot of my epistemological) framework was built upon the premise of this God. It was not a happy place to be. I'd have times of spiritual ecstasy in prayer, followed by days of feeling rejected by God due to my inability to live up to His demands. Part of the emotions behind this were due to my age and to the ups and downs of depression, but the philosophical problem was real. I had two differing concepts of God, and those two concepts functionally cancelled each other out.

It wasn't until I began to worship in the Catholic church (following several months of being in an especially dark place over this problem) that I was made to focus on the Crucifixion, and there the problem asserted itself with a particular clarity. If the humiliation of the Crucifixion is our central metaphor --God's extreme humility in taking on flesh and in dying a gruesome death among criminals-- then why the hell were so many people I knew so proud and arrogant in their theology? If the paradox of Crucifixion is our central metaphor --the paradox of God doing the exact opposite of what had been prophesied and not only *not* winning a military victory for the Jewish people over the Romans, but preaching a message of turning the other cheek and rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's-- then why would ANYONE expect theology to be neat, tidy, and linear?

It wasn't long before I found the same logic at work within Catholicism, though, and again in other churches. Again and again and again, I found the same effort at theologies that Explained It All, and that gave a map for how to live. I could understand this as a basic human need... we can't handle complete chaos... we need cognitive structures for how to interpret reality and we need maps for how to make decisions. But I couldn't understand how anyone could believe that this was actual, absolute truth. At the best, systematic theology seemed to be a really good, responsible guess... a running jump at the highest monkey bar possible... brushing it with fingertips and missing it still, but not through lack of effort.

And then I found the Emergent church... by which I mean I found people who willingly admitted that their theologies were only attempts to live with and in the mystery of faith, but NOT The Truth. That doesn't mean giving up theological effort, and it DEFINITELY doesn't mean giving up faith. It means submitting oneself to the paradox and humility of the Cross... internalizing this and living it out. We CAN'T *know* God in the sense that we know our names, our families and that the sky is blue. To talk of God and of Christ and of salvation and heaven and hell with that kind of certainty is to make tiny ideological idols. It is to worship our theology instead of the Mystery that moves through us and brings the Miraculous into our tiny, broken lives. I believe in prayer and I talk to God in my plain and sometimes not very pretty language and I believe He hears me. I have no idea how that works. And it is enough.

To me, the Emergent conversation is all about the "it is enough". It's about stopping the habit of expecting God to do what we think He should do, and instead watching for what He is doing and praying that He moves us where He wants us to be. It is about creating spaces for discussion where everybody brings their experience of God, and absolutely refusing to put ourselves in the place of judge of that person's experience. It is about creating communities of faith that have a sense of humility (and hopefully a sense of humor) about their purpose and about their ways of doing things. It is about profound, profound gratitude for a God who trumps all of our assumptions about Him, and who simply is the I AM... greater than any definition or explanation we may have for Him or His work in the world.


Mike Stavlund said...

Another great post, Amy.

I especially loved this line:
"He was the sort of God that didn't allow dust to settle on the bookshelves and who straightened pictures on walls."

-- it was very illuminating of your experience and of mine. Thanks.

Craig Frogale said...

You know what your problem is Moffitt? You're just not willing to stop dreaming about unicorns with angel wings and waterfalls made from rainbows long enough to listen to the real TRUTH. I don't have time for your endless speculation about the mysteries of the universe. Am I going to Heaven or not? If you can't tell me, I'll find someone who will. BTW I prefer the God that meets us in our darkest hour. Theological Gods are ideas. The God we meet when we are weak and vulnerable is the real thing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for adding your important voice to the conversation. I have been a better person knowing that people like you are a part of the greater conversation.