Some months ago a friend asked if I would write about why I am interested in theology. There are a lot of answers to that question. The most important answer is one that leads into this month’s poem from Mom: I am interested in theology because theology is ultimately the study of God, and the better we know God, the better we can trust him.
Yes, I realize this doesn’t always seem true. Sometimes in our walk with God we discover, to use C.S. Lewis’s famous words, that “he isn’t safe.” And it may take longer to learn the rest of the couplet: “But he’s good.”
But listen to these words of Scripture. Isn’t it ultimately true that the better we learn to know God, the better we can trust him? Listen to the testimony of David:
And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Ps. 9:10)
…And the insights into God’s nature that Abraham, the friend of God, possessed:
…The God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist… No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Rom. 4:17, 20-21)
And consider the two-fold confidence of true faith:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb. 11:6, emphasis added)
Only with a firm grasp on the existence and goodness of God can we survive the apparently meaningless suffering of this world. Only when we are confident that God grasps us can we rest in his care. Theology—the rational study of God’s character and actions, past, present and future—can thus be a springboard for a faith that carries us far beyond what our rational minds can understand.
I’ll let Mom continue from here. May God strengthen your faith as you read her words.
God has created us as rational beings, but because we are limited in knowledge and bounded by time and space, the key to peace of mind in this sin-cursed universe is not reason, but faith. Totally senseless accidents occur and tragedy stalks our days on earth. But “God is love” and “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” I John 4:8;1:5 That is the only safe foundation for security and sanity.
This poem was written in 1999 after an accident that was not only tragic but full of painful ironies. Parents of 3 die during safety stop read one newspaper headline. Why should two loving parents die while attempting to secure their children’s seat belts, leaving three very young children behind as orphans? Why should God allow the foot of a conscientious father to slip at an intersection with a dangerous incline?
Though we were not closely acquainted with the family, we, like many others in our broader church family and beyond, were deeply moved by the incident. How do we interpret our world and our God at such a time? Only by holding fast to faith in our unchanging God and in His love for us can we find comfort. Only by believing His good intent for His children can we find hope and meaning in an unpredictable and often painful world.
Some of my poems expressing grief are free-verse, apparently as spontaneous and uncontrolled as the tears and confused outpourings of a broken heart. This poem is a sonnet, very structured in form, perhaps an attempt on my part to impose form and pattern and some reason on an unpredictable world. But my ultimate hope rests on God’s promises of a new heaven and new earth where perfection will finally be realized and our anguished questions will be a dim memory.
ONLY GOD’S WORLD
Why trust this God Who labelled His world good,
With perfect seasons carefully designed,
If senseless accidents can still intrude
And rend the closest ties of humankind?
What world but God’s endures loss and survives,
Can bear and beautify, can make grief seem
The awful tragedy it is, in that our lives
Require divine involvement to redeem?
For in a world that claims no God but chance,
There chaos is the norm and trust deceived.
All grief’s a joke where all is happenstance,
All love a waste where none can be believed.
If you would have your sorrow honoured, keep
Your faith in God Who sits with you to weep.
—Elaine Gingrich, December 1999
Note: This poem was printed in The Midwest Focus and later anthologized in Reflections of God’s Grace in Grief (c. 2009) which was written and compiled by Faythelma Bechtel, a dear lady who is closely acquainted with grief.
For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.
On Monday and Tuesday this week I had the pleasure of sitting for hours on end discussing theology with men older and wiser than me. It wouldn’t be right to say that I felt like the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple. But I do admit that I identify with Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, singing about what he would do “if I were a rich man“:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack To sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all.
How did I achieve such sweetness? About a dozen of us were gathered for an annual event called the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. Each year one member of this group prepares a theological paper, which we then read and discuss for about a day and a half.
Faith Builders kindly hosts the event, but is unaffiliated. FDS is a basically autonomous child of the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites, and there is some overlap in who is involved. At this point I’m tempted to honor the men who attended this year by naming them, but I know they are not seeking any such recognition. Instead, I’ll briefly describe them.
What are some things about these men that blessed me? Here are a few:
It was refreshing to hear these men interact respectfully. There are certainly differences of understanding among these men (and I add to the diversity). But I rejoice to report that the conversations were full of humility and grace.
It was also evident that these men have pastoral and worshipful hearts. They care about hurting people. They are aware of the glory of God. Theology is no mere academic exercise for these men.
Yet they are also men who believe that ideas matter, and that it isn’t a waste of time to have lengthy discussion about matters like what does or doesn’t get imputed in justification or the spiritual state of children.
What Scripture says is important to these men. To be honest, the one who quoted Scripture most often and helpfully was possibly a man who was the only non-Anabaptist in the group. (He was there by special invitation of Milo Zehr, who was presenting this year.) So we will always have room for growth. But it was good to have Steven Brubaker (that is, not me!) be the one to note aloud when Scriptural reflection hit a slump at one point. And it was especially encouraging to see how Milo has been wrestling deeply and systematically with the text of Romans for years, wrestling and writing for the sake of the church.
I could reflect more, but since it isn’t the aim of this group to make a big public splash, I’ll stop. May more such groups and discussions multiply within our Anabaptist churches. May older men and women take time to examine Scripture and discuss theology together, and may they invite those younger to join them!
Speaking of those younger, my friend Kendall Myers loaned me a fine old book last week: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, by Helmut Thielicke. Here are some quotes that resonate with me as I reflect on the experience I described above. First, some thoughts about “the study of dogmatics [systematic theology] with prayer”:
The man who studies theology, and especially he who studies dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I can no longer read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors.
…A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.
Essentially, theological method is characterized by the fact that it takes into account that God has spoken, and that now what God has spoken is to be understood and answered. But it can only be understood when I
(1) recognize that what has been said is directed to me, and
(2) become involved in formulating a reply. Only out of this dialogue is the theological method comprehensible (Galatians 4:9). Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, “Did God really say?” (cf. Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think.
In contrast with this, the crucified Jesus, out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned him. He speaks to Him at this very moment—in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete. This observation, too, should make us think. (pp. 33-35)
Indeed. And here is another passage that made me think, given my youthful age (aka 40, aka too-old-to-be-trusted-by-teenagers and too-young-to-be-trusted-by-seniors):
It is far from my purpose simply to accuse the theological student or to caricature him…
We are dealing with the quite natural phenomena of growth…
A twenty-year-old is taught, say, to think about the problems of the Trinity. Over these, down through the centuries, the most bitter battles have been fought with life at stake. To these problems the great leaders have bent mighty spiritual energies and behind them lie quite definite spiritual experiences. You can see that the young theologian has by no means yet grown up to these doctrines in his own spiritual development, even if he understands intellectually rather well the logic of the system—that is, its crust of what once was spiritual, and the legitimate and logical course, so to speak, of its developments in the history of doctrine.
Therefore it is evident how and where, given such a state of affairs, serious crises must arise. There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up in the same way that one who is to be confirmed must also still grow into the long trousers of the Catechism. Meanwhile, they hang loosely around his body, and this ludicrous sight of course is not beautiful…
In his book on Goethe, Gundolf speaks, in reference to such cases, of a merely conceptual experience. Some truth or other has not been “passed through” as a primary experience, but has been replaced by “perception” of the literary or intellectual deposit of what another’s primary experience, say Luther’s, has discovered. Thus one lives at second hand.
But because this kind of perception of another’s religiosity or spirituality can be extremely lively and even passionate, it is easy to lapse into auto-suggestion, as if a person had experienced and passed through all that himself. He lapses into an illegitimate identification with the other. It is possible to be thoroughly bewitched by the mighty thoughts of the young Luther and then to lapse into the illusion that what is “understood” in this way and makes such an impression is genuine faith. In reality, it is only a case of perception and of being victimized by the seduction of conceptual experience. In his own life, in his own faith, the young man is not that far along! Young theologians manifest certain trumped-up intellectual efforts which actually amount to nothing.
Speaking figuratively, the study of theology often produces overgrown youths whose internal organs have not correspondingly developed. This is characteristic of adolescence. There is actually something like theological puberty…
It is a mistake for anyone who is just in this stage to appear before a church as a teacher. He has outgrown the naivété with which in young people’s work he might by all means have taken this part. he has not yet come to that maturity which would permit him to absorb into his own life and reproduce out of the freshness of his own personal faith the things which he imagines intellectually and which are accessible to him through reflection. We must have patience here and be able to wait. For the reasons I have mentioned I do not tolerate sermons by first-semester young theological students swaddled in their gowns. One ought to be able to keep still. During the period when the voice is changing we do not sing, and during this formative period in the life of the theological student he does not preach. (pp. 9-12)
These observations, too, should make us think.
And with that sobering thought I’ll make a rather untimely turn to a final announcement: I have been invited to share my long-promised essay on ordinances to the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. This may happen in either 2016 or 2017.
But—cheers for those who have been patiently waiting—I have the blessing of the FDS men to post it here before that time. So my tentative plans are to post the majority of the essay here much as it now is. Soon. But with the understanding that further revisions are in order and—crucially—minus the difficult final section where I attempt to answer the “so what?” questions about my historical and biblical findings. That is the section where Thielicke’s warnings above are most relevant, and where maturity on the part of this writer is most needed. (And where perhaps my readers here can help shape my thoughts before that FDS meeting?)