Good Theology

    One of the extraordinary things about Facebook is that it allows you, in nearly real-time, to witness the directions in which the people from different parts of your life move. I’m not just talking about geographical directions, though that’s interesting too. I mean things like, do they have kids? Do they get hitched? What kind of work do they end up doing? What did or do they study? And, for the purposes of this post, what do they believe in or not believe in anymore?

    I’m a great example of that last one. Surely there are quite a few people on my “friends” list who are at least a little surprised, perhaps saddened, and maybe even offended by what I’ve been posting over the last year or so about issues surrounding religion. I imagine it is strange to see someone who was as devout as I was for as long as I was become equally passionate and vocal about her departure from the faith. I too am often surprised, saddened, and offended by some of the content I see coming from my broad circle of associations, especially when it restricts women, conveys homo- or transphobia, diminishes the suffering of people of color, and so on. I think to myself, how have we not all aged out of this kind of rigid and cruel thinking? But, these are the communities that, thus far, I’ve chosen to remain connected to, if only peripherally. After all, collectively these folks make up a huge percentage of my network.

    See, when you’ve grown up Evangelical, you amass a great many friends who are also committed Christians. This is no coincidence. Given how bizarre the worldview is, it helps to have a web of like-minded support to keep the doctrine going strong. Many of your long-time acquaintances are from the church(es) in which you were raised and the camps you went to. In addition, if you had--or were able and willing to borrow--the resources to go to a Christian college, then you’ve got that big group of devout fellow alumni too. And, if you were a super Christian like me and did both seminary and missionary school on top of the all the other stuff, well then congratulations! Thanks to the vast number of people you know who were similarly religious when they were younger, your social media life is likely a fascinating aquarium of vibrant ideological shifts that just becomes more exciting (or demoralizing) with each passing year.

    I’m not sure if my experience is typical, but it seems to me, based on my very scientific method of spending way too much time on Facebook everyday, that about ⅓ of the people I know from the Christian institutions of which I was a part have gotten more liberal since l last saw them. About ⅓ of them have become more conservative, and about ⅓ have stayed in more or less the same space (or they don’t post much, so I can’t tell). There’s also a very small left-over percentage that didn’t stop at liberal and went so far as to leave the church altogether, as I did, but they seem to be few and far between.

    Something that stands out to me in watching my fellow believers (or once-believers) spread out into their various spiritual corners is what people take a stand against. I’m not sure if you, dear reader, are connected with many religiously-oriented people on social media, but those people will often post religiously-oriented things that are criticisms of the other side of the theological spectrum. That is, the liberals will break down conservative ideas, and the conservatives will post things that warn against or rebuke liberal thought. There are trends to spot within these back-and-forths. For instance, the liberal-minded take-downs appear to lean more toward the cerebral, and employ historical criticism as well as the hard and soft sciences in their reasoning. On the other hand, the more conservative voices tend to make a plea for protection and preservation of the stance (as opposed to considering new ways of thinking) and will sometimes (not always) appeal to fear of threat to the status quo. Of course--and you might already be thinking this--as a critic of Christianity I’m highly biased in my interpretations of the actions I see; but even taking that into consideration, I still think this is a pretty fair assessment. In fact, though my personal bias leans in favor of the liberal side of things, I’m actually about to nag those non-traditionalists a bit here.

    Among the general tactics I’ve mentioned above, I’ve noticed another, even more specific tendency: liberal Christian thinkers responding to conservative posts with accusations of “bad theology”. This indictment is a bit silly to me, even when I happen to agree with the stance of whoever voiced it. What makes a theology “bad”? From a liberal point of view, I think it often has to do with an archaic reading of the Bible that refuses to adjust interpretation based on historical contexts, new scientific discoveries, and so on. But then, from a more conservative point of view, allowing those things to shape one’s view of God and interpretation of scripture is also “bad theology”. My point is, who gets to say what is “good” and “bad” theology? Theology as a thing--as a noun--is neutral; it’s the study of God and God’s nature, how and why God acts, how God relates to the physical world and vice versa, the bases for religious tenets, etc. Even if one is not personally religious, one can participate in theology. It is a legitimate academic pursuit. But how is it good or bad? Isn’t it just...there?

    Apparently not. And this is part of why I couldn’t do even the most liberal Christianity anymore. Because even the supposedly most open-minded, most intellectually-oriented end of the spectrum of Christians is using their version of things, their subjectively chosen jumping-off point, as the categorical standard of quality of theology. And yes, to a certain extent everything is relative, and this doesn’t just apply to Christians but to all humans who have opinions that they stand by (which they should; God knows I’m opinionated as hell). But it’s the mild absurdity of it that gets me: the irony, that in a big and ongoing conversation that assumes the existence of an unfathomable (and heretofore unsubstantiated) supernatural being, there is a group laying claim to intellectual propriety within said conversation. You’re still talking about your belief in a God--an actual God--and if that doesn’t make it all seem equally somewhat ridiculous, well, I suppose that’s why you, you hypothetical “you”, are keeping the faith.

    As for me, diploma-carrying student of theology that I am, I look back on my foray into the world of religious philosophies, and the stances I chose to take during that phase, and I laugh. Who was I to claim mastery of “good theology”? In the end, who was I to claim membership in the best or ‘most right’ faith, period? I now believe it was all just my mind enjoying itself. I get a kick out of complex thinking, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I know now that when I criticized other’s theological stances it wasn’t actually because I thought they were thinking wrong. It was because my conscience was crying out. You don’t need “good theology” to tell you that telling gay people there’s something wrong with them is just plain mean. You just need empathy. You don’t need “good theology” to know that believing God can’t stand our imperfections and thus allowed his son to be killed so that He can be with us--his people whom he supposedly loves--is a remarkably unhealthy way of seeing things and psychologically damaging. You just need to know what it’s like to be a human.

    Yes, theology can be an interesting and stimulating subject, but let’s be honest. Very few people base religious beliefs and inclinations on rational thought. Perhaps no one does. It’s so much more about a combination of emotional realities (buried in theological language, granted) and the influences on the psyche that surround one as one is growing up. If rational thought were allowed to have free reign, there would be noticeably fewer Christians, in my opinion. Which is why this whole “good” vs. “bad” theology is so beside the point to me. Moral issues are not beside the point, the actions--social, political, and so on--are not beside the point, but the pageantry of building a solid system of thought out of a very old book that’s written in multiple ancient languages, that was both composed and compiled in the midst of deeply misogynistic, homophobic, racist, xenophobic, ableist, and pro-slavery societies--to take that and try to find a way that it’s consistently relevant today? How does one do that well? Best to leave it all behind and follow the conscience that’s been with you all along, I say. The conscience that knows what it knows without that old book, and can operate better without the pressures of maintaining an archaic worldview in the process.