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Entries in Theology (15)


Experience is not theology

I have been reading the book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. It is a fascinating read. I see many similarities between her and L.M. Montgomery, who also struggled with financial hardship, although not to the extent that Wilder did. Both women wrote fiction based on their own lives which left readers assuming that the work was strictly autobiographical. And of course it was not.

Wilder's books, though based on her own childhood, were works of fiction:

Wilder was not a historian. Instead, her novels would be created from a complex tangle of subjective sources: family lore and letters, old hymnals and songbooks, treasured artifacts of her youth, and her own recollections. Her depictions of the West were drawn less from newspapers and encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folks art.

Wilder's daughter, Rose, a writer herself, had different ideas. She had no qualms about not only presenting fiction as fact, but taking her mother's true experiences and embellishing them to make a good story for herself. The relationship between the two is very complicated, and at times, rather ugly.

How much of a writer's experience is part of what they write? Even when it comes to works of theology, how much of our own experience runs through our writing? How much of it determines how we approach the subject and the very words we choose? What role do our presuppositions play in how we process and analyze the material we do research? 

I am a firm believer in authorial intent. But at the same time, I am aware that there can be a tension between the writer and work even the author may not fully recognize. How accurate are our memories? How biased are our experiences? Research is really important, and Caroline Fraser's excellent research has revealed that Wilder was often incorrect about her memories. This is why we need to remember that it is fiction. 

And when it comes to writing theology, research is even more crucial, because research -- especially research from an opposing view -- will challenge us to look beyond our personal experience and presuppositions. We may most certainly inject personal experience in our writing, but we also remember that our experience, while revealing our theology, is not theology itself.


Let your ordinary bloom

In the book Expressing Theology the reader is encouraged to write engaged theology. Engaged theology is not detached from every day life, but gives feet to our faith. Even an unbeliever can know theology in her head, but the one who seeks for theology to shape her life and change it is putting theology to work.

The sources for engaged theology are Scripture, tradition, experience, and research. Now, before someone gets nervous, by tradition the authors do not mean embracing tradition as equal with Scripture. We all observe tradition in our religious lives. The fact that a child grows up in the tradition of going to a youth group is something that will influence him. After my conversion at the age of 20, my faith grew churches which while not Baptist in name, may as well have been. The traditions which were observed there contributed to my theology.

When we write about theology, we should give voice to the ordinary:

Experience as a source for theology encompasses both our personal experiences and our experiences of the wider culture. Ordinary acts like eating, shopping, cleaning, driving, and working become realities with which to grasp the ultimate principles if we reflect on them with the help of Scripture, tradition, and research. Everything is both ordinary and extraordinary. Write about the ordinary: the extraordinary often blooms from it.

Everyone lives an ordinary life, even those with exceptional circumstances. Everyone has regular, typical, routine days. How we bring theology to bear on our everyday life is important. Being an ordinary Christian is not something we should apologize for.

Part of my developing theology comes from the resources I utilizie. Right now, attending seminary at  Heritage College and Seminary is one those resources. As I learn principles of theology through my classes, they affect how I interpret and understand my ordinary circumstances. One of the lessons I have learned at seminary is the value of community. Being with a group of students every week over a number of months means we learn together, support one another, and care about one another. That principle has reminded me of the importance of my local church and the reality that we are all learning and growing together in our faith.

To avoid writing about the ordinary is a lost opportunity to not only practice writing, but a lost opportunity to understand how the ordinary and the theoretical work together. I will continue to write about the ordinary, here on this quiet little place on the internet. Who knows when something extraordinary may start blooming?


Becoming an ordinary theologian

I beleve R.C. Sproul when he said that everyone is a theologian. It was Sproul who showed me that theology is not for the professional alone. About eighteen years ago, I felt a lot of frustration when it came to things happening in my local church. Frustration can lead to grumbling, and grumbling is not helpful.

I determined that I needed to be more gracious with others. But did I understand grace? I didn't really think I did, so I set out to learn. At that time, in the old days when people used catalogues, I found myself in possession of one from Ligioner. In and among the titles there, I found one called Grace Unknown. Now, that sounded promising. I had already read The Holiness of God, and I liked R.C. Sproul, so I bought it. It was a turning point. Theology was exciting, and while it would often make me more frustrated, the process of searching was good for what ails a frustrated person.

This kind of probing, of course, was not always met with the enthusiasm that I had for it. I remember sitting with a gentleman at one point and shared with him that I was reading Stephen Charnock. He looked at me with total surprise and said it didn't seem like a book women would like to read. It wasn't just men who were perplexed. Other women did not always understand why I would rather read Charnock instead of the current popular women's book. The answer is simply that the book which was popular for women wasn't helping me understand what I wanted to understand.

Once I started reading Sproul and other authors, I realized that theologians were not just the guys with the doctorates writing scholarly papers. Theologians are everywhere. And once I began blogging, I discovered quite a few women who were also embracing the identity of ordinary theologian. In recent years, there have been a few more books written by women that go beyond practical living advice and get to the heart of the issue. One I can think of is Hannah Anderson's Made for More, exploring what it means being created in God's image. Keri Folmar wrote The Good Portion, which discusses the doctrine of Scripture. It's encouraging to see women writing about deep theological issues. One of my favourite authors is Karen Jobes, and if you begin probing into more academic circles, there are more women writing about theology. We also have to remember that women are not required to read only women authors. We need to read good authors who have done their work regardless of whether they are men or women.

Ordinary theologians have been around a long time. While some of the currently popular female authors were still in college or perhaps even high school, we were trying to raise young children while plumbing the depths of doctrine and God's Word. Long before Christianity Today launched its Her.meneutics blog, there were those of us who, without the aid of Twitter and Facebook, were seeking.

When we find a treasure, we feel excited. We want to share it with others. We may even think we're the first ones to discover it. But usually, someone else has already been where we are. And that is an exciting thing. Growing in Christ is a communal thing; we don't do it alone. We may feel alone, but there are always others out there. 


The temptation of the academic exercise

Many years ago, a friend and I spent some time at a summer camp teaching the Bible to women. The camp was held in early August, and we began preparing in the spring. We met often to pray about what we would be doing. One thing my friend prayed often was that our study would not become mere academic exercise. That is a prayer that I have to repeat to myself often since beginning seminary.

Last year, I took systematic theology over two semesters and each time we began a new topic, I took note of resources for further study so that I could go back and re-visit the topics. It is not hard to see how theologians ultimately focus on a specific area of study. Recently, I began my foray into the world of Logos software, and as I began browsing and compiling a wishlist, I saw how easy it is to investigate every fine of point of theology we want. It is tempting, however, to poke and prod at theological issues without ever addressing my own heart. 

No matter what kind of theologian we are -- the ordinary kind or the professional kind -- there is a responsibility before God to be holy because he is holy (I Pet 1:13-16). It is easy to think we are holy because we are engaged in deep study of theology, but pursuing holiness means we have to actually look away from the study and examine ourselves. I love the study. I love following the bunny trails. But if the end result is nothing but a head full of facts without any heart impact, I may as well study something other than theology.

Last semester, as we studied sanctification, it became apparent to me that there were holes in my understanding. When school was over and I had time, I started reading Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God and then J.I. Packer's Re-Discovering Holiness. I'm glad I read those books. I'm glad I took the time to look at my own heart; to get to that place where the rubber meets the road. 

It's easy to become immersed in doctrine while checking my heart at the door. What good does a reading list of ten or twenty books on a subject if I'm not pursuing holiness? Does all of the doctrinal study I do lead me ultimately to praise God? To love his word more? It's actually quite easy to know a lot of theology, to read a lot of books on the subject, and maybe even write eloquently about it, but never actually spend a lot of time in the Bible itself. There are so many experts out there who have done the work for us that it's easy to just take their word for it and never engage scripture with any depth.

My mother used to say two contrasting, but complementary things: "A little knowledge is a light load to carry," and "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Knowledge can be a benefit, but used incorrectly, it can become a source of pride. Study is good, but if we're not paying attention to our own sanctification in the process, then all of that knowledge is a hollow accomplishment.

I want my studies to make a difference in the every day. I want them to make me more thankful, more prone to praising God, more yielded to God's will, more gracious, and more at peace. It is still my prayer that study will not be mere academic exercise.


Specialized theology

Since starting seminary, I have benefitted from theologians who are specialists in a particular area. One of the first profs I had specialized in war in the Old Testament. My prof last semester did his doctoral dissertation on baptism. In the books I have used to prepare papers, I have been introduced to other theologians who specialize. When I want to know about a particular subject, especially when looking for a commentary on a book of the Bible, I look for someone who has studied extensively in that area. 

We all have particular areas of interest in our own theological studies. I tend to gravitate to historical theology or systematic theology. How have we understood the Bible? How have we used it to work out doctrinal positions? How do those studies enlarge my view of God? I also like to study about Bible study and hermeneutics. I notice that fellow bloggers also have a favourite interest, and for many, it is the place of women in the Church. 

I tread lightly on this matter, because in all honesty, I am all too aware that one can say something seemingly inconsequential, and then find out later that it was the wrong thing to say. I may be going against my gender, but I sometimes sympathize with the men when they look perplexed: "What did I say wrong?" I don't discount the reality of the marginalization of women, but occasionally, I find myself reluctant to offer an opinion that is not 100% agreement for fear that I will be drummed out of womanhood. Even asking a clarifying question may generate confllict. That troubles me, and is an issue all its own. I have many thoughts on it, but I am a coward, and likely won't articulate many of them.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to study extensively issues such as women, racism, social justice, poverty, covenant theology, or the Trinity. We all have interests which drive us. I don't think we should feel guilty if things about which we feel strongly don't algin with the interests of others. I won't hold it against you if you don't care about how the doctrine of justification developed over time or whether you find your eyes glazing over in a discussion about hermeneutics. By the same token, I hope you would excuse me if I pass by an article about women in the Church or don't react with as much passion as you might. It doesn't mean I don't care, and it doesn't mean I'm not listening.

I do care about how women are treated in the Church. I care deeply. But I care about other matters, too. Part of the beauty of finding our equality in our essence as opposed to our function means that we are free to pursue what we want without fearing that others, especially our sisters in Christ, will accuse us of being apathetic in other areas.

As I get older my poor brain needs focus, and that means that less is more. My greatest desire is to know God more, to be more yielded to him, to know his word better, and to love others better. I don't want to come across as argumentative with anyone whether the subject matter is women, the extent of the atonement, or whether or not I should eat gluten. I just want to keep fixing my eyes on Christ, and follow where he leads. And yes, that may mean I miss out on some reading. I will take that chance.