The work of theology does not always interest people of faith, but it should, because it is the means by which we articulate who God is, who we are, what it means to be alive on the earth, how we are to act in right ways, and what meaning or purpose holds it all together. Far from an academic or intellectual exercise, theology is inherently practical. What we think about God, ourselves, and the world directly shapes how we live. There is no area of life that theology does not touch.
Good theology holds in tension what we can know and what we cannot. It is an attempt to describe the indescribable, to contain the uncontainable, to wrap our minds and hearts around the Great Mystery. It requires a mixture of boldness and humility, a willingness to declare what we believe about God while acknowledging those beliefs may change. And since we all hold some form of belief and think about these things to some degree, we are all theologians!
But theology is not meant to be done as individuals – it is a communal process. Our churches, denominations, and larger traditions have ways of understanding God that are formed over time, debated, taught, passed down, and drawn upon to shape the lives of believers in their individual faith practices, work life, home environment, community engagement, church formation, political outlook, and so on.
Theology is Always Re-forming
If you have been a follower of Jesus for a while, chances are your understanding of God – your theology – has shifted. This is normal and natural – as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I grew up, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
In other words, his faith matured. What is interesting is that Paul did not equate maturity with theological certainty. The very next verse says,
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Theology is always in flux, because we are reflective creatures who are able to change how we think and live based on new understanding or new situations. There is a Latin phrase that is often used to capture this – Ecclesia semper reformanda: “The Church is always reforming.” Some reforms are good; I consider the shift in most Protestant churches to recognize and welcome women’s gifts for all areas of ministry a prime example. Some reforms are not so good; I consider the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave theological justifcation for European colonial conquest and exploitation of “new lands” a prime example of this (and am pleased that my particular church family is preparing to formally repudiate it).
Shattering the Intolerable Carapace
While most reforms are limited to particular times, people and places, every now and then a moment arrives which calls every person of faith, in every place and denomination, to explore comprehensive, radical reform of fundamental beliefs and practices. These are times when the forces of history and the breath of the Spirit brings us to a moment when we recognize that the whole theological system has gone off the rails, and that we need to reimagine our fundamental beliefs, identity and mission. The late religious scholar and writer Phyllis Tickle identified these moments as more or less occurring every five centuries.
“[A]bout every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
Tickle believed that we are in one of these moments right now, and I agree. As I wrote in a previous post, the Western theological tradition, along with the cultures it has helped shape, has played a key role in leading us to our current moment of ecological and cultural crisis. Western theology, for all of its rich and wonderful gifts, has two fundamental flaws upon which the whole systems rests:
- The tendency to overemphasize God’s transcendence and separateness from creation.
- The promotion of humanity to a privileged position above other creatures in a posture of dominance and self-serving rule.
The practical implications of these theological pillars are becoming clearer by the day - here are two big ones:
- The reduction of religion and spirituality to non-physical, “heavenly” ideas. This keeps God “up there” and relegates the created world to temporary background scenery while we pursue “higher” spiritual reality. We are taught that God cannot truly be found in the created world, despite most people's experience and the irrevocable marriage of Spirit and matter in Jesus! And so we pursue God apart from the world that God creates, redeems, and inhabits.
- The license to exploit and abuse the earth – land, water, air, plants, animals, and our fellow human beings.This is a reversal of our God-given vocation of earthkeeping, made exponentially more damaging by our scientific and technological power. Instead of helping God weave the strands of the world into ever more life-giving patterns, we are pulling them apart.
Disciples with an ecological perspective recognize that we need to do more than just tweak this theological system – the very foundations of faith need to be "shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” Here's how we do it.
The Seven Shifts
Here are brief descriptions of seven theological shifts we need to make:
- A New Cosmology – From temporary backdrop to dynamic creation.
- A Bigger Story – From human-centered to the whole community of creation.
- A Humane Humanity – From independent masters to interdependent servants.
- A Place-Based Discipleship – From generic Jesus-following to bioregional particularity.
- A Creational Mission – From saving souls/society to cultivating life in the new creation.
- An Interconnected Church – From splintered sects to creative collaborators.
- A Different Destination – From an earthless heaven to a heavenly earth.
These reforms have already started to take root in people and places all around the globe – shift happens 😊 - but we need more followers of Jesus to internalize and share them. To help us on this journey, I will be exploring one shift each week for the next seven weeks. Your questions, ideas, and feedback are welcome. Let me know what resonates, and what I may be missing. Let’s learn together.
With you on the Way,
Feel free to reach out to me directly, too! I can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special Invitation: Circlewood, the organization behind this blog, is working hard to help these shifts take root. If you want to learn about, and help shape, our 30-year vision, join us this Thursday, June 17, from 7-8pm PDT for Accelerating the Greening of Faith: Circlewood's 30-Year Vision.
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