Earlier this summer I preached a sermon on grieving the losses in our lives, whether it’s the loss of someone we love through death or the loss of something we have invested with great significance—a relationship, a career, a home. In the sermon I talked about the need to adjust to the new reality of life without that person or entity we have cherished so much.
I gave some practical suggestions of the kinds of adjustments that might need to be made, adjustments in how we think, in how we live our lives day by day. And one of those suggestions was this: we might need to re-think our theology in light of the loss we have experienced.
I got a bit of push-back on this. “Re-think our theology? No, our theology shouldn’t change according to our experience. Our theology should be a rudder that guides us through the difficult waters. It should be an anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life.”
I understand the impulse behind this push-back. We know we can’t always trust our feelings; how much less when we’re shell-shocked after a traumatic experience. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that whether or not we survive the storms of life depends in large measure on how well we have prepared ourselves—physically, emotionally, psychologically, and also theologically—during the calm before the storm.
It’s also true that the New Testament in various ways speaks of a body of Christian teaching common to all followers of Jesus—and so doesn’t change with the changing times. At its heart is the first-order, foundation-level “gospel” of Christ crucified and risen which Paul claims all the apostles proclaimed (1 Cor 15:1-11). This bare-bones, good-news story about Jesus focused on his death and resurrection, brought together with some early Christian traditions about God (e.g. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 8:6), became the framework for this common Christian teaching—eventually expressed succinctly in the earliest creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.
So what do I mean when I say we may need to re-think our theology in light our life experiences?
“Theology” is a human endeavour. It is something we as human beings do, our attempts at making sense of our experiences of God and of everything else in relationship to God.
There are many different theologies out there, even many different Christian theologies. In fact, if we want to get very specific, there are as many different theologies as there are human beings trying to make sense of God and the world around them. That’s a lot of theologies.
Even if we focus just on one particular branch of Christian theology—say, Anabaptist theology—it’s pretty obvious that this theology changes over time. Anabaptists today don’t believe everything in exactly the same way as the original Anabaptists did. We might try to remain faithful to what we believe are the essentials of Anabaptism, but there’s been a lot of theological water under the Anabaptist bridge in five hundred years—and a lot of streams branching off as theological differences have emerged.
This is also true of our own individual theologies. If you’re in your middle years like I am, I sure hope you don’t believe all the same things about God as you did when you were a child, or a teenager, or a young adult. If you do, pretty much any Christian would say your faith has not grown, you have not been maturing spiritually.
For myself, the basic structure of my theology hasn’t changed much since my early university days. But the details of my theology have altered significantly since then, and even how I understand that basic structure is very different. And then there are the peripheral matters—things you won’t find in the New Testament’s gospel summaries, for instance, or in the Apostles’ Creed, say. Many of these have changed 180° for me, or simply fallen by the wayside as unworthy of my strong conviction.
When I say our theology may need to change—or even that, over the course of our life, our theology had better change—this is what I mean by “theology”: our particular ways of understanding and expressing and prioritizing our beliefs about God and everything else in relationship to God.
But if our theology can or even should change over time, what is it that doesn’t change?
The answer, of course, is God.
Our understanding of God changes, but God doesn’t change. Our experience of God changes, but God doesn’t change.
God—Being, Person, Love—is the same God, always. Put in biblical terms, the God who created the heavens and the earth, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Yahweh the covenant God of Israel, is the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is the Spirit indwelling the Church and blowing where it pleases in the wider world.
We don’t put our faith in theology. We put our faith in God.
Our theology supports our faith in God—but it is not God.
Our theology helps us make sense of our experience of God—but it is not God.
Our theology gives us some tools to think about God and speak of God—but it is not God.
It is God who guides us through the difficult waters. God is the anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life. If, when these storms come, we have put our faith in a system of beliefs and not in the true and living God, we may find our “faith” shattered beyond repair.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.