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Sound Theology

Over the last few weeks, I have been mulling over an interesting passage from Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila. Reverend John Ames, an elderly Midwestern congregationalist preacher is in conversation with his much younger new wife Lila, who has come to find rest, shelter, and love after a brutally hard life full of abuse and neglect.  The conversation is about hell and the final judgment. Lila knows little of theology and metaphysics, but she has questions. Hard questions. How, she wonders, could the many people she has known who struggled and suffered so terribly on earth be made to suffer further in eternity because they didn’t become Christians? Who could believe this? She asks her husband how any of it could be true.

[Rev. Ames] came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “I must seem like a fool to you,” he said. “You must think I’ve never given a moment’s thought to anything.”

She was always surprised when he spoke to her that way, answering to her, when she had never read more than a child’s schoolbook. “I’d never think you were a fool,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “maybe. But I do want to say one more thing. Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of any kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way.”

What I have been wondering is whether or not Rev. Ames is right. Is rejecting or accepting a belief because it helps or doesn’t help us live the way we should a valid litmus test? Is this “sound theology?”

Many, of course, would protest quite quickly that this reduces theology to personal preference. “How convenient,” they would say. “Anything that you don’t like or doesn’t make you comfortable can be jettisoned because it “doesn’t help you live the way you should.” Don’t like traditional Christian teaching on x? Doesn’t do much for you? No problem, just set it aside!  Whatever helps you live the way that you think you should! Far from being “sound theology,” some would say, Rev. Ames’ sentiments here barely represent sound psychology. Theology becomes a tenuous fragile thing, blown about by the ever-changing and unreliable winds of individual tastes, unable to ever challenge or stand over what we prefer or find palatable.

Human beings have been expertly making and bowing down to gods of their own making and preferring for quite some time, after all.

I feel the force of this argument. I regularly grow weary of how easily theology can be reduced to the smallness of ourselves and our inclinations.  And yet, something within me also resonates deeply with Rev. Ames response to Lila. Part of it is because I believe that questions like Lila’s—questions that emerge out of the deep pain and struggle of the world—have more weight than the intellectual abstractions that some of us occupy our time and our minds with. But even beyond that, I am convinced that our core convictions about who God is, how God works, what God wants, and the nature of the future God is shaping really should help and not hinder us from living the lives we should.

And some beliefs simply don’t help us do this.  It’s extremely difficult, in my view, to believe that God is as harsh and severe as some of his most enthusiastic spokespeople insist he is and live a life of self-giving love, compassion and mercy, as I feel I ought to. It’s extremely difficult to believe that God will consign a vast swath of humanity to eternal punishment for having the wrong content in their heads, as some insist, and at the same time cultivate a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. It’s extremely difficult, to love God and neighbour as myself when I have deep reservations about just how loving this God that I am called to love really is.

It’s extremely difficult—impossible, actually!—to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1-2) when you secretly think that God isn’t really worth imitating.

If we don’t at least in some sense believe that there is a necessary and indissoluble connection between the lives that our best selves long for, the mode of being in the world that we most admire, and the very character and purposes of God, our lives can become permanent exercises in coping with the cognitive dissonance that comes from the felt need to believe in a God who is less than the lives we are convinced we were made to live.

This is, of course, not an airtight argument. It’s not meant to be. I am well aware that there are problems lurking around every corner of responses like the one Rev. Ames gives to young Lila. In a sense, though, all “sound theology” requires us to choose what and how we will prioritize. I have yet to come across any theological system that crosses every “t” and dots every “i” and systematizes all relevant factors (Scripture, reason, tradition, experience) into a wonderfully coherent and comprehensive package that accounts for any and all complexity and removes all thorny issues. And I don’t expect to. That’s not how theology works.

And so, perhaps, “Thinking about ____ doesn’t help me live the way I should” isn’t such a terrible test to fall back on, or at least consider as we ponder how we speak about and live into the things of God. Perhaps it really it “sound theology, in its way.”

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. mmartha #

    From the Desert, Socrates, other sources, we have the thought that a wise man’s question holds half the answer.

    January 27, 2015
  2. I have to endorse Rev. Ames heartily! This sounds like a book I need to read. I do want to point out something: Ames doesn’t come right out and SAY that he is rejecting the concept of hell. He’s just saying he’s choosing not to think about it, choosing not to use it in his perception of other people because it would be crossing that fine line between presumption about others and private belief for oneself. I’m in his camp. Perhaps there is hell as has been traditionally thought, and perhaps there isn’t. I haven’t been there, so I can’t say for certain. I also haven’t done nearly as much thinking/reading/writing about it as others, but I prefer to not bother with it and go with what I DO know of God – the love, the call to compassion and mercy, a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, the imitation of Christ. As far as I can see, discussion about the finer points of hell haven’t helped me or the people I’ve discussed it with. Pretty sure I turned one woman off Christianity for life because of my presumption. I’ve always wished I could go back in time and apologize to her for my misplaced youthful zeal. On the other hand, it’s a great dose of humility whenever I remember it, and after all, humbleness is kind of like one of the fruits of the Spirit. 🙂

    January 27, 2015
    • mike #

      …….would you adopt me…?? 🙂

      January 27, 2015
    • I think we’ve all had conversations or interactions with people where we might wish for a do-over… I certainly do.

      I like your emphasis upon focusing on what we DO know about God’s character as shown most clearly in Jesus, rather than agonizing about what we don’t. And also your reminder about the dangers of presumption – this is a warning we could all use from time to time, I think.

      January 28, 2015
  3. mike #

    Thank you for such a profound and difficult meditation, Ryan. I appreciate the fact that you have mentioned the “permanent exercise in cognitive dissonance” that we all live with if we accept the whole body of scriptures at face value. It was this nagging conflict that led me to objectively examine and accept much of what serious critical scholarship has to offer in the way of conflict resolution. It seems the more I study and examine the various theological perspectives within Chrisendom, the more I realize that ultimately,each of us must eventually workout our own “salvation” with God and allow the next person enough space to do the same.
    I’ve reached a point in my discovery where I’ve simply adopted the “Hyper-Grace” perspective, It makes living with my neighbor easier and it’s much more conducive to the idea of a Happy God 🙂

    January 28, 2015
    • Thank you, Mike.

      Working out our own salvation. Yes, with “fear and trembling” sometimes, to be sure, but also, it is to be hoped, with a bit of joy and the acceptance of grace along the way, too.

      January 28, 2015
  4. Ryan, I realized that I never even responded to what you’d written! I particularly resonate with this paragraph:
    “If we don’t at least in some sense believe that there is a necessary and indissoluble connection between the lives that our best selves long for, the mode of being in the world that we most admire, and the very character and purposes of God, our lives can become permanent exercises in coping with the cognitive dissonance that comes from the felt need to believe in a God who is less than the lives we are convinced we were made to live.”

    I heartily concur! And Mike, I suspect we’re not alone. I’m thankful to belong in a community where I’m accepted despite my ambiguity on big issues. I hope you have one too.

    January 28, 2015
    • Thank you for this. And please don’t worry about whether or not a response is directly linked to what I’ve written – I’m happy for conversations to go in all kinds of directions around here. 🙂

      January 28, 2015
  5. Great post – and lots to think about. In the meantime, I noticed one minor – very minor – nitpick: Ames was a Congregational minister, not a Methodist.

    February 6, 2015
    • Oops! Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll make the change above.

      February 6, 2015

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