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How to Be a Bad Theologian

I’ve been thinking this morning about, of all things, hockey pools. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, a group of friends get together before the season and pick which NHL players they think will score the most points in the upcoming season. You assemble your roster and then watch to see how they perform against other people’s rosters in the year ahead. I’ve been doing this with a bunch of guys over the past few days. I tend to be pretty terrible at hockey pools, but it’s all good fun.

There are a number of reasons for my historically abysmal performance in hockey pools. I tend to disproportionately pick with my heart rather than my head. I pick my favourite players or players I would most like to see succeed in the year ahead, whether because their personal story appeals to me or they play the game in a way I admire or they avoid some of the typical moronic behaviours of pro athletes (although I did pick Evander Kane, so, apparently I’m ok with the odd strategic departure from my ideals). I also tend to pick players from my favourite team (the Calgary Flames; cue mockery). Both of these are variations of what psychologists call confirmation bias. My picks align with what I want to be the case in the hockey season ahead.

My most basic error may, however, be less psychological than theological. This sounds weird and forced, I know—just the sort of thing that an amateur theologian might come up with on a dreary and weary Friday morning. But stay with me for a minute. My strategy for making my picks, such as it is, involves little more than calling up last year’s statistics, analyzing who got the most points or most points per game, and then unimaginatively extrapolating this to the future. What players have done is the basis of my assessment of what they will do in the year ahead. There is little room in my “system” for newness—for the impressive rookie who blows everyone away (i.e., Matt Barzal, last year) or the veteran on a downward trajectory who has an utterly unexpected return to form (i.e., Eric Staal) or the career season that nobody saw coming (i.e., half of the Vegas Golden Knights).

In sum, my picks betray a failure to consistently adhere to the theological premise which forms the spine of the Christian narrative: the way things have been does not determine or even accurately predict how they will be. Newness is not only possible, but promised.

It’s one thing to make a theological error when it comes to something as trivial as a hockey pool. It’s quite another to make it in other more important areas of life. But we do this, too, don’t we?

We view the troublesome teenager as little more than the aggregate of their past mistakes rather than allowing for learning, maturity and growth.

Prospects for a marriage are constrained by recycling the habits and heartaches of what has come before rather than possibilities for new expressions of love to take shape and flourish.

Our evaluation of the trajectory of civil discourse and mutual pursuit of truth is ground down by the unrelenting negativity of what we observe and have contributed to in the past, rather than a hope, however feeble, that human beings can rise above the tribalism and posturing that comes so naturally to us.

Our longing for justice and peace—for our neighbourhoods and for our world—is stifled by long acquaintance with their absence rather than the astounding visions that fired the imaginations of prophets like Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Our assessment of the possibilities for church—our church or the church—is more dependent upon sociological trends of decline that we see all around us than on the promise of Christ that he will be with us always, even to the very end of the age.

To be a pessimist is, perhaps, to be a bad theologian. Come to think of it, maybe even to be a realist is to be a bad theologian. It’s one thing to not allow for newness in a hockey pool; it’s quite another to rule it out of a world loved into being by the One who says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Walking Toward Yourself.

    September 22, 2018
  2. mike #

    In Defense of Christian Pessimism

    Many people believe pessimism to be the mark of a sorrowful and hateful person. This view opines that the pessimist hates humanity and casts a cynical eye on every good deed.
    Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cynicism is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. Pessimism is very compatible with a Christian lifestyle, if understood in the right context.
    Pessimism – the attitude of expecting and preparing for the worst, is a form of realism. Christianity recognizes that the world is a fallen place, a “vale of tears,” as one prayer (the Hail Holy Queen) puts it. Because of the Fall and our own propensity to sinfulness, man’s lot on earth is suffering.
    Wars, plagues, and disasters warn us that despite our time on earth, man is not called to live forever on earth. Christian pessimists realize that, this world cannot provide happiness forever, despite its occasional flashes of joy and even ecstasy. Man’s happiness is to be found in heaven, not on earth.
    This does not mean that Christian pessimists sit in perpetual inaction and wait for death and their entrance into glory. Christ’s warnings are far too clear for that.
    Nor do pessimists despair of humanity, as many claim. They merely recognize that human nature is fallen, and that the snares of the devil and the sins of fallen man are commonplace in a fallen world. The work of Christian redemption is difficult and requires overcoming human nature – a difficult task.
    But neither do pessimists expect peace and happiness on earth. The flesh, the devil, and the world all conspire to lead humanity into sin and darkness, and Our Lord permits incredible suffering on earth to test and purify fallen men. The Christian pessimist recognizes that these attacks will take place, and is ever vigilant against them.
    But optimists expect to find goodness in people and in nature – a goodness that is often submerged by anger and sin. The drumbeat of crime, war, suffering and disease wrought by humans and shown every day on the news is a daily rebuke to the naïve attitude of the optimist, who expects the best of people and consistently receives the worst. Man’s inhumanity to man has proven more than enough to shake the faith of many optimists.
    But a pessimist is never disappointed by natural disaster or human frailty. He understands that disasters are common, and that human nature, unredeemed by Christ, is fallen. The road to heaven is narrow, as Christ warns us. Most of humanity refuses to cooperate with God’s grace – and the Christian pessimist recognizes that fact. Many will fall astray.
    And when man rises above his fallen nature with God’s grace and does repent or perform good deeds, the Christian pessimist is pleasantly surprised, and thanks God in gratitude.
    This attitude of Christian pessimism – one of prayer and humility in the face of suffering and sin, and one of joy at every rare good deed – is far more conducive to a Christian lifestyle than sunny, naïve optimism divorced from reality.
    Posted by Lightning Rod at 7:39 PM

    September 22, 2018
    • What do you make of this, Mike?

      September 23, 2018
  3. mike #

    I think the piece by “lightning rod” lays out a much more accurate and clear view of life, both scripturally and experiencially. I’m sorry to push back on your post but this world is not going to be a better place someday,Ryan, in fact it’s going to get much worse,especially for the christian.

    The vague uneasy rumble people everywhere are sensing in their spirit isn’t indigestion, it’s the pounding of approaching hoof beats…the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are loosed upon the earth. Maranatha!

    September 23, 2018
    • I can be a pessimist with the best of them, Mike. My anthropology is low enough to often get me in trouble with some of my more “progressive” friends. This piece is no blithe assertion that the world is getting better or that we are getting better. It’s simply an acknowledgment that as Christians, we’re not allowed to rule newness out of the system. How could we? We, who inherit a story of incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection and the ultimate hope of new creation?

      Whether or not the pounding of approaching hoof beats is real or imagined and regardless of what sufferings the future holds for Christians, newness is what is promised—in this life, however fragmentarily and fitfully, and in the next.

      September 23, 2018
    • Paul Johnston #

      The problem for me is the binary, “optimism/pessimism”. While they are easily defended as, true human emotions, they are small truths. Material truths that don’t exist in eternity.Truths that die in us as we die to faith.

      As I hear the Spirit, particularly through the, “Beatitudes”, I hear both the realism of your, “pessimism” argument and the clear optimism of faith.
      A pessimist who dies to self (his pessimism) and embraces faith, to my understanding, can still live and love to the fullest. Apart from the optimism of faith, pessism encourages a spirit that lessens a life and lessens our capacity for love, through faith.

      September 25, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Truth be told I am still something of a pessimist.

        September 25, 2018
      • The “optimism/pessimism” angle wasn’t how I approached the post. I was looking more at our orientation toward possibility and newness as Christians. I, too, quite easily gravitate toward pessimism. Jesus whispers, “There are things coming that the world has not yet seen.”

        September 25, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    True, forgive my lack of clarity, I was speaking to Mike.

    September 25, 2018
    • mike #

      “Apart from the optimism of faith, pessimism encourages a spirit that lessens a life and lessens our capacity for love, through faith.”

      I would agree that pessimism can encourage/manifest a melancholy spirit in some, including me, but the degree to which it “lessens life” is subjective to each individual. I am more than fully capable of enjoying myself in worldly things, but my inner spirit never loses site of the futility of it all. Christ Jesus is about to return and that gives me Joy unspeakable and full of Glory. ….Come,O Lord!

      September 25, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        I used to think in terms of the existential futility of it all…and then I found love and family. A love centric community seems to be the antidote. Life still may be daunting but having a wife who loves me as I am and watching my children grow into decent, loving and caring human beings has brought nothing but blessings and nothing to be pessimistic about.

        I am rich beyond my imagination. May you be so blessed. 🙂

        September 26, 2018
  5. mike #

    Thank you,Paul

    September 26, 2018

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