For some years I have been surmising that we in Northern Ireland have fallen for the most subtle deception of idolatry. We worship at the Altar of Correct Theology. I have been surmising that it has is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Churches working for peace and reconciliation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in theology. My life is driven passionately, and I hope compassionately, by the words and example of Jesus as I read it in the Gospels. My understanding of God, that I discern from all 66 books of the Bible, is what gets me out of bed and fires what I believe my vocation to be.
So I am not dismissing theology, not at all. However, even that clarification is a response to the Idol of Correct Theology. In Northern Ireland, and particularly in the Churches, I have to explain what I did not say as well as what I did say. Why? There are always those who are sussing out what I have heard described as my “soundness”. From their judgement they will decide whether to damn me or embrace me. I have lived with deep bruising in my soul from such judgementalism.
Theology becomes an idol when we elevate it to the most important thing and when our own arrogant theological position excludes others from fellowship. I remember Charles Ringma, in a lecture at Regent College, Vancouver, teaching me that mission was the mother of theology. That is a vital order of things. When theology and particularly a Purity of Theology is our source then we can find it polluting all of the waters.
Let me talk about the photograph at the top of this blog as an example. I love this selfie. My dear brother in Christ Jim Deeds took it at the 4 Corners Festival Radio Service. In the places where Evangelical Correct Theology is god I would be told that Jim couldn’t be my brother in Christ. He is a Catholic... Roman Catholic they might add for heft. His theology is in error. His theology on justification by faith? His views on The mass? He might use Rosary Beads? What about praying to Mary?
Now, can I say that I have no idea what Jim thinks about any of those things. Indeed if and when those subjects come up in our friendship we’ll have a good discussion. In a world where we worship at the Altar of Theology those things matter most. Not as far as I can see in the Bible.
I know Jim is my brother in Christ because he is passionate about Jesus, has a deep, deep love for his Lord, knows him in personal ways that I aspire to. By faith through grace Jim is a follower of Jesus. That is the reality and Paul tells me in Ephesians 2 that that is enough. It is enough whether Jim and I define it theologically the same ways or not. That work of God subverts the boundaries of theological purity.
I love Fredrick Buechner’s definition of sin. The Presbyterian minister and author writes:
“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. "The wages of sin is death" is Saint Paul's way of saying the same thing.
Other people and (if you happen to believe in God) God or (if you happen not to) the world, society, nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you're part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.”
The Idol of Theological Correctness is a pusher away. Those who worship at its feet exclude those without the same meticulous theological definitions as themselves. We will therefore not meet with certain people, groups, Churches and we will judge who we even define as Christian. The pushing away is sin, its centrifugal force at gale force.
Our fallen nature as described so articulately in those first few chapters of Genesis is a fertile soil for a grim harvest of prejudice, racism, sectarianism and self righteousness.
Grace is God’s interruption on a planet that loves to push away others, God and themselves. Grace is a gap closer. Grace in our lives makes us humble. We realise that we all see “through a glass darkly” as Paul put it, in surely his greatest poem in 1 Corinthians 13. Theology comes after grace does its thing, to help us understand how the utter miracle of it all works, so that us humans might attempt to express something so mysterious that we dare not feed our fallen arrogance to think we have it sussed this side of heaven’s fullest revelation!
In Eden humanity reached for the fruit, in order that we might know as much as God. It is still so tempting. The altar of Theological Correctness is still under that tree. We still want to be God. We still want to know it all. We still want to be the judge and jury.
Meantime God gets over that damning trait in humanity and through grace and his son’s humble life, death and resurrection forgives our over reaching… and closes the gap with love… love for those who actually do not know it all… but he includes none the less!
When we have no other gods but God then we see this grace as a force even more powerful than sin. When that force works through our redeemed lives it has the power to make peace, to reach out across whatever boundaries and by the same grace that God showed is to reconcile we too become reconcilers. It is what we were saved for. It is the calling of Jesus on our lives!