Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Theological Relevance: Real People, Real Lives, Real World, Real Church


In posting after posting since the new year began, I've been noting the need to keep it real, if we who do theology and were trained to think about how faith communities engage the surrounding culture expect anything we say to be relevant to the culture at large.  Several days ago, I wrote that the very backbone of theology in the Catholic church following Vatican II, and of similar strong movements in all the Christian churches in the same period, has been the attempt to connect the dots between abstract theological ideas and the lived experience of human beings, an attempt at dot-connecting that tries to make sense of the truth claims of religious groups by examining the effect of those truth claims on the real lives of real human beings.  And, in particular, real human beings living on the social margins throughout the world.

In the same posting, I linked to a recent essay by an outstanding Irish theologian, Mary Condren, in the newspaper The Irish Times.  I recommended that essay because, to my mind, it does an excellent job of thinking through some core Christian doctrines (such as the doctrine of God's unqualified universal love, and the doctrine that God enfleshes that love in Jesus and through his death and resurrection) in the context of real people's lives in the real world today.  In a secular newspaper, where many academic theologians refuse to hold forth, for fear of having their high-flown and complex theological ideas bastardized. 

Condren shows us that much of our unreflective, clubbish, in-house theological language makes no sense at all--not to the kind of people who read newspapers or perhaps online news blogs, but do not and will not read much academic theology.  It is, in fact--our unreflective, clubbish, in-house theological language, along with the doctrinal traditions that we parrot without placing them in critical dialogic encounter with real lives in the real world--often a "poison container" transmitting precisely the opposite values and ideas than those we claim to want to transmit.

And as a result much that Christians have historically said about God, love, suffering, and the cross actually subverts what we think we are saying about God and love, etc.  Carried along, right in our traditions and how we keep talking about the redemption of Jesus, are poisonous theological ideas that make us shockingly callous in the face of real human suffering--especially that of children--and which explode our claim to be talking about God as universally loving.  And as particularly concerned about the least among us.

The only way we can engage these poisonous ideas carefully and critically, and weed them out of our tradition by doing better theology (better in that it more successfully engages the multifaceted emphases of our tradition and moves to the center what is really important and perduring among those multifaceted emphases), is to listen to how people in the real world actually receive what we say about God, love, Jesus, the cross, suffering, etc.

And because I think it's imperative that we hear the real voices of real people as we try to do theology, I'd like to recommend this recent video (you can also click on the graphic above, which has the video embedded).  It deals with what many people in the culture at large actually hear when they hear Christians talk about the love of God as enfleshed in Jesus and his death on the cross.  It's from a YouTube page maintained by a blogger named Yogurtking.  I learned of this video (and the other fascinating videos at Yogurtking's YouTube page) from a local blog discussing political issues, where it's making the rounds as a commentary on what many of our fellow citizens in the bible belt think, say, and want the rest of us to believe--and enshrine in secular law--about God.

The language of the video may be a bit rough at times.  But this video deserves attention, I'd argue, on the part of anyone concerned about theological relevance today--as a testimony to what many people actually hear when theologians (and the churches they serve) talk about love and salvation, as opposed to what we imagine we're communicating.

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