31 May 2013

On my becoming a theologian.

I’ve been reading, with some interest, Roger E. Olson’s series on who does theology. (Here’s part 1; here’s part 2; here’s part 3.) In part because of how he started his series: Talking about how he became a theologian… and how the people in his church weren’t all that thrilled about the idea. I can relate, though I came to theology on a different path.

Olson grew up Pentecostal. I didn’t; I came to Pentecostalism as an adult. We went to very different Pentecostal churches. His was Fundamentalist. Mine wasn’t.

No, I’m not just using “Fundamentalist” as a synonym for “conservative.” Fundamentalism, as I explained on More Christ, is all about doctrinal purity. You have to get your theological ducks in a row. You have to believe all the right things. To Fundies, orthodoxy is the most important fruit of the Spirit: If your beliefs are off-kilter in the slightest, we don’t know about your salvation.

So if you’re convinced your theology is already correct, you’re gonna look with some suspicion at anyone who wants to go to school in order to study theology. After all, what do you need to go to school for? They’re just gonna foul you up. Stay home.

That’s what Olsen grew up with. And that’s also what I experienced before I became a Pentecostal, when I went to a Fundie church. My youth pastor had put together a Southern California college tour for us high-school seniors, which was mainly focused on his alma mater, Biola University—the very college at the epicenter of the Fundamentalist movement. Biola’s Fundie credentials were impeccable. Only the most paranoid, isolationist Fundamentalists at my church (and we had a few) would object to it. We also visited a few schools that were on the students’ wish lists: UCLA, USC, Pacific Christian College, Azusa Pacific University, and The Master’s College. But we stayed at Biola the whole time, in the dorms, with the students. And no surprise, a lot of us wound up going to Biola. I was one of the few exceptions: I went to Solano Community College, then CSU Sacramento. But then again, I was interested in journalism, and not one of the Christian schools we visited had a journalism program.

Now, Olson is a generation removed from me. My grandparents’ generation (and his parents’ generation) didn’t believe in college, and eyed college grads with suspicion, or saw them as elitist. (My dad’s family was an exception: My grandfather Wallace Leslie was a San Jose State graduate.) Whereas my parents’ generation not only believed in it, but insisted their kids go. Of course, if you were Fundamentalist, you had to make absolutely certain you went to the right school—one which wouldn’t challenge your faith, but confirm it and build a thick impenetrable wall around it. And such colleges do exist: Fundies created them. So I never encountered the anti-academic attitude Olson grew up with. Sure, I encountered plenty of the anti-intellectual attitude; there was plenty of that. Even though our senior pastor was himself in seminary, working towards his doctorate (which he achieved a few years after I’d left that church), plenty of folks still jokingly referred to seminary as “cemetery,” and believed it would ruin your faith instead of grow it. Preachers would even say so from the pulpit. Even preachers who had been to seminary.

When Olson went to seminary, he had to deal with the folks back home who looked at his studies with disdain and despair. Especially when he decided, of all things, to go to a secular school for his graduate work in theology: They gave up on him. That’s why he’s no longer Pentecostal. (That, and some theological disagreements with Pentecostalism, but I guarantee you he wouldn’t have worried about those disagreements had his church been more accepting. Pentecostalism is a big tent.) Here’s where Olson and my experiences differ quite a lot.

When I finally went to seminary, after I’d become a Pentecostal, the church I attended was most definitely not Fundamentalist. Yes, there were individual Fundies in it; you’ll find them in lots of churches. But the church as a whole didn’t swing that way. Their emphasis, same as most Pentecostals, is on the personal experience with God. Get the Holy Spirit, and he’ll straighten out your thinking. So if you understand the bible differently than another Pentecostal, it doesn’t threaten the fabric of the cosmos; you aren’t a half step away from joining the ranks of Antichrist. Instead, they’d just figure you were wrong, probably misguided. They don’t leap to the conclusion you’re an devilish cancer in the heart of the church—as was the attitude I constantly encountered in the Fundamentalist church. (I had to unlearn that attitude myself.)

So when I decided to go to school and study theology, the attitude in my Assemblies church was largely, “Good for you.” Not, “Have you made sure you’re going to the right school? Now, you gotta watch out for this problem, and this worldview, and this attitude….” By and large, Fundies meet the idea of an education with fear and anxiety: They figure they’ve already achieved the truth, and don’t want anything to undermine it. Non-Fundies don’t think that way. The usual Pentecostal attitude is that if I keep following the Holy Spirit, he’ll sort everything out. And by that point, their attitude had mostly become my attitude.

Mostly, because I decided to study theology at Bethany College, an Assemblies university. I figured if I was gonna study theology, it ought to be my church’s. Little did I know my theology professors at Bethany would not just teach my church’s beliefs: Truett Bobo and Koo Yun taught Reformation/Calvinist theology, not the Wesleyan/Arminian views which most Pentecostals (now including myself) hold to. But y’know, that was actually the best thing I could have studied. I understand and can appreciate Calvinism—even though I ultimately reject three of its five points. (For the theology nerds, that’d be unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Total depravity and perseverance of the saints: No problem.) My history teachers also made sure I learned about Catholicism. Orthodoxy, and the history of Protestantism in the United States, as well as Pentecostal history. Bethany wound up giving me breadth and depth that I would not have got had I just learned to parrot everything my church teaches. Now I know both what my church teaches—and what nearly every other Christian church teaches. Fundie schools would never think to teach such things. Or if they did, they’d make absolutely sure we knew those other traditions are wrong and evil.

Of course—as is true of most theologians in training—I’d go back to Vacaville when I was on break, and I’d wind up butting heads with the people in my church. As Helmut Thielicke warns in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, sometimes seminarians come home with a whole lot of cold hard facts, and very little grace and patience and other fruits of the Spirit (which is ultimately more important). So of course the people in most churches are alarmed by the idea of seminary: It seems to make us less Christlike, not more! But relax; we grow out of that.

Well, we do and we don’t. I hold my tongue a lot. (No, really. I do.) But every so often, a Christian will say something wrong, and I just gotta correct it. Half the time, people appear to accept what I have to say. I say “appear to,” because from time to time I’ve heard them repeat their same old errors, as if I told them nothing. They love their wrong ideas, and want them to be true, so they kept them and dismissed me. The rest of the time, they don’t even bother to appease me: They take offense at anyone who dares burst their balloon, and accuse me of being all “head knowledge,” and no “heart knowledge”—which is Christianese for “stuff you know to be true” versus “stuff you wish were true.” The problem, in these cases, isn’t a puffed-up theologian. It’s someone who was trained to ask, “Is that really true?” versus someone who was conditioned to think encouragement always equals truth.

Apparently that’s Olson’s experience too. I quote from Part 1.

My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.

Those folks who talk about how “heart knowledge” is better than “head knowledge” of course mean they have the heart knowledge I lack, and this makes them superior to me. Their knowledge makes them feel something—something good and warm and comfortable—and my knowledge doesn’t do that for them, and they’re pretty sure all knowledge, especially if it’s from God, should do that. Truth is proved by how many endorphins it gives off.

Well, that’s fine if you’re a Mormon. (The warm fuzzy sensation is the entire basis of their belief system, you know.) But it doesn’t work for Christianity. God’s truths run contrary to human nature; as Paul put it, the Spirit and the flesh are opposed to one another. Our first response to God’s truth will not be comfort and relief, but repentance—followed by forgiveness, and then comfort and relief. And that’s gonna happen again and again throughout our lives, unless we’re foolish or arrogant enough to believe that once we’ve become Christians, our beliefs have all been magically fixed and made Christian. But a lot of us are just that foolish and arrogant. Myself included.

A lot of these same Christians who object to my “head knowledge” will turn round and unflinchingly talk to their liberal friends about “the hard truths of the scriptures”—then complain to me of all people about how those folks only accept the things they want to believe. They’re talking to the wrong guy. Everybody does that. They do that. I do that. Even though I was trained not to—but there are a lot of beliefs I embraced long before I was trained in theology, and I still haven’t purged myself of all of them yet. That process is gonna take a lifetime.

But y’know, theology isn’t about fixing other people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. If we try to do his job, we’re just gonna frustrate ourselves like crazy. It’s about learning how to recognize the difference between truth (i.e. good theology) and flawed reasoning (i.e. bad theology). It’s about me fixing myself. And it’s about me showing you how to do it—if you’re interested—by showing you how I do it. Of course, you’re not gonna be interested (and shouldn’t be) if I don’t produce any fruit of the Spirit as a result. Like I said, that’s ultimately more important than theology, and that’s why I emphasize fruit far more than theology. Like Paul said, if I know all mysteries and have all knowledge, yet don’t have love, I’m a waste of space.

I suspect that’s another one of the reasons why theologians are, as Olson said, under-valued. A lot of us forget fruit is more important than theology. We’re so intent on the pursuit of truth, we forget to be kind and gentle and loving and patient. Consequently, we kill off all our value—’cause you know, without love we’re a waste of space—and then bellyache about how people don’t value our wisdom and insight. That’s our fault. Combine that with people’s natural resistance towards any truths they don’t like, and of course theology is gonna be a really sucky vocation.

But I actually don’t suffer a whole lot of angst over it. Because I’ve given up on everyone else. Like I said, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to fix people; not mine. I just point the way, and work on myself. No worries. No woe and hand-wringing, like I see among so many would-be prophets who think it’s their calling to fix the church and the world. No having to defend my academic position, because I don’t currently work for any school; no having to defend my pastoral title, because I’m only an elder. That’s not to say I have no responsibilities, but fixing the world isn’t one of them. Following Jesus, and helping him, is.