Credo: A Theopetic Method
(The following section is the first part of three parts of a paper I wrote in my systematic theology course in seminary in the fall of 2018. It encapsulates the method by which I do theology. I’m sure you are exited to read this neato credo.)
(In this short story, God is the absent father. I often experience God as one with whom I may have never had a personal experience but as one who still lures and shapes me.)
My mother once sat me down when I was young. Her face glowed in emotion that I had never seen before. Her eyes stared at me with a look that told me “it is time.” She told me about my father. I had always grown up wondering about him. My mother told me about him without concern for justifying his existence but for testifying of his experience. She said he had dark, curly hair, and a generous smile–just like me. I have never met my father and to this day my mother has never cared to tell me what happened to him; however, I feel the weight of him. It is as if he prods me along as I learn to ride the bike that is life.
(In this short story, I playfully describe we in a way that oscillates between the minute and the massive.)
“We? You want to know we? Ha! How much time do you have my friend? A lifetime? In just two letters we captures it all! We is the mountain you scale to the mites on your eyelashes. We is the meteor that ended the Mesozoic to the monkey who stole your mango. We is the moon many meters away to the mayfly mating on your marble counter. We is as magnificent as the Milky Way and as insignificant as Mason Mennenga. You may ask, ‘what is we, just things that begin with M?’ No, no, no, we can begin anywhere. It can begin with M, but also with A, R, and, well, hell, it can even begin with Z! But do you know what we most prefers to begin as? We begins with life.”
(The following is a passage from Catherine Keller’s On the Mystery. It captures well who I believe Jesus to be.)
“A man died. The people who knew him gathered to share memories. Finally a portrait was commissioned. But as generations passed the painting did not seem fine enough. The heirs of the portrait, who had become wealthy, created a new golden frame, immense, carved with motifs from the portrait and encrusted with jewels. People began to feel that the old portrait of that dark fellow with the haunting eyes pulled the effect down. As it began to peel from age, they extended the frame inward. One day the frame covered the whole canvas.”
(In this short story, an adult reminisces upon a transformative event that happened years ago in community with those similar to the narrator. In it, I suggest we are to do/be in transformative community.)
Those small, punk house shows weren’t choreographed–unlike the lives we lived. No one gave a shit about us. We were the weirdos. We lived choreographed in school and at home. So when we would walk into that musky, dimly lit home on 14th avenue to jam with our friends, it was a resurfacing after drowning. We could finally breathe. We do not remember much from those days any longer, but when we were together at the 14th avenue home, each and every one of us were participating in being a part of the Other. We were actively a part of an Event far more expansive than any each one of us could be individually. There is not a fucking day that goes by where not one of us does not think about doing and being that all over again.
Theology has largely been a discipline that is often intentionally left to be solely conceptual. Yet, one does not have to dive too far deep into religious history to find that theology has paramount importance to the material world. Therefore, the main question that drives my theological methodology is: how can theology be done in a way that faithfully serves the material world, especially in aesthetics and ethics, while also posturing itself uniquely and distinctly from other disciples? At the beginning of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, Tillich asks what he calls the perennial question: “Can the Christian message be adapted to the modern mind without losing its essential and unique character?” For the sake of clarity, I will reframe this question by substituting ‘theology’ for ‘Christian message.’ How can (if it even can) theology adapt to the aesthetic and ethical demands of each context without losing its essential and unique character? In order to adequately address this question, theology ought to be, at its core, a method. It must be active–a verb even. Clark Williamson, in Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, suggests that theology is a conversational and practical wisdom that involves both ontology and ethics.
With Tillich’s, Williamson’s, and my own concern, I believe theopoetics is an important addition to theology. While theopoetics does not have one definition, one possible definition is that it is a theology that actively practices theological exploration with deep concern for material existence, especially in aesthetics (mainly art) and ethics (mainly social justice). Theopoetics considers itself a theology, not a theological method, because it seeks to wholly re-orient theology as an active method itself. Therefore, while theopoetics largely addresses and questions the same paramount question that drives my theological method with its concern for aesthetics and ethics, I do suggest theopoetics is not simply a theological method but a theology itself, in that it understands itself to be a verb and not necessarily a noun. In addition, I advocate for theopoetics “not only to vitalize a traditional theology but also to relate our Christian experience to the new sensibility of our time.” Theopoetics is not only a useful theological method/theology in that it re-orients how we even think about theology but also because it positions us to do theology that is ever-evolving and relaying the Christian tradition forth into our present time. All in all, my theological method could be described as theopoetic.
Use of Bible In My Theological Method
Many of those who hold the Bible as authoritative do so because they hold that within its pages it contains truth propositions about God. While I do recognize the Bible holds some authority in my life, I hold it to be authoritative for much different reasons than those I mentioned. The late black liberation theologian, James Cone, boldly spoke as to why holding to biblical authority in a perverted way is materially dangerous.
If the basic truth of the gospel is that the Bible is the infallible word of God, then it is inevitable that more emphasis will be placed upon 'true' propositions about God than upon God as active in the liberation of the oppressed of the land. Blacks, struggling for survival, are not interested in abstract truth, 'infallible' or otherwise. Truth is concrete.
Because of the concern of Cone and other liberation theologians, I believe a better metaphor for understanding the Bible is needed. Some have suggested metaphorically understanding the Bible as a library, for it is a collection of books. However, I do not believe that metaphor strikes the right chord. A better metaphor, and one that has much clearer practical implications, is that the Bible is like a member of a community. The Bible is a diverse and living book, filled with different people from different times, holding to different convictions, and having different experiences, just as every human is a living person, formed by many people, with varying (and sometimes contradictory) convictions, and experiencing the world differently as time goes by. The reason I believe this metaphor is necessary when understanding the Bible is its practical implications. As humans, we experience interaction with different people in almost every moment of our day. We experience people who are distressed, joyous, suffering, passionate, etc. Just like a living human, the Bible also expresses these varying emotions and experiences. Therefore, I believe we ought to engage the Bible as another valued person in our lives, a person who is neither superior nor inferior, but is living and influential. Just as we allow others in our lives to influence and inspire us, we ought to allow the Bible to incite the same influence and inspiration. Therefore, I engage the Bible like a valued person in our lives.
My Core Faith Claims
In conjunction with engaging theology and the Bible as living and active, my core faith claims are concerned about material existence and interaction. My first core faith claim, multiplicity, is one of the foundational claims within the Christian tradition. In this tradition, God, although one, is also a Godhead of Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. A multiplicity is held within the metaphysical fabric of God. This key claim to my theology and its metaphysical assumptions is important to me, not necessarily for theology and metaphysics’ sake, but for its ethical implications. For me, holding to multiplicity means I must never narrow my understanding of the world and its problems into simple and blanket solutions, but that my engagement in the world and the engagement I hope others have in the world is complex. My second core faith claim, beauty, births from the first creation narrative in Genesis. After each day of creation God oversees the new creation and, in awe, calls God’s new creation “good.” Aesthetic beauty was of utmost importance to God. Beautiful stories and poems line much of the rest of the Bible–stories that captivate and poems that reveal. Therefore, I hold to creating theology that is beautiful. My third core faith claim, relationality, is inspired by my affinity for process metaphysics and theology. I believe at the very subatomic level of physical existence, is a relationship. The minute electrons that make up you and me and the rest of this universe interact with one another. Therefore, I hold to interacting with others, both human and nonhuman, in generative and joyous ways. Lastly, mystery may be the glue that holds all of these key claims to my theology together. In Exodus, Moses encounters God as a burning bush and asks God for God’s name, to which God replies with, “I am who I am.” At the heart of the very name of God is Mystery. Thus, I believe it is necessary for me to hold all things lightly so as not to create them into an idol. All in all, I believe Mystery is the glue that holds the previous key claims together.
Theology as Activity
Catherine Keller has been one of my favorite theologians for a couple of years. In many ways her work is an encouraging and supportive friend as I journey along in my own theological exploration. In her book, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process, Keller leads the reader through an artwork of a “systematic” theology from the ontology of God, to creation, to Christology, to justice, to pneumatology, etc. I conclude this section with On the Mystery because it holds my question of “theological method,” my engagement with scripture, and my core faith claims all together. Keller engages theology as a painter engages their canvas. Theology is not something to be studied for her but an activity that longs for artistry. Much like my concern earlier in this paper, Keller engages theology as a process. She also engages the Bible as living. For example, early in On the Mystery, Keller encounters the nuances of the creation narrative, as if she was learning the inner workings of a potential friend, and suggests the gender equality that exists within the Genesis 1 text. Lastly, my four core faith claims all emerge from On the Mystery. Throughout the book, and many other books Keller has written, she consistently leans upon the themes of multiplicity, beauty, relationality, and mystery. Her affinity for multiplicity and relationship spawns from her intermingling with process theology. Her appreciation for beauty is birthed from her love for poetry and art. Lastly, her apophatic senses lead her to the waters of mystery. Therefore, Catherine Keller and her book, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process, are the supportive companions I need for this theological journey.
In conclusion, my theological method is theopoetic, in that my following Christology and ecclesiology are sourced in material existence and appreciation for beauty. In developing my Christology and ecclesiology, I attempt to orient theology not as an object to be studied but an activity in which to participate.