A Good Enough Theology
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and stars that you have established,
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
Mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
The biblical tradition is both humble and bold in its language about God. On the one hand, biblical images of God are often too personal, too intimate, too emotional, and even too violent for our theological comfort. On the other hand, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the God moving through all things, speaking through all things, and described by a multitude of images, is more than we can imagine. The embodied and ever-present God is beyond all words and images – we have this treasure in earthen vessels and we always see in a mirror dimly, with hopes that someday we will glimpse the Living God.
Good Christian theology lives between the apophatic and the kataphatic, “beyond images” and “with images.” We can’t help speaking about God, but all words about God are, as the Zen master asserts, like fingers pointing at the moon, not to be confused with the moon itself. This tension is good news, and the gives us the opportunity to articulate a good enough theology, bold and yet humble.
One of the main problems of all fundamentalisms is that they describe God too fully and with too much confidence. In a recent class I taught at the Sorrento Centre in British Columbia, one of the participants revealed his discomfort whenever he hears someone say “God spoke to me.” Like many of us, he struggles with highly personal, often too human images of God. The word “energy” was more descriptive of God, he believed, than any of the typical divine images found in scripture and theology. I agree with his concerns and am often reticent about speaking God’s name, even though I preach and write about God regularly.
One thing that’s clear to me is that we need a God of sufficient stature. One of my professors Bernard Loomer spoke of “size” as one of most important theological virtues. Loomer believed that if a theological concept or image lacked size, it should be discarded; it would eventually lead to fanaticism, exclusivism, or the identification of our finite words with the infinite Living God. A theology of stature embraces, Loomer asserted, the ambiguities of life, its wonder and brutality, revelation and uncertainty, nobility and sin, everlasting life and perpetual perishing.
Despite the post-modern critique of any theological systems that claim universality, we need to articulate “good enough” theologies, that are able to include as much of reality as possible in light of God’s revelation in the very concrete, very historical, very limited, and very embodied Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher, healer, guide, and savior. In a world of one hundred billion galaxies, we need good enough theologies, theologies that are big in imagery and ideas, despite their limitations and humility.
Paul Jones speaks of a variety of “theological worlds.” A good enough theology embraces diversity of experience and conceptuality – infinite and finite, everlasting and perishing, grace and sin, divine and human, life and death, believer and doubter. Polydox in character, a good theology makes room for many theological possibilities and discovers wisdom in a variety of theological perspectives – the embodied and dynamic theology of process thought; the intimacy of evangelical theology; the open-endedness of liberalism; the liveliness of Pentecostalism; the non-violence of mimetic, Quaker, and Anabaptist theologies; the stability of fundamentalism; the unrest and challenge of liberation theology; the diverse wisdoms of womanist, feminist, and indigenous theologies; the incarnational spirit of Orthodox Christian theologies; the sacramental character of Catholic theologies; the wild adventurousness of Celtic theology; and the fiery spirit of mystical theology…and more. All these are part of a good enough theological diet. While I believe that process theology has the stature to embrace all these possibilities not as oppositional but as dynamic contrasts, I also recognize that there are other pathways of faith and other ways to describe the Holy, Christian as well as non-Christian.
Over the next several weeks, no doubt with a few extemporaneous interludes when I feel moved by the Spirit to take another path, I will describe some of the contrasts that make up a healthy, well-balanced, sometimes challenging, and always growing “good enough” theology.
Theology is always adventurous, so let us think big, even though the horizon recedes with every step we make toward it.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including , Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.
His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.