A Good Enough Theology (Bruce Epperly)

When we do the work of theology, and all of us do theology when we think about or talk about God, we must be careful not to think that these words and thoughts offer a univocal description of God.  Whatever we say about God requires of us a certain humility and recognition that we don't have full knowledge or understanding of this one we're discussing.  I think it's appropriate that Bruce Epperly's essay this week deals with the need for a "Good Enough Theology" even as the Big Tent Christianity event takes place in North Carolina.  This event, which has been organized by Philip Clayton and friends is seeking to bring together a community of people who can have an open conversation without insisting that one's way of thinking is the only possible way.  I'll not be at the conference to be sure of this, but I think this essay will contribute to the broadening of our theological conversations. 


A Good Enough Theology

Bruce Epperly

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, includingHoly 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.


John said…

Walter Breuggemann is fond of the term "penultimate" to describe this notion. We do the best we can to discern the Truths of God, but our understanding is always, even when at iss most accurate, only penultimate: not quite accurate, not quite the actuality of the genuine truth, and not quite what we will know and believe tomorrow. But for now it is the best we can do, so long as we are humble enough to bear in mind this notion of penultimacy.

Luke said…
I think I remember stating i was more apophatic than kataphatic and Bruce, the prof of the class, told me to blend the two. i used the zen parable to illustrate how i was both. i am VERY happy to read it here again and it takes me back to that discussion and Bruce's good advice. he totally rawks!
Doug Sloan said…
I, too, enjoy trying to describe the abstract qualities of theology. Yet, if it isn't grounded - if it does not involve how we attend to and improve the lives of others – by feeding them, quenching their thirst, clothing them, visiting them in prison, healing them, and welcoming them - and if it does not include personal transformation - then our theology is meaningless because it is useless.
Brian said…
You set a very large table. Good!

We have much to learn from different people, traditions, and experiences. Personally, I've experienced moments of clarity and grace while meditating on different understandings of God, Christ, and Church.

With Doug I find the constant to be compassionate living. The one thing that has never changed for me is the power that the concept of seeing Christ in the person right in front of me (Matt. 25) has. This has always made intuitive sense to me, ever since I was a teen. It is central to my experience of God. I believe this is why I'm called as a chaplain. I get to sit at the feet of Jesus daily! Further, people at their most vulnerable have somebody sitting with them who honors them. It is a win win.

Paul and James disagreed on many things. So much so that they decided to "be together" in different places! (wisdom in that) However, they agreed on one thing -- care for the poor.

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