An Epiphany about Metabolized Theology
Monday morning I had a fortunate exchange with a friend of mine. When we run into each other, which happily occurs a lot, we immediately move beyond the weather and get into the grit of life.
Really, actually, immediately. Like in the Markan sense, for whom everything happened ‘immediately.’
Go look it up.
Anyway, immediately we got into visiting about families, relationships, and dynamics. And quickly out of the chute, she said, “…so it took me a while to metabolize that whole event….”
Frankly, she lost me at ‘metabolize.’
Generally, when we hear that word, we apply it to what our bodies do with food intake. Thanks to a quick check with my friendly wikipedia down the google road, I double-checked my basic facts.
“Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that happen in living organisms to maintain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments.”
My friend is brilliant, clearly.
Of course for relationships to maintain life, there needs to be a metabolic reaction. Exchanges, interplays, feelings, all need to be metabolized.
For those of you who follow this blog with any smidgen of regularity, you know by now I am a fiend for etymologies. So:
metabolism in physiology sense, 1878, from Fr. métabolisme, from Gk. metabole “change,” from metaballein “to change,” from meta- “over” (see meta-) + ballein “to throw” (see ballistics).
To change or overthrow!
When one metabolizes events, exchanges, and dynamics, one is changed, and one might need to throw over, overthrow, some things that had once been.
It’s relatively “easy” to metabolize “intake” when one’s metabolic rate is high, like when one is fit and healthy…and young.
But the older, slower, unhealthier one is, the harder it is to metabolize.
(Can I get an ‘arg’ and an ‘amen?’)
Now, I’m going to take metabolic activity in a different direction.
I’m thinking a lot about the Church these days.
Not a news flash: we’re struggling. People are leaving, confusion is reigning, enthusiasm is waning, and people want to know what difference it all makes anyway.
Thinking about it in terms of metabolism makes me think about it in a different way.
I think our metabolism is slow.
I think we’re out of shape.
I think that we’re unable to easily “digest” events and conversations and realities because we are not healthy.
Which leads me to wonder what it would take for us to be healthy.
Theologian that I am, I think that we are theologically flabby.
I think that our theological fitness is lacking.
I think that were clergy and laity to have a clearer idea of identity (e.g., why am I Lutheran/Episcopalian/UCC/Roman Catholic) and of the relevance of this information, our ability to metabolize current events, hot topics, conflict, would be improved.
Some time ago, I listened to a gentleman who was trying to make the case that the Church is dying because we listen too much to the “experts.”
I’m not quite sure what he meant by “experts,” but theologians were clearly in the mix.
Needless to say, I took affront.
I took affront not only because, well, I supposedly am one of the experts about whom he was speaking, but also because my research was telling me that he was wrong.
See, in my preparations to get OMG out of my imagination and into being, I researched why people are leaving the church. Listen to the following:
“The church has come to identify theology with what professionals do…Too often the result has been that the church has ceased to think about its own life in terms of its faith, a faith that has itself become vague and unconvincing. This is, I believe, the deepest cause of the decline of the oldline denominations.” John Cobb, Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do About It, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, vii.
And then a review of Cobb’s volume by Edward Farley, “Transforming a Lukewarm Church.”
“…the monetary health of denominational bureaucracies is delicately dependent on harmony with the prevailing ethos of the culture with respect to ‘controversial issues.’ Consequently, its ability to provide leadership in restoring a theological vocation to the church, on these issues and others, maybe severely limited from the outset. When I look at oldline denominations, I am less worried about their numerical and demographic troubles than I am about the sorts of institutions they have become, especially as they struggle with their quantitative problems. I think Cobb has given us a prophetic if not always clear version of a transformative agenda for these churches. He has not focused on what the churches are specifically up against even if they were in agreement about restoring their theological vocation, conversing with other faiths and so forth. The church institutions now in place — congregations, seminaries, church boards, as well as the multiple institutions of society — are all oriented to sustaining the conditions of their own survival, and in most cases sustaining the conditions of survival means maintaining the status quo. An institutional momentum exists, in other words, that resists transformation. Recognition of such an institutional stasis moves us to think beyond Cobb.” Christian Century, (August-September 1997): 754-757.
And then a snippet from some sociologists of religion:
“…strong, church-based, social ties are associated with better health…But if individuals begin to question their faith, conflict may arise with church members who still adhere closely to their beliefs. Alternatively, those who have doubts may simply withdraw because they feel they have less in common with them.” Neal Krause, and Keith M. Wulff. “Religious Doubt and Health: Exploring the Potential Dark Side of Religion.” Sociology of Religion 65, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 35-56, p. 38.
And from Scot McKnight, speaking about the Emerging Church movement:
“…a trademark feature of the emerging movement is that we believe all theology will remain a conversation about the Truth who is God in Christ through the Spirit, and about God’s story of redemption at work in the church. No systematic theology can be final. In this sense, the emerging movement is radically Reformed. It turns its chastened epistemology against itself, saying, ‘This is what I believe, but I could be wrong. What do you think? Let’s talk.’” “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.” Christianity Today, February 2007. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html?start=5
My point in weaving these references together is to demonstrate that “experts” are thinking that perhaps there is something to be said for asking the questions and setting out to come up with some responses to them; that the many people who are leaving the church have abundant creativity, energy, vitality, passion, and yearning for challenge; that fear of confusing people with the most basic of information that we get in seminary 101 is stultifying the Church; and that our resistance to teach and preach provocatively is paving the way toward inertia and irrelevance.
Today is the first day of the season of Epiphany. I like to call it the “season of God-made-knowings,” the time of the liturgical year when we pay close attention to moments when Jesus is revealed as God. And as I’ve said before, when we have an epiphany (“from late Gk.epiphaneia “manifestation, striking appearance” [in N.T., “advent or manifestation of Christ”], from epiphanes “manifest, conspicuous,” from epiphainein “to manifest, display,” from epi “on, to” (see epi-) + phainein “to show”), say, that we love somebody, or about a math formula (not that I am speaking from experience) or about our calling in life, things, even if just for a moment, become clear. We see matters for what they are.
I think that the Church needs to see that theology–active and regular and expected teaching of theology–is not a peripheral matter, not something that should be hoarded by the theological elite, and more than the recitation of bible verses.
We all have a latent theology.
The question is whether, once manifest (see etymological connection above), it is consistent and coherent. In fact, it is questionable whether many Christians really believe what they say that they do.
I’d be curious, for example, how many folks who claim to adhere to a particular denomination know the difference between that denomination and any other, or whether they understand the implications of their basic tenets.
I know, for example, many people in my own denomination who have railed against our recent statement on homosexuality: far fewer have read it, and far more would be upset were they to read and grasp the implications of our social statement on economic justice!
Were we as habit and a matter of course to actively engage in theological thought and pursue theological thinking as rigorously as we do stewardship campaigns and lock-ins, I think we’d be a lot more fit to metabolize new faith questions, cultural trends, and denominational/congregational identities.
Look again at the definition of metabolism: it allows “organizations to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments.”
(Frankly, I’m not so sure about whether we ought to be so into “maintaining our structures,” but the other effects seem to be relevant).
And to mix my metaphors, I really believe that theological education is the one place where trickle-down economics could work!
But then again, I’m just a theologian, and theologian whose whole vocation is to teach theology to people yearning to figure out their theological core and the implications of it.
What do you think?
I just posted this link on my wikiChurch Facebook page and @wikichurch Twitter account. Lots of people need to read this.
I think that you’re right, that we’ve lost our theological vision (which always boils down to identity, especially as a people formed by the gospel), and without that point as a bearing our environment is hard to orient in…or to metabolize (it really is a great metaphor).
Thinking the faith with heads AND hearts is more important than ever.
I’m glad to hear that you think that there might be something to it!
I really am of the mind that neither heart nor head need trump the other. I have done some brain research, and without getting into that now, it is quite clear that if parts of the brain dealing with one or the other are damaged, it can severely impact overall functioning.
We need both to be healthy.
Hmmmm. Might need to write a blog about looking at matters that way too!
So, relevant topic for me. But I want to ponder the review by Edward Farley. Could it be that the church, as you metaphorically equate it to a person, faces the same theological dilemma as a person, death. I think the church may be responding in the same way as most people. Preserve. Does the Gospel translate from individuals to the church? If so, what implications might this have?
Alan, thanks for this one!
YES! Absolutely. We all, institutions as well as individuals, wish to keep death at bay.
Prior to the vote regarding homosexual clergy (and, in fact, even yet after) I made the case that while important information to have, whether people and congregations would leave (i.e., die) or not was irrelevant to the question at hand.
The key question was, what is faithful?
I am not wanting to seem callous here. That vote has caused tremendous death–and yet, one could argue, that the opposite decision would have too.
In either case, though, I am rather simply stating the truth: as my mentor Walt Bouman always said, there is a 1-1 ratio: you are born, you will die.
So, as he put it, knowing that, now there is more to do with your life than preserve it.
Otherwise what happens is that we spend so much time trying to preserve our lives that we don’t actively live them, and we don’t see that paradoxically, we are dying in our attempt to live!
Hmmm. Sounds familiar, come to think of it.
So yes. The Church at large and individual congregations are very concerned with dying. Keep in mind, again, that in Luke we keep hearing the refrain, “Do not be afraid!” not “There is nothing to be afraid of!”
I understand the fear of death, really well, actually. But at least for Easter people, if we let that be our determining principle, we are in point living as Good Friday people.
So how is it that death tries to shape us–regardless of whether we are speaking as individuals or as institutions? And why to we cede power to it? And what happens if we don’t?
Maybe new beginnings?
Thanks for your comment/question.
Yes. Apt in every way.
Marc Borg said, on a Sunday in November in Minneapolis, that he sees evidence that suggests that churches that are thriving are those intentionally teaching theology and with intellectual integrity and respect for the questions adults ask. I wonder sometimes how much of our failure to do this has to do with what Joseph Sittler referred to as the mastication of the pastor (to play on your metabolizing metaphor.) We chew up our pastors with all kinds of tasks that don’t require their training and leadership and don’t allow them the time to sustain their own theological development, or adequately plan how to lead theological inquiry that really sustains them and the people in their congregations.
Yes. Were I to be at OMG instead of my kitchen, I’d stroll to my shelf and get my Joseph Sittler. I love that essay. And there he also speaks about how we don’t respect pastors and their theological training. Anybody can do it!
Well, the Lutheran part of us agrees (priesthood of all believers and all).
That said, I would prefer to have a trained plumber come fix my sink than an amateur, or a credentialed surgeon than a rookie.
Theology is tough and challenging and complex–but it is also delightful and edifying!
So partly, I think, what is up is a bit of a respect issue for the discipline of theology.
And so Lutheran that I am, I also appreciate that he railed against pastors who didn’t teach and laity who didn’t want to learn.
And with that, I am now going to stroll to sleep.
That’s true. For professional work you need the professionals who are experts in that field as a mistake in plumbing, for instance, could flood your house. However, Christ’s message was preached by fishermen who had no formal theological education and the church had its finest hours of growth. People today have the same basic needs as people during Christ’s time. That’s what Theology is really all about. But I do agree that Pastors should have our respect out of their dedication, study and teaching of the Word.
I think Kirsten’s insight about pastors being masticized is a good one…a lot of our time and energy as pastors is used up in things other than being resident rabbis. But I think the problem pushes much deeper.
1. Our systems don’t draw natural theologians into church leadership. My observation is that the gift of theology (a deep and robust ability to think and communicate faith/God) is rare in pastors…not as rare as the true gift of leadership, but close to it. I find the theological mind amongst our peers often poor at best. I’m sorry to say this…but it’s true…which lends credence to what you are doing Anna.
2. I think many of us were taught that theology is for the academy and people of the academy. The number of times I’ve heard pastors or professors (I’m a Trinity grad too) say that you can’t use that theological term with your people (hermeneutics, ontology, eschatology, etc.) is legion. I don’t know about other contexts but I’ve served calls in both rural Nebraska and urban/suburban Florida and my people in both contexts have been very intelligent. Not surprisingly they have appreciated it when I assume they have the ability to grasp things, am willing to be patient with and teach them, and almost always rise to the occasion.
I think the deepest issue in our church is that while we give lip service to the notion of equipping the baptized we don’t know how to do it, and if we were to do it wouldn’t know what the content of that particular curriculum would look like. My two cents on our last busy morning on Hilton Head Island.
Three quick thoughts:
1. I was just retelling the story this morning of one of the final “kicks in the keister” to getting OMG up and running. I was teaching an assembled group something mildly provocative, and a very intelligent, savvy, capable woman started crying.
Naturally, I assumed that I had said something to anger her, because I have a knack for that.
So after the session, I apologized, and she brushed it off explaining that she was just tired.
Five minutes later, she came up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders, and said, “Here’s the thing: I’m just pissed. I’m pissed that I’m 40 years old and never knew that there were all of these things to wonder about.”
I really believe that there are many more people who either are chomping at the bit to wonder theologically, or who would chomp at the bit were they to know that there was something theological to wonder about.
2. I am of the mind that part of the reason that many pastors are not “theologians” are because we do not introduce theological thinking to our parishioners, many of whom grow up to be pastors! Think about many Sunday School curricula. They teach basic Bible stories complete with word searches.
We don’t only not teach laity that there are things to think about. We also don’t teach laity to think!
3. I overuse this quote from a Lutheran patriarch (in the good sense), Kent Knutson. He said this:
Great intellectual stuff. But what happened to the basics? Stuff that made the church grow 5,000 or 3,000 at a time? Getting too intelectual is the problem. How come people listened to rough talking disciples who were once fishermen? What intellectual insights did they have to share? People are looking for the meaning of life and it is found in Jesus Christ. Preach and share that. Who cares about Epiphanies or Metabolic Theology? How can I know more about Christ and what He wants from me? That’s the type of intellectual pursuit that grew the church, a simple message extrapolated into everyday life and it’s meaning. If you look elsewhere and try to define Christ in other terms and ways that the average person does not understand, they become lost and disillusioned and turn away. That is why denominational churches are losing members and non-denominational churches are growing.
People who are bored with the simple message of Christ look for intelectual meanings. The message is quite simple. To relate it to others is simple as well. We need to get back to the basics and help others to know that Christ is with us in our everyday lives and loves us. That’s a challenge for all to seek rather than complicated and heavy stuff. There’s a lot of hurt out there that needs to hear Jesus’s message of hope. Study that and find ways to deliver that message of hope to those in need. As someone once told me. “stop contemplating your naval and get down and do some real work.”
Thanks for this comment!
I’d be interested in knowing what you mean by “basics.”
In the ancient church, the catechumenate was an elaborate initiation process, expecting prayer, fasting, an confession, not to mention an additional three years of a “trial period” before they could actually be baptized. During this time there was extensive teaching. As Williston Walker writes in his book A History of the Christian Church, “One result of this whole development was that many folk spent much of their lives as catechumens.”
And so it was in this mix of intense teaching (“Great intellectual stuff!!”) that the Church grew!
So while I appreciate very much your sincere and passionate faith, I have to say that your phrase “People are looking for the meaning of life and it is found in Jesus Christ” is curious to me, because implicit in that is a desire to be taught about the meaning of life and Jesus Christ!
I really and truly believe that it is possible to teach the challenging stuff of theology and not alienate, not talk over the heads, of ordinary folk (I surely know, though, that that isn’t always done with great finesse!) As you point out, the first Christians were “ordinary people,” most of whom were not literate. But they wanted to learn, and acted out of their grasp of this new message.
So I guess I’d say that I hear your concern, but I just don’t think that it needs to be an either/or.
The basics are what Christ taught the disciples and what they taught others. I may be wrong but it was very simple. Not intellectual stuff or an education in Theology. What they had to say related to human needs. Even then some where confused by it but many accepted the teaching of Jesus. I think mainly because they had a hunger for hope in God for freedom and salvation. Freedom from Roman rule and hope of eternal salvation not just confession and absolution of sins every year, freedom from oppressing rules from their Jewish faith.
The best intellectual pursuits I think are answering the questions of: Is God real, will Christ really return again, or being a believer has He already come to us, what really happens after death, is it true what Atheists and others say that our faith is really a crutch to ease into death, why hasn’t anyone come back from death to give us a “report,” what happens to the spirit at death, is there proof of this, can the human body function without a spirit and who is in charge, the body or the spirit, is our faith really an answer for all of this, does God really need all the believers and for what purpose, when is enough enough and He returns, next year, 100 years, 1000 years 10,000 years or never?
Thanks for this continuing volley.
Two things stuck me.
One, just as an important point of clarification, the early Jewish “converts” were not fleeing “oppressing rules.”
It’s essential that that be said.
Many did not see themselves as converting, but rather (as Jesus was a Jew) continuing to faithfully worship as Jews.
Too, as recent studies demonstrate, the Law was not perceived as a way to earn grace, but was seen as grace itself. That is, God loved the Jewish people so much that God gave them the law, much like parents love their children so much that they have rules that must be followed–not to earn love, but as an expression of it.
Two, your questions are fantastic questions, and questions which are not easy to answer. They are intellectual questions about which volumes and volumes over the course of centuries have been written. That is, trained theologians and historians and scientists can be awfully helpful here. A person could dispense with them, but then they’d dispense with a whole bunch of information that can help sort some of these questions out.
And I remain convinced that a person can teach about such things without snowing the learning with vocabulary and concepts which are jargon, complex, and alienating. I really believe it.
But “basic” does not necessarily mean “simple.” It does mean “foundational,” however. And if you’re going to build a foundation, you might as well call in an expert or two to make sure that it doesn’t crumble in.
I’m open to another round!
Reading this thread reminds me that I WAS interested in theology as an adolescent and that my experiences of intense love for God and Jesus Christ went hand in hand with enormous curiosity about the ideas of the faith. I read some of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses at fifteen, and when my youth pastor preached a sermon on the first chapter of John and spoke about the meaning of a Greek word, I wanted to know where, what it looked like– and it occurred to me for the first time that there might be other things in the Greek that enlightened the Gospel. I got frustrated when the bible studies on campus (not one of our ELCA colleges, I assure you) seemed to be more about the leaders controlling the interpretation of the texts than teaching me how to open them up. Not unkindly, but I was discouraged from considering seminary because I was a girl, and shy, and awkward, and clearly not “leadership” material. I wonder how many people are turned away not just from the idea of becoming pastors but from faith because they don’t get the guidance and companionship they need to dive into scripture and the theological problems and questions that are both from the tradition and invade the tradition from the culture? My experience might be unusual.
Really enjoyed this post Anna – am currently re-reading D.B. Bass’s “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” I think her incredible treatment of various head- and heart-healthy congregations & the lessons they may have for our own congregations meshes well with your call for our communities to encourage a more well-digested theology.
Also, the innumerable examples of Christian Base Communitiesin Latin America & throughout the world offer ample testimony to people from widely divergent social locations coming together to read the “basics” of Scripture (often together!), and then moving on to digest those basics in ways which have deep and profound implications for their own communities, as well as the surrounding landscape.
You’re right on target – it’s almost never an either/or proposition