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:
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?