Very Disorganized Thoughts About Being "All In"
It can be interesting to note the ways in which we push and pull on ourselves, and to experience in real time how our brains and hearts flit between this and that interest. It can also be profound to mark what stays—or what comes back.
My early experiences loving theology were defined by very exciting encounters with a couple important aspects of contemporary thinking about Christianity. First, it was getting to know Jesus not as a shimmering someone floating around being nice but rather as a very earthly, this-worldly radical establishing revolutionary ethical and relational strategies. This was the Jesus of the "Third Wave" Jesus scholars (Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, N.T. Wright, Amy-Jill Levine). This Jesus was born in Nazareth, an embarrassing detail the gospels had trouble agreeing on, emerged from Galilee a homeless leader of a spiritually and politically targeted movement to destabilize Temple and Roman authority, and was executed as a political insurgent. This Jesus' followers built a movement which, over generations of theologizing and philosophizing and proclaiming, worked itself into a whole host of branching cosmological/existential paradigms. Some of these grandchildren it bore grew too powerful, too bloodthirsty, too insecure, and they began raping and pillaging. They were at times called to betterment from the fringes. They sometimes incinerated the fringes. All of them called themselves Christ's body, Christ's real presence, Christ's real activity. Only some were, being the children of that radical socio- and theo-political perspective that called out power despite power's "sacred" vocabulary.
I would explore how this Jesus and his followers/embodiments are still at work in seminary (especially in conversation with the writings of Jennings, Dussel, Townes, Rieger, Bonhoeffer <3, Cone, and many others), and there I found a home for my desire to die to one part of myself and rise along with others repurposed. The seminary that I went to excelled in this, and I found myself dying to myself on a weekly basis. Much of my time was spent examining the workings and rhetorical justifications of evil in leadership and my (our) own part in putting it there and helping it along. I bore witness in reading about and dialoguing with and eventually protesting the deep wounds caused by all of society (and in part by me). And this was positive and humbling and constructive, but something about where I was and how I wanted to be seen (or to see) opened me not just to the cry of the gospel but to self-mechanization and profanation. In my overidentification with the abuse and sin in which I participate, I was happy to shred the usefulness right out of myself in the desire to be useful. And, ironically, in doing so, I died not to myself for divinity's purposes but to nothing for my own insecurities.
There was another little beam of theological thinking that lit a little flame in me when I was an undergraduate, that of a kind of mystical going-further-than monotheism. The old dude God, despite looking like me, was insufficient to me, and I knew that even in high school. I didn't know why, but I did. The power and light God didn't speak to what was within me, but only up and over me, heavy words dropping on me from the sky or zinging over my head. I found myself attracted to deconstructions (and then reconstructions) of the old doctrine of God. Altizer's dead God and living divinity was enticing. So was the Beguines' genderbending, co-experiencing, uber-sexual God. I especially identified with Paul Tillich's descriptions of panentheism (literally "all in God"), and my understanding of whatever it was that undergirded creation started to come into focus (which is relative, because I'm further along now and the picture is still very blurry). If the reader is new to the concept, panentheism defines God as composed of and transcending reality. The share normal things have in divinity (and going further, the possibility of incarnation) stems from the fact that God pervades all existence, and the visage of God in the face of the other is not symbolic but real, making clearer sense of the insistence of the gospels that whatever is done to "the least of these my children" is done also directly to Jesus Christ. It also rips exclusive claim to divinity away from the spaces that often try to entrap it (still), and readies the practitioner to encounter it where Christian ministry happens: in the world not the church. Panentheism does not necessarily deny the reality of God having some aspect of personhood, but God goes beyond it (in Tillich's famous phrase, God is not a being but the Ground of All Being). I felt some liberative power here, something that was consistent with the radicalism I saw in Jesus. But I also knew there was something vulnerable in this God, and in finding this God in myself and others. This was a God that experienced with and within me and bore alongside me all my squishy, weird neediness.
Due to my own discomfort with myself and to the fact that the popular God-concept at my seminary was a bit different than the kind of extra- or post-personal God I was encountering, not just in readings but in the world as I understood it, I shelved my panentheism (and so, in a way, my doorway into mysticism). There are, of course, reasonable arguments against this tradition of seeing God, as there are with all concepts of God, including orthodox Christian monotheism. Persuasively, some have argued that certain traditions stemming from academic theological discourse are unhelpful because they emerge not out of a context in which God is working but rather out of one in which God is intellectualized. Oddly, this way of seeing God is what turned me towards the people who were working. I let this tension live in me for a while, and danced around the doctrine of God as best I could in my Constructive Theology at the end of my MDiv.
I work with normal religious people now, not other theology students, and I often see them at their lowest. And when people are at their lowest, they want to know why things are happening, who to turn to, who God is, and what to think about themselves. In one particularly thorny conversation, one in which my grounding in postcolonial and theo-political criticism of unjust social structures felt inappropriate, I found myself turning to a God that guides people but does not control them. This God calls people but loves them enough to let them answer, grieves with them when they hurt. This God acts in collaboration with an imperfect humanity but does not dictate their futures. The people with whom I was speaking later told me "I didn't agree with what you said but I guess it made me feel better." They were fundamentalists, so I consider this high praise. Realizing this was also telling me something about my own lived theology, I returned to contemplation and reading.
And in doing some digging I rediscovered a book that I had written off as pretentious in seminary. On the Mystery by Catherine Keller. Dr. Keller is a Constructive theologian that draws deeply from the wells of eco-feminist and process theologies. It is the process thinking that I was particularly interested in, because that's what I accidentally articulated to the fundamentalists who were quizzing me on my theodicy. I wrote off Dr. Keller as pretentious because she uses funny terms like "planetary entanglement" and "theology of becoming," terms that feel kind of Marianne Williamson-esque without proper context. Process theology, to summarize Keller, is a way of doing theology descended from the process philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, translated into a fully formed theological system by John Cobb Jr. and David R. Griffin. Process theology (typically, but not universally) denies the existence of a male, personal God in favor of one that is radically integrated with creation, dialoguing with it in an open-ended capacity. The God of process theologians is a God of love first, and thinkers rooted in the tradition have been known to critique Christian Orthodoxy's insistence on the power of God at the expense of the love of God, despite God's love being testified to in the Bible while God's omnipotence (as it is presently understood—God knows all, does all, plans all, even predestines all) is a doctrinal construction. A foundation of process theology is the idea that God is in a two-way, interactive relationship with creation, that God can be affected, moved, hurt, responded to. This, too, is biblical—process theologians stand firmly against the orthodox idea that God is impassable, that God's transcendence makes God unemotive, and that God therefore only "appears" to grieve with or go with or love people. For process theologians, God does not control history, and the activity of God in creation is conducted not by coercion or control but rather by lure, invitation, some would even say seduction (eros), where the response to and cocreation with God undertaken by faithful folks is agape, compassion.
I was struck during my reading by how much of the content of process theology I already hold dear. This is likely because so many of my mentors, teachers, theological influences, and pastors have been "influenced" by it but wouldn't go far enough to call themselves process thinkers. In any case, the process lens seems to tie a lot together for me as a theological thinker right now. In a political context, it updates and makes accessible an idea like Bonhoeffer's ultimate call of obedience to and activity with Christ, articulating it in an ever-present divine lure. It, perhaps more elegantly and more readily than any other theological perspective, sees humans as completely integrated into the created order and accepts the religious and moral value of nonhuman life. It celebrates, not suppresses, the ways in which human thinking changes over time. It directs us to real people and events in the present moment as the landing zone for actual theology. It also brings some much needed nuance, grace, and responsiveness to the Christ I still see as deeply challenging, dangerous, and often transgressive in our society.
It is funny that I would spend so much time just working out my own theological thinking in this manner when I believe words are only the catalyst, rather than the content, of theology. But the value of theological dialogue can also not be overstated, as the ongoing conversation for the priorities of the Christian faith at a grander scale influence the activities of real people who identify themselves as Christian and therefore is an essential unit in the nervous system of the body of Christ. I'm just trying to figure out my own relationship to it so I can interact responsibly with the God in my own space.
Such, I suppose, is the task of discipleship, which leaves me with such scattered and searching thoughts as these.