Life will change your theology – not the other way round

Life will change your theology – not the other way round
Throughout his life he had been an ardent Evangelical Christian. He now found himself terminally ill in a Catholic hospital run by a religious order of nuns. (Not the place this proud Irish bible basher ever imagined he’d end up.) On the wall in his room was a crucifix. In the church he had attended growing up as a boy a bright silver cross had gleamed in the sanctuary. Like the empty tomb it proclaimed that Christ was no longer there – that he had risen and triumphed over death! On the wall of his hospital room, by contrast, a broken, garish figure hung on the cross in the throes of death. Before he slipped into eternity the old man directed his wife’s attention to the cross and whispered to her: ‘sometimes you need a cross with Christ on it.’ Life will change your theology – not the other way round.

The word is ‘cognitive dissonance’ – a term beloved of sociologists and psychologists. It refers to the trauma we experience when there is a mismatch between our beliefs and reality. The bible is full of characters whose cherished ideas about God came to grief in the cold light of day. Job had to learn that God still loved him and was providentially in control of his life despite family tragedy, illness and heaps of personal misfortune (a notion, by the way, which ran counter to ancient near eastern ‘prosperity’ teaching). Paul in turn had to rip up all his theological degrees when he lit upon the notion that God’s Messiah had been a recently crucified Galilean peasant. And after a dream the apostle Peter came to the (painful) conclusion that Gentiles were not unclean but very much a part of the purposes of God.

The truth is there isn’t a solitary person in the whole of the bible that didn’t undergo some kind of radical change in their understanding of God. Think, for example, of characters like Abraham, Isaiah or Ezekiel who had to revise their theologies in the wake of changed circumstances – or extreme situations in which they found themselves. Abraham, against all evidence, was expected to believe that God could raise his son from the dead; Isaiah was to learn that God used idolatrous nations to punish his people; and Ezekiel discovered that God didn’t need a temple to dwell in nor was he tied to the land of Israel.

If life doesn’t change your theology you will never grow or mature as an individual. The reason life changes our theology is because so often we get it wrong about God. Life has a canny knack of showing us that we haven’t just misread our bibles, but also distorted its message, even if it’s just by focusing on the bits of scripture we like and feel comfortable with.

We are all theologians. The question is whether we are good or bad ones. The more of life that your theology explains the more biblical it is likely to be. If however there are chunks of life that your theology does not address, then it is sure to be less biblically rooted – and you can thus expect, as night follows day, that at some point in the future God is going to pull the rug from under your feet.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.

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