Monday, February 13, 2006

Easy Answers

"In the realm of theology, shallowness is treason."
-Abraham Heschel, The Prophets

Is there a principle more consistently violated in American Christianity than this? The opposite principle seems more often to be observed -- if you can't get your theology on a bumper sticker, it's too complex.

I know there's good theology out there. It's the thing that drives my faith. I don't want answers to theological questions. I want to know God. Often people act as though that isn't the business of theology, but I can't imagine what else it's good for.

And yet, there's a certain paradox here. The most basic questions of religion must, if we are honest, remain unanswerable. Does God exist? Popular religion will answer with a quick "Yes" and probably follow it up with a simple logical proof. After all, if we can't even answer that question, our faith is surely exposed as a scam, right?

But if we invoke Heschel's principle here, "in the realm of theology, shallowness is treason," it becomes evident that we should not give a quick and easy answer to the question of God's existence. It's something we have to wrestle with. Our wrestling may presume an answer. It may seek to redefine the question. But it cannot pretend that it's an easy question.

The same is true of Christ's question, "Who do you say that I am?" The same is true of all the most basic questions of the faith: "What do we mean by salvation?" "How does the death of Christ accomplish salvation?" "What do we mean by 'heaven'?"

Easy answers are the enemy of true faith.


Lutheran Zephyr said...

yes, easy answers are the enemy of faith, but the faith shouldn't be held hostage to intellectual gymnastics for the sake of being deep.

An experienced pastor told me a story an important shift in his preaching after a few years in the parish. He said that he got discouraged when he read the sermon notes of his Confirmation class kids, because they nearly always missed failed to understand the message. Now he preaches so that the Confirmation kid has a very good chance of following and understanding the sermon.

Perhaps he can offer even more complex or nuanced theology in an educational setting, but for preaching this model seems to be pretty good.

Andy said...

You're definitely right. There must be an accessible point of entry. Perhaps the trouble comes in when we decide there's an end-point in a line of thinking.

Mata H said...

I think the art is in knowing what has an easy answer and what has a complex answer. I would not want any theologian to miss the simplicity of "Do you love me?...Feed my sheep", for example, although compolex discussions can be held about how.

What bothers me about "bumper sticker theology" (and that is a great phrase, Melancthon) is that it wants to reduce theology to slogans. And although intellectually considered answers can be simple, theology ought never be glib and facile.

It should be apprehensible - but the object should not be to end up with a series of slogans that fit well on truncheons.

Christopher said...

I'm glad you are reading Heshel. I just mentioned over at my blog that the current Pope writes about sabbath with the same tenderness that ol' Abe does.
Interesting thing about "Bumper Sticker Theology" is that I tend to think of Luther in that light. Aka "100% saint 100% sinner" "All ready, not yet" "Faith alone" "Word alone" etc. That said I've read Luther and I know he has so much more to say about each of those things than his catch phrases. Still I think rhetorically good phrases do add spice to a theology, as long as the theology isn't sacrificed for the rhetoric (which I admit I've been known to do. I once preached on the I AM phrases in John and even though I think it was bad theology ended up doing this call and response thing that really was sort of Panthiestic).