Saturday, September 28, 2013

ritually rich

The NuDunkers are talking about how we do our theology. We'll be in a Google Hang Out conversation on Thursday, 10/3 at 10am EST. Here's the link to the event page - join us by commenting on our blogs, writing a reflection of your own, jumping in the video chat (limited space), watching the chat live or later, or commenting on our conversation!


Don Saliers, who taught me Systematic Theology, would remind us every time we took up a new topic in the course that to claim a particular theology as one own was always to also reject another way of understanding. Affirmation - in philosophy and theology - always necessarily entailed rejection.

So, for instance, if you chose to affirm a sacrificial atonement theory of soteriology, then you were also necessarily rejecting another possibility (say, Christus Victor). Or, if you affirm a high Christology, emphasizing Jesus' divinity over his humanity, then you are necessarily rejecting another theological possibility.

I think that Dr. Saliers' aim was to remind his students that doing theology is never simply parroting correct answers but instead doing the hard work of coming to conclusions within a somewhat rational, sensible system. I don't think of Don Saliers as first and foremost a systematic theologian - he is a mystic, a wizard, a musician and liturgist who leads worship with a grand sense of awe. And his approach - reminding us that choosing one method over another is always an inadequate picture of reality - actually left "systematic" theology far behind in the realm of impossibility. Insisting that no one of us ever had or will have the full picture of who God is and how God relates to humanity...well, that's actually a brilliant way to teach seminary students both the history of systematic theology AND a little humility.

Dr. Saliers' approach made sense to me then, and it makes even more sense to me now. If I am learning anything being a pastor, it is a slow-borne sense of compassion and pared-down bit of humility. Mostly, what I mean is: people are complicated, and I am rarely entirely right about them. The very same people in my congregation with whom I starkly disagree or simply dont understand are those who continuously surprise me with their care, their depth, our connectedness.

Which is why I was so intrigued to hear (from Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Bethany Seminary) that the Church of the Brethren is the most ritually-rich Protestant denomination in America. We have little to no formal theology - piecing together any kind of official theological position is like going on a treasure hunt - but man, oh man, can we do ritual! We've got Love Feast, communion, footwashing, anointing, baptism, the holy kiss, even a rich history of shunning(!) - which has an elemental function for a community.

We've not invested much of our time or energy in writing doctrine, systematic or otherwise. Instead, as a group, Brethren  have been much more interested in preserving ritual. I think that's incredible. I think ritual makes room for ambiguity. It allows people to be undecided. It does not require assent or affirmation of belief - thereby requiring necessary rejection. Ritual is big and roomy and expressive, and I can wash the feet of any brother or sister, no matter what they think Jesus died for (cf: the POPE, washing the feet of a WOMAN who is in PRISON and also MUSLIM).

Which is good news, given how complicated and contradictory we are as humans. Luther spun the phrase "simul justus et peccator" - simultaneously saint and sinner - and good grief, it's true. I'd much rather get invited to express an understanding of God by anointing another in blessing than by committing myself to a particular systematic understanding of how God saves us. Ritual leaves room for innovation. It makes space for paradox. It is portable, carrying the familiar wherever it needs to be heard. And it gets into our beings in ways that doctrine just can't.

So here's a theory: using ritual as a primary theological vessel allows for both tradition and innovation; preserves orthodoxy while encouraging creativity; makes space in an understanding of God for human complexity and diversity; invites participation; strengthens community; more fully expresses what we know about God.

What say you?




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