There is an art about constructive approaches to theology. I am a big fan of the current trend toward constructive theology and away from ‘systematic’ theology. The problem, as I see it, it two-fold. First, God did not give us a system. What we have inherited is a story – a narrative. Call it a covenant, call it a relationship, call it the community of creation … what we have is organic and earthy, connective and fleshy, sacred and ordinary at the same time. Systems are very man-made (and in this case ‘man’ is not generic but historically masculine) and extremely formulaic.
Systems are not inherently bad, mind you. It’s just that systems, and systematic theology, sometimes take on a life of their own and become mechanistic and assembly line in the age of factories. Doctrines and ideas are not gears that interlock in intricate and interchangeable ways. Even as an analogy, it leaves much to be desired, let alone the actual exercise production of systematic theology.
The second problem is that in order for all of the moving parts (gears) to work together in systematized and mechanistic ways, much of the data must be shaved off or conformed so that it all fits together in a coherent formula. The goal of systematic theology is to create a system that works as a unit – not to create a story that accounts for the all of the material and data. Systematic theologies are like feature-length movies that have been cut and spliced with a lot of film left on the cutting room floor. The result is that some elements may be neglected while others may get ‘forced’ to fit.
I am not begrudging the history of systematic theology, it is a rich tradition, but only saying that I prefer the move away from systematized and mechanistic approaches to theology and toward a more holistic and organic approach that accounts for more of the data/material of both scripture and church history, as well as human experience. Constructive theology is a different approach that says (in essence) ‘what we have here may not fit together or work together perfectly, but neither does life or faith’ – not everything conforms to a perfect form and it may not necessarily come together in a perfect and transferable unit.
Life and faith are messy but I would prefer that more of the picture be re/presented or accounted for than I am concerned that the categories work together cleanly.
What this shift to constructive theology has meant in practice is that I have taken a half-step away from systematic theology to begin the transition. I have inherited an Essentials of Theology class for this year-long appointment as my school (Portland Seminary) transitions to a new curriculum that will not include this class in this form in the future. So while I have left the inherited categories the same, I have changed two things:
- I changed the sequence so that ‘humanity’ (anthropology) was not an afterthought
- I don’t expect the content of each category to come together in tidy or even functional ways. They may – but that is not the highest priority.
These little changes make a big difference. Placing ‘humans’ second in the sequence means that we have to deal with the reality of bodies and location before we can tackle the idea that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Our sequence of conversations goes God, human, Jesus, …. Instead of the more classic approach of God, Jesus, Bible, Holy Spirit, Church – then humans. As you will hopefully notice in today’s and tomorrow’s posts on humans then Jesus, sequencing is not trivial. [We will get back to nuclear-theology later in the week].
When I talk about being human from a theological concern, it seems to bring up a lot of complex words: incarnate, embodied, context, and enacted. This is an opportunity to employ a playful and structural examination of these concepts. For instance, by simply applying a well-placed backslash, these concepts take on a new level of clarity.
These notions take on a profound weightiness to validate human experience (and your story) as a place (or text) of spiritual insight and divine revelation. Your story matters to God. Your experience is valid and tells us something. Your existence is a living text (to quote Bonnie Miller-McLemore) that informs our theological examination.
I close with this: it is important to talk about what it means to be human before we talk about Jesus so that we know how big of a deal it is that Christians claim that Jesus was a revelation of something divine – that Jesus embodied God – or that the Word became flesh.
This isn’t a system. It isn’t simple. It doesn’t always fit together in a neat and tidy formula. It is a story that is messy, fleshy, and earthy. I hope that our approach re/presents that truth whether our ‘final product’ does or not.