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Everyday Theology

by Delwin Brown and Meridith Underwood

Delwin Brown is professor of Christian Theology at The Iliff School of Theology and in 1996 became interim dean and acting president. He is a lay member of The United Methodist Church. His books include: To Set at Liberty: Christian Faith and Human Freedom; with Clark Pinnock, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue; and Boundaries of Our Habitations: Tradition and Theological Construction. At the time of writing this essay, Meridith Underwood was in the joint doctoral program at The Iliff School of Theology. She previously served as a staff producer, writer and director for United Methodist Communications; her field is religion and popular culture. The following paper was written in December, 1990.


We approach this study with a basic assumption: that being religious is being human. When people believe in God, pray before the wailing wall in Jerusalem, struggle to escape the cycles of existence, handle poisonous snakes, join religious orders, or spend their time pondering so-called religious questions, they are doing something characteristically human.

That may not sound like a very radical place to start. But from that assumption we want to suggest something further which might surprise you: thinking theologically is also a normal human activity. In fact, it is probably something you do on a daily basis. Of course, you may not be aware when you are doing it. And like most human activities, the ability to do it well improves with practice. Our theological muscles grow stronger when we stretch and exercise them.

Think of the following reflection, then, as a theological workout, which will help you identify what theology is, why it is important and how it is done. While we firmly believe that, as a thinking religious person, you engage in this quite normal human activity all the time, we hope this study will enable you to do theology more deliberately and effectively in the future, thereby deepening your faith and enriching your religious life.

 The Place of Theology in Life

  Amy had been going through a rough time for months. She was stuck in a dead-end job. She and her husband fought constantly, especially over money. Her father's health was failing, but he was too proud to ask for help. "I'm able to cope just living day to day," she told her best friend, Helen, at lunch. "But I feel so dead inside. Nothing seems fun or worthwhile. Friends at church say God will get me through, trust in God, pray to God. That only makes it worse. I don't even believe in God anymore." She paused, considering what she had just said. "Oh, that's not what I really mean. It's just that sometimes God feels so far away. Do you think there's something wrong with me?"

Amy has begun the task of doing theology. She is reflecting on her faith, what it means to her, how it fits with everything else she is experiencing in life, whether or not it works. Embedded in her brief conversation are a series of very human questions which give rise to theological thinking. Who is God? How is God relating to me? Is there a purpose for my suffering? Am I allowed to question or get angry at God? If I were a better Christian, would I have a better life?

In this sense, theology is not necessarily using language that we think of as religious or Christian. It is addressing issues that we could simply classify as human issues. These are not simply Sunday morning questions. They are the ones which wake us up in the middle of the night or interrupt an otherwise ordinary workday.

What is theology?

 

We can describe the task of theology as (1) an effort to gain a coherent and comprehensive understanding of ourselves and our worlds, (2) in relation to what is most valuable or fundamental, (3) in order to live life well. Of course, the process of theological thinking never starts here exactly. We seldom ask first about what is coherent, comprehensive or fundamental. We ask why life is the way it is, often because it is not the way we wanted or expected it to be.

Problems arise, however, because the religious tradition we inherited consists of someone else's answers to someone else's questions. It might have been better if none of us had ever heard any theological concepts until we had lived long enough to discover the need of them. But most of us got religion along with our first plate of solid food. We certainly didn't have time to experience the questions ourselves before we were already being told the answers.

There's often something irritating about having to wade through someone else's answers, especially when they have been presented to us with so much spiritual reverence and ceremony. And the chance that these answers will exactly suit us is almost nil, which is even more irritating. However, the chance that we can learn nothing at all from these inherited answers is also almost nil.

But if theological answers originated in someone else's real life, the first thing we need to know about them is not, are these answers true? It is, what did these answers do? What real human dilemmas did they address, how did they address them, and what were the consequences?

Theology and faith

Mike realized he was just going through the motions when he went to church every Sunday. It had been part of his upbringing and he found it hard to leave. But try as he might, he wasn't able to follow in his parents' footsteps and embrace wholeheartedly what the church was telling him. Too many things didn't jibe with his experience, and sometimes it seemed as if the Bible said one thing, his friends something else, and his pastor something else again. He wanted to believe, but he didn't know where to begin. Was he a Christian or not? And how could he tell?

Although Mike is unable at this point to state clearly what he does and does not believe, he is nevertheless thinking theologically. He is asking questions about the nature of faith, about certitude and doubt, about the pluralism of ideas expressed in the Bible and church tradition. He is reflecting on the nature of authority -- where does it come from, who do we trust, on what do we base our beliefs?

Thinking theologically is not the same as having religious beliefs, or expressing them, even with great conviction. "I believe in God the creator of heaven and earth" is not a theological statement. Rather, theology means trying to understand what you believe and why.

So there is a difference between theology and faith, between doing theology and being religious. Thinking theologically is certainly one of the ways people have of being religious. But it is not the only or even the most important way.

Look at everything else that is a part of religion -- rituals in thousands of forms and dozens of types; religious pilgrimages to Mecca, to Lourdes, or to the camp meeting in the next county; artistic symbols from Sallman's head of Christ to the rose window at Chartes Cathedral, from Muslim temples to statues of Buddha to Amish furniture. There are the stories told by parents to virtually every child who reaches the age of three. And, of course, there is a wide variety of religious experience -- through meditation, worship, prayer, service and community gatherings.

Now ask yourself: what do most religious people spend most of their religious time doing? The answer is not "thinking theologically." This is why we call theology a second order discipline. It is dependent on something else -- questions of ultimate meaning, the life of faith, religious beliefs and practices, or Christian existence.

Theology, then, is rational reflection on our beliefs. It involves being prepared to give reasons for our faith, as the New Testament says. "I think it is wonderful (or awful) to believe in God the creator" is a reflective statement, but it is not a reason. "My parents taught me to believe in God the creator" is an explanation or a cause, but still not a reason. To ask for reasons is to ask for justification that one is entitled to hold this belief. In addition, theology expects us to give reasons for our faith that are open to public discussion.

What kinds of reasons generally count as adequate for justifying a particular religious belief? There are three good places to start. First of all, is this particular belief consistent with other beliefs we hold? Second, does it help make sense of our lives and our world, as well as the experiences of others? Third, does holding this belief have beneficial consequences while denying it would be harmful? In this way, we examine both what a particular belief means and what it does.

 The importance of theology

  It would be much easier to just state our convictions and leave it at that. Why bother with theology anyway?

But religious beliefs are too powerfully rich to be ignored, and they are likewise too dangerous to be left alone. Christianity, for example, has generated both virtues and vices, healing and oppression, life and death. Christian beliefs were used to justify slavery, burn women for witchcraft, persecute Jews and rob Native Americans of their lands. But Christian beliefs also bear enormous possibilities for good. They have empowered black people to stand up against slavery and prejudice in this country. They have given us the concept of a God who suffers with us and a vision of the church as a community of all people and nations. Thus religious beliefs and practices must be critically examined and re-examined both for their dangers and their positive potentials.

Theology carries out this task in three ways. First of all it asks, what do these beliefs and practices mean, in themselves and in relation to each other. What does it mean to believe in God? to follow Jesus? to confess our sin and hope for salvation? And what do God, Jesus, sin and salvation have to do with each other? How are their meanings interwoven?

Second it asks, what do these beliefs and practices do? What difference do they make? What effects do they have? Until recently, we always spoke as if God were male. Many women objected, arguing that this made them less than fully acceptable in God's sight. They were pointing out that our beliefs have consequences -- some good and some bad -- and we need to be aware of them.

Third, as theologians, we must also evaluate our beliefs and practices, asking whether they are appropriate and justified, according to various criteria. This is one of our most difficult tasks because not everyone agrees on the standards for evaluation. For instance, some men and women have decided that speaking of God in solely male terms should be discontinued because of its exclusionary effect. Other men and women disagree based on different criteria, such as compliance with scripture or church tradition. Difficult or not, however, evaluation is one of the tasks we take on when we begin thinking theologically.

 Theological Exercises

  The rest of this study is designed to give you a theological workout. You will have the chance to consider a series of human questions which give rise to theological thinking. You will learn to look behind both the questions and the resources Christianity gives for answering them, so that you can better understand and evaluate your own religious beliefs in relation to those of the tradition you have inherited or adopted. You will practice giving reasons for your faith.

Each of the theological exercises will consist of the following steps:

  * It will begin with a question.

* You will look at some of the resources Christianity has provided to answer this question.

You will have the opportunity to suggest other options in the Christian tradition (or even from other sources) which also provide answers to this question.

* You will identify the answer which best suits you and give reasons why you are inclined to hold this belief. Your own personal experience will be an important source for discovering these reasons, but also remember that you should be able to show how this belief (1) fits together with other things you believe, (2) helps make sense of life (for yourself and in general), and (3) has beneficial consequences.

* Then you will be asked to imaginatively consider why others might choose a different answer from among the options identified. What purpose might this belief serve for them? What reasons might they give for holding this belief rather than another?

Finally, you will explore the weaknesses, disadvantages, or possible harmful effects of each option identified, including the one you selected. Becoming aware of the potential dangers in any belief, including those we hold dear, does not necessarily mean we must abandon that belief, but does enable us to be on guard against its distortion and misuse. It also calls us to constantly reevaluate and refine our beliefs so that they better reflect what we mean and better serve the function they were intended to serve.

Who is God? ...

For Christianity, as for other monotheistic religions, the nature of God is of primary importance. Of course, there is a prior question -- does God really exist? -- which has occupied theologians and philosophers for centuries. We can also approach the question this way: what does it mean to believe in God? Here we are asking about the function of God-talk, the difference it makes to believe that there is something or someone called God. Today, this question also raises questions about religion in a modern world. How does believing in God fit into a scientific or secular worldview which seemingly has no place for God's existence. We see how even a simple question has a variety of often complicated questions embedded in it. Also, the same question can be asked in a variety of ways.

Here we are going approach this question by asking, what is God like? -- that is, what are the attributes or qualities of God? As with virtually every important theological question, Christians have offered a variety of answers. These are some you might be familiar with:

(1) God is a person. Though God far surpasses any person we have ever met, still the most valid and valuable way of talking about God is in personal terms: father, mother, friend, companion. Many things in the Bible reflect this image of God, especially the confession that the person of Jesus is somehow a perfect expression of who God is.

(2) God is mystery. God is ultimately indescribable and incomprehensible, far beyond our feeble attempts to know and relate to God. There are also many biblical passages which reflect this understanding, particularly when God appears to Moses as a burning bush.

(3) God is a force or power which moves the universe toward order or goodness. The creation stories in Genesis reflect something of this understanding, as does the Gospel of John when it refers to the "logos," the divine Word which binds and directs the universe.

* These are three ways Christianity has answered the question about the nature of God. Can you think of other options -- from scripture, church tradition, or other sources -- for describing who or what God is?

* Which of options identified come closest to your own beliefs about God? Why? In responding, reflect on your personal experience. For instance, what or who do you imagine when you worship, pray or think about God? Where did this image come from? Then give reasons to justify continuing to hold this belief.

* Imagine why someone else might select one of the other options above as their understanding of God. What experiences might give rise to that image? What reasons might they give for justifying their belief? In responding, think about both the meaning and the purpose of each option.

For example, talking about God in personal terms features God's accessibility to us. It emphasizes God's love, and supports a strong notion of community. Talking about God as mystery, on the other hand, stresses God's holiness and otherness, leading us to respond with awe and wonder, as well as an appropriate humility about our beliefs.

A single image for God can lead in many directions, however. Two people may share the same basic image, but give very different reasons for justifying it. Understanding God as a force which creates and orders the universe, for instance, may invite a notion of God as all-powerful and in control. But it may just as well see God as the primary force among many other forces in the universe, working through cooperation and persuasion.

* Examine the dangers and drawbacks of all the images for God you have been considering, including your own. What are their limitations? How might their effects be harmful rather than beneficial? How would you revise your own belief in light of this?

Understanding God as a person, for example, can lead to idolatry. We all tend to visualize the concept of "personhood" in our own image. Does this tempt us to picture God as either male or female, white or black, young or old? Thinking of God as mystery may so emphasize our inability to know God that we simply give up trying to say anything meaningful about God at all. And while imagining God as a universal force protects us from the dangers of making God over in our own image, it tends to make God so impersonal that it is hard to know how God might relate to us as flesh and blood human beings.

Will things ever get better? ...

While religion often functions on an everyday level to sustain and enrich our ordinary lives, some of our most pointed questions arise when things do not go the way we expected and the blessed ordinariness of life is interrupted by death, disease, or despair. Some of us, on the other hand, may experience every day as filled with hardship. We wonder whether that is all we will ever know.

This raises the very human question of hope. Will the future be any different from the present? What can we hope for? It also leads us to question the real possibilities for change and transformation. Does what we do make a difference? Is it up to us alone? We must also ask about the kind of change or transformation we are hoping for. What does "better" mean anyway?

Jesus' life and ministry took place during a time of intense longing for a better world. His people, the Jews, had long been oppressed by Roman rule and were often persecuted for their religious faith and practices. Jesus preached the good news that a change was coming: the kingdom of God was at hand. The early church, formed in the hope which blossomed after his resurrection, lived in the expectation that Jesus would return any day to fulfill this good news. Years passed, however, without his return, so his followers were forced to reinterpret his message.

What developed is the Christian doctrine of eschatology. The word "eschaton" means "end times" or "last things," but it has never simply involved concern for a far-off future, because, as Jesus and his followers realized, what we believe about the future dramatically affects how we live in the present.

Christianity has provided a number of options for talking about the future and our hope for a better life, among them the following:

(1) We are working together with God in history toward the transformation of the world;

(2) The transformation of the world will come in history, but it will be entirely God's doing, in a manner and at a time of God's choosing.

(3) There can be no real progress toward a better world within the context of this life and human history because they are wholly bound up in sin. Rather, we place our hope for transformation in another realm, generally after death, and rely on God's grace.

* In reflecting on the three options above, can you think of stories or passages in the Bible which support each way of answering the question about hope? What are some other ways of answering the same question from within the Christian tradition or from other sources? For instance, the "American Dream" is partly a set of beliefs about hope for a better life here and now. And in contrast to Christianity, religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism believe existence is an endless cycle of rebirth; true change comes only with enlightenment and escape from the cycle.

* Which of the options identified comes closest to your own beliefs about the future? Which answer best functions to give you real hope? In what ways? In giving reasons why you hold these beliefs about the future, you might describe how they are connected to your attitudes and actions in the present.

* What reasons might someone give for selecting one of the other options as cause for hope? Here you might reflect on the assumptions which underlie each option. For instance, does it assume an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature? What is its view of history and of human activity? What does it assume about the nature of God and the way God relates to the world? (Here you have the opportunity to explore how the answer to this question relates to the first question about who God is.)

* What are the dangers and drawbacks inherent in each option? What negative results might it bring about? For example, the first option -- that we are working together with God to create a better world -- may not take seriously the limits of human knowledge and compassion. It may, ironically enough, lead to despair because we are thrown too much upon our own resources. Yet the second and third options might lead to inaction and indifference. Since God alone is able to bring about a better future, why bother working for positive change here and now?

What other drawbacks can you think of in the various options identified? How might these dangers be guarded against? What changes might you make to the option you selected now that you have examined some of its limitations?

I get as much out of a hike in the mountains as going to church on Sunday. What's wrong with that? ...

There are several questions embedded here. On one level, it is asking, what must I do to be a good Christian? What does my faith require of me? Or, even more basically, what is the nature of faith? On another level, it is asking about the relationships between God and the natural world, between God and the church. Can I encounter and know God through nature? Is God's revelation in nature the same as God's revelation in the church (or in scripture)? There is obviously a difference between experiencing God in the solitude of nature and in the community of the church. What difference does that difference make?

Christian theology has usually affirmed that the natural world, because it was created by God, in some sense truly reveals God as well. However, it has also insisted that this is a kind of general revelation, while Jesus Christ, scripture and the church reveal God's nature and intent in a special way. Yet the balance between this general and special revelation varies depending upon the particular strand of tradition. Sometimes the difference between them is quite significant; other times they are much more along a continuum. So here we see a range of options laid out before us on just this aspect of the question.

Regarding the church in particular, Christian tradition has provided several options for understanding what it is, how it works, and why it is important. The name for this is "ecclesiology," a theology of the church.

(1) The church is the gathering of the faithful, the communion of saints. It is the place where those who are saved, or in whom God's redemptive work has already taken place, come together.

(2) The church is the repository of God's truth. It is the place where salvation can be found.

(3) The church is the locus of God's activity which, then, through the church, spreads out into the world.

(4) The church is a community of people who seek to discern and support God's activity in the world, wherever it occurs.

By now you have worked with these theological exercises enough to get the hang of it, so you should feel free to explore options available in response to any of the ways of approaching the question above. You may wish to pursue the relationship between God and the natural world, or the meaning and purpose of distinctions like general and special revelation and whether they are still appropriate, or your understanding of the church.

Whichever direction you proceed, remember to cover the following steps:

*Identify the various options for answering the question, including any you can think of which are not listed above.

*Select the option closest to your beliefs and give reasons why you hold this belief. How does it fit with other beliefs you hold? How does it help you make sense of life? What beneficial consequences does it offer?

*Imagine why someone else might hold a different belief from among these options. What would it mean to them? What purpose might it serve? How would they justify it?

*Examine the limitations, drawbacks and dangers of each option, including your own. How might it confuse rather than illuminate the question at hand? What unforeseen problems might it cause?

Here are a couple of considerations you might engage in the process of this exercise:

Some contemporary theologians, in response to the ecological crisis we currently face, deem it crucial that we reevaluate and refine the classic Christian doctrines regarding God's relationship to the natural world and humanity's place within the created order. Many suggest that we highlight God's revelation in nature to a greater extent than before, in this way placing a higher value on the natural world. Does this reasoning strike you as valid? Is it sufficient to warrant making changes in classic doctrine?

You might consider that each of the above options for understanding the nature of the church is partly true and that none of them is completely false. Different churches may embody different visions of who and what the church should be. In what ways does the church you most regularly attend fit with your own understanding of "the church" in a larger sense?

Why can't we just get along? ...

It is difficult sometimes to understand why there is so much contention and strife in the world. We are increasingly alarmed over major social problems such as violence and substance abuse, as well as the general lack of caring and cooperation among people. While we can trace some of the causes behind these problems -- from individual psychological dynamics to economic and political structures -- we are still left wondering: where did we go wrong and how did it ever get to this point? This is the question of the origin and nature of evil. It is also a question about human nature: what are we like and how did we get that way?

One of the most profound, yet perhaps most difficult, insights of the Christian tradition rests in its struggle to understand evil and the relationship between evil and human nature. We see the principal result of this struggle in the classic doctrine of original sin. But this doctrine was not easily arrived at, nor has it ever been uncontroversial. Some of the options for understanding evil which the Christian tradition has wrestled with over the years include the following:

(1) Evil is part of the very nature of existence itself, including human nature. Historically, this understanding was developed by various Gnostic sects who believed that evil was a separate force in the universe alongside and in constant conflict with God. A modern, secular version of this view can be found in certain tragic views of life which assume that evil and suffering is part of the human condition to which there is no ultimate solution.

(2) Evil is not an inherent or necessary part of existence or human nature, but rather a choice, freely exercised at any given moment. In the early centuries of Christian history, the Pelagians advocated this view, arguing that human beings were innately good and could always choose the good if they wanted. The modern, secular version of this view sees evil as a product of human institutions and social structures which can be overcome by human solutions.

(3) Evil is not an inherent or necessary part of existence or human nature (creation was created good), but neither are humans wholly free to choose the good at any given moment. Rather, they have been corrupted in such a way that they invariably tend to choose evil and turn away from God. This is the classic doctrine of the Fall and original sin, formulated by Augustine in the fourth century over against both the Gnostic and the Peglagian views above.

(4) Evil is the result of the ethical and religious "immaturity" of human nature. While human beings were not created perfect, they are perfectible. There was no "Fall" and human nature has not been hopelessly corrupted. Rather it is gradually being perfected with God's help and guidance. This is an option which has been developed more recently, but has roots in certain strands of early Christian theology as well.

*Consider the options presented above and any others you would like to suggest.

*Identify the option which best matches your own understanding of evil and of human nature. Give reasons for your answer.

Here you might begin to justify your selection based on its consistency with the options you have chosen in the previous exercises, in other words, based on how it fits with other beliefs you hold. For instance, what does a belief in the perfectibility of human nature imply about the way future transformation of the world is likely to happen? Likewise, the belief that humans have been wholly corrupted by the Fall has certain implications regarding what we hope for and how we expect it to come about. Each of the options above suggests something different about the nature of God, of the created world, and of God's way of relating to us as well. Beginning to examine how your beliefs do or do not hold together may lead you to modify some of the options you have previously selected and argued for. Don't let that discourage you. You are doing exactly what a reflective Christian is supposed to do.

*Imagine why someone else might choose a different option from among those which have been identified. What life experiences or historical circumstances might lead someone to select that option? What purpose might best be served in each case?

*Examine the weaknesses, drawbacks, or possible harmful effects of each option. Our beliefs about evil and its relationship to human nature can have a dramatic effect on our perception and behavior. What difference might it make in the way you see and treat both yourself and others if you view human nature as inherently evil or inherently good or somewhere in between? What other things might be at stake? Do these considerations lead you to reevaluate or refine the option you selected?

Why doesn't God fix things?...

A great deal of theological time and energy has been expended in trying to resolve the contradictions inherent in our beliefs. While we might want to affirm that life does not always come neatly wrapped in a tidy package, and even admit that faith is not always logical, there are contradictions which pose such a problem that they cannot simply be ignored.

For example, Christians have always believed in God's absolute goodness and love. We have also wanted to say that God is all-knowing and infinitely powerful. These two affirmations come into conflict, however, when we try to make sense of human suffering. If God is good and all-powerful, why does God allow such terrible human suffering to continue? Why not put a stop to it? If God is able to, but does not, then God cannot be good. If God is good, but does not, then God must not be all-powerful. This is known as the problem of theodicy.

Theologians have come up with several options to deal with this apparent contradiction.

1) God's ways are incomprehensible. It is either impossible or inappropriate for us to try to justify God's actions.

2) God is able to end human suffering, but does not because it would interfere with the exercise of our free will.

3) God is able to end human suffering, but does not because God can use suffering to guide and teach us. In other words, God can bring a greater good out of what appears to us as simply evil.

4) Some modern thinkers, especially in light of the death and destruction witnessed in the twentieth century, say that God is not, in fact, absolutely good and loving, thus resolving the contradiction. This view has not found much acceptance among Christian theologians, but it is available as an option.

5) Finally, some theologians affirm God's goodness, but deny that God is all-powerful. God is the most powerful being or force in the universe, but God's power is limited by the power exercised, in varying degrees, by all participants in creation. God is not able, on God's own, to put an end to evil and suffering, but must work in cooperation with the rest of the created order.

*Explore these options, and any others you can think of, following the steps you have been using to work on the previous questions. You may want to refer to the guidelines suggested on page seven.

What am I supposed to be doing with my life?...

While many of the questions we have been dealing with so far occur when we experience suffering, confusion, despair or simply the unexpected vicissitudes of life, this question can arise, and probably most often does, in the midst of life's ordinary routine. We go to work or school everyday, we do what it takes to keep a household running, we share our time with family and friends -- and yet we often wonder, is this what it's about or is there something more? This question has to do with issues of meaning, purpose and personal vocation. We wonder, does God have a plan for my life? What's my place in the scheme of things?

We could explore several dimensions to this question. For one, it asks who we are. What sort of beings are we that we so relentlessly desire and search for God? Or for that matter, what sort of beings are we that God should take an interest in us? Second, it asks what we should do. Once we have answered the question about who we are, we are led to ask what that answer implies about how we should live.

The Christian tradition has generally seen humans as beings created for a special relationship with God. This gives us a kind of in-between status. We are part of the created order like animals, plants, insects and all other creatures. But by virtue of our consciousness, our ability to know right from wrong, our freedom, or some similar quality which distinguishes us from all other creatures, we have a unique place and purpose in God's plan for creation. Like all other doctrines, this one harbors benefits and dangers. Try to identify them when you work through the theological exercises in relation to this question.

In regard to the second part of this question, Christianity has provided several options for discerning why we exist and what we should do.

(1) What we should do is seek to live a good life.

(2) We exist to glorify and worship God.

(3) Our purpose in life is to serve others.

(4) What gives life meaning is to work with God toward the full realization of goodness, order, justice, or some similar ultimate value.

*Reflect on these options, and any others you want to bring in, following the theological exercises outlined on page seven. Remember to give reasons justifying both the option you select and those others might prefer.

Why we do theology this way

Our approach to theology and the Christian tradition may have surprised or even disturbed you. People are not usually taught they have options when it comes to their beliefs. Rather, this or that belief is true and you either accept it or not.

Our vision of Christian theology, however, assumes that the religious traditions we inhabit are not simple and monolithic but complex and multi-faceted. The Bible itself contains many images of God, many ideas about human nature, different ways of understanding suffering and evil, and various ways to envision God's purpose for creation. Over the years, believers have dipped into this deep well of resources for experiencing and expressing Christian faith, adding to it their insights and inspiration, so that the tradition has only become richer and more abundant.

Of course, we cannot choose just any option and still locate ourselves within the Christian tradition. For example, you may consider human beings as more or less good, but you cannot argue that they or any part of creation were created evil without contradicting a fundamental Christian belief. Nor could you claim, for instance, that humans are perfect in every way or equal to God. There are limits. Christianity cannot be just any old thing.

But within these larger parameters, it is okay to think in terms of theological options -- to examine them, to give reasons for or against them, and sometimes to change them. This is all Christian theologians have been doing throughout the centuries, and it is what you as an individual Christian with questions and doubts, ideas and beliefs, do every day of your life.


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