What Good is Theology?

Thirty years ago, Desmond Tutu, the great South African spiritual leader, declared apartheid a heresy, a deviation from the spirit and truth of Christian doctrine, in its denial of the full humanity of black Africans. Created in the image of God, black South Africans deserved to be treated equally, with equal political power, as the Dutch Afrikaner minority.

About that same time, we were reading the stories of Jesus’ birth to our young son Matt. After hearing the stories read from several perspectives, young Matt no more than 5 or 6 at the time asked, “If Joseph is Jesus’ father, does that mean God is his grandfather?” In one brief and innocent question, Matt captured what was at stake in the formation of the great creeds of the church, the Apostles and Nicene, as they attempted to articulate what it meant to say that Jesus was both human and divine.

Some twenty years before these conversations, Martin Luther King invoked the image of a fabric of relationships to describe the role of the civil rights movement in liberating both whites and blacks in the United States. King asserted,

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Despite the slow progress of the Civil Rights movement, King and later President Obama took solace in the insights of Unitarian preacher-theologian Theodore Parker, who spoke of the moral arc of the universe as being long, and often slow, but bending toward justice.

These affirmations are what theology is all about! Theology, our beliefs about God, ourselves, our destiny, and the human and non-human worlds, matters. In each case, belief shaped action – a boy’s religious quest and relationship with his father, a challenge to racism and injustice, and to persistence in the long road to freedom.

Today, as we bid farewell to Gabe and Dot Fakre, it is appropriate that we talk about theology, or loving God with our minds. It is appropriate to reflect on how we seek to frame our experiences in a godly way that supports the well-being of others as well as ourselves. Theology, as Gabe and Dot asserted, involves the stories of our lives in light of God’s story shining through the history of our planet, the Hebrew people, the early church, and most importantly the life of Jesus whom we call the Christ. In hearing these stories, we discover we are never alone and that God makes a way when there is no way.

In the months ahead, here at South Church, we hope to plan a few storytelling gatherings, in which we share the God-moments in our lives, the turning points and challenges, the times in which grace sustained us, and the story of this community in shaping our lives. This is good and right, because as important as doctrine is, what really matters is the word made flesh, the light of God, the prism as Gabe says, shining through our lives and the world around us.

Telling our stories in the context of God’s story is, as Gabe asserted in his classic The Christian Story, is now more important than ever. Although the postmodern world, the world of diversity and suspicion of any grand and universal truths, focuses on experience rather than doctrine, we need to be able to share in a flexible fashion the faith we affirm, what enables us to deal with success and failure and find God’s grace when we are confronted by the realities of alienation, injustice, sin, aging, and death. We need to listen for God’s story in our story, and our story in God’s story.

As Christians living in a world of siloed belief systems, news outlets that confirm our prejudices, and alternative facts, we need to look for truths beneath the false facts dispensed by our consumer culture and irresponsible political leaders. We need, as Jesus says, to build our lives on the rock and not the sand, on what will endure not what will collapse when the going gets tough.

So, my friends, theology matters. Even if we don’t have all the answers, we can sojourn toward God’s horizon, God’s vision of truths that heal and transform. Good theology challenges hate, images of God that blame the victim for her or his illness, and the idolatry of race and nation. Good theology reminds us that God is God and that we aren’t and that’s a good thing, because God will be there when all the gods of our own making collapse.

Today, we celebrate theology, thinking creatively and lovingly about God, and challenge ourselves to follow in the tradition of theologians like Gabe Fackre and pastors like Dot Fackre to share our stories, moments of faith and love that bring healing to ourselves, our church, and the world. We need to tell the old, old story that by God’s grace is new every morning.