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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Systematic vs. Contextual

As some of you have no doubt figured out by now, I don't do systematic theology very well.


Systematic theology is where you create a more-or-less eternal statement about (to borrow a phrase from Doug Adams and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) life, the universe, and everything. The nature of God. The condition of humanity. What, in fact, is reality?

In seminary we spent a great deal of time studying systematic theology. We dissected and analyzed reality to make it fit someone's system of thought. We categorized life into suffering, and joy, and vocation, and sin, and lots of other columns that lie beautiful and lifeless like butterflies tacked to a board. I hated it.

I don't think you can categorize reality. You have to live it, and that's dangerous. This morning, as I write, it has rained and continues to rain. Rain in January in Minnesota is a Very Bad Thing. The roads, the trees, the mailboxes, are all coated with ice. Cars shoot off into the snowbanks and find that the ice atop the snow is not thick enough to support them. Tow trucks skate and slither from there to here and back again rescuing weary Saturday drivers standing by their stranded vehicles, coming down off a terrible adrenaline high. ("Why didn't I just stay home?") THIS IS LIFE. It's slippery and dangerous and sooner or later you will end up in a ditch or you'll run into someone who is driving three miles an hour trying to be Careful.

What possible good would it do to try to categorize the experience? The result might read very much like a driver's training manual. "Under icy conditions, drivers must take extra caution to leave adequate stopping distance between vehicles. Reduce speeds and remain alert in order to avoid difficulties. If possible, travel should be delayed under such conditions. In the event that your vehicle begins to slide on the ice, steer into the slide in order to correct. Reduce speed and exercise extreme caution."

All good advice. But it bears about as much resemblance to the actual experience of driving on ice -- the adrenaline, white-knuckled, screaming-at-the-person-sitting-in-the-passenger's-seat-while-the-world-seems-to-rotate-three-hundred-and-sixty-degrees-around-you-at-fifty-eight-miles-an-hour-just-before-you-call-the-towtruck experience -- as a carefully pinned dead butterfly on cardboard bears to a gypsy moth swooping through the dark in search of a candle.

Here's my deal with systematic theology. Like the driver's ed manual, we try to categorize and quantify and understand God. We attempt, like Augustine, to pour the wide ocean of God into the tiny little hole in the sand of our brains. If you want to understand the ocean, don't try to analyze it. Take a kayak out beyond the breakers instead and you'll know the ocean in a whole new way. If you want to understand a thunderstorm, don't read about low pressure systems and cumulonimbus clouds; instead, when that purple wall cloud comes rushing in from the southwest, climb an oak tree and hang on for dear life while you listen to it creak and groan and the lightning smacks and pops into the forest around you and you wonder if the sheets of cold rain coming down would extinguish the flames and you wait to get fried. (This is also a great way to learn about prayer, by the way.) If you want to know about love, don't start with a book. Go get your heart tangled up in a relationship with someone who really matters to you.

Genesis isn't giving us a systematic picture of all the truth about God in a nicely categorized passage. The creation story in Genesis is like a chaperone at the beginning of a dance introducing us to our new partner. "Jeff, this is the universe. Universe, meet Jeff." I hold out my hands like I think we're going to do the waltz I stumbled through in fifth grade phy ed, and the Universe grabs me with an iron grip and whirls off into a tarantella. All the while God is grinning and playing his fiddle and singing faster and faster. (Look closely at Michelangelo's painting of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you can see an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Daniels. Accident? I don't think so.) At this point I have a choice. I can say, "Sorry, broke a heel, thanks anyway, thirsty, need to get some punch" and go stand with everyone else who is sitting along the edge of the gym in the dark complaining about the band -- or I can fumble and flop and try to keep up and laugh and get my foot stepped on and sweat and enjoy every second of it.

By the way, I think it's only fair to tell you that dancing terrifies me and I'm horrible at it.

Theology -- the study of the things of God -- is about context. It's about living where you are, in this particular slice of life, to the deepest and fullest extent possible. So if, as we're meandering through Genesis, you think I've missed something important, go back and focus on it and figure out why that piece is stuck in your throat. What is God saying? That's your context. I'm over on the other side of the forest, climbing as high as I can, hanging on for dear life, waiting for the lightning and laughing my heart out.

1 comment:

  1. The thought of stepping out in the storm scares the bigeebers out me!If that's a word:)I might try a little sring rain shower first and then hopefully join you in that tree sometime soon! Thanks for the great words of inspiration.