Developing an “Opposable” Theology: Part 2 of 5

I took “Introduction to Christian Theology” during the Spring Semester of my first year of Seminary at Duke Divinity School. Though I believe everyone has a theology, not every theology is well-developed. While we all have ideas and opinions about God’s existence and nature, we don’t all have a theological language or adequate comprehension to articulate what we believe.

That was certainly true for me. As a fairly-new Christian, I affirmed the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but I couldn’t have explained the “whys” or “wherefores” very well. Not growing up in church, worship, Sunday School, Confirmation, or with substantive Christian traditions in my home, I was basically starting from scratch! Even though I was planning to become a United Methodist pastor, I wasn’t even sure what Methodists believed!

I believed in God’s existence. I was overwhelmingly convinced God loves. I sensed a very real – yet unexplainable – sense of call. And, I’d found a loving home in the United Methodist Church! I knew other things were important, and that I had a LOT to learn in seminary (BTW – Many years later, I still have a lot to learn!)

Truthfully, almost everything I learned in seminary was new and novel for me. Nearly every day I was either confounded by a theological concept I’d never considered and couldn’t quite grasp, or elated by the latest newfound insight. And, often, I experienced both simultaneously!

In “Introduction to Christian Theology,” we were taught to approach theological topics as though we were on a ball court (tennis, basketball, pickle-ball, etc.), like so…

Imagine the lines on the right and left mark “out of bounds.” Everything within the field of play is possible theologically. Everything beyond the end lines are heresy (contrary to established doctrine). My professor actually had a very generous definition of heresy, saying that a heretical idea is simply a truth taken too far.

Further, imagine the line on the left represents a progressive, liberal theological position, whereas the right line represents a more traditional, conservative viewpoint. Imagine the center-line is a safe, acceptable theological home base. Everything within the playing field is within Church doctrine, even if a particular belief leans left or right of center.

Everyday, our professor drew the outline of a ball court on the whiteboard, and a theological word above it, and we would spend much of class identifying and debating the pros and cons of progressive and conservative teachings.

Imagine a topic like Christology, for instance. Christology is about the person, nature and work of Jesus Christ, and specifically about his human and divine natures. Was Jesus human, or God, or both? Conservatives tend to lean into his divinity, as Lord. Progressives tend to lean toward his humanity. Traditionally, Church doctrine teaches that Jesus is both, simultaneously – fully God and fully human. Yet, most of us tend to favor Jesus’ humanity or divinity more than the other. Holding both in truth and tension is more challenging!

The ball court image was enormously helpful to me as a new theologian. The conversations that unfolded in class, posing arguments and contending with counter-arguments helped my beliefs to deepen and grow. On nearly every topic, classmates articulated and advocated theologies that were either more conservative or progressive than my own, each stretching and pulling me into new and deepening places, and helping me find my own theological perspective.

And, depending on the topic, I located myself in different places on the metaphorical ball court, and I still do. Though I typically landed near the middle on most topics during my seminary days, through the years I’ve drifted steadily to the left; not necessarily rejecting the theology of the right, but holding it in considered tension as I move leftward. And, even as I’ve moved to the left, I’ve deepened my love and appreciation for Scripture and Tradition.

In part 1 of “Developing an ‘Opposable’ Theology,” I wondered (in writing) if a deeper, richer theology requires holding two seemingly-opposite theological positions in prolonged dynamic tension. Rather than quickly accepting one teaching as absolute truth and rejecting the opposite as nonsense, what if we grasped both positions in a single mental grip, like the opposable force of a thumb and fingers working together – from opposite directions – for maximum hold and strength.

What if a deeper theological comprehension results not from our ability to learn, comprehend and articulate a single doctrinal position, but from our ability to continuously wrestle with multiple theological perspectives, even as we lean one direction or another? In fact, I would go so far as to say we can’t really fully comprehend a topic like grace without wrestling with sin and judgement, or the omnipotence of God without the self-control of God, or eternal life and heaven without a present understanding of the Kingdom of God among us, etc.

In other words, good theology requires the whole ball court, not just your particular side or corner.

In the words of the great Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, “We must love them both: those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject.  For both have labored in search of their truth and both have helped us in the finding of our own.” 

In part 3 of this series, I will explore the topic of paradox in Scripture and Christian thinking. If you’d like to be notified when new blogs are posted, sign up below for email notification.

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