Who is God?

May 18th, 2011

I realized recently how theologically illiterate my congregation is.

That may seem like a slam, or a critique, but it is a simple reality.

And it is a reality that is not their fault.

As we began our discussion of Max Lucado's Outlive Your Life, we focused for a bit on a very simple question:  If someone who didn't know much about the Bible and was not a Christian asked you to describe what God is like, what would be your answer?

The room went silent.

They all stared at me... or their navels... for a few seconds.

And then someone confessed it was a really hard question.

As a religion student, as a seminary student, as someone who has prepared intensely for ordination examinations... it was an easy question to answer for me.  I had taken some time to think about it. I've wrestled with what I want to say.  And depending on who I am talking to, I can talk about what God is like in a variety of ways.  I talk about incarnation... about God taking on flesh.  I talk about love.  I talk about grace and mercy.  I talk about a God who blesses us with a way, a path, a rule of community to follow.

I don't have to sit and think for thirty minutes about what I might say.  It's right there.

But it is because I have taken the time, already, to think about the answer.

That room full of people had not.

Throughout their religious life, they had learned to read the bible.  They have found comfort in the words of scripture and strength for tribulations.  Devotional texts inspire them for daily living. Sermons have given them morsels to chew on. Some of them may have memorized catechisms... although many probably don't remember them. They have been given some very excellent tools for theological reflection... but they have not been taught how to use them for theological reflection.

There was a critical step missing. 

In the realm of reading we might call it comprehension or application.  You move past the ability to read the words on the page and learn how to apply them, how to expand upon them, how to use them in different contexts.

My congregation has learned to read and study and listen... but they have not yet learned a theological language.

I'm not talking about big and fancy words.  As Lucado points out, Peter and John spoke very effectively about their faith while at the same time coming across as "unschooled, ordinary men." (Acts 4:13)  We don't have to have an storehouse of knowledge... we just need to know how to apply and consolidate and process all it is that we have been learning.

Theology at its root is simply words about God.  How do I teach my congregation to speak in words about God?  How can I teach them to answer a simple question like, "who is God?"

I don't want to give them "answers."  I think that our movement away from memorized catechisms and wrote learning can empower us to think for ourselves, to develop the skills necessary to learn even more complex things.

But how do you begin to teach critical theological thinking?  How do you begin to encourage congregation members to draw conclusions, to speak out loud words from their hearts about God?

My first step is to simply have this conversation.  To point out that this is tough work, but that as Christians, we are called to be able to articulate what we believe.  We need to do the work. 

My second step is to stop providing answers all the time.  I was asked point blank how I would answer by someone in the course of our discussion. At that point, I realized any answer by myself would limit their ability to begin down this path of wrestling.

What has helped your congregations to develop this kind of language?  Do we simply have to wait for the Holy Spirit to show up when we open our mouths?  Can it be taught?  Where do you begin? 


Read more from Katie Z. Dawson at her blog, Salvaged Faith.

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