I had to prepare an introduction for a session on “Sexual/Gender identity and theology” as part of facilitating a recent public conversation event that brought together people from the evangelical church community and LGBTI community to engage in safe and respectful dialogue on sexual/gender identity and spirituality. As I mulled over how to best create an environment in which conflicting approaches to theology on this issue could be presented, I was forced to reflect on 40 years of my own experience of grappling with theology. I attempted to come to some understanding of how I have formed my theological understandings on different issues and why my understandings have changed over those years.
Since then, I have met with LGBTI Christian leaders in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Korea and, in each country, a prominent LGBTI Christian leader has challenged my stereotype of the theology of LGBTI Christians. In all three cases, I found myself listening to them promoting a very conservative, evangelical theology of salvation that depended primarily on an intellectual assent to the four propositions of “Steps to Peace with God” or “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Why, given their sexual and gender identity, did these leaders still cling to a more traditional theological understanding when this evangelical tradition has been the source of so much discrimination and exclusion for them?
While I was engaged in this process, by chance, I was given a copy of Karl Barth’s “Evangelical theology – an introduction” and was reacquainted, after many years, with his delightful assertion that the object of theology should, and must only be, “the philanthropic God.” It seems to me that, if I had followed this principle more strenuously in the past, my theology would have been a lot more compassionate, engaging and enlivening than some of the arrogant, judgemental and life-draining pronouncements I have inflicted on congregations, students, colleagues and friends over the years. I like Barth’s succinct term, “the philanthropic God, ” which encapsulates so much of God’s dealings with his people in the Old Testament, the message of the prophets, the person and work of Jesus, and the vision and mission for the church contained in the New Testament.
I was also confronted with the extremes of my own theological journey. At times, I have indulged in researching and devising intricate theological constructs for all manner of points of belief and practice, often as part of my own theological study and teaching in seminaries. At other times, I have dismissed esoteric theological endeavours as irrelevant to the reality of following Jesus in daily life. As I looked back on this erratic path and considered my present situation, I came to the conclusion that, for me, a little theology can be a dangerous thing and too much theology can be a disaster. So often I recognize in my past a tendency to use a recently acquired, half-formed understanding of a theological point to assault an issue without due consideration to the wider and deeper implications of my theological approach. At the same time, I look back with some chagrin to times when I waxed eloquent with a comprehensive theological explication on some issue that left everyone, including myself, no better off in our ability to engage with this issue than when I started.
I remember when the Charismatic renewal was experiencing a surge in New Zealand during my late teens and early twenties and I became an avid opponent of it using my meagre and ill-thought out grasp of pneumatology. A few years later I was taking a theology paper on the Holy Spirit and was exposed to wonderful writing of James Dunn who gave me a deeper and wider understanding of the gifts of the spirit. A subsequent Pentecostal experience turned me into a crusader for the Charismatic and Pentecostal movement and I attempted to coerce all my family and friends into the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As the years rolled by, I came to a more nuanced, inclusive and ecumenical view that values and affirms my Pentecostal experience but accepts and affirms an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit from a more conservative, evangelical and even traditional perspective.
The skill then, in theology, is to find a path that honours the richness of theological thought but makes sense in our daily lives. To have an informed theological understanding that is deep and wide enough to grapple with the important and significant points of an issue but without careering off into a theological cess pit that is so deep and wide that the issue gets lost in the theology and we are left with nothing to offer for those, including ourselves, trying to understand the issue.
I came to another realization about my theological approach. The longer I have dabbled in theology, I have become aware that I am more and more taking a practical, active approach to theology these days compared to the theoretical, propositional approach I took in my younger years. I used to delight in creating hypotheses about all manner of issues of life and faith and devising weird and wonderful theological explanations for these issues that had little connection to the reality of my relationships with God, people, society, and the environment. And I recognised in myself an element of theological dishonesty.
At this point, I began to ask how I have come to this theological space that I now occupy. My reflections produced the three factors of environment, noesis and experience which I will explore in part two. By acknowledging these three, I believe I can now express a more honest theology that works with and for people in the communities in which we live.
Look for Part 2 Friday on RLC