Monday, January 21, 2019
Theology can, of course, be a way of explaining God, putting God into words. It has also functioned as a bludgeon against those deemed “heretical” by a hierarchy—a way of determining who was in and who was out. Constantine wanted a united empire and brought his bishops together to establish clear theological boundaries. The bishops were empowered by the state to police these boundaries as a way to pursue heresy and, incidentally, preserve imperial power. Not long after construction of this wall of ecclesiastical and state power, the decline and fall of the empire blew it up. The western church was forced to reimagine itself through monasticism. And in the east “heretics” endured and flourished in spite of state oppression. The “monophysite” churches, in fact, endure to this day.
The western church, of course rebuilt itself on the basis of papal power and the work of centuries of philosophers and theologians. The church continued to link its authority to that of the state and even, at times, was able to cow some of the most powerful rulers in Europe. Heretics were burned at the stake with the connivance of the state and the faithful were at times as cowed as their rulers. But those carefully constructed theologies and practices binding Europe together were unraveled by Renaissance humanism and a verbal battering ram named Martin Luther. Dr. Luther and his fellow reformers in Geneva and Zurich thought to found their theologies on the Bible and not on the traditions of the fathers and the Roman hierarchy. But the growing independence of emerging states and rulers and the very different ways the various reformers read the Bible meant the old medieval unity was gone forever. “Heretical” groups like the Anabaptists flourished in spite of the attempts of the magisterial Reformers to suppress them.
Further attempts to reclaim authority for the church and its theology in the 18thand 19thcentury were thwarted by the Enlightenment and the rise of democracy. Now the individual had not only the right but the responsibility to pursue and decide the truth for her or himself. Alongside reason and tradition was experience—the evidence of one’s own eyes, ears, and heart. Ecclesiastical hierarchies railed against this. Individual experience, they insisted, is fallible, subjective, subject to wishful thinking and self-deception. And so it is. But that is the lot of all human beings and all human opinions—those of the ecclesiastical hierarchy included. In the end there is no safe ground, no secure footing. Our frantic attempts to build walls and keep out unwanted questions and unwelcome opinions are as doomed as a sandcastle in the path of a tsunami.
But what if these repeated destructions of our attempts to build walls and create boundaries are actually being thwarted, not by human sin and frailty, but by the Spirit? What if the Spirit was moving in monasticism in the wake of Rome’s collapse? What if the Spirit was moving in the Reformation’s call to return to Scripture and the grace of God? What if the Spirit was moving in the Pietist rejection of rigid post-Reformation theologies? What if the Spirit was “strangely warming” Wesley’s heart and empowering Charismatics? What if this was God’s way of breaking up our attempts to control him? Box him in? In every case after the wind of the Spirit blew, there were attempts to build wind tunnels—human structures to channel and control God’s power. In every case this led to corruption and decline. We see this clearly in the ongoing, frantic effort of the Evangelical community to set its own interpretation of the Bible in concrete—to build a wall!
In Exodus 33 Moses asks to see God and is told he can only see his glory as he passes--only his back, not his face. In his recent book, He Held Radical Light, poet Christian Wiman uses this incident to speak of the artist’s inspiration as well as the believer’s experience of God. Both are fleeting and not finally subject to human control. In the words of A. E. Stallings,
I know her only by her flowing
By her glamour disappearing
Into shadow as I’m nearing—
I only recognize her going.
Stallings speaks of the poetic imagination, the muse. I would speak of God—the Spirit that Jesus said blows where it will and is not subject to frightened hierarchies. I will follow that wind of love; I will let it fill my sails with hope; I will live in faith in the midst of all my uncertainties.
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