The Basics: Finding a 21st Century Faith-Theology

This morning we begin a series on The Basics: 21st Century Faith. For the next few weeks, we will look at some aspects of being a disciple in the current time we live, namely theology, discipleship, mission, and connection. I think it’s good, as we recently quoted Paul, to “examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good.” I think all good theology is born of careful prayer and consideration. I also think it has good stories. One such story I have heard many times and in many versions. One of those goes like this.

The great Talmudic sage Hillel was born in Babylonia in the first century BCE. As a young man he came to the Holy Land to study Torah at the feet of the sages of Jerusalem. He was initially a very poor, but brilliant student, and became a famous Torah scholar and eventually the Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin. He is often mentioned together with his colleague, Shammai, with whom he often disagreed on the interpretations of Torah law: Shammai often follows the stricter interpretation, whereas Hillel tended toward a more lenient understanding of the law. In the great majority of cases, his (Hillel’s) opinion prevailed. Hillel encouraged his disciples to follow the example of Aaron the High Priest to “love peace and pursue peace, love all G—d’s creations and bring them close to the Torah.” Hillel was a very humble and patient man, and there are many stories that illustrate this.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First, he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

This of course, was also the same commandment Jesus gave in the gospels with a little different syntax, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”[1]Both of these sayings come from the Torah itself. The “Love the Lord with all your heart” part comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the “love your neighbor” part comes from Leviticus 19:18. Both stories are theology. 

What is theology? Theology is literally ‘god talk or god words’ (theos=god; logos=words/talk. [logos also has connotations of divine/universal wisdom]). Consider the passage we read from Genesis 15. Abram is having a vision where he has a conversation, almost an argument, with God. In the vision, God is promising Abram that God will be his protector, his shield and that God will give Abram the land of Canaan to be passed on to his descendants. Abram doesn’t believe God and God decides to ‘cut a covenant’ with Abram, a way of making a solemn promise. In kid language, it’s a sort of pinky swear on steroids. But all this takes place in the framework of a conversation between God and Abram. In this case, quite literal god-talk. 

The truth is, as long we have recognized as human beings the existence of a spiritual world, there has been theology. Theology is our attempt to make sense of the spiritual world. In Christendom, we have spent the better part of two millennia attempting to find for or impose understanding on one another. There have been searchers, seekers, and mystics who plumbed the depths of spiritual mysteries. There have been philosophers and thinkers who have considered the deepest thoughts on the nature of existence and humanity. There have been systematists who have devised methods and structures for defining everything in relation to God and the Church. And for every bit of god-talk that has ever been spoken, someone has said something diametrically opposed to it somewhere else. 

For example, consider the following statements.

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.[2]

No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness…When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized. Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care, and eradicate stigma within the Church and in communities.[3]

Every person has the right to a job at a living wage. Where the private sector cannot or does not provide jobs for all who seek and need them, it is the responsibility of government to provide for the creation of such jobs.[4]

All these statements are theological statements. They were each born out a theological understanding of the world and our relationship to it. There are people in this room who heard those statements and said, “No, way bub,” and there are people here who were like, “Yeah, exactly.” Each theological statement can be found in the 2016 version of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. These statements represent the United Methodist Church as official doctrines and beliefs. For those of you who are members or just United Methodists, I’d advise getting a copy of the Book of Discipline or looking up it on online under Section Three—Our Doctrinal Standards and Section Five: Social Principles. According to our polity, this is what United Methodists should believe.

Of course, people disagree and that leads me to a question: What is good theology? Theology, like most things, can be good or bad. It can build up or tear down. It can drive people toward God or away from God. So, what is good theology?

As a United Methodist, I think good theology is informed by scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In the section four of Our Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, the Book of Discipline harkens back to the ideas of John Wesley who saw good theology as born of scripture, aided by the traditions of the church, understood by God given reason, and seen through the experience of the individual as the best means of practicing theology. All of this would be guided by the Spirit of love for God and neighbor, which brings us to the last part. 

I think good theology is honest. Think about the story of Abram we read this morning. Abram had doubts. Abram had questions. He wasn’t afraid to pose those to God. There was a sense of honesty with himself but also a sense of honesty with God. Throughout scripture, people have questioned God, people like Moses, Job, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and of course, Abram. To present one’s soul and being before God, honestly and genuinely with all that we possess, puts us in good company. 

Good theology is defined by the spirit of love. Going back to the stories of Hillel and Jesus, love becomes the abiding and necessary principle, the first principle, for practicing theology. We see it in the Great Commandment, but we also see it reiterated throughout the writings of the Old and New Testament. The Great Commandment comes from the Torah, the law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Psalmist repeatedly states, “God’s faithful love lasts forever.” And Paul not only reiterates Jesus’ teaching of the Great Commandment[5] but expounds on it as the ultimate spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 13.

So, what do we do with all of this? 

First, know that “Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives.”[6] It is a personal and communal practice that ties us to centuries, millennia of people who have come before us seeking after God. Second, theology requires work. It doesn’t just happen. We must read, listen, seek, and then do it all over again. As we grow our understanding of God grows with us. As United Methodists, we have a basic understanding built into our foundational documents and I encourage you read those and find out what it means theologically to be a United Methodist. And finally, all good theology is born of love. Our theology should express the Spirit of God as given to us by Jesus who tells us to love God and love neighbor as ourselves.

And now in the words of Rabbi Hillel, “go and study it!”

[1] Matthew 22:37-40

[2] United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016. The United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Romans 13:9-10

[6] United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016. The United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.