Confession: I was an insufferable theology snob.
It started during my first year at college, where I was studying the Bible and theology and attending a large, urban Presbyterian church where the college group was filled with people I was convinced were smarter than I was, who regularly mocked those of us who came from that particular college as holding to spectacularly bad theology.
Why I -- and a handful of my friends -- kept going, I’m not sure. We wanted to be ‘in’ with the cooler, smarter, kids, perhaps, so we took the teasing and sat through lectures on the five Reformation solas and the five points of Calvinism and the General Superiority of This Church’s Theology.
You’d think I’d clear out of such a place and not look back, but you’d be wrong. I’m sure a good counselor could help me sort out why on earth I chose to subject myself to such crummy treatment, but maybe the answer is simple: I was intellectually dissatisfied with the answers I was being spoon-fed at my Christian college, and with the general atmosphere of anti-intellectualism when it came to the Christian faith.
On my college campus, students argued about whether it was more important to be a “heart Christian” or a “head Christian” -- that is, whether following Jesus was more about seeking Him with your ‘heart’ (your emotions, your spirit) or your ‘head’ (your intellect.) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” yes, but which was the most important?
I was a diligent student, and that was partly why I grew impatient with what I perceived to be the laziness of my fellow students who insisted that the really important part of the faith was not getting one’s theology right but living one’s theology right. It’s a timeless debate: orthodoxy (right words; right beliefs) versus orthopraxy (rightactions), with different traditions at different times having different emphases.
What’s fairly uncontroversial -- or should be -- is that, ideally, the two go together, and sound ideas bear fruit in the form of good works.
Even biblical writers are in tension about this issue. James says that good works are the thing; Galatians downplays them. Jesus and Paul might say that we’re known by our fruit -- that is, our works -- but emphasize that bad theological instruction can be a millstone, a damnable offense.
In any case, I became a theology snob. For a year or two, I would sit in stony, rebellious silence in chapel while all around people stood lifting their hands and voices in praise to what I deemed theologically unsound lyrics. I gave serious side-eye to people who claimed that God told them this or that, and was suspicious of all emotion as it related to faith, which, I thought, should never be based on changing circumstances (even fleeting feelings of being close to God) but on intellectual affirmation of unchanging truths about God. At one point, I seriously wondered if “Jesus Loves The Little Children” was theologically suspect: did Jesus really love the non-elect, predestined-for-hell little children? Before God, and to God, and to anyone who had the misfortune of brushing shoulders with me then, may I say: I am so, so sorry.
Perhaps it is needless to say that I felt that the circle I was drawing around myself and others—and around God—was really quite small. It did not allow for varieties of human experience across cultures, throughout the lifespan, and among the range of intellectual and physical ability. I got the sense that theology was about learning what The Great Reformed Men had thought about everything, including every passage of scripture, and simply spouting that at every situation. I fully realized the inadequacy of this narrowly conceived system when a friend died, and the sermon was essentially “God is sovereign and that’s what happened; be happy that he’s with Jesus.” “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints” may be Scripture, but so is “Jesus wept.” A theological system that doesn’t let people weep and complain to God no longer squared with my sense of things, and, not least, my sense of scripture.
So I am a recovered theology snob. I hasten to add that I don’t think that the opposite of a theology snob is a person who doesn’t care about theology at all -- I don’t think that “head Christian” and “heart Christian” is a useful dichotomy. The truth is that theology has the power to profoundly shape people’s actions and the way they live, love, teach, work, play, parent, and so on. The basic idea that God loves the world, this world, and that every person you meet is made in God’s own image, an image of God walking around right there in front of you, all around you—that’s theology. And surely it has some implications for how you’re going to treat that person. John Calvin wrote this on that subject:
“We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men but to look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, an image which, by its beauty and dignity, should allure us to love and embrace them.”
“We are not to look what men in themselves deserve but to attend to the image of God which exists in all and to which we owe all honor and love.”
From this very simple starting point, I would think it’s impossible to sincerely care about theology and also be an unrepentant snob to others. If the beginning of theology -- indeed, the beginning of wisdom -- is exploring what is true about God, about human beings, about the world, well, then, to paraphrase 1 John, anyone who says he loves theology and yet hates those with whom he disagrees is a liar.
Taking the right posture toward theology you perceive as ‘bad’ isn’t easy. It is easy to get caught up in wanting to be ‘in-the-know’ and one of the ‘cool’ kids. I think it’s important to be honest about your motives when you’re inclined to correct some point of theology. Are you truly concerned about how this theology will adversely impact real people? Or are you just showing off?
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the aging pastor John Ames points out the difference between a scribe (for his purposes, a hypocritical blowhard) and a prophet (someone who speaks a timely, much-needed but difficult-to-swallow theological truth):
“How do you tell a scribe from a prophet? […] The prophets love the people they chastise.”
That, finally, is how to correct bad theology without being a snob. Begin and end with love, and if you don’t love the person you’re about to chastise, consider keeping silent.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today,Sojourners, Books & Culture, RELEVANT, and others. She also regularly contributes to Her.meneutics. Rachel lives in New Jersey with her husband Tim and two little boys. You can read more from her at her blog, or follow her @rachel_m_stone.
Image courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com
Publication date: October 22, 2015