Theology as Relationship – Take 2

[This post is far less accessible and far more opaque than my previous way of describing theology as relationship. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to put into words some of what leads me to think more and more that theology is relationship, theology is meaningless outside the context of relationship, and relationship is the only context in which theology is capable of truth.]

Here’s the most controversial thing I think I think – relationship comes before individuality. If what I think I think implies what I think it does, nearly every conversation we have about truth and fact is fundamentally flawed. Story and community are more basic realities than fact and fiction. In other words, the relationship(s) in which truth and falsity are possible come before the words to express what may be true or false. If what I think I think is correct, there will be no way to prove it is true because such concepts as truth can only ever be expressed within the contingent words of my own time and place and given understanding and meaning by the relationships that form and are formed by me. When my words are no longer in this time and place, they will no longer mean what they once meant.

To make this claim is not to deny truth and falsity to the world, but to deny the kind of rationality and agency that would be necessary to objectively ground the meaning of words or facts apart from community and relationship. The more important questions to ask are not about truth, falsity, and the possibility of moral action that follows, but about relationship, agency, and both the type of community that created the person capable of speaking and acting in ways that can be evaluated as true or false and moral or not, as well as the type of community that is capable of doing the evaluation.

The fundamental error in epistemological endeavours is the notion that there is an agent to have an epistemology apart from the community that gave the categories of thought and the presuppositions that form the agency of the individual. To assume that we are community before we are individual is to render any epistemological program incoherent to the extent that such a program seeks after an objective grounding that does not rely on a tradition of rationality to arrive at the point where the epistemology makes the sense that it makes.

Assent to this argument does not render “truth” or “meaning” relativistic in such a way that we can pretend that there is no ‘real’ world outside the mind of a thinking agent. The point is, rather, that whatever truth or reality there is to the world, our experience, understanding, and explanation of it come to us through the traditions that have been passed along and are shaped by us as we pass it along to the next generation. To make this claim is to argue that an accessible, objective, and eternal rationality is an incoherent notion altogether. In aiming for rationality or truthfulness, the best we can knowingly attain is coherence and consistency within the stories and communities that we have accepted, rejected, and transformed. In other words, that truth is only possible in the context of relationship is not a bug, it’s a feature.

I’ll grant, what I think I think is not controversial in the click bait sense, but it is the least coherent claim I can offer into the intellectual world I inhabit. Why all of this matters to me is because of what it says about the enterprise of theology. Theology is literally the God-words that we speak and, by extension, the lens through which we view life and faith. If what I think I think is correct, the distinction between a more ‘academic’ theology and a ‘practical’ or ‘contextual’ or ‘lived’ theology is impossible to make. Such a critique is made plenty from the direction of minority theologians – namely that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual or specific than ‘liberation’ or ‘womanist’ or whatever other theology one could offer. Theology proper is simply the contextual theology of those in positions of power and authority.

I could not agree more with the notion that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual, but arguing that ‘proper’ theology is contextual in the current intellectual landscape leaves open the possibility that there is a coherent sense of truth and objectivity toward which each ‘contextual theology’ is pointing that is meaningful apart from the lived relationships through which the words of theology became capable of meaning what they now mean. It is precisely that notion of truth, meaning, or objectivity outside the context of relationship(s) that I am rejecting.

The capacity to speak objective truth is only possible within the communities that give shape to the agent who attempts to offer God-words. Truth and falsity are not impossible in theology, but our relationship with God and one another forms us in such a fundamental way that speaking of any words on a page as true or false apart from the community in which they are offered is an incoherent and impossible project. The act of doing theology is the attempt to express the reality of God in words that are both handed down to us and transformed by us within the context of the multiple, often competing communities that constitute human life.

In the process of creating God-words, we have the potential to name and deepen our relationship with God and one another or to distort and tear those relationships down. True theology deepens relationship. False theology creates brokenness. Or in more traditional terms – love God, love neighbor; on these two commandments hangs everything else.

There is no right or wrong in relationship – only things that build relationship up and things that tear it down. Theology is like this aspect of relationship – you can argue till you’re blue in the face over whether one detail is right or the other, but at the end of the day you’re simply pointing toward God or you’re not. What it means to point toward God may change over time just as what it means to compromise and support one another in relationship changes over time. That doesn’t mean God ‘changes’ per se, just that what was right about theology in the first place wasn’t the words used as much as it was the relationship empowered.

On txac17 and the GC Amendments

This is a post on the (lack of) discussion that took place at our annual conference session this year in regard to a few proposed amendments to the Book of Discipline. I don’t tend to look for all possible concealed motives or confusion within the language of General Conference voices, which means I was rather caught off guard by the way the discussion went with regard to Amendment 1 copied here in its entirety):

“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.”
General Conference-approved rationale for the amendment notes that the constitution contains a paragraph on racial justice but not one on gender justice.
“The language of this petition is parallel to the language of Article 5 on racial justice already in our constitution,” the rationale states. “It is an affirmation that, as part of our core foundational beliefs, this church will forever stand against any actions, organizations or individuals that discriminate or dehumanize women and girls anywhere on this planet.”

Perhaps it should not have surprised me that the variety of speeches against the amendment all revolved around the “confusion” and “ambiguity” regarding God’s gender. Jesus is a man, the arguments went, thereby it is at least confusing if not outright wrong to say that “it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female…” At least one argument dove fully into complementarian thought and proof texting literalism, which have their own problems that I’ve commented on at the links.

I stated previously that infidelity is the only analogy through which I can make sense out of where we’ve arrived; seen here in our ability to take such an important and needed statement about rejecting the abuse of women and girls and turn it into a referendum on human sexuality and all gender related disagreements. I don’t know that any argument would be helpful/convincing in our present climate, but I feel compelled to offer below what I would have liked to say in response to what I heard on the floor of conference.

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I can respect that it may seem to be a troubling matter of “confusion” or “ambiguity” to assert that God is not male or female given what we believe about Jesus. Anytime I try to speak directly about the nature of Trinity, confusion and ambiguity are close at hand. But even granting the necessity of saying that Jesus is male in no way suggests the sufficiency of that label in reference to God. This may seem to be quibbling over words that are unrelated or irrelevant to the amendment, as one speech against it suggested, but our language about God deeply affects the actual lives of actual people every day. There may exist a world in which we could assert that God is a man in such a way that did not directly result in the abuse of women and girls throughout the world, but we do not live in that world.

Assertions of God’s exclusive masculinity and the correlative assertions of male authority/headship/gender roles lead very directly to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women and girls. If speaking of God as a man did not lead to the dehumanization, discrimination, and abuse of women, there would be no need to concretely remind the church that male and female are not sufficient categories for God. The wording of the amendment does not come to us in a vacuum – it comes to us in a world in which our fallen, inadequate, and misunderstood labels for God are weaponized against women and girls all over the world.

Making a clear and concise statement that no one should be discriminated against or dehumanized on the basis of gender is FAR more important than stealing yet another stage to hash out our incoherent yelling matches regarding sexuality, gender, and biblical authority/interpretation. I am deeply ashamed that we cannot even set aside our talking points, soap boxes, and mistrust to remind the world that dehumanization and discrimination against women and girls is never OK and never justifiable on the basis of the Christian faith or the nature of God.  

The fight we keep having is not the fight we need to have and if we don’t even trust each other enough to make a clear statement against abuse, we have little hope of making the substantive changes needed to ensure a vital and fruitful future for our church.