My first formal effort to define “the dance” came through the excruciating seminary exercise which was and is the development of a “credo” — a [hopefully] systematic, comprehensive, and coherent statement of one’s faith.
At Perkins, I am not sure that “being Biblical/Scriptural” was an high priority in all this. At least, it appeared and felt like being reasonable and coherent were as important as being Biblical — so much so, in fact, that any number of positions seemed acceptable so long as they held together. Nevertheless, I sought — even as I still seek — a certain Biblical integrity in my work, including my credo. Here, Ephesians 1 felt and feels like “bedrock” in the dance — where Christ is the reconciler and the reconciliation of all things in creation.
Admittedly, I now have some disagreements with my credo. (Isn’t that the nature of a dance, in fact — where we never really stay in one spot?!) Owing to its seminary bent, its a bit more sophisticated than I’d prefer.
More than that, though, I am not sure that “dialectic” is truly at the heart of the dance which I see in life and living… or that I seek in my life and living. Dialectic has a way of speaking of a “synthesis” in which two disparite realities come together and become something new. I guess that can be said to be a part of the dance. And yet, more precisely, I see and embrace and define the dance we are about more as “paradox” — a word/concept that has gained especial meaning over the course of the last few months. (And here, Parker Palmer’s Promise of Paradox, I find especially helpful!) While dialectic may speak of two things that come together as something new (and “better”?), paradox has a way of speaking about two things — people, belief systems, etc — which are good and true though apparently contradictory, things which are at their best when they work to co-exist with each other. (In dialectic, the original “thesis” and “antithesis” are lost in the new “synthesis,” while, in paradox, two good things are kept in a creative tension.)
Of course, the more I think about it, I wonder if there’s not a paradox in the “dance” between the concepts of dialectic and paradox. But, here, I sense I’m getting carried away.
The following excerpt from my credo’s “prolegomena” — a fancy seminary word for “words spoken beforehand”… don’t know why they wouldn’t let us call it a “preface” or “introduction”… I guess “prolegomena” sounded like we were getting our money’s worth! While I might argue, as I have, about dialectic, shades and echoes of the dance are nonetheless there to be seen and heard:
THEOLOGY AND PRAYER: A PROLEGOMENA
“Lord, teach us to pray. . .”
In a most fundamental way, there is no real distinction to be made between prayer (talk to God) — or the whole of Christian worship, for that matter — and theology (talk of God); it is as true that effective prayer is rooted in sound theology as it is that “theology is grounded in prayer”. (Deschner, Class Notes, 9/7/84) In fact, it is best if we do not conceive of the relationship between the two to be in any certain chronological order: one does not pray, then theologize, then pray better, and so on. Rather, our theology is best when it is in the context of prayer (when our mental, physical, and spiritual “posture” is erect before the Lord) and our prayers are sharpest when they are in the context of theology (when we are deeply aware of the need for precision in language and deeply aware of the fraility of such language).
In a very real sense, our theology is prayer and our prayer is theology.
Such a thesis has several insights to offer in the way of constructing a theological statement. First, it suggests that, like prayer, the task (or the end) of theology is to encounter ever anew the gospel of Jesus Christ wherein all things in creation are reconciled through the actualization of their unique God-given potential. As “encounter”, theology combines both human initiative (searching) and divine initiative (revelation). Because the Christ event stands as the definitive criterion by which the norm of revelation is judged and because of the ceaseless variations between people (across time and space), theology must concern itself with making the “gospel of Christ” “ever anew”. (In this light, theology is “the continuously renewed grasp of the gospel of God’s love in Christ and its application in the ceaseless crises of human existence.” [United Methodist Book of Discipline, p. 71]) Finally, because it understands the cause of the failure of “all things in creation” to “actualize their God-given potential” to reside not in creation itself but rather in a fundamental estrangement within the human- – the one given dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26 ff.) — theology cannot be said to have fulfilled its task until it has provided the groundwork and the inspiration for a fundamental “reconciliation” between God, ourselves and the world we live in. Understood in this way, theology is more than mere reflection as interpretation; like prayer, theology is grounded in and is the basis of authentic praxis.
Second, the conception of theology as prayer suggests that the nature of the theological task (or the means to the above end) is, at once, a participation in that inclusive process whereby all things are “brought to task” and an engagement in that dialectic wherein all things are made one. Such inclusivity begins with a proper balance between the traditionally understood “boundaries” of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. As the touchstone by which the criterion that is the Christ revelation is known, Scripture stands as the “primary source and guideline” in theology: not only does “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” (Article V of “[Methodist] Articles of Religion”), but it is questionable whether theology grounded in any other source is no more than “vain conversation” and “idle talk”. However, because there are variations in the way Scripture is handled, there is need for other guidelines which act to “sharpen” our understanding and our words about and to God: tradition serves to reveal the variety of ways in which the Gospel has been applied through history (both for better and worse) so as to act as a sort of “lab” in which the continuity and the disjunction of the interpretation of this revelation may be studied across time, experience stands as the individual’s own relation to this living tradition (and, as such, provides a “necessary confirmation of revelation”), and (because we have this faith that “all truth comes from God” and that God’s revelation should “make sense”) reason stands as that critical analysis whereby some (but, by no means, not all) interpretations of revelation are illuminated, corrected, or even discarded. In the balanced interplay of these guidelines (of course, with more weight being assigned to Scripture), theology establishes both its field of operation and begins its task of being inclusive.
Inclusivity is more than an acknowledgement of these guidelines as the boundaries of the theological task; in the end, it must be the concern of the theologian to bring all things into this field of operation. This requires the firm conviction that all things in reality (even ideas) are touched by the grace of God and it requires the patience and desire to see that this graceful potential is realized. In this light, tradition opens itself to the full spectrum of denominational histories, reason understands insights from science or philosophy to be potential stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and experience is ever allowing itself to “walk in the other person’s shoes.” Suffice it to say at this point that, ultimately, inclusivity in theology is the awareness that existence is defined by a diverse series of poles and is the constant attempt to explicate what exists on the other side of “and”.
If inclusivity is theology’s awareness of the diversity which exists in creation, then dialectic engagement (understood now and throughout this paper as “the systematic process of juxtapositioning opposite or contradictory ideas which usually seeks to resolve their conflicts” [adapted from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary ]) stands as the way in which theology expresses its hope for the eventual unity of all things. We will have cause throughout the course of this paper to refer to the mystery which is the Christ event, the mystery wherein we “being many are one bread, and one body”. (I Cor. 10:17) Theology is misled if it believes that anything in and of itself is capable of promoting an enduring reconciliation; ultimately, theology’s dialectic quest can only hope to explicate and to proclaim the victory, despite the presence of a “few final skirmishes”, already achieved in and through Christ. (cf. Barth in Lochman, The Faith We Confess , p. 149) In light of its inclusive process (whereby all things are brought into the field of operation) and its dialectic method (wherein all things are become one), effective theology ultimately prays with Christ that “they all may be one .” (John 17:21)
A word of caution is appropriate at this point: namely, it would be wrong to confuse the inclusive and unifying process of prayer/theology with some syncretic method in which “the lowest common denominator” is sought and the essentials of the faith compromised away. Such claims are equivalent to the ones made by those in the early church who refused to believe that divine and human could comingle in the same entity. (In a fundamental way, monophysitism is no more than the inability to see any more than one-in-one.) Allowing the Christ event, and particularly the Chalcedonian definition (451), to inform us at this point, we have this hope: that the existence of all things in the unity which is the body of Christ is, at once, “unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated.” “Unity”, then, is not to be understood as the end product of some cloning process, as much as it is the coherence of all parts in a common field of operation.
Thirdly, the thesis that theology is prayer commends a certain form for the construction of a systematic theological statement. In this light, the Lord’s Prayer would tend to suggest not only the essential movements (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) of prayer – and even worship, but also those movements of “true” theology which, by the nature of its task, must be comprehensive, methodical, and constructive. Thus, theology as praise is ever seeking to gain an understanding of who God is, theology as confession stands as the attempt whereby we gain an understanding of our own position in relation to this God, theology as thanksgiving seeks the words to express and proclaim the mystery of the gifts and the Gift given by God despite our present position, and theology as supplication (as petition and intercession) provides us with the opportunity to establish/assume a new position in relation to God, ourselves and to others. To follow this form is not only convenient; at a very basic level, it is true to the fundamental nature of theology as prayer.
In the end, the understanding which sees theology and prayer as one mandates that we ever keep before us two admonitions. First, we are reminded that our theology, like our prayers, has to do ultimately with the “mystery of godliness”. (I Tim. 3:16) We should neither be too quick to discern specific forms when only shadows are present nor so hasty as to believe that our explication will in any way be a full explanation; it is a routine part of the task to acknowledge the “depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God, how unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33) Second, theology as prayer, both because of and despite of this mystery is unending; just as it is inconceivable to think of the Christian life as inspiring one isolated prayer, so too it is impossible to envision the Christian life as the living out of some obsolete credo. Ultimately, it becomes obvious that the most meaningful request the theologian as disciple can make is now, as it was then, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1)