Theological Pain

by Travis Prinzi on April 8, 2010

I haven’t picked up a book of theology in a very, very long time.

These days I find most of my theology in story. (If you want to know what stories I’m reading, find me on GoodReads.) Honestly, I’m just weary of theology. I’m not bored with it. I’m tired. Exhausted. Worn out. I’m sick of everyone thinking the finer points of their theology are the articles on which the church will stand or fall. I’m fatigued by the rehearsing of the same old topics, with the same old arguments, and the mindless reassertions of something you heard someone else say with conviction, and the refusal to honestly grope with an opposing point of view.

Theology causes my brain pain these days. I know what you’re going to say before you say it. I already know that you think five-point Calvinism (or whatever) is essential to true Christianity, and I already know why you think it is, and I already know all the verses you’ll use, and all the counter-arguments you’ll use, and how you’ll reason from each text, and I bet I know most of what you’ll say word for word. You’re making me tired, and you haven’t even started talking yet.

I know that some of this is just my own crankiness. I know that some of it is the insecurity rooted in the simple fact that over the past few years, my theological position on things has changed more times than I’d like to admit. I once set myself up as a biblical guide for others to follow. It was all a lie; I’m a wandering star.

But I also know there are others out there like me. Some of you are hurting because you can’t ask questions. (Those questions are dangerous.) Some of you are in pain because your confusion is not allowed. (It’s lack of faith.) Some of you ache inside because you can’t make some theological positions that have been forced into your head make much sense with reality anymore.  There are so many manifestations of this.

  • You’re not allowed to ask about evolution. All that science is a lie of the devil to get you to disbelieve Genesis and therefore cast doubt on the whole Bible.
  • You’re not allowed to ask about power, race, and gender. Those are “liberal” concerns.
  • You’re not allowed to deeply struggle inside about the concept of God’s eternally tormenting his creation in a lake of fire. If you do, it’s because you’re not willing to accept the “hard” truth. You’re just a pomo hippy or something.
  • You’re not allowed to long for an ancient worship that is rooted in 2,000 years of church history. You’ll lose relevance in our culture.
  • You’re not allowed to question the lunacy going on at the front of your church. You might blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
  • And whatever you do, don’t ask about the homosexual couples who are better examples of committed, sacrificial love than 80% of the Christian marriages you know. You’re on the road to accepting immorality if you bring that up.

Insert your own. You get it. I’m downright exhausted with the games we play with our theological discussions.

I get the danger of losing the orthodox faith altogether. I really do. But when the rules of theological conversation put honest questions – raw, difficult, real life questions – in the penalty box, I say the game is rigged so that one team wins and the other loses every time.

And the problem with this is that it hurts real people. I’m not going to be afraid of the questions I ask or the subjects I bring up. I’m not going to be scared by the threat that I might “lead someone astray.” It’s better to have everyone face the tough questions and find Jesus in the answer than to suppress them and forfeit huge parts of the fallen human experience and struggle.

Finding the answer in Jesus is the goal of it all. The gospel – you know, that good news for broken and hurting people – is not just a “foundation,” or a starting place. It’s the beginning, middle, and end of all theological conversations. If we don’t end up at the gospel of God’s unfailing love in Jesus, we didn’t have a theology conversation. We had a debate about rules and regulations, and we’ve become Pharisees.

So I’m going to pick up theology books again. (I’m going to start with Eugene Peterson.) But I’m going to pick them up looking for Jesus, not looking for better and stronger points to win arguments. I’ll share what I find – as well as the tough questions I want to ask – in these Letters from the Perilous Realm.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ally April 8, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Amen. I really don’t know what else to say. Mostly because I’m sitting here teary-eyed at how iMonk-esque this post is. Thank you.

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2 Maggie April 9, 2010 at 12:01 am

I heartily recommend any work by GK Chesterton. Great theology, but lighthearted and witty as only the British can be. (sigh) A good starting place for Chesterton is his nonfiction book “Orthodoxy.” “The Ball and the Cross” is fiction, but is *awesome* and makes some incredibly good points in its narrative.

And the magazine First Things (online edition here is another favorite of mine. Good articles each month, but digestible for the most part.

And Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” is wonderful. Papa B was a theology professor and is a little stuffy in some of his other writings, but “Jesus of Nazareth” is a beautiful meditation on the Person of Christ.

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3 Stephen April 9, 2010 at 1:12 am

I need to finish Peterson’s “Eat This Word,” and then I have “The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way” near the top of my to-read list.

I can’t recommend David Dark’s “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything” highly enough. It was my favorite book of last year, and, among other things, provides an excellent starting point from which to read theology, I’d say.

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4 garver April 9, 2010 at 8:02 am

People ask me why I haven’t consistently blogged anything in more than a year and a half. I usually say I’m too busy. The more honest answer would be the utter exhaustive you’ve described above.

This isn’t to say I haven’t being thinking and talking about theology. But I’ve been “doing theology” in the context of a local parish where people live in community, share a liturgical and sacramental life, trust one other, and are conversing together from various places along a shared trajectory. And for some reason that far is more life affirming and far less exhausting.

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5 revgeorge April 9, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Travis said, “I already know that you think five-point Calvinism (or whatever) is essential to true Christianity…”

Actually, the last thing I was going to say was that five-point Calvinism is essential to true Christianity. 😉

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6 Travis Prinzi April 10, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ally, thanks for your very kind words.

Maggie, I love Chesterton. I’ve got Orthodoxy perpetually on my night stand right now. But, true to my tendency over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed his fiction even more.

Stephen, thanks for the recommendation. That sounds like a book I’d get along really well with. I’ve got Peterson’s Christ Plays and also The Jesus Way. (Both gifted to me by iMonk, actually.)

garver, yup. That’s the real reason this blog has been so quiet.

revgeorge, know what’s funny? When I wrote that line, I thought immediately, “George wouldn’t say this, of course.” 😉

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7 revgeorge April 10, 2010 at 12:39 pm

It’s good to know I’m so predictable. It gives me stability in my life. :)

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8 Allison April 12, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for the honesty. I agree with whoever said it feels iMonk-ish.

This is the same reason our blog has been so quiet on the theology side (mostly Gaines) for so long. There were a lot of things we just couldn’t write about because we were in the midst of them. Gaines is forever reading something for a class anyway (2 a semester on top of work), so most of his writing is in essay form these days.

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9 Pauli May 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

You might want to check out the Letter and Spirit journals from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. I’ve found them to be very deep and rooted on scholarly exegesis. Here‘s the latest one. Pretty intense stuff.

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10 Maggie May 21, 2010 at 5:00 pm

@Pauli: I totally agree! Anything from the St. Paul Center is awesome. Its director, Dr. Scott Hahn, is one of my “intellectual crushes.” His popular books are accessible and down to earth, while his scholarly works are exemplary. His books The Lamb’s Supper and Rome Sweet Home (coauthored with his wife) are my favorites, probably because they were incredibly influential in my journey toward the Catholic Church from the Presbyterian and Evangelical traditions. I also really like the Homily Helps section on the website, where Dr. Hahn offers a brief commentary about each Sunday’s readings (Old Testament or Acts, Epistle, and Gospel) and how they connect.

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11 Rob November 1, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I have been listening to your podcasts and have enjoyed them. I have a similar background as you, independent, fundamental, Baptist. I came to the Reformed faith after college and I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I am not trying to persuade you to be a Calvinist or an Arminian or anything in between. I really didn’t want to comment at all but you seem to be hurting so I felt compelled and I suppose my fear is that you’re ready to leave the faith. In your questions segment you seemed to be lashing out at those that would consider creation right and evolution wrong or perhaps those that say you can’t question these things. You mention homosexuality. You criticize those that won’t accept homosexuals because many homosexuals are in loving relationships and many Christians are in bad ones. I am only using this as an example because it seems to project your struggles. It would seem that if the Bible teaches homosexuality is sin than it is sin, the truth of any matter is not determined because of how nice someone is or how cruel someone else may be. Are there Christians who treat homosexuals badly…yes there are, and it’s sad, but whether or not something is sin is not based on how we react to others or how we feel about the way people act toward each other. Truth is outside of us. We don’t make it up each day depending on how we perceive something that day, if Truth is not absolute and not outside of us than there ceases to be right and wrong and God ceases to be relevant. For those who look at homosexuals and treat them as extra sinners do not know their own heart. Why don’t they treat liars or gossips with the same disdain? Or perhaps the better question is why they don’t understand that we are all sinners in need of Christ’s love and see them as people that need to be shown Christ’s love. You are tired of debating theology and I understand that, you are tired of reading about theology and I understand that as well. When was the last time you read through the entire Bible as story? It is given to us in story. My suggestion to you is to try and dig into Scripture for theology. Reading about what others have to say and learning from others is excellent but it is secondary. Please understand that this is written only out of concern for you and not in any way am I trying to debate. I pray that this helps.
In all sincerity,
Rob

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