A Humble Theology

The other day I had an interesting conversation with an anti-religious person and an atheist–both were curious about my studies in theology. I approached the discussion cautiously, not assuming possession of solid theological truth. After all, I am but a man and can only form ideas and theories of what God is.

At one point, the conversation was interrupted by another friend’s stance on predestination. The two gentlemen–the anti-religious person and the atheist–quickly turned from sincerely curious to sternly objectional.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Conversations between religious and non-religious people often turn to debates over doctrinal issues, straying from the humbling mystery that is God.

In the past, I debated over doctrine, like my friend–defending my tradition’s theology. I would argue and argue until I turned blue with rage, failing to understand why anyone could disagree with what was clearly absolute truth. But then, humility hit me in the face. 

It was in academia that I learned theological humility. Theology taught me that theologizing is ultimately vaporous. But it’s not vaporous in a useless sense; it’s vaporous because finite creatures cannot understand an infinite being. 

Now, this doesn’t mean theology should not be done; trying to understand things is normal–it’s what we do. But we must recognize that theology is formed and maintained by faith. We have faith that our traditions are correct, but our claims are based more on faith than on fact.

When we approach someone and claim objective truth concerning spiritual matters, we appear arrogant. It’s as though we, being as human as anyone else, have figured life out. But faith balances this, providing recognition that we’re as finite as anyone else.

Most of us want to know why we’re here and what this life is, no matter our tradition. But in our brightest wisdom we can only form ideas about God, flawed ideas from flawed creatures. 

I’ve often heard inter-religious dialogue compared to blind people figuring out an elephant by their hands. Though they touch the same elephant, each touches a different part. It goes without saying that God is far more complex than an elephant. 

This is why the key to healthy theology is humility, and not arrogance. In my tradition–Christianity–we hope with faith for Christ’s return, and we’re called to share this hope with the world. But we were never told to do so arrogantly. Nobody wants a religion of arrogance.

Humility in theology opens conversation, while religious arrogance closes doors. Though a person knocks and knocks, the door is shut.

God is God and we are not. God is paradoxically knowable and unknowable, within our reach and far beyond our grasp. We are but grains of sand trying to comprehend the ocean. And God laughs–with childlike laughter. How can the creature understand the maker of heaven and earth? We’re more than severely limited. 

By all means, discuss God and think on him. But in your conversations with unbelievers and those of other traditions, theologize with humility. 

Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

“How strange it is to be anything at all!”, exclaims Jeff Mangum in one of my favorite songs.

It is a rather strange thing, indeed, to exist.  Maybe you don’t think so, you might think you have the answers for why we are here and where we are going, walking around with a “road map to life“. That’s ok. Personally, I find it eerie, upsetting, and rather awkward, that without your consent, without a choice, you were brought to existence, born from parents you did not choose, in a country you did not choose, taught and indoctrinated with customs and ideas about everything without ever been given a second to pause and think twice. Time keeps pushing you forward whether you like it or not, with every single choice you make remaining forever a part of your history, impacting you and others around you in infinite collaterality. Everyone who was here before you experienced this constant pressure from time, too. Everything they taught you was the best way they managed to figure out what exactly is going on, but not everyone concluded the same things, and who knows who is right?

Time never gives you a second chance. If you pay attention, you will notice decay and mortality all around you. Flowers blooming and withering, your own body changing, loved ones dying. Opportunities lost. Nothing can ever be undone, only reconciled. Offenses can never be taken aback, only forgiven.

It’s easy to feel insecure. Continue reading “Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.”

“Lord, who is my neighbour?”

It was a cold, Sunday night in late February. My wife and I exited an evening service at church to snow-covered steps, in an ongoing snowstorm.

“Wow! That fell fast!” I exclaimed

“Yeah, must be 20 centimetres,” said my wife–Esther–as we carefully made our way down the steps, towards the small parking lot attached to church.

Our car sat covered in snow, above it and around it. I opened the car door and reached for the snow removal stick to wipe snow off the car. My wife entered our 2001 Toyota Corolla to heat it up.

While wiping the snow away in the minus 15 cold, I thought back to a prayer request during church for the Arab refuges crossing the Canadian border from the States. I couldn’t imagine crossing the border in mid winter, especially in a snowstorm.

When finished, I joined my wife in the car. She wanted to drive but decided to complete a few work calls before leaving. So, I sat there as time passed.

A while later, she started the engine and lightly pressed the gas.

“Brrrrslssshhhhhhh,” came the sound of the wheels, spinning in place on the ice.

She tried again.

“Brshhhhhhhhh….”

No luck. We were kept in place by a thick blanket of ice hidden beneath growing layers of snow.

“I’ll go push,” I said, exiting the car.

Behind the vehicle, I placed my hands on both ends of the back and steadied my feet.

“Okay, go!” I shouted. 

My wife pressed the gas, as I pushed and pushed with all my strength. The car moved only a few feet before once again spinning in place on the ice covered ground.

We kept trying, but made no progress. Even with our metal tracks for the wheels, it wouldn’t move. 

We tried for 30 minutes, but my cold and wet feet forced me back inside the car.

By then, it was late–passed 11pm–and the temperature wasn’t getting warmer. I suggested we take the bus and come back tomorrow with help. But my wife’s persistence kept us trying. She wasn’t willing to give up just yet. Besides, even if she wanted to take the bus, she had too much work equipment to transport. 

We were really stuck.

As I warmed my feet, my wife called emergency services. The first service told her they couldn’t help, unless we renewed our account with them. There was no way we could afford the renewal fee, not with our student budget.

My wife then tried our insurance company. The lady on the other end informed us that our insurance plan doesn’t cover roadside assistance. The lady did–at least– provide phone numbers for nearby towing companies. But of course, these would cost money.

Thankfully, the first towing company we called was not too expensive. We called them at 11:50.

“We close in 10 minutes; we won’t be able to add your car to our towing list.” said the receptionist. “My truck is already out there getting another car.”

“Okay… well, could you direct us to another service or something else?” 

“Sorry Ma’am, I can’t help you. We’re closing.”

We were left in the -15 snowstorm.

I sighed, deciding to go back outside and try breaking the ice with our metal wheel tracks. It would take a while, but at least we’d be making progress.

Grabbing a metal track, I began smashing the ice and praying to God, asking what I might learn from this situation. My first thought–as if in reply to my prayer– was patience. I’m learning patience.

Lost in thought while breaking the ice, I didn’t notice someone approach me from behind.

“Can I help you sir?” came a middle-eastern accent.

I turned around to see a tall Arab man, who sincerely wanted to help.

“Sure,” I replied, motioning to the back of the car. “Thank you. Thank you so much!” I said as we positioned ourselves behind the car.

When we signaled my wife, she pressed the gas and we pushed. But–again–the car barely budged.

The man turned to me: “I can get more people.”

“Okay, thank you! That’s awesome!” 

 I didn’t wait long before he returned with two other men.

Once behind the car, we counted: “1… 2… 3… go!” My wife pressed the gas. This time, with the force of four men, we moved the car halfway across the parking lot. After a couple more tries, including a push through a 3 foot snow mound, we safely removed the car from the ice infested parking lot.

I gathered the tire tracks, as my wife offered the men a 20$ bill, but they refused. We insisted and insisted, but still they refused. 

“I just saw you from my kitchen,” the first man said, pointing to a nearby apartment complex, “and I knew you needed help. You don’t have to pay me for that.”

Instead, he gave me the shovel they had used to clear out the snow. “Take it in case you get stuck again.” 

Deeply touched, I smiled at them and asked, “Do you know the good samaritan from Jesus’ parable?”

They nodded.

“That’s you guys tonight,”

We all smiled.

“May God bless you for this.”

“God bless you too,” they said. “Be safe on your way home.”

Entering the car, I thought again about the refuges crossing the Canadian border, as a tear trickled down my cheek.

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked.

“The Samaritans… in the Bible. They were rejected by the Jews, seen as outcasts. We treat Muslims the same… worse even. Yet it was Muslims who helped us tonight.”

Tears welled in both our eyes, as we thanked God for the good Samaritans–our neighbours.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Today it rained

Yesterday, together with some of my dearest friends, we laughed and drank to celebrate the day I was born. We told our stories, and we talked about the things we care for. We became closer, as we knew each other better, as we exposed and uncovered pieces of ourselves, as our lives became part of each other’s. We talked about how we had come to know ourselves better in the past years, by living, and paying close attention to Life, and to what it tells us. All that we had unlearned, all that we had discovered.

This morning I woke up, and spent my day answering a few questions to my professor, so he could grade whether I understood the things he spent the semester trying to teach. Later in the afternoon, I went to class where groups of students discussed their answers, and we all finally gave our papers with notes to the professor. We had discussed the way in which one can study religion. How a religious experience can be understood, and, mostly, how it can’t. Really, we discussed how we cannot understand most things, but that in University we need to pretend we do. In Church we need to pretend we do. The Government needs to pretend it does. We all pretend we do, even though we don’t.

We have to pretend, because it’s really scary to not know. Continue reading “Today it rained”

Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The world has seen the inauguration of an American president whose online supporting community proudly calls “the absolute madman”. The world has also seen, in the past decades, the same country engaging in vicious forms of capitalism that subjugate and exploit poorer countries’ workers, accompanied with more bombing and killing than any other country, terrorizing and decimating families across the globe. The world has seen this country’s public debate overtaken by questions of police violence, constant shootings and gun control, racial struggles, LGBTQ movements, feminism, privilege, and revolts against the acclaimed 1% richest of the world in times of economical unrest. With all this struggle, being “politically correct” became pejorative, and increasingly labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are tossed back and forth in a constant polarization. All of it with the USA as some sort of symbol for several other countries, with its liberal and conservative, left and right dichotomy being reflected back by them, with a rising tension everywhere between those who push for one side and the other: the stereotypical religious white fascist defending traditional family and good values, versus the colored women and queer socialists who attempt to claim their rights for choice and equality. All of it being led by smart educated people on both sides, who are followed by uneducated, unquestioning parroting masses unable to break the dichotomy, unable to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to agree with one point and disagree with another without defending indefensible party positions.

Amidst this global chaos, of which America is the eye of the storm, I see some Christians affirm each other by saying it is all going to be OK. That their citizenship is in heaven alone, so none of this is their business, they can sit back and mind their lives.

It makes me want to cuss, badly. Continue reading “Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics”

The Study of God: on method

Recently a friend of mine who has very little religious education gained interest in theology, and surprised me with maybe the best question I have been asked in a while: what is the theological method?

If you have ever studied something seriously, academically, critically, you understand his question. Ιt is a question of epistemology: “how do I know?”. In traditional sciences, there is a scientific method: controlled, observable and reproducible experiments lead to conclusions and allow predictions. The experiment is then repeated and reviewed by other scientists who confirm or contest the conclusions, and as that happens the whole community arrives at very probable theories about a subject. History also has its method, since history cannot be repeated or reproduced, neither controlled, so it stands outside the realm of science. Math and logic, along with philosophy, all have their systems of proof testing. So when we speak of the Divine, what is our method to differ between truth and non-truth? How do we know? Continue reading “The Study of God: on method”