Sunday, March 26, 2006

System Failure

I am giving up any attempt at creating a systematic theology.

I actually think that I did this long ago, but I'm finally admitting it to myself.

Allow me to explain what I mean by 'systematic' theology. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces fitting perfectly into one another to form a complete picture. Imagine that these pieces all have words written on them: 'God,' 'Christ,' 'salvation,' 'Bible,' 'heaven,' 'Holy Spirit,' and so on. Each contributes to a larger graphic that each can't capture on its own.

Now imagine that one day, you pick up the piece marked 'Christ,' take a pair of scissors, and cut around the edges to form a new shape. It no longer fits into the old puzzle with the other pieces the way they are. Your next task, then, is to take your scissors and re-shape every other piece immediately around the 'Christ' piece, which in turn affect the other pieces around them, and so on. Soon, you end up with a whole new puzzle...until you decide to re-shape your 'Bible' piece. Then it's back to square one. Every piece has to harmonize with the others, or the larger picture can't be formed.

That's a systematic theology. Everything is in harmony, everything fits together to its logical end. All the edges need to be formed just right.

So why have I given up on such an approach? A couple reasons, actually. They might not all fit into this one space.

First, who am I, one of two billion people on this planet which is one planet in a universe beyond my comprehension, to say that my system in all its profound logic and well-reasoned conclusions, explains that universe and its Creator? My authoritative text is a series of stories ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 years old. I sit here on this swirling rock making my calculations, present them to be studied and accepted as perfectly logical and definitive, a billion years behind me and a billion years ahead. I hope that you can see the problem here.

Second, Jesus doesn't offer a system beyond 'Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.' He has a few things to say about himself, about God, about the Holy Spirit, about the kingdom, but nothing that rivals Calvin's Institutes or Barth's Dogmatics. His system is not one of is and ts dotted and crossed to be studied. It is a life to be considered and lived. He was too busy yelling at an ambitious Zaccheus to come down from his tree, too busy affirming the woman with the jar of ointment, too busy looking upon a young rich man with compassion and pity, and too busy forgiving a despondent Peter by the lakeside. When would he have had time to do those things if he'd preoccupied himself with questions of predestination, determinism, and dispensations? We silly people want to figure out relationships between concepts and Jesus is concerned with relationships between people and God.

I embrace a narrative theology nowadays. Imagine our puzzle, completed. It's a California boardwalk filled with people. A woman and two kids are getting ice cream at a kiosk. Two young lovers stop to admire the ocean, their arms around each other. A group of guys play frisbee on the sand. A group of retired men play chess in the shade. Study each scene within a scene and wonder at their thoughts and actions. Muse on their relationship to one another. Give thanks for their existence and pray that they know love and make love known. Consider each of their stories and how it relates to God's story. What can be learned from each?

I read of Jesus' relationships and think that there must be something to learned there. What do his actions reveal of the One who called us into life? What do his strange off-kilter stories about tax collectors and Pharisees, Samaritans, and estranged sons say about God's story and our roles in it?

I don't bother with cutting up puzzles any more. It takes too much of my time. Instead I want to let the pieces fit on their own while I go help my wife in the kitchen, go visit a sick woman in the hospital, go have coffee with an old friend. I put down my scissors and instead lift prayers for Darfur, grieve over Bagdad, rant at the Middle East, and wonder how neighborhoods closer to home could use a lot more love and attention.

I long to draw near to God, who transcends my puny attempts to understand. I follow Jesus, who thwarts my intellectual jumping jacks with a story of exercising love and forgiveness, and who might admonish me to leave the angels to take their own head count while they dance on their pin.