Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Presbyterian Women and theology: beginning from human experience rather than Scripture

Presbyterian Women' latest Horizons, January-February 2014, is about theology. For Christians theology's subject is the triune God, its foundational text is the biblical text. Reading theologians supplies the rest of the story. But because the Bible is the Christian's textual authority, theology belongs to all of us. We all have access to reading, thinking about, praying over, and meditating on Scripture and its main subject God. But Presbyterian Women use several authors who too often, begin their theological thoughts, not from Scripture, but from human experience.                                                             picture by Penny Juncker

When one finally moves beyond the subject of theology to another subject, the dedication service for PW's “Birthday Offering,” pluralism, the idea that all roads lead to God, unnecessarily, and sadly surfaces in a multicultural piece. So let us look at how this begins and how it ends. [1]

Horizons always begins with a devotion. This one, “Your Inner Theologian” by Cecilia Amorocho Hickerson, never mentions Scripture but finds God located in creation. And one can understand some things about God from creation. Paul in the first chapter of Romans states, “For since the creation of the world His [God's] invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen through what has been made, so that they [humanity] are without excuse.” (20) And the psalmist states that the heavens declare the glory of God. Hickerson, however, finds God as a divine spark in humanity.

Referring to Mother Teresa, but sounding like a Buddhist, Hickerson states:
I can look inward—exploring, discovering, questioning and embracing the holiness, the sacred spark of life, of love, of God within me. I can look outward—noticing in the minutia of moments, glimpses of the Divine within you. Yes, you! Here in this moment, I greet the God in you, in the hope of getting to know God better.

She misses the revelation found in Scripture, for the Christian it is Christ in you—it is our unity with the resurrected Lord, through the Holy Spirit—it is not a divine spark. We learn about God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray, meditate on God's word and follow in the good works he has provided for us. Do we rejoice at the creativity of God as we view creation? Certainly. Do we marvel at God's power as we see transformation in another person who claims Jesus as Lord? Of course we do. But only through God's revelation in Christ Jesus given in the word of God do we truly comprehend God.

Shannon Craigo-Snell, professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian theological Seminary, in her article, “Hold on Tightly,” has some good ideas about understanding other religions. Don't subsume them under your own faith, because you might be implying that they are all like Christianity. As she puts it, “Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. If I really want to learn about another religion, I must begin by admitting that I don't already know.”

Craigo-Snell goes on to talk about the diversity within Christianity, using the understanding of how Jesus saves as an example of Christian diversity. But using the theological understanding of soteriology (salvation) as a way of describing diversity within Christianity tends to embrace even heretical movements such as those which only understand salvation in terms of doing good works (Jesus as example).That means that rather them embracing the orthodoxy of the centuries one is open to all kinds of 'Christianity.'

Craigo-Snell attempts to mold her students into faithful Christians, but with an openness toward other's religious differences. The problem with the article is that she never lifts up foundational beliefs but rather prepares her students to navigate within pluralism without a strong foundation.

Arianne Braithwaite Lehn's “Growing Toward a Bigger God: My Theological Journey Through Suffering,” tells how the physical suffering of her father changed some of her views about God. She writes that: She no longer believes in the sovereignty of God, but she does believe in God's presence in the midst of her troubles:
Instead [of believing that God allows tragedy] I believed God would be with our family no matter what, responding to the suffering with a strengthening of our hearts, a girding of our relationships and a reimagining of our of our purpose. God was not in “total control” as I once understood it, but God was totally committed to “working all things together for good,” wherever that led.

Here again human experience is overriding biblical theology. It is understandable that Lehn has struggled with her theology in the midst of suffering-but it is hard to understand why she must let go of the sovereignty of God in order to realize God's presence in suffering. They can both be true and biblical at the same time. Perhaps it was Lehn's attempts to figure out how God was using the suffering that led to her problem. God's purposes belong to him. Centering our faith in our experience will continually change our faith. Our faith should always be centered in the word of God.

PW annually features Birthday Offering recipients—this year there is one, The Blue Corn Mother's Advocacy Center which is helping Native American women and children suffering from domestic abuse. Alongside news of the recipient is a liturgical piece. It is written by Irvin Porter, the Associate for Native American Congregational Support in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). After offering several prayers Porter offers a meditation with the Nez Perce people of North America as his main concern. He tells of how the explorers Lewis and Clark shared a Bible with them and promised to send missionaries to explain Christianity to them. But they were forgotten and so sent members of their people to ask for missionaries.

Porter goes on to tell how some good missionaries came but also some evil ones who tainted Christianity with their abusive and aggressive actions. All of this is undoubtedly true. It needs to be told. But the problem is, speaking of theology, Porter mixes up the evil of destroying a culture's traditions with what is true and biblical Christianity.

He writes that the Nez Perce already knew God and used such names as “Creator, Great Spirit, Great One, Hinuwat, Wakan, Tonka [sic] Josh and Mahalo.” But he goes further writing, “Native American pathways to God were different than the ones some of your ancestors traveled, but all paths ultimately bring us to the same place where the Creator speaks to us.” Porter also writes:
Out of the depth of hopelessness, God's light shines out. We belong to a God who will never leave us or give up on us. God is our salvation. There are many different pathways to the Creator. But the pathways lead to God, the Creator, Hinuwat, Wakan, Tanka, Josh and Mahalo.

There are several issues to note here. Porter speaks of Christ as the one who reconciles all of our divisions and correctly states that Christians are one in him. Yet somehow he does not see Jesus as the only way to God. And although he speaks of the Bible and writes of how much the Nez Perce wanted to understand it, he fails to connect its message to the needs of the Nez Perce. Furthermore, among the gods he mentions, Creator and Great Spirit may be generic names like God, but such gods as Wakan Tanka (which is really one god not two) is not generic and the attributes are not similar to the God of the Bible.

This is theology without Christology, impossible for a Christian theologian. Christ is central or Christian theology falls apart. Porter is using human culture, which is human experience to explain and solve the problems of human sin. He has not made his case. The only remedy for sin is the death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Both the cultural damning missionaries and the syncretism of a Native American elder are unsuitable for the proclamation of the gospel. “Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14: 6)

[1] There are some good articles in this Horizons. I recommend “Living and Dying” by Patricia K Tull and “Who Do You Say That I Am?” by Rhonda Mawhood Lee. But the article would have been better suited to this edition if she had looked at those verses which proclaim Jesus as the eternal Son, God of very God, since some who see Jesus as Messiah or Son of God fail to understand that he is the incarnated second person of the Trinity.

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