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Reflection October 15, 2017
"Doing Theology" by: Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
We are called as followers of Christ to the “work” of theology. It might help to know what the word “theology” means. Theos is the Greek work for “God.” Logos is the Greek word for “word.” So theology is the study of God. We are all “theologians” whether we want to be or not! We all “study” God in multiple ways - simple as well as complex.
This past Sunday, the first part of my sermon focused on practicing theology. In doing theology, one must acknowledge that all theology is speculative since we cannot know either the nature of God or how God works in our world. As Isaiah 55:8 makes clear: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
With this caveat in mind, I did attempt theology last Sunday - in response to the human carnage that occurred in Las Vegas on Sunday evening, October 1. The theological question that naturally arises is: where was/is God in all of this?
We believe without hesitation that God is “Almighty” - meaning all-powerful. But we must be careful here. Many - if not most - Christians believe that everything that happens does so because God “wishes” it to happen - “wills” it to happen - “wants” it to happen. This is a seriously misguided notion.
When evil occurs - it is not God’s “will” nor part of God’s “plan.” When suffering occurs, it is always a tragedy which warrants both our tears as well as divine tears. What happened in Las Vegas is not some sort of divine punishment for the “sins” of Las Vegas.
While this “theology” may well have been proclaimed from a number of pulpits this past Sunday, it is, frankly, blasphemy of the most heinous kind. Who would want to worship such a repugnant God? Yet a very prominent American clergyman claimed the Las Vegas shootings were a divine punishment because of the widespread disrespect for our president!
So where is God in the midst of evil and suffering? God is with us in everything. But in order for creation to happen, God needed to “withdraw” the divine power to create a space, a place, for created things. Created things cannot exist independently of the Creator but the Creator’s power would overwhelm anything or anyone created if God did not “withdraw.” The Greek word for this process is kenosis - which means a “self-emptying” - seen in the act of creation as well as the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
According to my favorite theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, God withdrew God’s Almighty power to make the universe free and independent. God does not “rule” over the cosmos as some kind of potentate. If God had to decide everything that happens everywhere and anywhere, God would be, according to Moltmann, a prisoner of the universe. We, humans, would be merely puppets on a string if God decided every event, every happening, in the long history of humanity and the rest of creation.
Now I know this “theology” is not easy to grasp. Yes, God’s power is almighty! But God has chosen, out of love, to create a cosmos that is not “ruled over” by the power of God. Yes, as a Christian, I believe all things will eventually be healed when Jesus Christ returns in all his glory and all his goodness. But until that blessed and long-for coming, we live in a world - in a universe - that is painful and decidedly wounded.
It was a great honor for my beloved Beth and I to be given the 2017 James B. Ashbrook Award for Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology last May. Certainly Beth was very adept at pastoral care. I hope I share some of her precious gifts of compassionate care.
Yet it is in the field of pastoral theology that I’ve most labored over the course of my 43 years of ministerial leadership. My two books were attempts to make the theology I’ve studied accessible to “people in the pews.”
The reflections I’ve been writing in “The Advance” for these nine-plus years are attempts to make good theology and healthy spirituality available to the sisters and brothers of our beloved Morgan Park Baptist Church. It grieves me when pastors and preachers say foolish things about God. It happens much too often and makes our Christian faith unpalatable to our young.
As I wrote in Fashioning a Healthier Religion (1992): “In some ways we use God as an ‘escape clause’ for the world’s inherent unfairness/injustice. Bad guys prosper but God will get them in the end. Good people suffer but God will eventually reward them. God is fashioned from our hopes that everything will be all right as the final curtain descends. And we need such a satisfactory conclusion if we’re to be believers.
“As (the South African theologian) Albert Nolan concludes in Jesus Before Christianity: ‘To believe in God is to believe that goodness is more powerful than evil and truth is more powerful than falsehood. To believe in God is to believe that in the end goodness and truth will triumph over evil and falsehood. Anyone who thinks that evil will have the last word or that good and evil have a fifty-fifty chance is an atheist.’”
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor