The Disease of Building Theology in the Theoretical

This blog was first posted on Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christian’s online publication on 5/6/12…

I love and am enlivened by intellectual stimulation, specifically in relation to the integration of theology and ethics.  In many ways, I feel that I am hardwired for this stuff. 

The other night my NieuCommunities’ tribe was taking an extended time to explore how we each individually connect with God; what are the times, places or activities where we are most connected and alive.  For some it was through contemplation, others through a variety of worship forms, while others through care giving and hospitality.  For me, intellectual exploration was one of the primary ways I connect with God.  My writing, teaching and graduate studies have not come out of a desire to attain a “deeper” faith, but rather out of a unique conviction that I must pursue these things out of faithfulness to the faith I ascribe to.  God has created me for this stuff and it is a significant way I hope to edify the Church global.

Now, while this is an important reality to acknowledge and foster as I come to better understand my wiring and its relation to my Kingdom contribution, I have to hold this reality in tension with some recent experiences and convictions that have come about as a result.

On one of my recent trips down to Tijuana, Mexico I was able to stay for a few days and enter into some of the rhythms of life in this context.  Because of the close proximity, shared economy and common relationships, we consider Tijuana part of the larger metropolitan area of San Diego.  Whether it is acknowledged or not, we function as one city.  With that said, the ways of life in Tijuana and San Diego run in sharp contrast with one another.  The material poverty in much of our neighboring Mexican population is stunning in comparison with the material excess in much of San Diego.  More stunning to me was the comparison between the Christian communities on each side of the border.  While much (certainly not all!) of the energy of Christians in the States goes to building bigger buildings, having better events and ascending the intellectual ladder, our friends in Mexico (certainly not all!) are seeking live out their faith in the everyday realities of the mundane.  They simply don’t have the time or energy to debate doctrine when they need to provide the next meal for their family. 

Just a few weeks ago I returned from spending an extended time in the West Bank among Muslim and Christian Palestinian friends (see above pic).  Not only did we experience life-giving hospitality, we received it from a people who have almost nothing (material) to give.  When we came into one of their homes, the father/husband said, “When you enter our home you are the resident and I am the guest.”  The Church of Palestine lives under the heavy yoke of occupation enduring extreme poverty, daily injustice and has seemingly little hope of a new reality for the generations to come.  But -- and this is a HUGE but -- the Spirit is alive among this community.  This is a band of Jesus’ followers who everyday have to choose to follow the Prince of Peace in their daily realities.  For them, following Jesus cannot simply be reduced to a belief system or a doctrinal statement.  No, following Jesus for them means choosing peace in the face of yet another incident of violence, it means choosing dignity amid imposed humiliation, it means expecting the arrival of “daily bread” when all their resources have run dry.  

Here is the bottom line: People in third world countries are more worried about living out their theology in the mundane than arguing theology in the theoretical. From my experience, a lived theology is much more true and compelling than a “thought about” theology.

This truth serves both as an inspirational and helpful critique of those of us in first world West. 

Developing theology in the theoretical is a unique luxury we have in the West.  If held in tension with the reality of our brothers and sisters living in 3rd world countries, it can be a great benefit to the Church global.  If only understood through our grid of success, achievement, value, intellectual assent or a desire to be on the “right” side of an argument, it can be a grave tragedy for the Church of the West and its relation to the Church global. 

Our intellectual excess is a reflection of our societal tendency towards excess and consumerism.   Yes, even our heart felt desires for intellectual assent in theology can be a sin of excess and consumerism.  It is a reality that is largely only an option in places where we have the time and resources for such practices. 

There are no debates between neo-Calvinists and neo-Anabaptists in the West Bank.  There is no talk of Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell.  There are no flashy programs and events.  Sure the Church has its issues in these places, but their differences are unearthed through shared life and practice rather than in lecture halls and blog rolls.

If done well, I think theological debate and discourse are good.  In fact, they are needed.

Intellectual stimulation is good.  For people like me it isn’t pursued with a desire to be unfaithful, it’s the exact opposite. 

So we have a great gift here in the West.  It is one we must cherish and develop, not for our benefit or reputation, but for the benefit of God’s global Kingdom.  We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world and as one who has build much of my theology in the theoretical, I choose to stand first in line to repent and learn from these hero’s.

May we not only learn from our brothers and sisters in third world countries, may we allow their life and practice to inform the voice of the Church global as much our best books, sermons and lectures.  Because while we get carried away arguing our theology in the theoretical, they are busy living out their theology in the mundane of the everyday. 

Note: I am speaking to “general” contrasts between 1st world theology and 3rd world theology.  There are many exceptions and I am in no way discounting the brilliant intellectuals with a significant voice and influence who live in 3rd world countries.  They are a numerous, needed and growing presence.



2 Responses to The Disease of Building Theology in the Theoretical
  1. Michael York

    Thanks for the insight and the stories of the church in the developing world. We have a lot to learn from them.

  2. Jon Huckins

    Amen. So much to learn, indeed.

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