For more than three years, I have listened to people in our congregation talk about what they really believe about God. In 2010, several co-workers and I tried a theological experiment. What would happen, we wondered, if we taught people how to think theologically instead of what to think specifically? What words and concepts would people use to describe their faith? How much theological diversity would we find among the people in our church? How sophisticated and articulate would people be in their theological reflections?
Even though theological education in many seminaries and universities gives students time to figure out their deepest convictions, most theological teaching in churches is heavily creedal and doctrinal. While teaching and affirming the historic Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, each denomination also has its own theological spin on Christian orthodoxy.
Roman Catholics teach Catholic theology. Methodists teach Methodist theology. Evangelicals teach evangelical theology. And so on. In seminary, students might encounter a variety of perspectives from biblical to contemporary theologians, but in congregations, exposure to the breadth of theological diversity is less frequent.
In my own Lutheran tradition, pastors teach confirmation students and adults about justification by grace through faith, the theology of the cross and the Triune God, among other well-loved Lutheran theological doctrines. This year, instead of only teaching Lutheran theology classes to adults, we’ve designed an experience whereby we invite, challenge and coach people through a process of building their personal theology. By personal, we do not mean private or individualistic. We are helping people identify, organize and clarify what they really believe — not what they think they should believe — but what they really believe based on their experiences, their engagement with scripture and tradition and their questions and their knowledge from other fields of study. At the end of the process, each theologian presents to the community their most deeply held convictions stated in their own words.
After witnessing the theological testimonies of more than 100 people in our congregation, I am convinced that the theological landscape within congregations is more complex than denominational leaders and even most pastors realize. After hearing hours of presentations from our congregation’s theologians, I have yet to find two people who have exactly the same theology. Although some might see this theological variety as a problem, I have been overwhelmed by people’s courageous and articulate statements of their personal theology.
What our experiment uncovered is a whole lot of theological uniqueness, not only about lesser theological points, but about the big things, too. People have said all of the following things. God is Triune. God is more than the Trinity. I don’t believe in the Trinity. God is all-powerful. God isn’t all-powerful. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is fully human, not God. Jesus’ death saves us from our sins. Jesus’ death was a tragedy with no salvific power in itself. God loves all people equally. God favors Christians and only saves those who believe in Jesus. I don’t know if I even believe in God. God wrote the Bible. People wrote the Bible. The Bible is God’s word. The Bible is a mixture of helpful and damaging ideas.
These theological sound bites do not really represent what I have seen and heard. I cannot even begin to describe the beauty and sacredness of these shared moments of listening to person after person find their theological voice. I have been learning and thinking about what it means to be Christian in the midst of this much theological variety.
Students of history know that orthodoxy has been contested in every period of Christianity and that theological variety has always existed within the Christian religion. What has changed, perhaps, is that theological diversity is not something that exists mostly between denominations but rather is a reality that exists within local congregations and within denominations. For many people the historic creeds are still meaningful, but for many others speaking aloud those particular words is dishonest.
We need to stop pretending that we all believe the same creeds and hold the same orthodox beliefs and instead acknowledge that Christian community can thrive when theological diversity is nurtured. Everyone is a theologian and everyone has a personal theology. The pastor’s job is to teach people how to do theological reflection and then to trust people to think for themselves and speak with their own voice about what they believe. We have seen our congregation grow stronger and deeper as people have learned both how to express themselves theologically and how to listen to people who have arrived at a very different set of truths than their own.
In summary, here are some of the emerging attributes and attitudes of a multi-theological Christianity.
- Theological reflection is the work of everyone in the community not just the pastors.
- Congregations and denominations are multi-theological more than creedal.
- People listen deeply to one another’s theological perspectives instead of making assumptions.
- The exploration of questions is valued more than arriving at orthodox answers.
- Everyone has the responsibility to learn and think for themselves.
- Pastors trust the people in their congregations and equip them to do their own theological reflection.
- People value honesty and are willing to be vulnerable with one another.
- Community is deepened through the intentional cultivation of theological diversity and understanding.
The Rev. Siri Erickson directs Lifelong Learning at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater.