When Theologians Get it So Wrong

bible-table-candleAll of us get things wrong. Most of us will reflect on life and recognise that enthusiasm, pride or an agenda got in the way of a balanced view. I am as guilty as hell when it comes to speaking my mind and gingerly repairing the damage in the aftermath, I guess that is a litmus to my maturity – or lack of. Because my special party trick is causing conflict, I have a little more grace these days when I witness others suffering from verbal diarrhoea.

But…occasionally I get miffed enough to make a public comment for the 6 people who read my blog! Recently I read a blog from a Dr of Theology who chose to offer some commentary about people with special needs (physical or mental) suggesting they may carry these burdens with them in heaven if they are content within themselves here on earth. Honestly, I don’t have a view on heaven other than I don’t think anyone knows much about it. At the end of the day it is a benign conversation that is speculative and it shouldn’t have bothered me, it was just theoretical gymnastics stroking the ego of the author – but it did bother me. I wondered if he forgot the conversation was about real people with real families carrying unimaginable pain, the manner and tone of the conversation was disturbingly disconnected. I think what bothered me most was the pious and elevated position that was awarded with credibility from his readers because his thoughts were from a ‘theological’ perspective.

It got me thinking about the role of a theologian in Christendom and how much weight the Christian community put on the words of an individual who declares a revelation. I went to ‘pretend bible college’ for a while and I remember the moment when I realised that given most subjects, two theologians of equal talent are likely to have differing views on matters that are significant to the life of a Christian. Diversity in interpretation is awfully common and should be very sobering to the people who feel called to be the moral compass for the world.

I saw a great example of ‘pop theology’ the other day – quote from a pastor: “You have three choices when bad things happen to you, let it destroy you, let it define you or…let it develop you.” My view is when bad things happen you need to let it destroy you to fully engage avoiding the temptation of denial, it should define you because if you want to live in the present you must absorb your environment and if you do those two things, it will develop you but in ways that don’t often look like modern day success. In fact sometimes you may never fully recover. But I have just offered another point of view that some will disagree with and the conversation goes on…

The people who call themselves theologians are no different to the people who call themselves mechanics. Their base line on how they interpret things is influenced by their predisposition, bias and personal views – they are just average people. If I am honest about my spiritual convictions,  I sometimes start with a point of view and look for evidence to support it, and in that order. Certainly not my proudest admission, but I am human. A degree in theology is not a reflection of spirituality and shouldn’t have an automatic “you must listen to me” licence.

The bible is a stunning example of historical record taking, it is also the most comprehensive account of the life of Jesus and is accurately crossed referenced by other historical documents of the day. Most historians regardless of their faith status admire the bibles authentic and careful accounts. But despite 2000 years of debate, science and study, theologians still haven’t refined a universal thought. How Christians interpreted the bibles comments on slavery, status of women, power, money, righteousness, sexuality, marriage etc has moved from one end of the band width to the other. At every point on that bandwidth over the past 2000 years, there would have been a theologian with absolute conviction directing the conversation, yet today we are horrified by some of the thinking. History would tell us that we don’t always get it right and that should temper our convictions and elevate our sense of humility.

If I could talk to budding bible college students I would say, “get a real job!” Ha ha, no not really…that’s what I tell musicians! I would encourage students to think of themselves as a resource for curious minds and not as an oracle in the making. I know I will get criticised for this next comment but not every problem can be rectified or solved by scripture. Human wisdom, intellect and knowledge collected over many thousands of years must inform our conversation. Honestly, if you are having trouble in a relationship, you are better off seeing a counsellor than hoping for a revelation in the bible… the problem is if you rely on yourself to find an answer and you are the cause of the problem, you will interpret everything through your bias.

Today theology is sometimes used to legislate a point of view as though it is the best way to influence public thinking. You can’t legislate a moral perspective. The discussion about gay marriage right now disturbs me greatly. A few years ago I listened to a senior pastor of a large church tell a small group of seekers that homosexuality can lead to beastiality. The forum was an ‘ask the pastor anything about the bible’ session, it was a perfect example of a personal bias that snuck in to a theological discussion and it ended up being offensive. No wonder the public dismiss commentary from Christians, we have lost our soul and become fearful and militant. Christians are quoting scripture as the central guide as though it actually means something to everyone. News alert, the bible is only used as a daily guide by 5% of Australians. The more militant and legalistic Christians get, the less people will see Jesus and the more they will see bigots. Using the bible to enforce a view is useless unless it means something to someone – so stop hitting people on the head with it hoping it will work!

The more Christians isolate themselves with legalistic black and white, the less relevant they will become and the less influence they will have. Relationship is the only way to meaningfully share ideas and values. Theologians don’t have all the answers and Christians could learn a thing or two if they listened more. In fact the world is a better place because of secular wisdom. Theologians don’t own the exclusive rights to wisdom.

So if you are wondering where I stand with my faith after reading this… well, it is strong – but you should stop worrying about me and worry about the theologians who give Christians permission to judge and disrupt the loving conversation Jesus called us to.

31 thoughts on “When Theologians Get it So Wrong

  1. I think the term “theologian” gets a lot of bad press for the work of a very few of its membership. In fact, the type a theologian you are talking about – narrowminded, mean-spirited, certain they are right – probably comes from a particular constituency. Most theological work – as with most study – opens a person up to the realisation that God transcends their categories. Indeed, most theological teaching involves opening rather than closing people’s minds. Given that there are so many criticisms of theology from so many angles – e.g. theology kills the spirit, theologians deal in the abstract and not the real world – I think some defence of the discipline is in order.

    Now, in terms of the issue that sparked the blog, I think you should name the person and identify the issue. while I would certainly agree that speculation as to the nature of heaven (and hell) should be held loosely, you might be interested to hear about Amos Yong’s reflection about image of God to in people with a disability – and what that might mean for the future. The difficulty, of course, is that disability is not one thing, but a label that refers to many things. In Amos’ case, he is working with the down syndrome of his brother, and he makes the point that the disability is so much a part of his identity/person that to envisage him without it makes no sense. He also wants to recognise that his brother is fully in the image of God as the person with down syndrome, and then speculates (and he admits as much) that something of the down syndrome will carry through to the future. He bounces out of the image of Jesus who retains his nail scarred hands and feet, and imagines a future for his brother where his identity as a person with down syndrome continues, even as he is freed from the physical and intellectual negatives that went with the condition.

    The point is not really to presume to know the future, but to make a very important point about the present – about the value and worth of his brother. As another (evil) theologian has noted (Jurgen Moltmann), eschatology (theology about the future) is never really about the future – it’s not about the details of the return of Christ or speculation about the Antichrist. Rather, it’s about hope, which is something we experience in the present. We look to the future, where there is no more crying, and morning, and pain, and that inspires hope – which transforms our present. Amos Yong looks to the future of his brother, and still sees all the wonderful things about his brother that are connected to his disability, and he also sees the hardship as being wiped away, and this paradoxical continuity/discontinuity gives him and his family hope and joy in the ups and downs of life.

    It’s not my place to transpose that thought into your situation with sunny, or even to guess as to whether it is relevant. I also recognise that there is some conditions that need more reversal than others. I certainly could do without any remnant of SCI in heaven (presuming it exists and that I get there). But perhaps I might retain some of the lessons learned (as you once said in an email to me).

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    • Hey Shane, Thanks for the comment. I intend to respond but to make sure I respect the effort you went to, I am going to chunk through your comments when I get a few minutes. Appreciate theologians can get lumped in the bad bag, I know many good ones (like yourself) maybe I didn’t emphasis that up front strong enough. Will write soon. Jay

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      • Hi Jay and Shane
        I hear a lot about Jesus scars being a clue to disability remaining in some form in heaven but nobody ever mentions what the bible specifies with regards to Jesus scars – that they will look upon the one they have pierced – and believe just like Thomas did when he saw Jesus scars
        I hardly feel that God is going to use Luke’s disability to convince people to believe in Luke so I just don’t get the thinking behind the use of Jesus scars being linked to the topic of disability
        I know I’m risking being black and white on what the bible says but I think we read a lot into Jesus still having his scars when we speak in terms of the general resurrection – If all the crucified people are raised with their scars how will we know which one is Jesus??? I know that sounds really stupid but its worth a fleeting thought surely!
        Cheers
        Cheryl Sullivan

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      • Wow I really shouldn’t use my iPhone to respond! I hope you understood what I meant Shane. Thunder thumbs!
        Also Cheryl, Give me a little time to respond to you, you make some excellent points and I can hear it is from the heart.

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    • Hey Shane & Cheryl, excuse me addressing you both in this response, the more I wrote the more I realised how mindful I was of both your comments.

      Yes you are right, the term “theologian” gets some bad press. The truth is most of my friends who practice this discipline are some of the most humble people I know. So let me clear that up, I am only referring to some acknowledging the unhelpful influence those “some” still have.

      The point of my blog was to highlight theologians are just people with flaws and bias. That is why there are many varying opinions between different pockets of Christendom. It is not too different to a doctor who has 1000’s of years of science behind his discipline but may still have a different diagnosis to another doctor – hence the term “get a second opinion”! Theologians practice the art of learning, and in the same way, the audience needs to practice the art of listening not just absorbing.

      As for the examples I use in this “blob”(disability in heaven and the pop theologian) I just don’t see the sense in naming and shaming. I would rather write to my audience encouraging them to process with a more savvy and realistic view than pinning their thoughts on someone’s vacillations sending them spiraling downwards. I don’t have the skill to climb Mount Everest and use my negligible theology skills to present a case that your peers would take seriously.

      I have read some of Amos Youngs views. As much as I admire the content I can’t help but wonder if the subject has got traction because individuals find it difficult to live with the unknown. What I mean by that is the theory attempts to put reason behind what is in my opinion, a mystery. I think (I am now in territory I shouldn’t be in) likening the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet to the possibility of people carrying their disability into heaven is a big stretch. It seems, at least on the surface, an attempt to see purpose in disability. I just don’t buy that. If you have a disability it is a bloody bugger. As I have written about extensively, beauty comes from disability but I would give Jesus the credit for that as he tries to turn the war around (bring the kingdom). I don’t think Jesus creates the war through disability and then celebrates it by introducing it into heaven. I find it hard to believe that God strategically uses disability to do his work, rather, he responds to the evil of disability by turning it to good.

      In regards to Kingdom Theology, my view is healings that Jesus did were to demonstrate what it looks like when heaven comes to earth and to plant seeds of hope and that is why we only see it occasionally to remind us – I don’t think healing is a right or on tap as some theologians would suggest. I am guessing when Jesus healed somebody he did it properly and completely to reflect the kingdom coming to earth.

      For me Sunny is complete but that is because I love her but I am not blind to the grief she and I will continue to share – that is what I call “the great contradiction”. That is an unsophisticated comment I know, but if heaven does exist and I have the chance of being a part of it with Sunny, then heaven will be having a conversation with her and watching her ride a bike (which neither things she can do). A theologian who hypothesizes that someone with a disability wants to continue living with it, isn’t from my tribe – they are more alien like! There is a chasm of difference between a person that lives with impairment who has done the internal work to be content in this life and someone who believes their disability is part of them.

      Yes, I still think that the lessons learned here on earth will serve the general wisdom in heaven. Shane and Cheryl, your journey may just make you the two wisest people in eternity!

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  2. Jay,
    Great words. I tend to agree with you especially about the “when bad things happen” response. There are NO reasons or direct correlations that can always apply. What I have found is that circumstances , good and bad, happen to everyone. If people have an authentic relationship with God, they perceive their circumstances through a different filter. If we can point people toward their own relationship with God in the midst of our circumstances, I believe God is genuinely pleased with us. I believe God is more concerned that we are seeking (Him) in our present than trying to establish universal principles that “everyone” need to accept. (my theology)
    Praying that the Spirit of God engulfs your lives, with his comfort.
    JOEL

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      • Jay, Evan has indeed had some amazing experiences and opportunities. That is for sure.
        As I have read this blog and your responses, I resonate strongly with your theology . I have had thoughts recently, that common man theology, is going to be the reformation of the Church. What that looks like to me , and I wish I had the courage to start, is a new church called “The Church of becoming like Jesus”. My personal theology leads me to believe that is what God singularly, desires. Us , individually, learning from Jesus to become like Jesus. Personally interacting with God to express the Spirit of God , the intentions, the desires, the willing, of God in our everyday lives. With whomever we encounter or whomever we sense God is asking us to engage with. Pure and simple, it is each of us , cooperating with God, in a intimate , authentic , interaction.
        You my friend are doing that with God every moment, every day. I admire you and Helena for the diligence and patience with which you have allowed yourselves to be the expression of God’s heart. It may be your highest calling. You are the Apostles of “The Church of Becoming like Jesus”

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      • Hey Joel,
        Wow…you took the words from my mouth. I agree that church will has to look radically different in the future. Your phrase “common man theology” rings so true with me.
        Thank you for your beautiful words encouraging Helena and I. I deeply appreciate it. If I could have my time back at Willow again I would have loved to hang with you more. Take care.

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  3. Pingback: Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong” | Shane Clifton

  4. Hi Jay
    That’s such a perceptive summary of what happened to me the day I read that blog post – I spiralled down – that was a real challenge to me to hold onto my hope for a disability free heaven – and when I recognised what was happening to me I just starting hanging on to my hope all the more!

    I thought it wise not to burden my friends with the postulations regarding the projection of disability into eternity because I cant see any credible biblical evidence for it and I can see credible biblical evidence to say it isnt so – Matthew has a lovely summary of Jesus healing ministry in chapter 8:1-17 for example.

    i think Jesus scars have deep meaning becsuse they are filled with meaning in salvation history and I’d rather accept his gracious sacrifice on our behalf as a separate blessing and draw strength from thst truth and then deal with what is – a “bloody bugger” here and now without attaching any more spiritual meaning or motive to disability in the process.

    It could be argued that to assign Jesus’ scars with meaning other than that attributed to them in Isaiah and Matthew is to claim some salvific role for disabled humans or equally one could argue that the scars of Jesus’ sacrifice are being seen to be insufficient in some way as the evidence of Matthew 8 covers a multitude of disabilities all with the same outcome – complete healing and restoration to full health or function

    I’m sure it would be repugnant to all Christians disabled and abled to detract from Jesus’ saving work but this seems to me to be the logical outcome of this kind of postulation. Another point to make in all this is to that the greek word
    for save means to forgive and to heal – and this sums up the suffering servant ministry in Isaiah 53 that Matthew so elegantly summarises from the real time experiences of healing that were as you say ” the breaking in of the Kingdom” in power – resulting in faith and hope for a future free of disability including our release from our fallen nature which I long for with every bit as much passion as I do to hear Luke worship his creator in his own words. What a joy to think of being in that great city forgiven and healed – I’m sure there will be a garden in that great city of God – with Roses to tend and crops to tend – I’m looking forward to a great banquet where Luke can eat his food without my help and give thanks for it in his own words.

    I love this observation of Moses life and after death experiences. Once forbidden to enter the promised land because of the disobedience of hitting the rock (instead of speaking to the rock as instructed) Moses dies in the wilderness and is buried somewhere outside the promised land -then after Christ’s incarnation Moses is again seen alive but this time he had been allowed entry into the promised land (on the Mount of Transfiguration) and is speaking to Jesus (The Rock) just as he was once told to do – as Jesus prepares to lay down his life once for all for our redemption.

    Moses experience is a picture of this redemption as his mistake was forgiven, his status reinstated and his locale redeemed – where he had been excluded in life he was no longer excluded in glory – his mistake was not constituent to his being, rather his experience was transformed in keeping with the will of God for his life and the timing was very significant.

    Although his speech impediment was reported widely in his earthly life there is no mention of it in the gospel accounts not that we can make an argument from silence but if the rest was restored reinstated and redeemed why not his disability as well???
    Cheers,
    Cheryl

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  5. Hi Jay
    I’m hanging up my fighting gloves over this one now because it’s not doing me any good to keep fighting back against the pain this theological debate has caused me. Thanks for your insight – it’s really helped me see that loving Jesus, Luke, and my family and friends is what matters most – I gotta get of my high horse now cause I’m in danger of getting obsessed with this topic cos it upsets me so much. Cheers, Cheryl

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    • Cheryl, I completely understand. My counsellor once gave me the simplest and most profound advice. Live life on your own terms – no one else is living your life. Your conviction will serve you well and honestly…who cares what other people think! I know who the hero’s will be in the end, people like yourself who have loved through pain, tiredness and contradiction. Great idea to unhook from this conversation but know you are one special lady who has the courage of a lion. Looking forward to hanging again sometime.

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  6. I’m about to reply in detail on my own blog, but just Wanna make one or two comments here. From my perspective, this is not a debate or a fight, but a conversation. If it has been taken as such, then my apologies.

    Second, in response to Joel,I’d like to continue to defend the role of the theologian in the community of faith. There is talk about “common man” theology (the feminist in me says “common person” theology), and I totally agree that everyone is a theologian – that God communicates to every person and the theologian has no exclusive say about the nature of God. Yet, the theologian has a part to play. Christian faith is grounded in history – in the historic person of Jesus and the a Bible written in a different language at a different time and place, the meaning of which has been handed down over centuries. it also needs to respond to the scientific and philosophic questions of the present day. There is a place, then, for expertise in contributing to contemporary discussions. Now, this doesn’t mean the theologian is always right, and the common person wrong. Jay has no doubt an insight that no theologian can or should reject or dispute. But if the theologian has spent a decade of their life studying these issues, then they might also have a perspective that can add further insight to the discussion. if I was to use the analogy of the musician, I might say that every person has insight about the power of music, and their own right to say what they like and don’t like et cetera. But the musician, who has invested their life into making and studying music, can add to all of our thinking about the topic. That doesn’t mean that the expert musician’s musical preferences are superior than that of the amateur. In fact, the latter might well be the case. we can still learn something from them, nonetheless.

    from my perspective, Then, all I’m trying to do is add to the conversation by bringing in the perspective of a person like Amos Yong. If it turns out that I’ve managed to offend people in the process, then my purpose has been utterly undone.

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    • Hi Shane,

      I feel personally that I went to war over this not that anyone was presenting this as a fight – I was just acknowledging the fact (and putting it out there) that I don’t have any emotional neutrality on this issue, and because of this I had for my emotional well being removed myself from the conversation. I only come back in because I don’t want you to feel in any way that you have upset me. I was extremely upset before you posted anything so you are not to blame in any way!

      I agree with you that a theologian who has studied for 10 years is entitled to a voice but unfortunately in this particular instance this is not the case – in fact the theologian that began the initial conversation has only been introduced to this thinking relatively recently – and is using his status as a theologian to give credence to his case

      In my opinion it is dishonest to use ones position to act like you have expertise in an area that is a recent avenue of thought.

      I have taken exception to his biased presentation and unhelpful speculation but mostly I have taken exception to my sons life as a person with a severe disability being summarised as his “having a blight on his life.” And then his advocating that some of the endearing features of disability may remain in Heaven – and holding up para Olympians as examples of the “successful” disabled, or sections of the deaf community who have feel they have a better sense of community amongst themselves without hearing aids or cochlea implants – then the autistic community are mentioned but only the mild to moderately affected have any chance of feeling included in this original blog post and I feel discriminated against because my son will never work, care for himself, and unfortunately can’t defend himself in his own words either because he is nonverbal. Where does a mother go when those around her who are trying to create a society with more inclusive attitudes towards people with disabilities discriminate through their bias towards success stories leaving her feeling that get son doesn’t even make the grade in the advocacy stakes. God help me – because friends like this theologian aren’t advocating very well for my son and by extension for me either.
      Cheers,
      Cheryl

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      • dear Cheryl, thanks for the re-joining the conversation. I certainly appreciate how hurtful theory can be when it’s disconnected from experience – and worse, when it is alienating and hurtful.I greatly admire parents such as yourself, who give so much to their children and who feel the anxiety of their hurt. Perhaps, in time, you’ll get the opportunity to help open the eyes of the theologian in question. All of us can learn from the experience of others. Best wishes, Shane

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  7. Pingback: Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong” part 2 | Shane Clifton

  8. Hi jay,
    So much I want to say!
    Firstly, I think I know the blog you referred to, on which I commented. Hoping i’m not in the pious reader category but if I was, please tell me.
    I agree with Shane that theology often gets a bad wrap, partly because of its perceived narrow-mindedness, and also because of it’s abstract academic writing that doesn’t make sense. Just yesterday I posted the following status update on facebook: I would like to request that academic theologians formulate articles without having to use complex sentence structures, ridiculously lengthy words that necessitate the use of several dictionaries, and the need to read the article several times before one acquires an understanding of the nature of the content being discussed.
    In other words, please write in normal English as it would make our lives much easier.
    People complain that theology is misunderstood and viewed negatively… hmmm, I wonder wy? Even as someone who wants to study theology I’m still struggling!
    Looking forward to handing in my last assessment and being able to read something that requires no brain effort.
    In the meantime, back to the theological journals I go.
    here endeth my rant.
    Blessings,
    Lauren

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  9. I came across your blog today for the first time and spent several hours reading…I enjoy your style and manner of expression…it’s fresh, it’s very humorous in places, it’s authentic. I appreciate and admire it b/c I’ve had such a problem expressing authentically. Much later today, I was watching Prophet Kim Clement’s internet stream. I thought of you as I was watching. I don’t know if you are familiar with Kim, but he and his wife, Jane, were born and raised in South Africa. Their ministry supports Shalva in Israel…Shalva assists special needs children. Hannah Snoots, one of Kim’s Team members (the blonde singer), has a special needs daughter, Emma. Kim and Jane have adopted 4 special needs children from China in the past couple of years. (They have 5 children that were born to them, too.) Their son, Matt Yong, (6) just recently joined their family. A team of doctors are on board to treat a large non-cancerous tumor on his face. You may already be aware of Kim, but if not, you might check out his website. I think it’s kimclement.tv. I don’t know either of you personally, but you seem like you could be cousins, if not brothers…(which you are by way of Jesus Christ)…but, if I may be so bold, from my vantage point at the moment, it seems like your paths should cross. (I could be totally off, but thot I would voice it and let you decide.)

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    • Hi Gail,
      What a delightful comment – thank you. I will certainly look up Kim, it always good to find other travellers that are like minded. Appreciate the encouragement. Have a wonderful Christmas.

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