Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Accidental theology

is a word I actually remember learning, although when I think about it, I suppose it's one of a score of literary terms I drummed into my head (as in "for a test") at one time or another long ago--iambic, slant rhyme, epic simile, and onomatopoetic ("the murmuring of innumerable bees"). Most of  us don't pick such things up on our own, although stranger things have happened.

It was an English lit survey course, I think, and I have in my mind an image of a courtier falling off a horse but doing it, nonetheless, with a certain amount of aplomb, because sprezzatura will forever mean, in my mind anyway, "careless grace."  

For some reason, it's a word that has stuck because I think I rather liked the idea of being, well, cool, in an understated way (which is really the only way to be cool).  The OED claims that to accomplish some task with "sprezzatura" means to do so with a kind of "studied carelessness," which (Beware! more literary terminology a'comin') seems almost oxymoronic, a word that means, I think, sort of preposterously true or unbelievably believable (kind of fun).

I thought of sprezzatura in church yesterday at the swearing in of new office-bearers, something that happens annually among my people (if I may use that phrase).  Traditionally, a form is read, sometimes painfully, a trio of specific questions are asked, at which time the newly-elected all assent to all the requirements, and the retiring men (traditionally, they're men, at least here) are thanked for their years of service.  

I don't mean to diminish the job. Being a church office-bearer can be absolutely horrible--trust me, I know; once upon a time I quit for just that reason. A little pomp and circumstance may well be in order; I'm not at all opposed to ritual, trust me.

But the duly-read form specifically refers to a full-throated acceptance of traditional Calvinist doctrine historically referred to as "The Three Forms of Unity," a trio of ancient creeds that formed a theological bottom line way back in the early 17th century in the Netherlands, a heckuva long ways from Orange City, Iowa--or maybe not so (that's a joke).

Yesterday, sprezzatura came to mind because of the sheer heft of what newly elected office-bearers swear to. I'm not casting stones here, but it's vastly easier to assent to believing that considerable body of theology than it is to read it or, certainly, to greatly understand it. For generations, we've carried "The Three Forms of Unity" out front like a battle flag to rally troops who often--and I've been one of them--haven't read all that much of them, nor understood what little of it they've been over. Even though I'm a dozen worlds away, when I hear such testifying, like yesterday, I can't help thinking of Tevya belting out his gut-level homage to "tradition."

Don't get me wrong.  Count me among those who believe that we don't know what the heck we believe anymore--we're just mighty fond of believing (you can put a smiley face in there). Count me among those who think we could all spend some time in night school reviewing what's already in the back of the hymnal. Count me among those who can even appreciate a hearty debate about the relative merits of predestination vs. free will, the classic theological face-off of the Synod of Dordt, where a ton of all this tradition originated.

In an wonderful interview in Christianity Today, Christian Wiman admitted to reading a lot of theology, then claimed "I am almost always frustrated by it."  I get that. I am too. Then, he goes on thusly:  "There is something absurd about formulating faith systematizing God." Okay, I'm guilty--I felt a little of that yesterday, even more than a little.  "I am usually more moved," Wiman says, "--and moved toward God--by what one might call accidental theology, the best of which is often art, sometimes even determinedly secular art."

That strikes me as being thoughtful--and beautiful.

"Accidental theology"--I love that. What he's talking about is pretty much what I think of when the word sprezzatura, as if out of nowhere, dances gracefully into my mind, .

"Accidental theology" claims a different kind of truth, really, human truth, the patterns by which all of us fall, not carelessly but often surprisingly, into grace. Accidental theology doesn't claim to define God--doesn't even try.  Accidental theology illustrates our humanity, which is to say our weakness, but also our striving, our aspiration, our desire to know Him and to be known, to love and to be loved.

Count me among those who would say we need two or three or four "forms of unity," a battery of formulated faith, in order to appreciate fully the sheer grace of accidental theology. It's not either/or, it's both/and. 

If I'm falling off a horse right now, listen--I hope it's till with a certain aplomb anyway, a certain grace, somewhat accidentally.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I trust the sovereignty of God is no accident.