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, July 03, 2017

Just a bit of theology


He wasn't, you might say, thinking straight. He was foggy, even becoming a shade paranoid. 

Three times he complained about the nurses, not that they did anything wrong but that they were going to be unavailable yesterday, at least not as available if he needed them as he thought they should be. Why? Because it was Sunday, the Sabbath. We let him know that there were plenty of nurses and aides around, and that if he'd hit the red button, someone would be there quickly. But he insisted that we were wrong because it was Sunday. 

Sabbitarianism was an earmark of the faith he grew up close to a century ago now--and the faith I grew up with. Sabbitarianism is rapidly disappearing. Yesterday, my granddaughter left Sunday dinner early to lifeguard at the pool. Still, yesterday Dad was insistent. The nurses weren't working. It was Sunday.

Born and reared the way I was, I am likely more of a theologian than many are. I don't pour over journals but I do subscribe to magazines whose readers are theologians and pastors. For me at least, theology comes a heritage.

In the latest Christian Century, Amy Plantinga Pauw introduces the theology of Kathryn Tanner, who teaches at Yale. Pauw's summary of Tanner's work isn't particularly easy reading, but at least part of Tanner's contribution, as I gather it, is the manner by which it looks at human agency in the process of redemption. 

One of the most profoundly unanswerable theological questions--or so it seems to this Calvinist--is just exactly how much free will do we have in the presence of an omniscient, all-powerful God. If God is the author of salvation, just exactly what role do we play? 

Or think of it this way: to what extent are we responsible for our sin when God is the creator of all things? Such difficult questions have fractured Christians for centuries. If I'm reading all of this correctly, then Professor Tanner, who has a wide following among real contemporary theologians, answers that question with a both/and construction. She'd like us to do away with an old argument that somehow sees an equation as the answer to that question: "we do this, he does that."

When Jesus told Peter that by the time the rooster crowed three times, Peter would thrice deny him, did God, in Christ, thereby take away Peter's human agency? Did Christ's words force Peter to do what he did? 

Tanner's theology, Pauw says, is "non-competitive." It doesn't deal in debts and payments but rejects those old financial metaphors. It stresses instead "God as gift-giver," God as the source of our salvation, even though we may not be aware of his grace working in us. Rahab was, after all, a believer before she knew she was. 

I don't claim to understand all of this fully, and my theological impulses don't run deep. I'm interested, but not about to invest in any serious study.

Those who question Professor Tanner's work do so because it says very little about the church as agent in the salvation story. The transactions carried out in our our salvation happen to us through Him and by Him, she says. But when she does, the pattern appears to leave the church quite evidently out of the mix. If she's right, there really is no substantial role for the church at all--at least that's what some nay-sayers claim.

But if that's true, if the church's place is negligible, then Tanner's theology of real interest to our time really, don't you think? When my father-in-law was a boy--and when I was a boy--the church and its reach into our lives mattered far more to my people than did the state's role. After a communion Sunday like yesterday, my father--and the whole church eldership--used to meet to go over who was and wasn't in attendance.  

That's done. Over. There may well be some fellowships that still insist on dictating how its members live--whether its members can lifeguard on the Sabbath or not--but those fellowships are small and often dreadfully cult-like. Today, in many ways, the church as a force in people's lives is in decline--not just ours either. Most Protestant and Catholics my age remember a church far more vigilant about the behavior of its parishioners.

Does theology like that done by Kathryn Teller--if I have it right!--create that kind of decline or does it merely reflect it?

That too is an interesting and equally unanswerable question.

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