I recently had to perform a diagnostic on my racionator (i.e. that part of me that thinks and draws “logical” conclusions). I had picked up a journal article and was just starting to get a feel for the author’s thinking when he revealed that he would be critiquing the position of someone I really don’t like that much. He bugs me. He doesn’t bug me in the same way that Paul Tillich does. I’ve never met Paul Tillich (mostly because he died before I was born), so Tillich doesn’t bug me on a personal level. I just don’t care for his particular approach to pretty much everything. (That’s not entirely fair given that he bugs me so much that I haven’t read enough of what he’s written to know if he really should bug me as much as he does.) But, this guy’s not like that. I don’t have a theological problem with him. And, he doesn’t even bug me in the same way as that jerk in Barnes and Noble who keeps jabbering on his cell phone while I’m trying to enjoy a nice cup of coffee and sponge some free reading from the magazine section. He’s not rude or anything. No, for some reason I just don’t like this guy. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s still there.
So, as soon as I saw his name in this journal article, I immediately found myself gravitating toward the conclusion that his position (whatever it is) must be wrong. It was fascinating. It’s like a found myself on that slippery slope everyone keeps worrying about, inevitably sliding toward the conclusion that this guy just has to be wrong. Please, oh please, let him be wrong.
Then I came face-to-face with how easy it is to oppose someone just because you don’t like them. Often it is someone you don’t like for theological reasons. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve found students unfairly criticizing someone who is in a different theological camp than they are. They’re more than willing to be fair and give the “benefit of the doubt” to people on their side of the fence. But those other guys, forget it. They’re definitely wrong. Other times you might not like someone for more personal reasons. Was Luther an anti-Semite? That’s a question for another post. But, if he was, would that impact how you assess other aspects of his theology? Could Terry Jones be right on something other than whether we should threaten to burn the Qur’an? Probably not, but it’s at least worth considering. Because, of course, the fact that I don’t like what you have to say about X – or even the fact that you are just flat wrong about X, which is basically the same thing – does not necessarily have any bearing on what I should think about your opinion of Y. If Y is a separate issue, then Y has to be evaluated separately. Even if I don’t like you. That is inherent in the task of good academic discourse.
So, was he wrong? Do I get to bask in the joy of knowing that someone I don’t like was wrong yet again? I don’t know. I haven’t finished reading the article yet. I stopped to write this post.
(By the way, this doesn’t hold when I’m grading papers. It’s perfectly okay for me to grade you down on a paper just because I don’t like you. I do it all the time. That’s one of the privileges that comes from being on this side of the desk. That and not having to play the “What does this essay question even mean?” game anymore.)
According to Tillich, the task of theology is to correlate the great questions of any age with the answers provided by the Christian faith. I recently ran across an article at the Guardian that exemplified this approach. According to the author,
Theology is at its best when it works in a triangular relationship with scripture, creation and culture, continuously asking how the texts and traditions of the Christian faith are to be interpreted in the light of the questions of our time.
Bonhoeffer takes a very different approach and offers and important warning about the danger of trying to engage the world through the questions people are asking. There is a role for this, but it has the undeniable drawback of making theological dialog entirely self-centered and limiting the Gospel only to the questions that people are actually asking, or that you can convince them they should be asking. As Bonhoeffer says here, God then becomes the deus ex machina who rescues us by addressing our felt needs.
God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age…and…since Kant he has been releaged to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has…accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. So if anyone has no such difficulties, or if he refuses to go into these things, to allow others to pity him, then either he cannot be open to God; or else he must be shown that he is, in fact, deeply involved in such problems, needs, and conflicts, without admitting or knowing it. If that can be done – and existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy have worked out some quite ingenious methods in that direction – then this man can now be claimed for God, and methodism can celebrate its triumph. But if he cannot be brought to see and admit that his hapiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits’ end. It’s a case of having to do either with a hardened sinner of a particularly ugly type, or with a man of ‘bourgeois complacency’, and the one is as far from salvation as the other.
Bonhoeffer concludes this section by arguing that we shouldn’t make our own questions, frustrations, and brokenness the focus of our theological engagement with the world.
You see, that is the attitude that I am contending against. When Jesus blessed sinners, they were real sinners, but Jesus did not make everyone a sinner first. He called them away from their sin, not into their sin. (Letters & Papers from Prison, p. 341)
Instead, we should call people to focus on Jesus himself. In this way we will point people to the one who is not deus ex machina, but just deus.