I’m sitting in front my screen, tapping absently at the keys trying to formulate a final paper for my Lutheran Confessions course.
I have plenty of material, but I have zero impetus to engage in medieval theology anymore.
You would think a theology of grace would be liberating. But during the actual class, I found myself pulling my hair out more than I sensed grace. Christian versions of grace have been debated and framed by all flavours of Christianity since Jesus. Why am I needing to accept this version now? While Luther and Melanchthon were responding to direct powers in the Roman Catholic Church, I was frustrated with the reality that not every flavour of RCC was anti-grace.
In class, I grew frustrated quickly. Theological questions were being answered with theological answers naturally. But none of these answers were good enough for me, or have been good enough for me. None of them seem relevant or pertinent. Not just in class but for a long time. For years now, I’ve battled theology and ideology, and I haven’t been able to figure out why.
As I was walking down a country road in the woods a few days ago, a deeper truth hit me to the point where I nearly fell over: I was trying to replace one theology for another while healing from a faith shift.
No wonder I’ve been able to do little more than to argue and grow cynical.
After deep wounds, trauma, and repeated instances of broken trust, I am still not in a position to accept any new theologies (and certainly not without a battle…or fifty). Forcing myself to embrace a slightly differently nuanced theology without growing from the former theology is like trying to eat a full 10-course meal right after beginning to heal from pneumonia. All I’ll do is throw it all up, become sick and tired of the good food, and turn away from healthy theology. It’s not that it’s bad.
It’s just too soon.
Sociology, psychology, anthropology, pastoral care, spiritual direction, and intersectionality are my good and healthy theological languages presently. God is present in these spaces, I have no doubt.
I don’t need to jump on board with any theology until I sense I’m ready, if I ever am. The last thing any church needs in a pastor is someone who offers theology they struggle with but tow the line anyway. We identify with people who live in the mess and the struggle. We’ve all been given answers too quickly, too easily, or too generally. We all know what answers feel like when the words don’t actually sound like answers.
The Liturgists posted their latest podcast yesterday, Evangelical (Part I) and Evangelical (Part 2) with Matthew Vines and Jen Hatmaker. I’ve found it difficult to explain how a lifetime in evangelicalism has impacted how my own growth and understanding in Lutheran circles in the present. Unless someone has actually experienced a faith shift, it’s almost impossible to really understand all the conscious and unconscious demands for movement from one space to another, while recognizing similarities at the same time.
(For anyone experiencing such a faith shift, or anyone seeking to understand the definition I’m using, please do read Kathy Escobar’s book “Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart“)
In the podcast interview, Matthew Vines describes his experience of never really identifying as an “evangelical” until adulthood because he was never termed as such. The simple experience knocked me over. Of course! I never identified as an “evangelical” growing up. It wasn’t until well into my twenties that I began to use the term to describe the uniquely North American movement.
I was always taught that we weren’t Salvation Army or Baptist or Full Gospel or Christian and Missionary Alliance or Evangelical Free. We were “Christ-followers”. Plain and simple. It made transitioning from one evangelical church to another quite simple, and sometimes I’m unsure if lifelong members of mainline churches understand how fluid the evangelical world can be in this regard.
The name of our denominational brand meant very little in our home. And it mattered some in certain denominations, but not in the ways I’ve discovered in in mainline traditions. What mattered was our relationships with Jesus. Who cared what church we attended as long as that relationship was celebrated?
Now, that idealized notion of celebrating a relationship with the Divine was fraught with judgmentalism, legalism, and tribalism (in the sense of who was saved and who was not). However, I am deeply unsure of labelling the entire theology as “works” (as has happened on occasion in Lutheranism), and even if there were works involved, I’m strongly doubtful that it pertained to a narrow works/grace-through-faith binary. I was taught that mainline churches were all works-based, too (including Lutheranism), so stepping back and observing all traditions pointing the works-finger at each other has been fascinating at best, and troublesome at worst.
So when I’m asked about identifying as a Lutheran, I still have significant trouble. I was raised with the belief — taught as a core truth — that I worship Jesus Christ alone and no one else. I answer to Jesus, and no one else. I follow Jesus Christ, and no one else.
Lutheranism would certainly affirm all of these statements (and quickly too)! But that’s the point I’m trying to make: when someone is exiting a lifelong tradition with traumas that have cut so deeply, by jumping in to quickly to identify theologically with that person as they try to share their own lived experiences, it leads only to more confusion and anger. I might believe all those statements as a Lutheran, but if I take a breath I can remember that these statements may have played themselves out differently in the lives of an ex-evangelical. Maybe jumping in with Lutheran theology, with good intentions of clarification, doesn’t actually create clarity.
I was not raised in the Lutheran tradition — or any tradition that held on to a name — , ecclesiastically or culturally. I can’t put a bumper sticker on my life claiming to be something that I feel down that I’m not. I’m a Christ-follower and that trust defines me first and foremost. I don’t say that in a spirit of snobbery, but rather to highlight the difficulties of moving from one belief system to another. It will takes years for me to grow into accepting myself as a Lutheran. That space needs to be present for healing and for authenticity. Sometimes the expectations of the new way are high, and my expectations of myself are even higher.
Trying to see life through a Lutheran lens while still seeing life through evangelical lenses, deciding which views are healthy to keep and which are not, will be a lifelong process for me. Realizing that this process is not the sole domain of theology or tribe is liberating.
With that, I return to my “Aha!” moment: replacing an old, hurtful theology with a new theology in order to heal from the old theology is not a healthy way to continue on the faith shift road. Cognitive lessons will not answer to soul wounds.
I am far too suspicious, far too able to spot the hypocrisy in the new (to me) theology, and the redundancies. I am unable to swallow anything without difficulty. I was burdened with some horrible theologies for many years, so I’ll be darned if I let that happen again. Accepting a new theology simply based on someone’s theological assurances is NOT going to make my spiritual growth better or healthier. Trust has been smashed apart far too often and far too deeply.
To be honest, the best and most helpful responses have been when Lutherans are able to set aside that particular theological lens and ask the same questions in different words. That takes guts, rigour, and energy. But this same deep journeying is the same for us all: stepping out from behind our own lenses to try and see our worlds from the outside in is an act of courage. It’s much easier to answer people with what we know and have accepted to be true and helpful, whatever our theology or ideology.
In fact, the theological discussions only mirror the kind of evangelical apologetics I’m quite used to from childhood onwards — people defending their deepest beliefs based on their theological accuracy. Jumping onto a doctrine of grace in trying to heal from aspects of Calvinism (for example) will only obscure the tougher questions I must ask of myself:
What caused the hurt?
Who was a part of that hurt?
How did these causes impact me or my communities?
How will grow past these identities and experiences?
I’d much rather return to theology, thank you. Theological language is easily for me to learn and argue and develop conclusions from. By residing in theology, I have no need to confront what’s actually shifting inside. Remaining in the realm of theology also arms me with both a sense of power and false humility — power to expose any doctrine as false, and assurance that I’m doing so humbly. This is not a healthy space for me or anyone.
Until I dwell in the hurt with an intent to heal, theology — whosever it is — only becomes a way for me to avoid trauma and pain and rejection.
And this truth can be interpreted through Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Coptic, and the ever multi-faceted evangelical traditions.
Jesus often leaves the theological jargon behind and sits in the mess. It’s time for me to put down the books — places where I want Jesus to be — and wander over to where Jesus actually is.