Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theology is Creative Writing

Religion has two faces: a public and a private.

Private experiences are just that: experienced. A person knows he or she has had the experience, no debate. We can certainly debate the interpretation of the experience: Was it really an angel; was it really Jesus; was it really an alien abduction. Mystics, however, have long claimed that their experiences are not expressible in words. That is the private face of religious experience.

It may be irritating for theologians to dwell upon, but the zaniest self-help book, based as it is in recommending doing something that feels some way, is downright scientific compared to theology.

The public face of religion is all about words, or, if you prefer, all about symbols, of which words are one subset, and pictures, statues, and incense others. The hidebound tomes that heap up around religions are also symbol sets. Word sets. And they are creative writing.

Where, after all, is their basis? Other books. Mentors. The tradition.

But wait! Isn’t tradition based in experience? Somewhat. Just as novels do not spring full-blown from abstraction. But that’s my point: a book of theology is very much like a novel.

I have written novels. And I have tried my hand at theology. What I have come to believe is that theology may best be written as poems are written—much closer to experience.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Logic of the Materials

Think about kids toys for a moment. Not just any kids toys, but the ones you can build stuff with. Think of the different sorts of construction sets there are: LEGO, Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys. . .and on and on.

Now, consider these sets each as a specific religion. Many religions teach that only their set is valid for constructing a theology. For example, if you’re born a Southern Baptist, you must construct your theology out of, say, Lincoln Logs. Tinker Toys won’t do. Don’t even look over there at the people building with Tinker Toys. Or LEGO bricks. That won’t do. Only Lincoln Logs contain the correct—the one true way—of building.

Now imagine the Roman Catholic Church claiming the same thing about LEGO. Don’t look over there at the Erector Set.

You get the point.

(Yes, I know that analogies are dangerous, but bear with me.)

Just think about Lincoln Logs. You can build cabins and forts. You can even build, if you’re so inclined, shopping malls and airplanes and space ships. But, come down to it, no matter what you build, it’s always made of Lincoln Logs. Even the space ships you build will have a vague resemblance to log cabins.

Or take Tinker Toys. You can make great Ferris Wheels with Tinker Toys. And dogs and cats. Even shopping malls and space ships. But, at end of the day. . .everything has a certain . . .roundness to it.

Or take LEGO bricks. You can build pirate ships of LEGO. Space ships. Perhaps you’ve seen online that someone has told the story of the Bible in LEGO. Perhaps, were you persistent, you could even build a heart out of LEGO bricks. But, at the end of the day, it would still be a heart made of. . .LEGO bricks. There would be a certain. . .blockish quality to the heart.

LEGO has LEGO logic. Lincoln Logs have Lincoln Logs logic. That’s the way it works. (I do hope you’ll forgive my ignorance of contemporary toys: I was born with Eisenhower was president and my kids are grown.)

I’m not working with this metaphor to be silly. I think perhaps there’s some truth to be got at here. Yes, in a very real sense, all analogies are false analogies, since if things were truly similar, they would be the same, wouldn’t they? This analogy problem is especially tricky in the matter of the spiritual realm—analogies being often mistaken for reality. Yet I do think there is some truth to be got at here. Bear with me. . .

If we say that Roman Catholics can only play with LEGO in their theology; that Southern Baptists can only play with Lincoln Logs; that Pentecostals can only play with Erector Sets, what we’re saying is that there is an internal logic to the theologies built into the play sets. We’re saying that Roman Catholicism will always—whatever the new idea—come up with a creation, a new toy, based on its preexisting logic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Becoming the Path

Poet Keith Waldrop wrote, “This much seems obvious, that as we move along the path, slowly but certainly the path replaces us.” I’m not sure just how obvious that is, but it is perhaps true. We become what we do. And, as the old saying goes, our deeds live after us. I suppose at one level, this could be interpreted as a threat: “Oh, no! I’d better be careful what I do!” In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, however, the idea functions more as opportunity than threat. When I am gone, it is what I have done that matters. And, today, I am what I do. The path I am moving along is replacing me. It isn’t what I’m thinking but what I am doing that is slowly adding up to what I will have been. For me, anyway, that thought helps when things get murky.