NuDunkers are gearing up for another conversation, this time about how Church of the Brethren folk do our God-talk. The brothers and sister who have so far commented on this have written beautiful and impassioned and historical statements about the Church of the Brethren’s mode of doing most of our God-talk and God-knowing with our bodies — through our service, our witness, our rituals. There are solid historical and theological (and even cultural) reasons for this, many of which are explored in other places and more of which will be explored in the conversation on Thursday (more information here about how to be involved).
This aspect of our tradition is one of my very favorites — we know our theology in our bones before we can articulate it (and in ways we could never articulate). Because of our depth of practice, our theology springs forth like streams of living water from within our common experience.
And yet… I want to provide “the other side,” perhaps more of a vision and hope than a description of what currently is. In the Church of the Brethren, I believe we are now being called to do more thinking, writing, and speaking of our God-talk. I believe that (as evidenced by the NuDunker conversations themselves) God is inspiring in Church of the Brethren members a move toward being able to articulate our beloved traditions in service to the denomination and broader church.
May it never be that we replace our practices with theologizing. May it never be that we flatten our rituals by explaining the life out of them. May it never be that God-talk becomes something that some people do and others do not, rather than being shared by all. And, God help us, may our theology never keep us from loving or being fully in the world, from encountering the mystery of God and the beauty of the daily.
But my experience is that, far from shutting down mystery, beauty, ritual, and discipleship, God-talk that follows joy and awe continually finds itself opening and stretching toward God.
People from the outside are increasingly looking to this ritually-rich tradition, and first we must say “come and see!” but we must also be ready to account for the hope that is within us — ready to uncover together the stirrings of mind (as well as heart, soul, and strength) that are present within the tradition and to seek together the Spirit’s “new thing” among us.
If we are in danger of losing our ritual, it is at least in part because we have not done the theological dance of interpretation that can be an opening for the Spirit to breathe new life into the church. I hear often that study easily becomes stale and keeps us from moving forward. This can be true, certainly of study that is disconnected from devotion and life. But equally, brothers and sisters, practice that is done “just because we do it” can become stale and can keep us from moving forward. Who among us has not heard a brother or sister say “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as a way of closing a door on new possibilities?
Theology and practice are inextricably linked, and either one becomes anemic without the other.
To most of the broader church I would say, put down your theology texts for a while and just live into the ritual and communal life. Let your body do your thinking for a while — seek to experience faith like a master carpenter knows the wood, like music lives in the body of a passionate pianist.
To the Church of the Brethren I say, let’s talk about what’s meaningful to us in what we do. Let’s think about where and how God is in our midst in and through our practices. And, more than that, let’s open a little more room to experience study, learning, and God-talk as devotion and as a dance with mystery.
I read a quote this week that resonated deeply with me — from Serena Jones (a systematic and constructive theologian) a description of how she senses her work in theology in relation to faith:
“In those moments when I am most thoroughly immersed in teaching such things, it feels more like I’m dancing or story-telling or even playing a vigorous game of soccer or poker than engaging in something disembodied and abstract. What is very clear to me, in the midst of it all, is that doing systematic theology is itself a practice — a form of engaged knowing, a disciplined habit of body and mind, a patterned action, a way of embracing the world that is as embodied and ritualized and traditioned and improvisational as any of the other forms of ‘practical know-how’ more typically associated with practical theology.” (For Life Abundant, eds. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass)
We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to gather the gifts of the people of God, affirming the worth of all members of the body and encouraging the gifts of all members for the building up of the body. To marginalize a study or articulation of theology, in my mind, can easily perpetuate the same excess (just in the other direction) as ivory tower elitists marginalizing congregational practice.
In truth, all our seeking to know God, all our devotion, all our lives and practices can be caught up in the divine dance of the Trinity. By the grace of God and with the use of the very best of our gifts, this, over all, is what we should seek and continually open ourselves toward experiencing.