You see, I have this “originality complex” which has haunted since the very beginning of my academic life. I am obsessed with creating things wholly and completely on my own. If I come to a Christological conclusion having read nothing more than the Bible, and then find it better articulated in a theological journal, my new-found understanding seems cheapened.
At the same time, it is only by interacting with theology through the ages that I have come to my conclusions. While an evident Catch-22, this forces me to temper my need for ultimate creative authority and offer some gratitude to those who have come before me with radical and life-changing theologies.
This is, in some form, a disclaimer to what I am about to express. The theologies that I have developed come not from intellectual pursuit of Christ and God, but from experience which weighs on the heart and spirit. I do not mean to say these ideas are devoid of intellectual substance, but that they rest primarily on what I deem the primary life-giving entities within a human person—the heart and spirit.
And so, through experience of life and relationship with God and others, I have come to these understandings:
First, that our rough dichotomy of heaven/hell is as juvenile as it is manipulative. If the Lutheran teaching is true (and I believe it is), there is hardly a reason to suggest that a creation full of saved souls would have any material for hell. It strikes me further that the black and white nature of heaven and hell is so simplistic—even by human logic—that it fails to come remotely close to the will and personhood of God. These are human constructions and experience speaks to me in other ways. Mostly, it tells me there is a heaven of sorts (though not a physical place), and hell might just as well be a fairy tale.
Second, that genuine confession comes only through direct revelation with God. That is to say, the office of the priesthood does us a good deed by forcing us to be vulnerable in revealing our sins, but the sacrament of confession is not about humiliation or bringing low. Quite the opposite, it is about the reaffirmation of redemption and wholeness in the face of human weakness. That surety can only be confirmed by God, and no man or woman—whatever ordained office they hold—can act as the gate-keeper to forgiveness.
Third, that ecumenism is not an idealistic pursuit of new-age Christians, but the responsibility of all. I once used the word “ecumenism” in a context of multiple religions. Being quickly corrected, I have come to learn that the popular usage refers only to the cooperation and fellowship of Christian denominations and communities. But I have every intention of re-appropriating the word. After all, its Greek roots (“οἰκουμένη,” meaning “the whole inhabited world”) speaks to more than just Christianity. I believe it is incumbent upon Christians—as it is upon those in other traditions—to respect and recognize the Godhead in religious communities the world over. That is not to say, as a Christian, that I renounce Christ as the Son of God, or that I must alter my rituals in worship to appease other traditions. Quite the opposite—it is in claiming one’s own faith that honest, viable ecumenism is born. We are even told in the Bible that God has many names. Where has that understanding gone?
Fourth, that each person carries with him or her a true balance of divinity and humanness. I believe the church has often shied away from this reality, because it threatens to elevate very human persons to quasi-deities. Our obsession with power is but one reason why articulation of this truth is dangerous, but it is nonetheless a truth. As Lutherans, we say that Christ is with us and within us. This is not an exaggeration. The work of the faithful is to discern how Christ is working in us and through us and to open our hearts, spirits, and minds to the ways in which Christ may be manifest through us. This begins with knowing who and what Christ is—extending definition beyond ambiguous titles like “Son of God” and “Son of Humanity.” If God is love, and we know love in ourselves, then we know God is within us. What form does that love take? And, as Saint Paul explains so eloquently, there are other virtues that speak of God’s presence—faith, hope, joy, trust, forgiveness. How do we employ these in our daily lives? How are they a part of us?
Fifth, that as a Jew comes to understand God through the oral histories of Israel and Yahweh, and a Buddhist comes to know divinity differently through meditation, so, too, do Christians in their own flock come to know Christ differently from one another. We are not asked to know Christ the same way, but we are called to know the same Christ. There is no sin or wrongdoing in this; difference and perspective are the treasures of our human condition, and we ought to embrace them as we continue our faith journey in community, rather than force out those whose voices speak against an institutionalized God.
Sixth, that death is not to be feared because of its mystery, but embraced because of its mystery. Death is a confirmation that we are always and forever in God’s hands; though we strive to give over our lives to God in this life, we are called finally to relinquish all control in death. But the good/bad dichotomy that causes us to fear the after-life is something we have constructed to manipulate us in this life—not always for the betterment of ourselves and creation, but in service of power and prestige. We assume all things that are positive must have a negative, but why is not possible that God’s logic dictates otherwise—that death is actually a newness of life and that birth is a death to old and sinful ways?
Seventh, that because of all these things, there is not even the smallest thing to fear. Though not professed in a religious context, FDR had it right: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” When we fear things now, we fear limited and short-term consequences that matter not at all in God’s vision. And when these things slowly fall away, we find ourselves fearing nothing more than the emotion itself—a clinging to our humanness and the want for control.
Eighth, that sexuality is never and has never been a static human blessing. Just as we each come to know Christ in different ways (recognizing commonalities, of course), we see the gift of sexuality experienced uniquely in each one of us. If love is at the heart of its employment, then who can say Christ is not present there? This must be the true and firm theology of the body.
Ninth, that we cannot relieve ourselves of the responsibility inherent in our spirituality. We cannot say “spirituality is expressed differently in each person,” and use this as reason not to address it at all. Our Western mentality seems to give us reason to do so, focusing only on the earthly here and now, but Creation trumps temporal Western thought. Just as our body decays if we neglect or abuse it, so does our spirit. We are spiritual beings and as such, we will find ourselves constantly empty if we do not learn to discern where our spirit is leading us—and take the steps to follow the path.
Tenth, that our societal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, kindness, and the like should be seen not only as dictums of a government, but of a greater authority. Government is born of humanity, and humanity is not a permanent state. This is why we remind ourselves: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” This is not to cause us despair, but to bring us out from the narrowness of our human view and away from only the physical pleasures of the world. Our laws must be abided by—both civil and divine. Though I tell you now that there would not be civil law if there were not first divine law; that is to say, divine law must always come first, and it is not always apparent in the laws of government.
And finally, that abandonment of the physical for the sake of the spiritual is a waste of energy and good. Christ made us as we are, physical beings capable of much good in the physical world, and therefore, we must employ our physical blessings to the end of Creation’s betterment. But we must also recognize that the physical is never absent the spiritual. When we perform a good deed, we do so with the grace and ability of God; when we tend to the needs of the world and its people, we act in the person of Christ. Therefore, it’s time we did away with the divisions between material and spiritual. They are intertwined by the grace of God, and in such a way that makes our humanity an indescribably satisfying and loving existence.