Hanging portraits

Over the past five years as I have begun critically facing the history, beliefs, traditions, and consequences of my Christian tradition, the convictions I once held regarding many aspects of Christian theology have shifted, melted and evolved, and become something completely different than they had once been.

From my late teenage years into my early twenties, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to consume Christian doctrine in an effort to “get my theology straight.” My Christianity became a bare white wall in an old house, and “getting my theology straight” meant carefully and neatly hanging framed portraits of God, salvation, sin, humanity, Jesus, the atonement, the Spirit, and other smaller pictures surrounding those things. However, I lacked any kind of theological level which I could hold up to my wall and have a little bubble assure me that my theology was indeed “straight.” I was never a fan of systematic theologies and I didn’t quite yet grasp the ways that early creedal statements influenced and shaped Christianity. Before you say, “Well the Bible is your level,” think for a second about how many people come to differing beliefs based upon their readings of the same words. While the Bible certainly is a valuable guide, it is not the final arbiter in how we relate to God or how God reveals Godself to us.

My wife and I recently mounted some artwork on the walls of our apartment and I am keenly familiar with how difficult it is to determine if something is lined up properly and hanging straightly when your face is 10 inches away from it and you’re focusing on keeping your arms steady while pressing the frame to the dry wall. This is where it is helpful to have someone behind you. Thankfully my wife was able to take a few steps back and determine whether each piece was lined up how we wanted and hanging level on the wall. Having someone to stand behind you and measure whether or not your picture is hanging straight and looks good on the wall is really helpful. When it comes to carving out our beliefs and the ways that we attempt to make sense of Christianity, having others standing behind you to shape, critique, and challenge those beliefs is crucial because what we believe about God and the ways in which those beliefs manifest themselves outwardly through our lives are deeply connected.

Where this gets tricky is in determining who we allow to stand behind us and influence us, and also our willingness to be influenced. Our beliefs about almost anything, no matter how personal, never remain personal. They crawl out of the frames we put them in and invade other areas of our lives. They will bring us either to love others and seek their best or lead us to judge others and seek what we think is their best. Jesus calls us to the former. This operates in our relationships with the poor, those who find spiritual truth elsewhere than Christianity, the earth and the natural world, people who identify as queer and hosts of others who are not benefitted by their identity, race, class, or anatomy. Thus, when our theology is not shaped by relationships and by the real lives and experiences of real people standing behind us (or in books, newspapers, on blogs, or wherever we connect with the embodied experience), what one ends up with is . . . a wall that is really pleasing to our eyes, but that’s about it. It satisfies our compulsion to sustain certainty and to have things figured out so that we can produce answers and be comforted by them.

Jesus speaks often about how difficult life will be for people who choose to follow him. This does not simply mean that things will be difficult for us or that people who choose to follow Jesus will be ridiculed our considered irrational and idiotic. It means that attempting to imitate Jesus will threaten our sensibilities, disrupt our comfort levels and challenge us to put others before ourselves in love for our neighbors. That seriously interferes with our egos and our theology is not immune from this.

Here are some conclusions that I have come to: I’m not interested in a nice looking wall, nor is Christianity about having everything in order. In fact, I’m becoming more and more acutely aware that following Jesus makes things really complicated, difficult and disordered. I’m also acutely aware that there are no boundaries between our theological beliefs and our lives. Participating in God through Christianity is participating in an amorphous love that includes and draws all things into itself. That is a really disorienting and upside down way to live.

It’s been a while since I have been concerned about my theology getting ironed out and figuring out exactly what I believe about any particular area of doctrine. I’m more interested in how my search for God pushes me outside of myself and makes me kinder, more gracious, more inclusive, less certain about things I cannot know for sure, more willing to entertain different perspectives, and increasingly able to see God in the places and people I touch every day. I feel like I have had to unlearn more than I have learned; I’ve had to tear out and crumple up pieces of paper to throw them away and start again. What this has left me with is an increased sense of uncertainty, a tangled mess of beliefs, and a deep desire to meet God over again for the first time every day.

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1 comment
  1. Terrance Leak said:

    Thank you Pete, God is certainly that, a puzzle, ever changing, ever flowing, easy to reach sometimes yet hard to grasp… he simply asks “open your heart and I’ll show you the answer”…

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