What is your theology?
People have asked me that question in various ways over the years, in many different communities, and for more than one reason. Eventually, I started responding with some version of “it depends”—on the daily news, my mood, or what the lectionary appoints from the Bible for the coming Sunday.
I don’t mean to be dismissive of the question, but I am increasingly skeptical of providing an adequate answer. Or rather, the kind of answer modern Western sensibilities recognize as sufficient. Holy Week quite naturally provokes the question in all sorts of ways, entangling so many of us not only in liturgical complexities but prickly and often unwieldy theologies.
I have always loved Holy Saturday for the respite it offers in this holiest of weeks, not only from liturgical fussing but also the theological wrangling that sends me grasping after theories to explain what cannot even be named. It has been occurring to me recently to take this quiet day as an opportunity to review the systems and doctrines I’ve inherited and studied, the theological ideas that have both vexed and inspired me, and then just bury it—all of it.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, for example, I live some of my days as a Johannine Christian, relishing the Beethoven-like thickness of the phrases in John’s account of the Gospel. Not only thick but also obtuse, such as the image of Jesus as both shepherd and sheep-gate (10:7-9; 10:11-14), or more unnervingly as a serpent on a cross (3:14).
On more spritely days, with energy running high and wanting just to get on with the work at hand, I embrace a more Markan Christianity. The shortest and bare-bones account of the Gospel rarely pauses for reflection—“immediately” is Mark’s favorite word, and he concludes his account with women running away in fear.
When my gay self feels a bit queer around the edges, I’m oddly grateful for Paul’s letter to the Romans where he describes God’s inclusion of Gentiles in the Church as an “unnatural act” (11:24). If God can act contrary to nature, then surely I can? Or maybe nature itself is just much queerer than most of us can imagine, as Paul himself describes a universe filled with earthly bodies and heavenly bodies and angelic glories, all of it contained in a bare seed that is sown in the earth (1 Cor. 15:35-41).
How tempting (nearly irresistibly so) to suppose that we must choose which of all the biblical options is the “correct” one. But when I do resist that urge and take this rich panoply of biblical tropes into the history of theology’s development, I find myself not unlike a fickle lover, enamored by Dionysian ecstatic mysticism in the morning and turning fondly toward Augustine’s self-excoriating disciplines by noon.
So much of this, I have come to realize, depends on exactly what kind of question I’m asking, which is often not entirely apparent. To the standard Evangelical question—are you saved?—I must at first respond, from what? And then eventually, for what? And of course, how? Holy Week gathers all these questions, and more, those countless and often repetitive inquires that have been building all year long and stacks them, one on top of the other, a virtual mosh pit of symbols and rites.
In a society of increasing isolation and fragmentation, and having recently lived through the severe touch deprivation of a global pandemic, having one’s feet tenderly touched and washed on Maundy Thursday can feel salvific. I pause there gratefully, but then realize that the Cross still matters to me, or perhaps that it should matter to me more “salvifically” than it usually does.
I recall Rowan Williams’ arresting insight about the cross in his interpretation of the resurrection narratives: “salvation comes from our victims.” I began to grasp his meaning far better by reading M. Shawn Copeland’s racial analysis of it and her heart-stopping image of what the Gospel demands from us. She interrupts my romanticized images of table fellowship with the Gospel call to orient ourselves “before the lynched Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.”
That sentence cannot mean the same thing to me and in the same way it does to Black Americans in this white supremacist society. That’s why Copeland resists making the cross our saving symbol but insists that we cannot be saved without it, precisely because the whole arc of betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection demands from all of us the kind of life that reflects the deepest possible arc of solidarity with the poor and outcast.
Old ways of living—the ways of violence and violation—those ways must die with Christ in order for any of us to be raised with Christ to new life. This, Copeland says, is the “divine praxis of solidarity” that offers a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self— salvation, in other words.
All of this (and more) swirls around all the ritual complexities of the week we have just traveled together as Christians, and on this Holy Saturday I cannot help but consider whether theology itself needs to die with Christ as well.
As Meister Eckhart, the great Dominican mystic of the thirteenth century once uttered, “I pray God to rid me of God.” After all, even the word “God” can only point to what none of us can ever fully comprehend; and it can easily get in the way of actually encountering what it so feebly evokes.
I don’t mean our thinking and speaking make no difference, or that our theological ideas have no consequences. To the contrary, the stakes are high in what we say and do—bad theology kills (as the contemporary aphorism urges us to note); and this, too: good theology brings life.
Yes, and still, as John’s Jesus reminds us, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” How could this not apply to our theologies as surely as it does to our own bodies?
So perhaps as gently and respectfully as we can, it’s time to bury our theology with all the nails that keep tidy systems pinned to institutional walls and let our wounds breathe some fresh air.
I need to bury much of my own theology, even the most cherished bits, the ones that “make sense” and feel cozy, those beloved propositions and religiously fine-tuned mechanisms; without my realizing it, they’re blocking my path.
Perhaps this could be a shared Holy Saturday exhortation: Bury your theology, and then let it rise with Jesus, unrecognizable but strangely alluring, oddly familiar but fresh and new.