One of the aspects of a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency that was most valuable to me was spending a year with ministers from other religious traditions, being required to have deep discussions about theology, about pastoral care, and about our life experiences. It not only helped me to broaden my own horizon, but it also allowed me to see my own spiritual development through the lenses of people of faith who believe differently than I. It meant I had to do something with my theology that we Unitarian Universalists rarely have to do… and that is explain it in detail to an audience designed to be critical. Not only did this allow me to see the rough edges of my theology, but it also inspired me to go to theological locales that I might never have wandered on my own. I hope I served the same role for my colleagues.
I remember one day, perhaps 8 months into my residency, when I was giving one of my colleagues, a pastor from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a ride to the train station. We were continuing our theological discussions on the trip, when she turned to me and shared with me one of the most amazing and transformative comments that I have ever had anyone share.
“David”, she said “I’m surprised I’m saying this, but your theology… it all hangs together.”
When I asked her what she meant, she shared that while she had not necessarily been looking for the “weaknesses” in my developing theology, what she had instead perceived in it was a remarkable consistency. While she did not agree with much of what I had come to believe, she realized that she could not easily argue with it without turning to some inherently unprovable faith statements. She even sensed some significant commonalities within our theological systems.
I’ve always had ideas about theology… and some of those ideas have even turned into beliefs. I’ve come to hold some tentative beliefs about the nature of God, about how God and humans relate to one another, about the role of Good and Evil, about the meaning of Salvation, about human purpose, and about spiritual practice. Many of these ideas have been shared here at Celestial Lands, in different articles over the years. Celestial Lands has actually been the location where I’ve worked out some of those ideas, and developed them into continually shifting beliefs (a process similar to going from a hypothesis to a theory in scientific research).
And yet, this last month my personal theological work has appeared to drop off. Sermons I have been preaching have mostly arisen from previously covered ground. I have not been using Celestial Lands to explore new topics. I have been far more focused on the ecclesiological aspects of running a medium sized church than I have the theological aspects of being human. Over the past few weeks, I have been exploring why my normally theologically prolific nature seems to have shifted. And I’ve come to a hypothesis…
I think I’ve reached the point in my theological development where I need to systematize my theology. Where I need to take the many theoretical beliefs about God, about Jesus, about Buddha, about Good and Evil, about Justice, about Compassion, about Faith, and about so much more, and not only lay them out in a sharable form, but have them in a form where I can see and develop the connections between them. I need to see the relationship between my understanding of God and my concept of Good and Evil. I need to allow my personal spiritual practice to inform how I see the teachings and ministry of such axial teachers as Jesus and Buddha. I need to explore intentionally how my theology of compassion enhances and limits my understanding of justice.
And so much more.
I need to systematize my theology because I believe I’ve reached the limit of my theological development without doing so. I need to see not only that my theology “hangs together” but to understand why. I need to build those connections in such a way as to allow others to understand them… because as a minister I do not do theology as an academic exercise, but as the primary tool of informing my ministry.
So, seeing that a systemic theology is the next step in my spiritual and religious development, I’ve been pondering how… and no matter how much I rebel against it I keep coming around to a book. I thought about making it a series of essays here on Celestial Lands, but in truth I’ve already done that. I’ve also realized the inherent silliness of trying to create a cohesive whole out of disconnected articles. The same would be true of a sermon series, adding also the complication that my ministry next year will not be primarily a preaching ministry, and just because I need to do this systemic work does not mean the congregation I serve needs to do it with me.
And so, I keep coming around to a book. I’m reminded of Ethan Allen, in his forward to his book “Reason: The Only Oracle of Man”, saying that he had written the book because he needed to write it, not because anyone else needed to read it. And he was right… almost no one else ever read it. I did, and I found it one of the most profound explorations of reasoned theology about general revelation ever written. Some parts of it are over-dense, because he was writing for his over-dense self, not for anyone else.
This summer, I will be taking my first vacation in almost 10 years. For six weeks, I will not be engaging in ministry. I will not preach, I will not teach, I will not conduct pastoral care. I will not fill the time with military chaplain training courses. I will not obsess over plans for the coming church year. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee has been clear with me on this… “Thou Shalt Not…”
And yet, I know me. I need to do something creative, something productive, or I will lose my mind. I’m just not designed to do nothing… when I move into territory of “doing nothing”, I usually find something counterproductive to do. So, I need a plan for my first ever “ministerial vacation”.
I think I’m going to make it a spiritual retreat to build the foundation for a book systematizing my theology. I’m going to take my camping equipment and find a campground where I can be in nature… and write. I’m going to sit on the beach under an umbrella… and write. I’m going to light a fire in the fireplace on my patio… and write. I’m going to sleep in, so I can stay up late… and write.
Write about the nature of God, and how that affects my understanding of humanity. Write about how my theologies of covenant and of hope inform my understanding of vision and mission in a theological movement. Write about how I believe that faith is sacred trust, and that Good and Evil have no metaphysical reality, and the dynamics of principle based human ethics… and so much more.
I don’t know if anyone will ever read it… because I’m not doing this for anyone else but myself. In fact, whenever I think about sharing my theology with anyone, a little part of me wells up inside to say “This is My Theology… Go Find Your Own!” And yet, so much of my preaching arises from my personal theology, as does my relationship with just about everyone I encounter (even if they don’t realize it). And, though Celestial Lands has always existed primarily as a tool for myself, it has also been amazing to have people engage with me through the website and in person about what I write here. So, I will have to do some thinking about what I might do with such a book when it is finished.
But, for now, it is enough to know that I need it… and that without it I think I am stuck in my own spiritual development. And, I can think of no more important way to use my first ever “ministerial vacation”.
Yours in Faith,