Theological Glass Ceiling

One month before college graduation I realized that my theological training had been futile.  I confided in one of my professors, telling him that I didn’t see what there was left to do in the field; all of the proper theology had been explored and verified, all that remained was to repackage and sell ideas previously conceived.

This may sound insane to you, because it is.  To ponder the depths of an infinite God and feel as if everything were understood is lunacy.

I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion on my own overnight, however.  A prevailing thought permeated the background of my college experience (and local churches by extension); the really good theology ended at some point in history and everything “new” was to be regarded with suspicion. One specific golden age or another had past and things were “not as they used to be.”  [This sort of thought plagues more areas of Christianity than the realms of theologians; have you ever heard someone say “all these new praise songs are not as good as the old hymns were,” or “kids aren’t as obedient as they used to be,” or “whatever happened to the good ol’ days when _____?”]

One professor even dismissed new theology right out, lamenting the fact that people simply want their “ears tickled.”

John Calvin
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Whether Paul, Athanasius, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, or Packer, someone along the way had figured it out and to move beyond the forerunners and the fathers was to move beyond acceptable interpretations of Scripture (you don’t need to be incredibly bright to guess what quadrant of Christianity I hail from).  Yet, didn’t these very people buck the establishment of their day in some sense, in favor of a more aptly conceived philosophy?

The guiding ethic of suspicion that sealed me from outside contact may have sprung from a desire to protect orthodoxy, to fend off the relentless barrage of change and liberalization blighting our churches and schools… but the affect it had on my view of God was disastrous.

I learned whom to avoid, books to forego, authors to shun, labels to place, and answers to the questions nobody was asking.

God was a complex problem accessible with the right formulas.

But what is theology supposed to look like?  How should I relate to those that have come before me?  Is there room for change, for a more nuanced understanding of God?

I’d like to think that my presuppositions have changed.  I approach God, and the study of God, with the express understanding that God is wholly beyond my understanding.  Even though there are good things we can say and believe about God, nothing is beyond questioning (see James 3:17).  I hold out hope that there is still more to be revealed, more to be understood, more to be said, and more to be done.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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