Monday, June 22, 2009

Can Theology Be Done Truthfully, Humbly, and Hospitably Toward Others?: A Reflection on Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the most famous and influential Christian preachers in America. She remains a priest in the Episcopal Church and did parish work for more than 15 years. She grew up here in Atlanta, worked at a downtown church for a while, then moved to Clarkesville, a small rural town in northeast Georgia, in the early 90s. Toward the end of the decade she left parish work for good, and in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith she details her journey from numinous childhood wonderings to bookish seminary exploration to full-time priesthood vocation and, finally, to stepping away from church life -- both as clergy and in general.

My wife and I will be attending Lipscomb University's Christian Scholars Conference this upcoming weekend -- the theme is "The Power of Narrative" -- and Taylor will be one of the four plenary speakers (alongside the master herself, Marilynne Robinson!). I had read previously her Preaching Life and When God is Silent, both startling and wonderful in their own ways, but wanted also to get a sense of her life experiences and of what she has been up to since leaving parish work, so I took her "memoir of faith" with me to the lake this past weekend as a primer for the conference.

From the beginning, I was enamored with Leaving Church, and after finishing it in a couple days I already picked up her most recent book, An Altar in the World, just to continue the story begun there. It is no surprise to say that Taylor has a gift with words, but going further, she has a way of seeing that only then comes through in her writing. She sees texts, she sees people, she sees creation in ways others simply do not, and through words she helps to open our eyes to see what she sees -- and, we hope with her, something of what God sees, too.

The primary insight, then, from her story in Leaving Church, is that she has been given the eyes to see -- and the freedom also required to act on such a vision -- God in the world as much as, if not more so than, in the church. Much of this vision is the final falling away of the scabrous scales of rigid doctrine, arrogant theology, and pointless, inhuman division, and the reawakening to see God as always bigger, always wilder, always more confounding than our propositions allow or our boxes can contain. Taylor is, like so much of the landscape of American religious sentiment today, tired of any one person's or any one group's claims to have "the" scoop on God. Whatever it may entail for Christian faith, the church, or religious truth in general, that is the starting point.

There is no need to feel required to follow Taylor down all her rabbit holes, as if she is merely attempting to lay down one more set path after which others should follow in lock step. The point of telling her story is that it is exactly that: her story, one telling of one human being's attempt to know and find and share God in embodied human life on earth. There is never "right" or "wrong" when telling a story. It is simply there to hear, and only afterward to interpret.

And in my own reading -- which was in all ways one of the most enjoyable reads I have had recently -- I felt myself continually called back to the question of the practice of theology. In a world that, like Taylor, is, in so many ways but especially in the realms of politics and academy, tired, tired of endless pontificating and abstract theorizing and dogmatic enforcing, what might it mean for the doing of theology to take into account this exhaustion?

It was especially illuminating to read Leaving Church while working my way through Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, if only because Taylor and Jenson have wonderfully opposed views on most aspects of Christian tradition. One way to construe them might be to say "open" and "closed"; another, "coherent" and "not." It all depends on where you're standing.

More generally, I thought of the life of the local church, of the role of seminary, and of the tone of theological blogging. In all three, there are various truth claims being asserted, disputed, and negotiated, and all are attempting, ultimately, to be truthful: about God, about the world, about humanity's place in each.

What Taylor would have us consider, I think, is not to reduce our attempts at truthfulness, but to increase our attempts at humility -- which, in turn, just might enlarge the possibilities of our hospitality. There is a way, in other words, to believe without excluding trust; to learn without forgetting awe; to find without ceasing to seek. So that when we rehearse the creed or read from Scripture, we remember, too, that speakers of this creed and readers of this Scripture have done irrevocable violence to those who have refrained from joining us; that the cross has been weapon and not only symbol of love; that God's history always has been to vindicate those at the margins and to rebuke those at the center; that wilderness and land are never as cleanly demarcated as we would like; that Jesus welcomed those excluded by the religious establishment; that the Spirit blows where he desires, utterly free from human manipulation or prediction (however holy or well-intended!).

To remember such things even as we continue to work out what it means to live as believers and followers of the one called Jesus, is to learn what it might mean to be God's people in the world, to be God's people for the sake of the world. It will entail kinder words, increased listening, gentler postures, more complex and more careful language -- how hard it is indeed to refrain from absolutized speech, reactionary sarcasm, dismissive missives, and arrogant certainty! -- but such acts of humility, however seemingly small, relinquish the need to be God and instead rightfully claim the need (or answer the calling) to be human. Truly, to be fully human, as Barbara Brown Taylor so deeply desires, not only enables but requires such humility, for only when we loosen our tightfisted grasp on what we know-for-sure are we able to see the fellow person before us. He or she (or they) may not know-for-sure, or may in fact know-something-else-for-sure, but our loosened knowing opens up space to include their knowing, even to welcome their different knowing, and so, if only for a moment, to find the time for friendship, a knowing-of-another. And surely this is the best sort of knowing.

1 comment:

  1. I am soooo incredibly jealous that you are going to be in the same room as Barbara Brown Taylor and Marilynne Robinson! I expect detailed posts after that trip!

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