If I Were to Do Theology Again…


This is my model of how people arrive at faith, if they ever do. It is also a reworking of an e-mail I sent my dad. If I were to do theology again, these would be some initial thoughts.


Gordon Kaufman grounds his An Essay on Theological Method not in the Bible, a tradition, or human experience, but in language. While I had thought experience may have been a good place to start in the past, he reminds his readers that there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience: experience involves meditation, reflection, ratiocination, speaking, writing, and reading, all of which presuppose linguistic competence in some human language.


Children are not born religious or really anything in the sense of experience. These they accumulate through time. Human personhood, or subjectivity, includes all that goes into making a person: habits, decisions, mistakes, parents, thoughts, relationships, abuse/acceptance, bodies, societies, communities, wars, money, education, livelihood, religion, friendships, ethnicity, race, conflict, politics, hobbies, etc. Some of these elements are far more important than others in self-formation; selves are an amalgam of things that become more or less stable over time, though there is the possibility of change, like trauma, new experiences, etc.


Regarding “texts,” I take these to mean all linguistic artifacts, from speech to writing. One brings a lot of one’s subjectivity to the texts that one reads, not just parts. Based on various experiences one can reject or accept things in texts rather quickly. At other times there are texts that give one pause, particularly if they are eloquent, beautiful, jarring, peculiar, or any combination of these things. If I read a headline, I bring a bent, previous thinking, as well as openness to that text. More often than not headlines go out of my mind by the next day because of the nature of that genre of text. Texts such as the Bible, which contain rich layers of genre and human interest, I generally give more time to ruminate.


Texts, however, do not sit by themselves. I can drop a book on a table and say, “Speak,” and, barring some miracle, it will sit silently on the table (this example is worked from Dale Martin in Sex and the Single Savior). Interpretation organically springs from subjectivity as described above. Depending on what community one does or doesn’t belong to, one can come to a wide variety of interpretations of a particular text. Dale Martin has demonstrated that those committed to the historical-critical (e.g., lexicology, syntax, literary forms, genre, discourse, text-criticism, redaction) method of the Bible can come to diametrically opposed interpretations. One can also adopt more avant-garde methods like feminist, queer, post-colonial, ideological/Marxist, reader-response, deconstruction, economic, and African-American and come up with helpful and insightful interpretations not on display in more traditional approaches. These approaches question the proposition that there is one inherent meaning per text.


The final part in the model is faith. This section assumes arriving at a kind of faith; some people never want this. Some people have faith, and then leave it. Others don’t start with it, but find it later in life. I have written elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) of my slavish dependence on Bruce Lincoln in defining religion (I really need to work this out more). He regards the phenomenon as discourse, practice, community, institution and these all reinforcing each other. If one takes this in Christianity, discourse can be Bible/tradition, practice ethics, community congregation, and institution Church structures.

My model, though I introduced it as linear, becomes circular, dialectical. Each of these structuring structures (Bourdieu) end up reinforcing, sometimes breaking, each other.

Me and My Past Faith

For me, I no longer have a particular faith. I was raised in a Pentecostal, evangelical tradition. Some of biblical themes have been with me since I was a boy: humans are special and deserve dignity (e.g., imago Dei), people are built for community and owe to their communities (e.g., brother’s keeper, not good for “man” to be alone), redemption. Some ideas have moved me beyond reconciliation with evangelicalism: patriarchy as divinely ordained, death penalties for trivial things (blasphemy, sorcery, men having sex with men [note the lack of the same standard against women!], proclivity to war, authoritarianism, embeddedness in empire, the concept of messianism, the injustice of substitutionary atonement theory, racism/ethnocentrism, slavery, and choosing ambiguities of faith over certainties of reason.

Me and Interpretation

Probably where I fit in interpretation is synthetic. I think we have to make use of the building blocks of history, language, and syntax, but texts don’t just sit there as “fully interpreted” if we stop at “this verb means this in such and such tense when followed by the definite article in Hebrew and when used by the leader of a family household.” If that’s what a text meant for such a person, what, if anything, has that to do with me? That question involves what I call the Gap. There is a vast chasm between ancient literature and myself, of time, language, and culture. I can fill in some of that, but inevitably I fill in with tools from my training, my community, and my life experience. This is why there’s no such thing as a Bible commentary without an author and publisher. There simply is no such thing as a biblical interpretation without human subjectivity involved. At all.

Some are uncomfortable with human subjectivity being involved so much in faith. When I came to this realization, it was preposterously disconcerting, especially since I was raised with the idea that the Bible is the only authoritative rule for faith and practice. I had to come to grips that I am responsible for what I believe and practice, and couldn’t put it on some outside force to do my thinking or doing for me.

Tons of traditions agree on the idea of biblical truth, but then claim that they have the right interpretation in the bag, regardless of how much diversity of opinion there ends up being. Charles Hedrick wrote once that if God really wanted to clear things up (assuming the Bible contains some kind of God speech), God could speak for godself. It would settle disputes, there would be winners and losers, loyalists and rebels. I would add that because language is ambiguous, God would have to clear things up quite often.

As we have it, we have a lot of people grasping at straws about the unseen and then holding people accountable based on that unseen thing that some apparently have access to, but which I don’t. I can’t corroborate it unless I bathe myself in their communal discourse. I get along quite well with people even if they accept that God speaks from beyond a metaphysical barrier. It gets sticky when it gets political, though, for then the private, innocuous belief becomes a concrete political option that makes or breaks other communities in a pluralistic society.