Discipleship Not Dogma

This post is part of a larger NuDunker conversation, “Dunker theologizing: How we do our God talk” including a series of blog posts and a live Google+ hangout Thursday, 10/3 at 10 AM eastern. We would love for you to add your voice to the discussion! Check out the list of blog posts on our Google+ page here.

The Brethren often are accused of being anti-intellectual, both from those within the tradition and those outside. In fairness, that moniker is often applied to evangelicals as well (see Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). For Brethren, though, it does seem to be in our DNA. Culturally, we have been a rural denomination. Though education is clearly important, there is often a mistrust between plain folk and those of the ivory tower. I have written elsewhere that this might be better construed as anti-elitism. The family vision of being church often plays out as a kind of radical egalitarianism that has little room for specialists or academicians. The second reality is that our roots in Pietism included a skepticism of the scholasticism that emerged in the second and third generations of Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Though these thinkers did not debate the number of angels on the head of the pin, a derision often applied to medieval scholastics, they did work towards dogmatic precision.

These Pietists, as well as their Anabaptist predecessors, did not have much good to say of such dogmatism. The theological precision, birthed in academic ivory towers, often elevated belief above discipleship. We might say that dogma, a kind of rigid and precise theology, is a lifting of ideas out of lived experience. For the Radical Reformers, such an approach to God-talk was one of the many problems with the state of the church. Theology, for them, appears to have been first and foremost a part of discipleship- understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

None of this is said in order to imply that the Brethren are or have been atheological. Since theology is first and foremost “talk about God,” then everything we do and pray is a kind of theology.

I have found that the liturgical theologians exemplified in writers such as Alexander Schmemman, Aidan Kavanaugh, Gordon Lathrop, and Don Saliers help to understand the way Brethren do theology. Though their talk of Liturgy is more high-church terms they do distinguish between two kinds of theology. Primary Theology, they argue, is the theology expressed in our worship. In that sense, all prayer is theology- talk not only about God, but to God. As Don Saliers puts it, Primary Theology is a theology of address. Secondary Theology, then, is the reflection on and interpretation of the theology in our doing. That is what most people think theologians do in writing books and teaching classes.

The difference is born out in two great maxims of the early church. First, Evagrius of Pontus, a monk of the fourth century, wrote this of prayer and theology: “A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” The idea is clear- our prayers are theology, and anyone who prays is to be understood as a theologian. The second comes from a writer in what is now France called Prosper of Aquitaine. In one treatise he summed up what was expressed in a great number of writers before him. “The law of supplication is the standard of belief.” That long phrase, often cited in Latin has come to be known in a shorter phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi” or “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”

For Brethren, it seems to me that the phrase might be altered a bit- Our way of life is the rule of belief. This gets to the deeply embodied sense of what it means to do theology. This includes our worship, our commitment to mutual aid, and the way we envision a witness for peace. All this is to say our discipleship is our theology.

That is not to say that we are not “secondary theologians.” By that I mean we do have a need to reflect on both our categories for God and God’s mission through the church, and especially our experiences in the living out of our confession of faith. It is just that our commitment isn’t to dogmatic theology. Rather, our theology and reflection are subjective, integrated within our particular lives. Dogma, as the lifting up of a theology beyond what we know and experience, is counter to this integrated mode of theological reflection and discipleship.

In a recent meeting sister Dana reminded me of what our teacher Don Saliers often said as he taught this liturgical approach to theology- “You all already know this.” By this he was trying to remind us that many of the theological categories often relegated to the realms of systematic theology are already a part of our worship and prayer. I often offer this as a reminder to members of the Church of the Brethren. Though I may have several theological degrees, my commitment to the Priesthood of All guides me to hear the thoughts and perspectives of my sisters and brothers. Even more so, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher of theology to remind us that we each are theologians. For, as Evagrius said, when one truly prays, one is a theologian.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Discipleship Not Dogma

  1. Brother, you always say the thing in trying to say better than I can. Primary & secondary reflection is the Saliers point I was reaching for – even searches the Lathrop in vain.

    Academic theology as secondary makes worship & behavior & communal practices worth, (collectively) more of our time, energy, etc. As you say, we stil need secondary theology…and maybe one gift of the professional theologian is not necessarily in teaching content but in sharing methods of reflection – so that even primary theology might be done with an inherent aspect of awareness.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Well, I did TA for the Intro to Worship class with Jimmie Abbington. So I had to do a crash course in Liturgical Theology (especially Lathrop) in a week!

      I think this also pushes the so-called academic theologian back into the community of faith. The gift of such secondary reflection is that it must come into the life of an actual community to inform, interpret, and provide some language for what is happening in the life of the congregation. As many put it, secondary theology is rightly understood and practiced Pro Ecclesia, for the the church.

  2. I love the “you already know this” bit. – In some ways it echoes the pedagocial ethos at the peacebuilding program at EMU, John Paul Lederach’s “elicitive pedagogy.” – It’s a trust that the wisdom for good practice is already present in the gathered body, and that it’s simply a matter of discerning that wisdom together with patient, curious lines of inquiry and reflection.

    Such inquiry cultivates the “reflective practitioner” that the program says it seeks to make its students, and I’ve certainly internalized a lot of that ethos.

    But it also seems to have deep resonance with the kind of theological reflection you’re outlining here…

    • Joshua Brockway

      I would add that we have to acknowledge (at some point) that we are teaching/shaping theology in our worship. And sometimes that is just bad, horrible,….dare I say heretical theology. When we teach about preaching we often talk about the theology at work, but we miss the theology of our extemporaneous prayers where the dark sides of our theology come leaking out, or the juxtaposition of a good theological/pastoral sermon with an off the wall song. We are shaping the theology in our bones, and it happens whether we are doing the 2nd order reflection or not.

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