Life and Death Theology

18891899_10158913660800531_6923670952198184857_oEarlier this summer, I had the privilege of helping with Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute for Reconciliation, a week-long conference that brought together about 100 leaders working at intersections of faith and social justice around the U.S. and around the world.

One morning, we heard remarks from a joyful gentleman named R. Simangaliso Kumato, president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in South Africa.

At first, Kumato sounded like any of the administrators at my own seminary in the U.S., clicking through a series of PowerPoint slides describing his institution and its strategic goals. One slide displayed the question “How do we form transforming leaders for the Church and the nation?” The answer, in short, was a predictable combination of academics, spirituality, and community.

But, then, he elaborated:

“We do not have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We have to seek the issues that are at the heart of our society. Our studies must lead to personal change and policy change. Our theologies are life and death for us.”

As soon as Kumato started into this impassioned plea, I was riveted. In my divinity-school world — as students in any area of academia might experience — we sometimes think we have the privilege of doing academics just for the fun of it. We wouldn’t always call it “fun,” especially not during finals. But we’re doing academics often for primarily or even purely personal reasons, for grades or success, for the expectations of parents or grandparents, for the next hoop to jump through on the way to ordination or a doctorate or whatever it is we aspire to. We take electives, sometimes in obscure thinkers and theories, based on a “whatever floats your boat” or “whatever fits your schedule” mindset. And that’s all valid.

Actually, it’s a bit more than valid. I’m convinced that being enthralled by a pursuit — even an obscure academic pursuit — is beautiful and useful to the world. As Howard Thurman has said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

So who’s right — Kumato or Thurman? Do we ask what the world needs or not?

Yes and yes.

What the world needs is people who have come alive. I need to come alive and my neighbor needs to come alive. As Kumato put it, my studies must lead to personal change and policy change — change at a me and my neighbor kind of level.

But people aren’t coming alive. To be quite frank, people are dying.

From his South African context, the president of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary knew this full well. He told us some about post-apartheid South Africa, about tensions over race, gender, and sexuality, about violent attacks and “corrective rapes” in which men (Christian men, to be exact) aim to change the orientation of lesbian women by raping them.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

You might think, “Well, that’s South Africa. Circumstances aren’t that bad everywhere.”

But, no. It looks different in different environments, but it’s still true. Tensions over race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S.? Check, check, and check. Black men in their cars are killed. Young women on college campuses are raped. LGBTQ teens are bullied by peers and excommunicated by families. Pretty sure I saw each of those stories in the news in the last 24 hours.

“Our theologies are life and death for us.”

What’s theology got to do with it? Plenty.

Our theologies tell us, at a minimum:

  • who God is (full of love, full of wrath, or somehow some of both?)
  • who God’s people are (inherently good, inherently sinful, or somehow some of both?)
  • how to treat those people (with kindness, with correction, or somehow some of both?)

Side note: I think the answer to each of the above is “somehow some of both.” But that’s a blog post (or a book because, good Lord, those are big questions!) for another day.

Theologically, if I think God is angry at me, that’s a recipe for shame and depression. If I think a person or people group is not as holy as me, that’s a recipe for oppression and violence.

So, we do not have the privilege of doing academics (certainly theological academics, but other academics too) just for the fun of it.

To say this lesson has been “humbling” or “convicting” feels like an understatement.

This is a reminder to do academics for a reason. For lives to be spared from sources of literal or figurative death and secured into sources of literal and figurative life. For life and death theology.

 

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