Theology In The Key Of Life

The chorus of New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Harris, Dennett, etc.) continues to argue that religion either will or should go away with advances in modernity and science.  And yet, the exact opposite is happening.  There is a message here for all of us, religious and nonreligious: to understand the world around us, we had best understand our religious neighbors on their own terms, lest we are fated to be ignorant of our world and one of its indefatigable factors.  This has been true since Time‘s infamous cover, and will, in all probability, remain true in this new year – despite what the cultured despisers happen to feel about it. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “God Is Winning in 2015: The Continued Failure Of Secularization”, Uniting Grace/, January 1, 2015

There are times I just get stumped for a subject about which to write.  That’s when I go searching for something someone else wrote that sparks something.  Sometimes it grabs me right away, and I’m all, “Yes!  Let’s go!”.  Other times, however, it takes a while for the subject to ferment, so that if nothing else I have the opportunity to say something positive, rather than just tell another blogger, “You’re wrong!”.  Lord knows I detested that kind of thing enough before.  So, it’s best to have something to say that makes it clear there is an alternative view.

The latter is the case with Rev. Drew McIntyre’s Cassandra-like post, part of which is posted above.  Referencing a Time magazine cover from fifty years ago, discussing a now pretty-much-defunct theological school and its possible social impact hardly qualifies as drawing in readers.  Furthermore, merely noting a book stating that religion continues to be a factor in human life hardly disqualifies “secularization” as a phenomenon.  Indeed, part of one paragraph from one book that seems to be confused about Death of God theology, about secularization, and about the role of religion in politics here in the US and abroad only seems to be telling people who want to keep their rose-tinted glasses that they don’t have to throw them away.

There’s a larger point, however, and it has little to do with whether or not “God is winning” this year or any year.  So many of our discussions about our churches, our theology, our practice of ministry, our mission work, our evangelization all seem to be couched in terms of a contest.  Who wins, who loses, who’s in, who’s out, who’s right, who’s wrong.  We spend far too little time talking about what our churches are doing, good and bad, in all these areas.  We spend far too little time talking about all the ways God is using our churches to do the work the churches are called to do.  Far too many people worry about the intellectual status of theology in the academy, say, or the importance of correct doctrine.  When was the last time you read a post praising a local church’s knitting, quilting, or sewing ministry?  Christ UMC, Rockford has a quilters group.  Each year, the fruit of their labor is blessed and given to those for whom these might be the only warmth on a cold night.  Do such ministries change the world?  How can we possibly answer such a question one way or another?  They certainly fulfill a ministry of the church: I saw you naked and I clothed you.

Whether or not God “wins” or secularization “wins” is about as meaningless, even stupid, a subject about which to write as whether or not Roman Catholicism is really “Christian”.  In the midst of our increasingly secular society, the church continues its work, its arguments, its ministry, its mission, its worship, because that is what we are called to do.  Just being the church, no matter how small, is a witness to the power of God – perhaps perfectly embodied in those small churches that carry on despite all that is against them – in a world that no longer believes such a thing has any meaning.  Furthermore, it may well be that the secularists, the atheists, and the rest of the naysayers are right.  Not only may God be dead; it might well be the millions who gather in homes, in basements, basilicas and the corner church each week are as delusional as those who oppose us claim.  The only proof we have, after all, of the efficacy of God’s power in our life is our continued work in and for the world.  Everything else – doctrine, mission, theology, evangelization – is nothing but straw, no matter the importance some place upon it.  Whatever the motivations of those who attend worship, who partake in the Sacraments, who give so that others may be fed and clothed, visited and remembered as the beloved child of God the churches claim them to be – this work will continue regardless of who wins and who loses.

Theology for me has always been about life.  This blog and its predecessors aren’t merely academic discussions of various abstruse bits of religious ephemera.  On the contrary, living the calling of the Christian life is the most serious, most important, most life-affirming and death-defying act I can imagine.  Human lives, millions of them, here and abroad, are at stake each and every day.  We have to make sure we get it right, of course, because the consequences are more than “heresy” or “false doctrine”.  The penalty for getting this whole Christian thing wrong is that people, beloved people, end up dead, believing their lives are of no worth not only to themselves but to God.

Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in part because her parents and their church considered her gender dysphoria an illness.

Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in part because her parents and their church considered her gender dysphoria an illness.

Alcorn (pictured above in photos posted on detailed her troubling relationship with her conservative Christian parents, who sent her to Christian therapists unable to properly help her sort through her depression, and refused to give her consent to begin transitioning when she turned 16. In her note, Alcorn urged parents not to say the kind of things Alcorn claims her own did: “Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people, don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Alcorn’s parents eventually took her out of school (she came out as gay to her classmates, thinking it would be easier than to come out as trans), and banned her from social media, which left her without any sort of support group for five months. – Jon Blistein, “Trans Teen Pens Heartbreaking Suicide Note,”, December 30, 2014

Ours has to be a theology that affirms the infinite worth of all God’s children.  Ours has to be a theology that does more than declares God a winner.  Our theology, no matter how difficult or troubling, has to rip off those rose-colored glasses and see the world in the bright array of colors, some we might not even be able to name, yet all in need of the Good News that God’s love for this world and all that is in it is so great, God even took human hatred, our brokenness from God and one another, even death, up into the life of God and in the flash of the morning light on Easter redeemed all of it.  Even Leelah, who never heard anything but hate in the name of God, rests now in the loving arms of the God of Jesus Christ.  Her pain, of course, is over.  The rest of us, however, have so much to do to ensure that there are no more Leelah Alcorn’s in this world.

That is theology in the key of life.  It is our churches living out the Gospel in all sorts of ways, never once looking cross-eyed at those whose lives are different, because God’s overabundant, indeed prodigal, love keeps expressing itself in such a wondrous variety.  People like Leelah Alcorn, rather than being sick or sinful, are a beloved expression of God’s desire for the world to be as fecund as possible.  Until and unless we are willing to speak and live and act that Gospel; until we as the churches of Jesus Christ, and even more especially those who consider themselves “leaders”, set aside this combative, contested view of who is winning and losing, our churches will continue to slide down the slope to irrelevance, and people like Leelah will take their own lives because they will never hear the simple words: “I love you, and God loves you, too.”

That is theology in the key of life.  That is what I always try to do.  Everything else, well, it may or may not be important, but it isn’t what I’m called to do.  And I believe we in the churches, whatever we call ourselves, had best be about living it out.  This is our hope because this is our faith: That ours is a God of life – an abundant life here, an eternal life before God when the New Creation is born.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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