The other day I had an interesting conversation with an anti-religious person and an atheist–both were curious about my studies in theology. I approached the discussion cautiously, not assuming possession of solid theological truth. After all, I am but a man and can only form ideas and theories of what God is.
At one point, the conversation was interrupted by another friend’s stance on predestination. The two gentlemen–the anti-religious person and the atheist–quickly turned from sincerely curious to sternly objectional.
This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Conversations between religious and non-religious people often turn to debates over doctrinal issues, straying from the humbling mystery that is God.
In the past, I debated over doctrine, like my friend–defending my tradition’s theology. I would argue and argue until I turned blue with rage, failing to understand why anyone could disagree with what was clearly absolute truth. But then, humility hit me in the face.
It was in academia that I learned theological humility. Theology taught me that theologizing is ultimately vaporous. But it’s not vaporous in a useless sense; it’s vaporous because finite creatures cannot understand an infinite being.
Now, this doesn’t mean theology should not be done; trying to understand things is normal–it’s what we do. But we must recognize that theology is formed and maintained by faith. We have faith that our traditions are correct, but our claims are based more on faith than on fact.
When we approach someone and claim objective truth concerning spiritual matters, we appear arrogant. It’s as though we, being as human as anyone else, have figured life out. But faith balances this, providing recognition that we’re as finite as anyone else.
Most of us want to know why we’re here and what this life is, no matter our tradition. But in our brightest wisdom we can only form ideas about God, flawed ideas from flawed creatures.
I’ve often heard inter-religious dialogue compared to blind people figuring out an elephant by their hands. Though they touch the same elephant, each touches a different part. It goes without saying that God is far more complex than an elephant.
This is why the key to healthy theology is humility, and not arrogance. In my tradition–Christianity–we hope with faith for Christ’s return, and we’re called to share this hope with the world. But we were never told to do so arrogantly. Nobody wants a religion of arrogance.
Humility in theology opens conversation, while religious arrogance closes doors. Though a person knocks and knocks, the door is shut.
God is God and we are not. God is paradoxically knowable and unknowable, within our reach and far beyond our grasp. We are but grains of sand trying to comprehend the ocean. And God laughs–with childlike laughter. How can the creature understand the maker of heaven and earth? We’re more than severely limited.
By all means, discuss God and think on him. But in your conversations with unbelievers and those of other traditions, theologize with humility.