On Christmas, the New York Times published this op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd. It is, in fact, a reflection by Father Kevin O’Neil. Dowd asked him if he could write something that reflected his faith and his practice in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut killings. Dowd described Father O’Neil as a saint and that is certainly what he sounds like. I would love to have a man like that among my friends. And if he were among my friends, I would love him all the more if he would allow me to quibble with his theology, as I am about to do, and still have me as a friend.
Ten years ago, I finished a series of essays for my children, whose median age at the time was forty. There were fifty-two such essays (two pages each) and I sent them one every Friday for a year. The last two sections were called “Theology” and “Discipleship” and when I first imagined the series, I thought that the discipleship essays would simply be an application of the theology essays. In fact, there was virtually no positive connection at all. No practice of Christian discipleship derived particularly from the doctrine of the trinity or of God’s providence or the nature of sin or of salvation. I say “positive connection” because some theological doctrines did, in fact, preclude some behaviors. Not many.
After weeks and weeks of wrestling with these questions, each week culminating in a Friday essay, I devised these two images to help me keep track of what I was doing in theology, on the one hand, and living out the kind of life Christian faith points to, on the other hand. Theology is like geometry. Discipleship is like a convention of cooks.
When I look at what Father O’Neil does as a disciple, I want to get up next to him and ask how he was able to do this or that, reflecting that when I tried it, it didn’t work at all. I want him to say things like, “No, you have to let it marinate for at least 12 hours” or “I learned when I was trying to bake at the altitude where you live, that I had to use higher temperatures and shorter cooking times.” Or even, to bring it a little closer to living, something like, “I can understand why you felt that way. I did too. It was an awful experience. But it has to be done and people like us are called to do it.”
But theology isn’t like that. Theology is like geometry. You start with the axioms and derive propositions that are consistent with them. Internal consistency is what makes geometry work. That’s how it’s like theology. When you say that a proposition is “true,” you mean that it is consistent with the axioms. You don’t say that the axioms are true; you just assume them and start deriving propositions. In the same way, when you say a doctrine about God is “true,” you mean it fits with the others. You don’t mean you have found a way to prove that there is a God or that God has this trait or that one or that God has “traits” at all.
By now, I have lost at least 47% of you, but blogs don’t survive on the basis of votes and I am happy to continue this quest with the 53% percent of you who have no idea what I am talking about or who are sure I am underselling theology or who can’t figure out why I bother making these distinctions at all, particularly during the BCS bowl season.
How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?
These questions are good questions and for them, Father O’Neil finds no theological answer. Is that because God is beyond knowing? Certainly God is beyond our knowing, but our theology is our own work. We build these theologies ourselves. If we build a house badly, it falls down. If we build a lens badly, it distorts our vision. If we build a theory badly, the data don’t clarify it one way or another. But if we build a theology badly, we wind up saying, “It a mystery.” And we shrug as if we were saying that God is a mystery (of course) rather than that the operation of the system of propositions we built to help us discipline our thinking about God has, regrettably, failed us.
Father O’Neil says that Christians believe God to be all-powerful (since it’s just us, here, talking, we can say “omnipotent”) and all-knowing (omniscient). Then he asks why God doesn’t do the loving thing. Well, he doesn’t say that exactly. O’Neil is a priest and he knows to say “doesn’t seem to do the loving thing,” where the issue is in the seeming, not in the doing. I recast his remark into the form in which I most often hear it. We look at a dreadful event and say, “A God who would do this (or allow this) cannot be a loving God.”
So let’s look, just briefly, at the kind of system we have built. Considered as “knowledge about God,” it has certain drawbacks. It is negative knowledge; it works only by excluding things. We can feel confident when we say that there is nothing God does not know. If you begin with the axiom that God has no limits, this is just an entailed proposition. But then we have to say that God knows everything, a positive statement, and there is no way to know what that means. We know it’s true—in the way you know things about geometry and theology—but we don’t know what it means. Does it mean God knows what the future will be? We say that God is omnipotent. Again the negative position doesn’t sound so bad, there is nothing God cannot do, but the positive position is simply incomprehensible. And about “loving acts,” this imagines that we can tell by looking at an outcome whether it was intentional or not and if we think it was, whether the intention was benign or not. Why would we think we can tell by looking?
So Father O’Neil’s statements, if they are taken as “true” about God, run into all the difficulties I offer about theology. And if they are taken as theological constructions, they lead us nowhere. I think we can do better than that if we ask less from our theology. Here are some possibilities.
We could begin by asking two questions. The first is “What is theology for?” The second is, “How good does it have to be to be useful?”
One answer to the first question is that theology is a system of thought that helps us talk to each other. It is a language game. People who agree to play by the rules of this game can understand each other in ways others cannot. They can have actual conversations about topics like: a) what does it mean to say that God is “person-like” on the one hand and unlimited on the other, b) can we understand the character of God’s interaction with the world on the analogy of a narrative, e.g., that what we call “history” is a story God is telling, c) what is the ultimate value in this narrative of God, a value so great that it justifies great costs? A theology doesn’t, I am arguing, settle questions like this. It does provide some helpful definitions and some rules of engagement and it guards the boundaries of the conversation, sending back onto the field of play, discussants who were on the verge of wandering up into the stands.
What “powers” did God give up, for instance, when humans were created as free moral agents? Did God give up omniscience so that freely chosen worship by agents who could choose otherwise was possible? If God values our freedom of choice, does it make sense that we would be protected in the exercise of that choice? And if God could not “create” a free moral agent in the same sense that, say, a planet could be created, would it make sense to say that God had put limits on omnipotence as well?
We don’t have to talk about Newtown to raise these questions. We can ask whether God could have prevented Cain from killing Abel. It’s a good question and it is particularly good if we remember that it is a test of whether our theology allows us to raise and talk about those questions. It is not a test of our knowledge of God. It is not a test of God. It is a test of our theology—a stress test. If asking this question makes our structure fall apart, we need to start over and build a better one on our next try.
Those are very modest goals, it seems to me, and people who talk theology ought to be modest about what they have to offer. This is particularly true when theologians, people who have agreed to the rules of this particular language game, are talking to people who have not agreed.
The second question is, “How good does it need to be?” I think a theology will make a very valuable contribution if it is good enough to help us keep on telling the stories on which our community depends. No one would ask, about a room, “Is it warm enough?” We would want to know what was going to happen in the room and we would think about how much worse things would be if it were too cold for that activity and then we would say, “Yes, it is warm enough for that.”
If theologies can’t be true, we must count on their being useful. That means the question, “Is it useful enough?” is a good question and it is especially good if we can say, as we did about the room, that it is useful enough for some activity in particular. In my view, the heart of our faith is not usefully characterized by propositions, but by stories. It’s the stories you can live in and learn from. It’s the stories that can live in you and change the way you think about things.
So we need a community of people—Father O’Neil has followers of Jesus in mind—who can share the stories and live out the implications together. The rules we follow—our theology—rules out some stories. They cannot be justified if we begin with the assumptions we have agreed to accept. But the rules allow a substantial diversity of stories, including stories that would, if they were treated as journalistic accounts, contradict each other. But they aren’t journalistic accounts. They are narrative traditions. And when they don’t agree, we live in the tension between them.
This way of casting the issue means a good deal to me. It continues to engage my best efforts, even after all these years. It keeps me out of several kinds of swamps, including the one John Bunyan called “the slough of despond.” I don’t think this way of asking the question does anything at all for Father O’Neil. On the other hand, I don’t think Father O’Neil needs to have anything done for him. He seems to be a gentle and loving man and he knows how to say nothing when he has nothing to say. May God make us all more like that.
 Although I have to say that I do treasure George Carlin’s rendition of God’s omnipotence, “God is all-powerful. He can do anything He wants. He can throw a boat right over a hedge.”
 I’m not treating these well-known stories as if they were history. I’m just taking them for granted as our common property, which is something I can do under the rules of engagement.
 The rabbits of Watership Down are a superb illustration of living together by telling the stories. In that book, Richard Adams arranges things so that the rabbits tell the story that they are just about to need. I wish I knew how to do that.