Premature Thoughts on Theology—Part 1: How to Not Be Dumb

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Long ago six old men lived in a village in India. Each was born blind…they listened carefully to the stories told by travelers to learn what they could about life outside the village…they were most curious about elephants. They were told that elephants could trample forests, carry huge burdens, and frighten young and old with their loud trumpet calls. But they also knew that the Rajah’s daughter rode an elephant when she traveled in her father’s kingdom. Would the Rajah let his daughter get near such a dangerous creature?

Finally, the villagers grew tired of all the arguments, and they arranged for the curious men to visit the palace of the Rajah to learn the truth about elephants.

When the blind men reached the palace, they were greeted by an old friend from their village who worked as a gardener on the palace grounds. Their friend led them to the courtyard. There stood an elephant. The blind men stepped forward to touch the creature that was the subject of so many arguments.

The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal. “An elephant is smooth and solid like a wall!” he declared. “It must be very powerful.”

The second blind man put his hand on the elephant’s limber trunk. “An elephant is like a giant snake,” he announced.

The third blind man felt the elephant’s pointed tusk. “I was right,” he decided. “This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear.”

The fourth blind man touched one of the elephant’s four legs. “What we have here,” he said, “is an extremely large cow.”

The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s giant ear. “I believe an elephant is like a huge fan or maybe a magic carpet that can fly over mountains and treetops,” he said.

The sixth blind man gave a tug on the elephant’s coarse tail. “Why, this is nothing more than a piece of old rope. Dangerous, indeed,” he scoffed.

“The elephant is a very large animal,” said the Rajah kindly. “Each man touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth.”[1]

This story is a folk tale from India designed to foster awareness of how a person’s perspective influences one’s perception of life. Even when faced with interpreting a common object, all six men come to very different conclusions about the nature of this creature. My first exposure to this story was in an introductory philosophy of religion course, a field wherein the tale has a history of being employed to support the notion that all religions are based on perceptions of a single reality. Though I think this illustration fails under the weight of so many conflicting religious claims about even the most fundamental principles of reality, it may have another use: to point to the nature of the Bible and how it contains diverse portraits of theology that are yet unified around shared experiences, resources and questions. I hope the rationale for this image becomes clearer at the end of this blog series.

What we think about the Bible and its relationship to theology—and how we ourselves do theology—is immediately relevant to how the Church will meet the many (sometimes bad, sometimes insightful) questions of a post-Christian America and Europe, as well as the many theological problems on the horizon of future technical innovations. To our great detriment, the Church as a whole seems to be doing a terrible job at this. Just as there are bright spots and bright individuals, there are evangelical churches held hostage by fundamentalism and more progressive churches for whom little would change if Jesus’s corpse were discovered on Tuesday morning. Do our communities possess the imagination to survive the 21st century?

The present has its own issues too, with the question of whether to affirm same-sex marriages drawing the most passion out of every involved side. At the heart of this debate is the nature of theology, and, as theologians, what we are supposed to do with the texts we have been given. I hope to provide some tentative thoughts to the nature of theology throughout this series with an eye to their relevance for gay and lesbian marriages. Can’t wait to see how many friends I will lose!

Any not-dumb understanding of the Bible’s relationship to theology needs to consider the parts of the Bible (especially the New Testament) that least conform to our tidy understandings of what Scripture is, to certain foundational theological ideas, and to the needs of present church communities. These issues include:

– conversation and disagreement within the New Testament

– Paul’s awareness of the interplay between the Lord’s command (“To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord”) and his own suggestion (“To the rest I say—I and not the Lord”) in giving marriage instructions (1 Cor. 7:1-16)

– the authority of the NT letters is essentially the authority of the apostles transmitted through their own writings or the writings of their communities/descendants…the writings of the NT make a huge deal about the authority of these earliest missionaries (see Paul promoting his own authority when necessary or James and Peter authorizing Paul’s mission to the Gentiles)

-the NT writings as pieces of contextual theology for specific groups which contain contextual commands which don’t necessarily support God’s creation ideal and which sometimes cause unintentional harm when followed in our own contexts (i.e. Paul’s instructions for household relationships: Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7)

– when a NT author makes a strange or bad argument (Paul’s rationale for head coverings in 1 Cor 11 is super weird[2]; one might also point out how 1 Timothy 2, with its defense of a ban on women teachers that seems to imply a logic of primogeniture in creation, poorly reads Genesis, which is fairly anti-primogeniture given how many times younger sons inherit God’s blessings in the narratives[3])

– the slow formation of the Biblical canon

– the wide variation in theology, both historically and globally, stemming from a variety of contexts

– Jesus’s identity, remembered by his followers and interpreted in light of the OT and some apocryphal books

And finally, the need for a theology that is complex enough to explain all of this but simple enough to be lived, because, at the end of the day, what matters most is that you actually live your life, not sit around forever and think about life. Many times I have sat staring at incomprehensible books thinking about how much more I could truly live if I did not have to worry about sorting out this mess called the Bible. I am also reminded of Thomas Aquinas, who, at the end of his insanely productive life, experienced something—no one knows exactly what—that left him permanently shook enough to give up writing theology. In his own words, “everything I have written seems to me like straw.”[4] At some point, we must all face our human limitations; our attempts at truth will never be comprehensive enough or thorough enough to describe truth. Perhaps learning to live life with incomplete answers is itself a theological position. As Ecclesiastes would say, there is a time for everything.

One last word to conservative evangelicals in particular: the Bible is not a simple book full of self-evident truth propositions. Anyone who says otherwise is either mistaken or engaged in willful (self-) deception. Read your Bibles, people!

In order to begin wrapping our heads around how to do theology through reading the Bible, we must learn to see its conversation. That is Part 2!

Sources:

[1] https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/story-blind-men-and-elephant/

[2] For example see James W. Thompson’s understanding in Moral Formation According to Paul, p. 129-130, as well as Michael Heiser’s much weirder but possibly true-er thoughts about angels having sex: https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/podcast/naked-bible-86-the-head-covering-of-1-corinthians-1113-15/

[3] I also recognize the many egalitarian readings of 1 Timothy which place the author’s words within a heavily constructed context that provide a background for why the author gives such strong instructions against woman “usurping authority” (the better translation btw). I almost find some of these persuasive.

[4] Fred Sanders, “Thomas Aquinas’ Big Pile of Straw”, http://scriptoriumdaily.com/thomas-aquinas-big-pile-of-straw/

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