Death to Abstract Theology

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My wife studied art at university. She knows a bit about abstract art. I know very little. However, I did find this definition concerning abstract art floating around the web waves.

In its purest form in Western art, an abstract art is one without a recognizable subject, one which doesn’t relate to anything external or try to “look like” something.

Ok, but what does all this mean?

As I understand it, when something is abstract it is ethereal. It kind of floats out there in space, in air, but it doesn’t really relate to any concrete reality. I suppose you might say it is thought in it’s purest form. Keeping those ideas as ethereal ideas, but never making them real and tangible in life, to humanity.

And, you know what? That’s how theology works so much of the time.

It’s abstract, ethereal, non-tangible, a kind of heavenly, Casper-the-friendly-ghost ruminating about God and faith. We talk a good game, create great conceptual ideas about God and Christ and the Spirit and salvation and redemption and the church and so much more. All one has to do is crack open a 1000-page systematic theology textbook as an example. But they all end up being abstract, heady, and irrelevant to human life on planet earth.

I would offer that’s not a good thing and that we need our abstract theology to be put to death.

When we open Scripture and start reading it, turning the pages, and reading it more and more, what we start to realize is that this text is real “earthy.” And so are the people within it. Scripture talks about real people in real places encountering real life.

When the Bible talks about God, it uses imagery that we know because we have lived life. God is referred to as a gardener, father, mother (yep!), king, shepherd, judge and so forth. Those are roles that real people have carried in life. The Bible writers have encountered such people – perhaps had such roles themselves – and that’s why they can write about these roles when talking about God. There are quality characteristics in these people, in their roles, that give us glimpses into who God is.

That’s not abstract. That’s tangible and earthy.

But most times, the way we talk about God and faith can become so “spiritualized” we simply connect these things with inner thoughts and abstract ideas over and above the real, tangible, and touchable life we actually live.

Again, when you turn to Scripture, you get another picture. You get something more earthy and touchable.

Think about Exodus and Leviticus. Yeah, those two books.

They are two of the most difficult books to navigate. The primary reason is that they are simply written in an ancient setting amongst a people who lived about 3,500 years ago. That’s a long, long, long time ago and it’s in a culture that is absolutely foreign to us. It’s like plopping a middle class, white boy (like myself) in the middle of a Congolese rainforest and asking him to live life. It ain’t gonna happen!

Plopping your average Christian in Exodus and Leviticus is not going to create an understanding of the ancient text by spontaneous combustion.

This is why I encourage my students to read Exodus and Leviticus (and really the whole of the Old Testament) in a very modern translation – CEB, NLT or even The Message. It helps make it a little less foreign. That, and digging deeper into commentaries and other such resources, but I know the average Christian won’t be able to do such.

When you dive into Exodus and Leviticus, what we need to note is that they are all about making the worship of God and the life of faith very tangible to God’s people. But this is about making things tangible to them (not us), a people who lived a loooong time ago. Sacrifices with blood, week-long feasts of celebration, elaborate curtains and adornments for a tent of worship, intricately detailed clothes for priests, and so much more. That’s music to their ears; that’s the bread and butter of religious life.

Pull those things into the modern day, and well, we know what happens. We know because we know how people respond when reading Exodus and Leviticus. We get bogged down with all the details; we get confused with the 613 laws that talk about not boiling young goats in their mother’s milk (Ex 23:19) or not wearing mixed clothing (Lev 19:19).

We can talk about how those are the things required before Jesus, but now because he has come, they are no longer required. And that’s fine. But the reality is simply this – all of those things made sense 3,500 years ago. Again, it was about making the worship of God and the life of faith very tangible to a people in the ancient Mesopotamian world. It does not make sense today. As Scot McKnight states in his book, The Blue Parakeet:

God spoke in Moses’ days in Moses’ ways
God spoke in Job’s days in Job’s ways
God spoke in David’s days in David’s ways
God spoke in Solomon’s days in Solomon’s ways
God spoke in Jeremiah’s days in Jeremiah’s ways
God spoke in Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways
God spoke in Paul’s days in Paul’s ways
God spoke in Peter’s days in Peter’s ways
God spoke in John’s days in John’s ways (p11)

We actually have tangible practices today. We have water baptism (which the Jews did as well), we have the Lord’s table with the bread and wine (which is a spin on the original Passover meal), we have our buildings and structures (whether in an official church-type building or in a home or café), we have our PowerPoint presentations with words for the songs and snazzy slides for the sermons.

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In every culture, the people of God carry sensory expressions of faith and worship. We all have the things that we touch, hear, see, taste and smell that point us to the things of God, that make the life of faith very real. Remember: our faith is tangible, not abstract. It’s just that it’s easy for us westerners – having been enlightened following the Enlightenment – to prefer abstract, ethereal ideas over and above authentically tangible expressions of the faith. We must make great efforts to continue to see our theology become less abstract and more tangible and earthy.

But what of passages like 2 Cor 5:7: “For we live by faith, not by sight.”?

Well, the problem is that such passages are usually yanked out of their tangible context (one of our favorites is Jer 29:11). When we dive into 2 Cor 5, we see that Paul is talking about tents. But he’s not talking about the things we put up in the woods to sleep in; he is speaking of our actual bodies (though tent language gives us something tangible to ponder). And, in all honesty, I believe the “we” of this passage refers to Paul and his team. It’s not an abstract statement he wants all Corinthian Christians, much less all Christians of all time, to apply to themselves. But that’s another whole Bible-reading question to get into at another time.

Even if we grant that 2 Cor 5 is about all Christians of all times, Paul is still talking about real bodies. And he’s not despising the earthly body. He’s simply speaking of a longing for the renewed (or “heavenly”) body. And his charge to “live by faith and not by sight” is that, in the midst of all that they faced in their frail bodies as an apostolic team (again, I think this is really about Paul and his team), or all that we face in our own frail bodies as Christians, we are not called to look at the frailty of the body (“not by sight”), but we have this deep-seated faith in (or allegiance to) Christ that keeps us on the path we are called to in Christ (“we live by faith”).

Or consider this.

In the ancient world, they were much more collective in their perspective on faith than we are. We are much more individualistic. So when it came to talking about God’s salvation for the people of God, it was greatly rooted in the person (singular) being a part of the people (plural). God’s people found salvation to be authentic and real because they were connected to the community of salvation. They knew their forgiveness of sin was real not because they had this feeling that they had been forgiven, but because they could look around at the community of forgiveness that both pronounced it and lived it together on a regular basis.

The tragedy is that we believe forgiveness and salvation are simply individual, personal realities. We don’t want to put any great weight into the community of God’s people, for that may sound too Catholic or whatever. At base level, the prevailing mindset is that we can operate on our own. But forgiveness and salvation are not an abstract feeling, nor simply personal realities to be experienced on our own. These are gifts of God that he desires to be tangible amongst the people of God. And, the amazing thing is that we tangibly remember this week in and week out at the table of the Lord through the bread and wine that we see, touch, smell, taste and hear the pronouncement of forgiveness as we approach the table.

So, as we move forward in talking about theology and our life of faith, my challenge would be that we find ways to make these more tangible, more touchable, more earthy. That’s the ancient way, not to mention that we are simply real people encountering real life in real time. But this will also mean we will need to continue to put to death our merely abstract ideas of theology and faith.

We’ve been handed a tangible faith. Let’s take hold of it.

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6 thoughts on “Death to Abstract Theology

  1. I’m a bit left behind on this. I see a post against abstract theology, but do not truly see a concrete example of this. That leaves not knowing what enemy you are engaging.

    • Hey Jason. I tried my best to give real, tangible examples from Scripture – how we use human roles to speak of God (gardener, etc), worship & life in Exodus/Leviticus, water baptism, the Lord’s table, the reality of salvation & forgiveness amongst the church herself.

    • Forgiveness, faith, salvation, etc, are typically spoken of in the abstract. These are primarily spoken of as internal (or “spiritual”) benefits that we receive. You don’t touch them, they are just received internally somehow. But forgiveness & salvation become experienced within the body, rooted in physical water baptism, and tasted in the bread and wine. I know forgiveness primarily in the tangible community of God’s people, not in my own abstract ponderings. My own personal ponderings are even strongly directed by what I have been taught and experience within the community. Or God is this ethereal being that is up there somewhere. But God is always brought down into the earthiness of humanity. Even in the “heavenly” scenes we read of, it is working at a level that we can relate to. I love how Peterson worded it in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” We know God by touching the dirt from which we were made.

  2. My understanding is that you desired to reject abstract theology (“Death To Abstract Theology.”). What I get from your comment is that you want the abstract to be seen in the tangible ways that it is relevant. Is that correct?
    If so, back to the “death” part: what sort of abstract doctrine is there that you desire to eradicate? I truly cannot think of a doctrine that is so abstract that it is irrelevant to life.
    Perhaps I’m missing your point.

    • Yeah, I think that’s a fair way to say it: that I want abstract theology to become tangible & earthy. In all, I want *mere* abstract theology to be put to bed in order that a more human theology arises.

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