I speak often, and perhaps I have written often, about consistency in theology. It is one of the most important things to me in my pursuit of God that what I choose to believe be consistent with itself. Any theology, philosophy, or posture that is unwilling to subject itself to cyclical and reciprocal examination for the sake of consistency is not worth having.
What Is Theology?
Theology is the study of God or gods, but it can also refer to a system of belief or understanding about God, which is how I use it here. A person’s theology is their personal understanding about God that informs how they live and what they choose to do.
It’s possible that a community might have a shared theology, a system of beliefs or understandings about God that guides their communal lives, but I usually refer to those shared theologies as doctrines or postures. My experience is that as communal doctrines or postures are examined in the context of each person’s life, differences in understanding reveal distinctive theologies.
Why Is Consistency Important?
Consistency is important because it promotes continual self-examination of beliefs. Evaluating our own beliefs is always challenging, but I believe consistency is an attainable metric that can be used both on a small and large scale. When I say “attainable,” I don’t mean that everything we believe about God will be 100% true and consistent all the time. By attainable, I mean that when we find inconsistencies in our theologies, we can correct those inconsistencies. In that way, we are at least consistent with ourselves.
A small scale example might be: if I claim that drinking alcohol is inherently sinful, then it would be consistent of me to also believe that people who encourage any such drinking are living in sin. I call this “small scale,” because it has very little context and only brings two things into conversation: what I think of drinking alcohol and people who tell others to drink alcohol.
A large scale example might include:
- Passages that say drunkenness is bad
- Passages that involve people drinking
- Any interactions that Jesus or the disciples/apostles may have had with alcohol
- Any direct references God makes to alcohol
- My own experiences with alcohol or with others drinking alcohol
- My understanding of good/bad/righteousness/unrighteousness/etc.
A consistent theology on a large scale requires that all of these pieces be in meaningful conversation with one another, and whatever I claim to believe, it should fit at any point within those conversations. The more pieces there are, the bigger the scale. The bigger the scale, the harder it is to be consistent.
I find that when it comes to personal theologies, most people are willing to consider small-scale consistency but few are interested in earnest exploration of large-scale consistency. That’s not something we can force people to change; we can only choose for ourselves.
Intended for Self-use
This idea of pursuing consistent theology is intended first and foremost for testing one’s own beliefs and not for testing the beliefs of others. The reason for this is that consistency must be measured within a theological system. Comparing one system to another invariably leads to inconsistency. By definition, stating there are two systems implies that they are distinct from one another, and one cannot argue for subjectivity of experience of the Divine, including any engagement of a living, breathing, adaptable, and incarnate scripture and Word of God, and still reasonably expect that one’s own theology and someone else’s will be exactly the same. Eventually, if one digs down deep into the minutia of two persons’ theologies, one will encounter inconsistencies between them.
I know there’s a lot going on in those last two statements; let me try to break it down a bit.
- I believe that while there is one true God, we each experience God differently. This is because we have two minds (you and I). Think of eyewitness accounts; although there is clearly some objective truth about what happened, eyewitnesses of the same event experience and recall the event differently. Or, consider two people attending the same concert; they may have vastly different experiences even though they’re watching the same performance. These are subjective experiences; how we experience God in real life is similarly subjective.
- Scripture is living and breathing. That is, it’s not a static text on a page but an engagement of God’s revelation of Godself — a place where God the Spirit can be dynamically encountered.
- God adapts from moment to moment in response to creation.
- Similarly, the Word of God is incarnate in any given context. The Word meets us where we are, both as communities and as individuals.
- Given that we have subjective experiences of God, that scripture is living and breathing, that the Holy Spirit is dynamic and active, that God adapts, and that the Word is incarnate in any given time and place, it would be unreasonable to expect two people to have the exact same understandings of, and approaches to, God.
For these reasons, pursuing a consistent theology can only truly be done for oneself. We can journey with others, but we’re the ones who have to accept the challenge of examining and refining our own theologies. That is, only I can choose for myself to pursue consistency, and I can only choose for myself.
Consistency and Hospitality
Since I believe in a god who is continually creating and manifesting and revealing Godself in any given moment in response to the previous moment (check out some of Tripp Fuller’s work for more on this), I have no reasonable expectation that someone else’s subjective experience of God will be exactly the same as mine, so I can’t expect consistency between another person’s theology and my own. Again, I can only hold myself to a continual examination of theological consistency.
When it comes to other people’s theologies, philosophies, and postures toward God and scripture, because I can’t fully know what they see and hear and understand, the only reasonable posture to take toward them is a posture of humility and grace. Any meaningful interaction with another human being must begin with making space for their voice to be heard as I earnestly listen to and for their understanding of God. This is part of hospitality.
What Is Hospitality?
Hospitality is carving out a place for someone else so that we may occupy a shared space. To do that well, or really at all, I must resist the temptation to evaluate their beliefs in light of my own.
This doesn’t mean that I set myself and my own beliefs aside, because that’s impossible. I can only see the world through my own eyes. What it does mean is that I do my best not to fill in the gaps in my understanding of their theology with my own ideas. Functionally, this means asking more questions about their beliefs so that they can fill in the gaps in my understanding.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with evaluating the consistency of someone else’s theology so long as we have enough information from them to do so. Even then, we should be careful not to assume what we don’t know, and we should always take up that hospitable posture that allows them to fill in the missing pieces.
Consistency and Hospitality Don’t Mean Assimilation
None of this has anything to do with accepting someone else’s beliefs as our own. It’s an incorrect assumption to think that just because someone else’s theology seems consistent we must therefore adopt it for ourselves. Similarly, just because we’re taking someone else’s theology and experiences seriously doesn’t mean we have to agree with their conclusions or beliefs. Even if we found our own present theology to be inconsistent in the face of their more consistent theology, we still wouldn’t need to accept their particular beliefs. We may, for example, disagree on starting premises, at which point even revising our own theology to be more consistent would still result in different theologies.
An atheist, for example, may have a consistent view of a world without God. They may be willing to make any necessary concessions to make the world work such that they could approach it consistently, and my own understanding of God and interpretations of scripture might be dissonant, but even as I refined my own theology, it would still not line up with an atheist theology, because we are beginning with two fundamentally different premises: they, that God does not exist and I, that God does exist.
Consistency doesn’t mean assimilation. We aren’t obligated to believe anything because of others. However, I am obligated to myself — because I have committed myself to the pursuit of a consistent theology — to make sure my beliefs are as consistent as possible with whatever foundational premises I have accepted. Here are some of my foundational premises:
- God is love.
- Love is self-denying, self-sacrificial concern for the other.
- God’s love (and Godself) is revealed most profoundly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
- The Holy Spirit continues the same work in creation in which Jesus participated, which is the same work that God was already doing.
Whatever I believe, whatever I do, whatever I teach, ought to at least be consistent with those things. They are, of course, open to refinement and reinterpretation; my understanding of those things should grow in concert with my understanding of scripture and the work God is doing in, through, and around me. Likewise, how I interpret scripture and articulate my experiences of God should make sense in light of those premises.
Why It Matters to Me, Personally
The deepest scars I received from the church were caused in large part by continual, bold insistence on inconsistent theologies. When we fail to take seriously the inconsistencies of our teachings and our understandings of God, we end up forcing “God” into a box that’s far too small. If we then convince others to believe those same dissonant things, we shove them, too, into that tiny box, and unlike God, who was never really contained to begin with, the people become contorted in painful and scarring ways.
But God is a healer who makes all things new, and what was made to be wrong will be set right.
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