Why, if so many theologies go wrong, do we have to spend so much time studying them?
This question came up with particular force once when I was having lunch with a student in my class on introductory Christian doctrine. Our class had just been through the doctrine of election.
Every time I teach this course, election (better known as "predestination") has been the most discouraging lecture of them all. I keep tinkering with it every time, but so far to no avail. We evangelicals hate it, except for those of us who love it; and those of us who love it just make the rest of us hate it even more. This year I had the class read an article in which I have tried to rescue the doctrine, then report back on whether and how it had helped. (The answer was that it basically hadn't.) In the article I contend that the debate over predestination got off on the wrong foot in the fourth century, has never really recovered, and never will until the terms in which the debate is conducted are exchanged for better ones. In other words, centuries of Augustinianism, Pelagianism, Calvinism, and Arminianism are basically (though not entirely) one very long dead end.
What comforting news to offer a class of freshmen learning theology for the first time! My student quite rightly asked why I bothered to teach it when I'm criticizing it.
Now of course one reason to teach dead ends is so that people can recognize them, navigate them, and perhaps even avoid them. But I found another, better answer, stumbling across an analogy worth repeating here.
The Church's theological traditions are full of problems. We disagree. We change our minds, and refuse to admit it. We confuse the universals of the gospel with the localities of our cultures, and force the wrong things on our communities and mission fields. Sometimes we draw conclusions which we then use as a basis for excommunicating fellow Christians, only to discover some time later that they were wrong conclusions.
Yet the Church's theological traditions are also our treasure. They have brought us what we know of eternal life, and to forego them because of their problems would give up everything that matters. They protect the glory of God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to him. They guide the grammar of praise that sustains us, rekindles our hope, and gathers the nations into the peace of Jesus Christ.
Our theological tradition is like Noah's ark: leaky, dark, smelly, confining, sometimes even oppressive. The alternative is free, light, fresh, open and fatal.
What do we do on the ark? We muck out the stalls. We bail out the water. We fix leaks and try not to cause bigger ones in the process. We go up on deck to search for the land we've been promised then back down to do the jobs on which our lives, all of our lives, depend. And we thank God for every new breath we take, even if every new breath carries a stench that "could knock a yak flat."
I can think of few jobs better in the here and now than my job of teaching the Christian tradition. But someday, when we see "face to face" (1 Cor. 13), I'll give it up in a flash, to join the chorus that forever sings with perfected words the praises of the one we already find among us in the shadows. Of course, that won't be the end of theology. It will only be the beginning of a wonderful new chapter.