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[Chalice] Good, Critical, Prophetic Theology: Where is it? [Chalice]
Or This is not a Time for Bad Theology!

Presented September 23, 2001, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Next weekend I will be hanging out with other philosophers and theologians at an international conference on contemporary readings of St. Augustine's Confessions. One recent work on the Confessions by a French philosopher argues that Augustine's struggles with God and with himself in his relation to God had the traumatic effect upon him of turning him inside out. The trauma of dealing with God turned the inside of him--his deep-seated passions, his private thoughts, memories, and desires-out, out to the public, out on his sleeve, and the product of that process is the Confessions. The philosopher suggests that that is what trauma, that's what ultimate experiences do to you-they turn what's inside of you out, make what is usually inner outer, public, expressed, exposed. He is suggesting that experiences with God act on you like traumatic experiences that rip right through you and disrupt you and rupture you and they stir you up so much that what is usually on the inside of you is on the outside and so you do public things like write a confession or an article in the newspaper or put something on the internet or you put a sign in your window or you put up your flag.

There's no question that we have experienced a national trauma that's ripped right through us. Do you think that this is one of those experiences that works like trauma in this way, that it turns what's inside out? Do you think it is right to see in all the flags flying and all the signs in the windows saying "God Bless America?" and all the discourse about America the Good something about what is on our inside, usually kept private and personal, now turned outside? Or is what is going on in our culture right now-with all the public stuff, with the unabashed language of patriotism, and all the flags and all the signs-is this not really a question of what is really inside being turned out? Is the relation between what is really inner and what is outside, exposed, is it much more complicated than this?

If we can assume that all that is public in our culture right now-the patriotism, the confidence that America is right, the flags flying, the constant refrain of God Bless America-is the turning of what is inside our fellow citizens out, then what do we say about it, about the inner become outer? I know that many people would say that one problem with all that is being expressed right now, with all that is on the outside is that it is too religious and too Christian, but my reaction is quite the opposite. One problem I have with what is on the ouside of people and being expressed publicly right now is that it's really not very Christian. I think it is barely Christian, minimally Christian, just a trace of Christianity.

This really hit home to me when I was assured by one of the reporters for CBS or ABC in their wonderfully informative and objective coverage of all of this that George W. Bush has "a profound Christian faith." Profound. Meaning deep, not only what is inside, what is inner, but the very depths of the inside. If what is happening in this country is that the very depths of people's insides are turning out, then I don't think either that those very depths are very Christian or whatever Christianity is being expressed is very profoundly Christian.

Consider for example the fact that Billy Graham presided over our national memorial service. This Christian minister has prayed alongside every president since Johnson everytime they bomb someone, always reassuring us that we are doing what God wants. I would think a profoundly Christian country examines its national conscience, covers itself with sackcloth and ashes especially when it fears it has taken human life too lightly. I think Billy Graham is the last person a profoundly Christian country would turn to at this time. I think a profoundly Christian culture would say to him: sorry, but because of past mistakes, past times when you assured us that God was on our side and now we are anything but sure about that, you are spiritually unqualified for this job now.

And what does Billy Graham say at our national memorial service? He turns it into soul saving time. We never know when we will be called into eternity. The people in the World Trade Center didn't know. And what happened to them was not just that they had their lives stolen from them by murder and violence but that God called them to Him. And that could happen to all of us today because you never know when God is going to call you to Him so you'd better repent. So the whole tragedy and the violent deaths of thousands is turned into something God is ultimately responsible for and into a great altar call. Better get right with God, confess Jesus now, because you never know…This is not profound Christianity. It's the worst kind of simplistic Christianity. Is this the kind of theology we need right now?

What kind of Christian theology does our country need now, now that it is poised to bomb to smithereens one of the poorest countries on earth? As we contemplate how many innocent Afghani poor we might kill along with the terrorists-collateral damage, you know-we might think at least think about the story Samuel tells the great king David about how the rich and powerful person took away the only thing the poor person had, and David condemns the rich person, only to have Samuel turn the story back on him and say "The rich and powerful person here is you." Or more radically, we might remember that for 30 years Christian theologians from Latin America and elsewhere have been pointing out to the world that Jesus was actually himself not rich, not powerful, was himself one of the wretched of the earth. They have been insisting that perhaps we are wrong when we think that the fact that we are wealthy and successful and first world is a sign that God is on our side and loves us best. They have been insisting that the Christian gospel has it quite otherwise: that God is actually on the side of the poor, the unheard and unheard of, the suffering, the nobodies of this world, the wretched whose deaths no one even notices in this world. For 30 years Christian theologians have been trying to get American and first-world Christians to think that the poor on the earth are in some way, in some miraculous form the incarnation of God on the earth. This is probably the most important theological movement in the past half century. Does anyone out there in American Christendom think like this? Don't we see a rejection of this notion in our country's eagerness to bomb a very poor country? Is it right to see in all the signs "God Bless America" a repudiation of this liberation theology and affirmation that says basically: "Look, bub. God blesses America. After all, look at how great and powerful and rich we are."

But to do some good, critical theology right now, you don't have to be either radical or up on current trends. All you have to do is go back to the great classic source of Christian theology other than the Bible: St. Augustine. What happened to Augustine in all of this? How many times have you heard someone say, even ministers say, "Let's not seek revenge. We have to seek justice," as if by saying that that solves something. Even ministers have said this over and over again. Have they forgotten their Augustine? Of course nations seek justice, says Augustine. That gets the world no where. Because one country seeks justice according to it, and another country seeks justice according to it, and a third country seeks its own version of justice. This search for justice, Augustine says, each country thinks will bring the world peace, while actually all does it break the world in pieces. And the world broken constantly in pieces, Augustine says, this is not God's way of calling people to him. It's not God's ultimate altar call. It's simply the end product of human arrogance and stupidity. Our military leaders and political leaders have decided to name our new military campaign "Operation Infinite Justice." Augustine would love the irony of that, while what percentage of Christian America out there heard that name and thought: "'Operation Infinite Justice'? That's right. I like that."

WE could use Augustine right now. Any culture where the inner is becoming outer in displays of patriotism, flags flying, signs everywhere "God Bless America", and in assurances that our country is good and right needs a strong dose of St. Augustine, and I hope the Christian ministers around this country are revving up right now to give it to us. What he would be most critical of is the language of America the Good. He would have insisted that America don the sack cloth and ashes a long time ago, and maybe keep them on. And he would remind us of that basic Judaeo-Christian theological truism that seems somehow to have been entirely forgotten: that God alone is good. Augustine would say that if you make something else good, if you convince yourself that something human is Good in the same way that God is good, then you are in for a fall. And if a culture does this, well that's the way the world gets broken into pieces. To Augustine, you have to love God's goodness, and then love that gives you the right, critical eyes to evaluate all the other candidates for goodness that human advance.

©2001 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2001. Good, Critical, Prophetic Theology: Where is it?, (accessed July 4, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
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