I want to start today by inviting you to take a minute and think about one thing you believe about God. Once you’ve decided on it, write it down. We’ll come back to it in a bit.
The last six weeks I’ve been teaching an online course called “Thinking Theologically in the 21st Century.” The course is part of a program of theological education sponsored and run by our own Southeast Conference in the UCC. Rochelle Lofstrand is one of the 13 people enrolled in the course. Other participants live in Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee. The main goal of “Thinking Theologically” is learning to think critically about our ideas about God.
Ideas about God. We all have them; every person sitting in this room has ideas about God. Look! You’ve written one of those ideas down…and I’m guessing that you have many more thoughts about God. But here’s a question: Are they truly YOUR thoughts? Is the thought written on that paper really YOUR thought? Or is it something you’ve picked up along the way from parents or friends or society or Facebook or Miss Janet in Sunday School?
Not that picking things up from Miss Janet in Sunday School is a bad thing…in fact, Miss Janet is a great source for ideas about God. The thing is, though, until we take our God-ideas out and look at them, analyze them, and compare them with others’ ideas, until we do the hard intellectual work of figuring out just what we believe, our ideas about God aren’t our ideas at all. They’re simply someone else’s ideas that we’ve adopted as our own. If we are to know and act out of what we really believe, we have to do our own hard work of critical reflection.
The theological ideas we hold, these assumptions we’ve absorbed by osmosis from our parents and church and society and Miss Janet…in our class we’ve called those ideas “embedded theology.” Embedded theology isn’t good or bad…it’s just what we’re given and what we take hook, line, and sinker without judging whether or not we actually believe it. We just believe it, not questions asked.
If “embedded theology” is what we have before we reflect critically on our ideas about God, “deliberative theology” is what we have after we’ve reflected. I’m talking about critical reflection like it’s just another math or reading assignment. In truth, reflective work about our God-ideas can be hard.…really hard. Our ideas about God are so deeply-ingrained, they’re so close to who we are that lifting up those ideas and looking at them, analyzing them, seeing the places at which they’re adequate–and inadequate—that can be a grueling process. To quote one of the participants in the class: “Deliberative theology is only for the brave.” Indeed.
It’s worth the work, though. Because what happens once you’ve done the hard work of thinking deliberatively about your theology, is that your beliefs about God truly become YOUR beliefs. The things you believe after the process of critical reflection might be the same things you believed before reflecting critically. The difference now is that those beliefs are YOUR beliefs. They aren’t the beliefs you absorbed from your parents or your church or society or Miss Janet. They are YOUR beliefs, won through hard, intentional, intellectual work.
Okay. Look at the belief about God you wrote down a minute ago. Where did that idea come from? Why do you believe it? Does it make sense to you that you believe it? Congratulations! We’ve just done some deliberative theology.
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with today’s passage from Isaiah. A lot, actually. What we have in today’s text is a bit of deliberative theology.
The prophet addresses the people of Judah after they’ve been taken into exile in Babylon. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Abram? Remember the two promises God made to Abram? God promised Abram a ton of descendants and “a land I will show you.” That promise of land had become central for the Jewish people. If God gave them the land, they reasoned, then the land must be where God resided. That translated into a belief that– as long as we’re in the land, we’re with God. That idea was part of their embedded theology.
But now, 900 or so years later, they’d been taken out of the land…to Babylon…in exile. If your theology is grounded in, well, the ground of a particular place, what’s going to happen when you no longer have access to that ground? It’s going to make mincemeat of your theology, isn’t it? If you’ve always understood God to behave in a certain way and to be in a certain place, maybe even to look a certain way…when none of that is in place any more, when everything you’ve ever believed about God is pulled out from under you, what’s going to happen? You’re going to feel lost. Devastated. Afraid. It might even move you to atheism.
That’s pretty much where the people in exile in Babylon were. The things they’d always assumed about God had changed; their embedded theologies no longer were adequate to their circumstances. Without a new way to think about God, they were going to lose faith. Which is why the prophet steps in to do a little deliberative theology with them. He invites the people to rethink their ideas about God in the hope that a new understanding of God will make it possible for them to continue believing.
Is there something going on in your life right now that is shaking your faith in God? Is everything you’ve ever believed about God being questioned? Are you about to lose faith? If so, hear what the prophet does for the exiles in Babylon.
First, he reminds them that God has been with them and helped them in the past. Listen: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” What’s the prophet talking about here? (The exodus.) Exactly. He’s inviting the people to remember a time in their history when things seemed utterly hopeless, but when—with God’s help–things turned around.
Can you remember a time when you felt God’s presence in dire circumstances? A time when your faith was strong? A time when things made sense? Take a moment to remember a time in the past when you knew that God was with you.
So, the prophet reminds the people of a past event when God had been with them. In light of that, the next thing he says seems contradictory: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” But this isn’t a word about God’s past action he’s calling the people to forget. It’s their ideas about how God is supposed to act that the prophet is challenging them to let go. Because if we have set ideas of how God is supposed to act, what will happen? If we think God is supposed to act in this one particular way, then we won’t be able to see God working when God acts in a new way, will we? If we’re only looking for God to do the old things, we won’t be able to recognize it when God is doing something new.
Which is why the prophet speaks this next word from God to the disheartened people: “I am about to do a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me… for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” Basically, the prophet is saying that the new thing God is going to do is going to be SO new that the world is going to turn upside down—a path in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, wild animals tamed.
We began this self-reflective journey of Lent in the wilderness. Three weeks ago we looked at how much we can learn about ourselves and about God if we separate ourselves from the distractions of the familiar. Two weeks ago, we gave ourselves permission to question God. A strong faith is a questioning faith, we decided. Last week, we considered what it might be like to rest in God. As Augustine said, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in God.”
Today, the self-reflective process continues not by questioning God, but by questioning ourselves about what we believe about God. Is the God you have right now adequate to the circumstances of your life? Is God waiting to do a new thing in your life but is prevented from doing so because your ideas about God are too limited? If so, then maybe it’s time to change your ideas about God. Maybe it’s time to shift your perspective.
Over the last month and a half in the class I’ve been teaching, perspectives have been shifting all over the place. One person began to experience God’s love—like, really to feel it– because of a new idea about God. The idea that God might change was revolutionary to others. One person’s ideas about Jesus shifted pretty drastically. Another participant had described Jesus as “an example of what God hopes for us.” “Wow!” the person wrote. “Previously, I was all, “Jesus is an example of what God expects from us, and we FAIL to meet that expectation every day. And God tracks that, you know.” But now, I’m…well, I’m still that way. But I’ve been shown a new possibility, and I’m headed toward it.”
Toward what new possibilities might you be headed if your perspective about God shifted? What embedded ideas about God need to be dislodged and re-thought? What new thing might God be waiting—just waiting–to do in your life?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
16 Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.