Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Theological Lenses

We all have them. That way we each look at our world, our lives, and try to make sense of it all. Whether we consider ourselves people of any kind of "faith" or "belief system" or not, we are shaped by theology and how we are shaped contributes to how we act in our world.

Theology is an imperfect study of a perfect God (my definition) and "theology" can change over the course of time. We are shaped by our own ideas (our personal theologies) of Who/what God is, if God exists, am I a child of God, am I made in God's image, am I a happen-stance being, am I unique and special or a random mixing of DNA? How we answer those questions plays a large part in how we live and the choices we make, whether we realize it or not.

(Note: "theology" and "doctrine" are not the same thing. "Doctrine is A set of accepted beliefs held by a group. In religion, it is the set of true beliefs that define the parameters of that belief system. Hence, there is true doctrine and false doctrine relative to each belief set." "Theology is the study of God, His nature, attributes, character, abilities, revelation, etc. True theology is found in the Bible which is the self-revelation of God.")

We live in a world where we come in contact with theologies everywhere, though we may not label them "theologies" but call them "worldviews," "ideas," "concepts," "what I believe is...". We are bombarded on the Internet, in the classroom, at home, at work, in society. It's lived out in our daily lives and bumps up against other people living out their personal theologies. Ideally, our theology is shaped by the Church and we get our thinking and lives in line with God's Word. Even for people in the church, that sadly, doesn't always happen because we're in a world where it's "all about me and what I think and what I want."

But even when we do come together to study together, be Church together, and live our lives in community, our theologies are viewed through our own theological lenses. What we bring to the table influences and colors our understanding, even of something so "clear" as the Bible.

Any text I read, whether it be Scripture or a novel, I read through my experience. I read as an American citizen daughter of parents from the Depression and Daddy raised at the Methodist Home for Children from ages 9-18 sister of a brother in recovery home-owning bill-paying voting Caucasian married female 52 years old with 2 grown children and 1 grandchild middle-middle class in rural NC east if I-95 Methodist pastor with a BA in Religion and 1 year Advanced COS from Duke with stage 3b melanoma. I bring every bit of that with me, as well as snapshots of my life up to this point to everything I read, study, preach, and live. I cannot help it. Neither can any of us.

Because I am aware of my own theological lenses, I have to be on notice that everyone I interact with during the day and preach to on Sunday has their own theological lenses as well. Some will be similar and some will be entirely different. Every time my life adds another critical milestone, my lens adds another dimension. And let's not forget the hue of our lens. Some of us view through rose-colored specs and some of us view through gray. Some are clear and some are fogged over or caked in dirt. Some are in focus and some are out of focus.

People often mistake me for a rose-colored optimist. I'm actually a realist who chooses to look for a rainbow, if one is there to be found, and when it's not, I choose to dance through the storm which is sure to break eventually. I can size up and assess situations and people pretty accurately. I may choose to not be open with my assessments for various reasons, but I talk them out with God.

We can, in short, never really be sure what lenses people are really looking through. There's always something we don't know. And God is always working on our own lens. God the Great Ophthalmologist.

When I was 39 I was at my ophthalmologist and preparing to leave. He was writing out a new prescription and explaining the problems it would correct. I asked, "Will it help...?" and described a problem I was having but hadn't mentioned because I thought it was no big deal. He stopped writing, looked at me and with all seriousness said those two little words we all love to hear our doctors say...

"Oh no."

My vision was then put through tests I had never had in all my years of wearing glasses/contacts/back to glasses and I had been his patient since I was 5 years old. He made notes. He tested. And when he was through he gave me his dire-sounding verdict...

"We don't usually see this before 40 but you need bifocals." 

For the next ten years, every new pair of glasses was line-less bifocals so people wouldn't be able to look at me and know I was old. That pride cost roughly $100 for each pair and I paid several hundreds of dollars for it. Pride costs. When I turned 50, I was dealing with melanoma, which is a bigger deal than bifocals and more expensive. Melanoma had already tossed my "pride" out the window and eventually my bifocals became obvious to all who cared to look.

With my bifocals came the ability to see up close clearly and see in the distance clearly. Something I had been missing in my more immediate pre-bifocal days. And I learned the need for bifocal theological lenses.

When I read a passage or interact with people, it's so easy to not see beyond myself. It's easy, and human nature, to look through my own journey and filter through my own experiences, beliefs, and preferences. But God has given me bifocals and is teaching me to use them. That means looking out at the distance and seeing where He is working and determining, as best as I can at the moment, what His bigger picture looks like. It means accepting the fact that I'm not the only person with theological lenses, I'm just the only person with my particular prescription. And while it's God-given, it's not perfect because I'm not perfect.

One day I will be though. God willing. Until then I'll take it one day at a time. 

And be grateful for the privilege.