The Problem with Theological Righteousness

nonviolence-101-word-cloud-4I always say that it is a miracle that I am a Christian. I grew up in a home with an atheist, a recovering catholic, and an “open for discussion.” There was a brief time when Recovering Catholic, Open for Discussion, and I all went to a Methodist church, but when the family moved from Connecticut to New Mexico, any kind of spirituality was promptly ended.

But then Jesus found a way to save me.  I was saved in the late 90s (February 4, 1999 to be exact), when True Love Waits was at the height of power, Christian music was beginning to sound more like music and not a camp sing-along, and my Youth Pastor’s favorite question was, “Did you do have your quiet time today?” The sins to be avoided were drugs, alcohol, cussing, sex, abortion, and homosexuality.  And greatest of all, I could go to church dressed in street clothes, and no one would look down on me.

As I grew up, I began to find out that to be a Christian meant that I was to vote republican, because they were the ones who were against homosexuality and abortion.  And somewhere along the way there was the great battle between absolute and relative truth; liberalism verses conservative evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, there was always a battle to fight in the name of the Lord, and something had to separate Christians from their heathen counterparts.

I went to school for a Christian Studies degree, and discovered the great disciplines of theology and apologetics. These greatly helped in separating myself from the evil world, because I knew exactly what I was supposed to believe, and I knew how to prove people wrong in theirs.

Theological rightness became the cornerstone of my life. The goal for every Christian was to get their doctrine right, because without proper doctrine there would be no spiritual growth. It was okay to admit the struggles of believing this or that, just as long as there was a concerted effort to get it right—and when I say right, I do mean RIGHT.

Lately, I have been finding that the problem with such thinking is that I was basing people’s standing with God on something other than Jesus. The only distinction that the New Testament makes between people is those who are in the Kingdom, and those who are outside the Kingdom (and usually the people who thought they understood that distinction had it wrong!). There is nothing that makes someone less of a citizen of the Kingdom. Or to put it another way, once God has adopted a son or a daughter, that is exactly who they are. And no sin patterns or wrong belief changes that.

I say this with a little bit of pride, the Keith of even a year ago would have looked at the Keith of today, and called him a heretic who was slandering the teachings of Scripture. But the Keith of today is much softer, kinder, and gracious towards even himself than that other one.  There is less need for me (and others) to get it right, and more need for me to actually have a relationship with God. And that relationship is being built, not on the academic study of God, which has a habit of making him more into a set of facts, but on the contemplative disciplines—silence and solitude, meditation over Scripture, fixed-hour prayer.

And I don’t have it all together. That old Keith likes to come out every once and a while, and go a round or two. But I find him showing up less and less. I’ve made my goal to be like the leader that Henri Nouwen writes about:

Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice, and guidance. . . . Dealing with burning issues easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible but not relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle, and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, “In The Name of Jesus”