The Ugliness Of Theology

By Bishop Kenneth Myers

Bp. Kenneth MyersThey say there are two things you should never watch being made: sausage and laws. I’ve seen both being made, and I think watching the meat grinder of sausage making is a far more pleasant experience than watching the conniving, bickering, and backroom trickery of laws being made.

But I would add a third thing that is maybe more unpleasant to watch than either of these: the making of theology. If you read the history of how some incredibly important doctrines were hammered out, you will find it to be disgusting, mean-spirited, and worse than any political machinations coming out of Washington, D.C.

Case in point: the fourth century clarifications on the Trinity (a subject about which I am currently writing a book). I mean, we stand on Sundays and confess the Nicene Creed and have classes explaining each line and marvel at how beautifully true it is. We see it all polished and setting on the mantle and admire how perfectly it expresses the Christian faith. It has become, in fact, the “symbol of faith” for Christians everywhere.

But how we got it – and how we got the finely tuned doctrine of the Trinity – is another matter altogether, and there is nothing polished or marvelous or beautiful about the process. Here is just a sampling of the many ugly facets of fourth century Christianity:

  • The heretic Arius gets punched in the face by Bishop Nicholas of Myra (yes, St. Nicholas – Santa Claus).
  • The emperor Constantine throws around his imperial political weight, though he is more concerned with a united empire than a true faith.
  • Theological opponents connive to get one another thrown out of their churches – actually exiled from their cities (Athanasius was exiled seven times).
  • Secret meetings are held and others are forcibly kept away by conspiring military forces.
  • Some bishops say one thing, then say another, then insist the other thing was what they had been saying all along, when clearly this wasn’t the case.
  • Character assassination is the de rigueur – it is practically expected of everyone to slam the ethics and morals of “the other side.”
  • Backroom deals are made and compromises are agreed upon.
  • Best friends from childhood (Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil) end up being bitterly opposed to one another because of the politics of the church world even though they are on the same page theologically.

OK, now that I have painted such an ugly picture, allow me to approach the matter from a different angle. What shall we say about all this – about the nastiness of theological development? I think we have three possible responses.

The first isn’t really a response, just an ignorant and happy position that a lot of us Christians embrace: “Oh, isn’t our faith beautiful! And what a wonderful thing that such godly men were peacefully led by the Spirit to defend our precious faith against those nasty heretics.” This isn’t really a response because it is embracing a fairy tale instead of true history.

The second response is, “Well, then, it’s all bunk. It’s a bunch of conniving, corrupt, politically motivated, self-centered, agenda driven men doing everything they can to have it their way and be in control. You can’t trust that! So the whole thing is just rubbish. Every person has to find God in his or her own way, and forget about this messy, ugly, nasty, stinking pile of ungodly mean-spirited archaic theology.” The odd thing is, this is actually a more valid response than the fairy tale one. It actually works. It may not be the right response, but it at least makes decent sense.

The third option (I have obviously saved the best for last) is, “Lord, have mercy! How awful this history is, how terrible even some of the ‘good guys’ were. But look! God is at work in, with and under all of this, bringing about a beautiful understanding of truth. Sometimes God is at work in his Church in spite of the leaders more than because of the leaders. And in spite of their brokenness, fallenness, and sinfulness, God still works to bring forth that which is true and good and beautiful.”

And isn’t this precisely how God does work? Isn’t it how he has always worked? I mean, start with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not exactly stellar upstanding examples of godly ethics – they were liars and connivers that God chose and used for his purposes and his glory, to move his plan forward a step or two. Move on to some of the judges of Israel (Jepthah, for example, who made a human sacrifice of his daughter, or Sampson and his whole sordid story). How about King David, the adulterer and murderer? We could go on all day with Old Testament examples, but let’s jump to the New Testament. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, a wavering, doubting, Christ-denying man, a reed blown by the wind. Or Paul – I love me some Paul, but let’s admit it – he had a mean side. He actually wrote (in what has become Scripture to us) that he wished those semi-Christians who insisted on circumcision would just finish the job and castrate themselves completely! One gets the feeling that he would have happily wielded the knife himself.

Enough about them – let’s talk about you and me. We are sinners, we are full of mistakes, we have taken a thousand wrong turns along the way, we are still sometimes very much a mess (in spite of the pretty facade we show the world). And yet, don’t we find God mercifully and lovingly at work in us, most of the time in spite of ourselves? And don’t we find that the wrong turns we make end up being circuitous routes to where he was leading us all along? And doesn’t he sometimes turn our mistakes into things of beauty, our scars into stars? Lady Julian of Norwich asked God about all the mess of the world and how in heaven’s name he could deal with it, and his response (famously borrowed by T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets) was, “And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

God is in control. Usually in spite of us. But he is in control in a kind of “left handed” way (as Robert Capon used to say). We are expecting a right handed God to do things in a right handed way, and he surprises us from out of nowhere and does things completely different than we expect. St. Paul got this: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being[d] might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1.27-29). And in another place, “ And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[a] for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).

So – back to the Nicene Creed and the fourth century Christian sausage-making machine: it isn’t pleasant to watch the process, in fact it is downright disgusting (kind of like looking at the process of our own lives). But the end result is a work of God, and a beauty to behold. “All manner of things shall be well.” It is a lesson of trust – trusting that God really is in control, and really will bring about the good, the true, and the beautiful. And that, my friends, is good news.


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