Be careful how you interpret the world. It is like that.
My laptop is back. I had noticed it was behaving strangely and taking forever to boot up in the morning, but last week it failed. I headed off for GeekSquad which had sold me the unit two years ago. Because I maintain a couple of websites, I stressed the urgency of a repair and went home to wait. I had saved all my documents on USB sticks and the updates were recent.
If you have any doubts about your addictions, take away your devices for a few days. “Left to my own devices” had a whole new meaning and made me ponder my interpretation of the world and what was currently in it. Here was some of it – readings for a couple of discussion groups, daily piano practice (I’m back doing this after resuming lessons), exercises to remedy a problem with the sciatic nerve, finishing reading a novel, cleaning the apartment, needing to do the laundry, grocery shopping. These might be seen as a reasonable workload for an 82 year old.
But they weren’t. I was obsessed with the absence of the laptop. Where was the more sombre view of what was happening in the US as documented in the New York Times online? What did I owe the accountant for my taxes – since the invoice now came electronically? What were they saying on Washington Week? This might seem obsessively American. I live in Canada. I had access to mail on a tablet and a phone. But I felt as though someone had removed part of my brain and it was in the shop. Where were the 20 or 30 newsletters that came through Unroll,me?
Thus, I was ready for of all things – theology. A book, Life Abundant, was buried on a shelf but I hadn’t looked at it for years. I met the author at a west coast retreat centre some years ago and told her I had just bought her book. “Which one?” she asked, and on hearing the title, she responded, “I’m so glad. I’ve been writing the same book 14 times so far and this is the best version yet”. Amazon tells me that there are later ones, but this one is more than sufficient.
The book’s subtitle is Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Sallie McFague taught at Vanderbilt Theology School for more than 30 years and is now based at Vancouver School of Theology where she is still teaching and conducting research. She starts this book by explaining that she has spent many years teaching religious autobiography, but when challenged, realized that she had never written her own. It’s a reminder that we all have one – whether we are part of a denomination, or agnostic or atheist. The last thing we generally have time for thought as to what it is.
During re-reading, I was giving myself brownie points that reflection was the most frequent tag on my blog posts, but theology is more than that. I’m generally optimistic and see life more as a comedy than a tragedy. These days it’s more like a farce with a reality show leader keeping us all glued for the latest episode where we couldn’t make this stuff up. We are amused and appalled. But what does it say about us? I’m so busy being a spectator of this soap opera that I don’t need to reflect on my own life – and the fact that I’ve got to be further along on the downward slope than I want to be.
The laptop is back. The hard drive has been replaced and so has a new version of MS Office with an amazing number of new distractions. I have been surprised at how quickly I am up and running. Press a button on the modem – and we’re back on line. Bring back the mail services. Check. Bookmark all the frequently visited sites. Check. Bring back all the saved files. Check. Anything missing? Personal photos weren’t among the saved files. I’ve just obliterated a major part of two decades. Still I later found many of them on a stick. But the lack of care about what really matters has hit home.
So what is this theology stuff? McFague says it is “words about God” but refreshingly she reminds us that it is about an interpretation of the world as we see it. Any theology is going to involve three C’s – context, content and criteria. That’s going to keep us busy for a bit.
Context reminds us that the documents of any faith are written in a particular time in history. These reflect the interpretation of the writers based on their own understanding of the universe in which they dwell. The reflections will be of necessity partial and relative to the context. For this reason. McFague says that any theology needs an adjective in front of it to clarify the group espousing it. The adjective in front of “Christian” for example, might be “liberation, feminist, fundamentalist, progressive – or a name of hundreds of denominations with different emphases and views. The speaker matters.
Content depends on experience – but again McFague notes that experience is the channel and the means that it comes through – not the content itself. Something comes into our life as a revelation or an insight that concerns the relationship of a god or creator that is of such importance that it affects our orientation to the world and our behavior. It’s not religious experience so much as ordinary experience.
The big question then becomes – who is our neighbour. I asked this question in a discussion group in my parish church last week. The answers were what I expected – the person who lived down the block or in the apartment next door – whose name we might not know. But as I look out my window from a high floor, I can observe a barrier around a tree that is going to be removed to accommodate reconstruction of a water reservoir. I live in a large metropolitan North American city. Are my neighbours people of colour? People who live in the third world? People of other faiths? Other creatures? Oceans? A tree?
Our world contains questions that are more than we can ask or imagine. We have to explore further. The criteria will have to wait for a later post.