Monday, 13 January 2014

Stuff People Say: “I do Jesus, not theology”

Martin Smith writes....

I was brought up to have hot milk with my Weetabix. It was the done thing. In our house, cold milk was fine for Cornflakes or Rice Krispies but it had to be hot for Weetabix.

It took me a while to realise that this practise was not universal. I couldn’t have been much younger than eighteen when, having had enough conversations that began with “you have hot milk with your Weetabix?” I become fully conscious that other people had different cereal eating habits.

When I became conscious of different stances toward Weetabix eating, I realised for the first time that I had a stance at all. I had not even been aware, beforehand, that there was a question to be raised about whether it was good to have Weetabix with hot milk or not. I just ate cereal.

All of us eventually have these experiences. We grow and come into contact with other families and their customs. They are like mini episodes of cross-cultural exposure. The only world we have known is suddenly shown to be just one world among many.

Of course, questions about Weetabix and the ideal temperature of the accompanying milk are pretty trivial. You get much more profound versions of these cross-cultural experiences when you actually leave your country and visit or live somewhere else. There you can be faced with a whole new language and way of life.

The differences are likely to strike you as negative at first. “Why don’t these people care when their friends arrive hours late with extra, uninvited guests?” “Why don’t they care that the whole neighborhood is butting into their business?”  

Faced with such difference, though, you suddenly realize that you have a stance on marriage, money, time, space, emotion, respect, and basically everything. You might not have thought that beforehand. You just lived your life. You turned up when you were told to and sent a text if you were running late. You expected privacy from your neighbors and you gave it back. It never occurred to you that there could even possibly be a debate about these things.

What has all this got to do with the title of this post?

Some Christians say things like, “I do Jesus, not theology.”

What they mean, I think, is that they don’t take themselves to have stances on theological issues. They aren’t into that. They just follow Jesus.

In a sense, they are right. They probably do just follow Jesus. They probably don’t consciously articulate and reflect on theological stances.

But as we learn from cross-cultural encounters, mini or profound, we can hold a stance without being conscious that we do.

Learning about theology is, in part, the attempt to have a cross-cultural encounter. It is the attempt to generate self-awareness through encountering difference. You learn what other people from different traditions and different times think and become aware of the stances you have.

Like all cross-cultural experiences, the differences are likely to strike you as negative at first. But with some openness and humility you eventually find some of the differences calling your stances into question. “Why do I think that? Maybe their way is better after all.”

It’s a freeing experience. If a stance of ours toward God or his world is wrong, we can’t correct it unless we are aware of it. Self-awareness generated through theological learning allows us to grow in truth rather than stay trapped in error.

Maybe you don’t, at present, consciously do theology. But I would recommend it as a means of growing in self-awareness and in knowledge of the truth.

Martin Smith works at the Oxford Centre for
Christian Apologetics, and is also undertaking
an MA in the Philosophy of Health & Happiness

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