This is the fifth part of a six-part series about an imaginary journey to an Episcopal seminary where I ask hard questions about Christianity and priesthood. Without twenty-first-century answers, I may have to drop out. You can find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.
This week, I’m attending my first class on systematic theology, a discipline of Christian theology that formulates an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the doctrines of the Christian faith.
I already dread this course. My first issue is which brand of Christianity we are going to discuss. Over thirty-three thousand different kinds of Christians exist.
And which God will we learn about? The one who lives above a three-tiered earth? Who is a him? Who had his son executed? Who makes bad things happens to good people? Who hates gays? Who starts religious wars? Who makes women second class citizens? Who punishes “bad” parents with children with disabilities?
I wonder if the professor will start with the Adam and Eve story or with the big bang theory. Will we be told that the earth is only about six thousand years old or about 4.54 billion years old. It sure makes a difference in one’s theology.
I believe in evolution, not creationism, which defies all reason.
The professor is not far into his lecture before I hear talk of a god who lives above a three-tiered earth and had a son through a virgin. Yikes!
Do I have the nerve to ask him if systematic theology accounts for all the other galaxies in the universe?
I’ll try a less threatening question: “Is God in charge of the entire universe?” I wonder how the professor will answer. If he says yes, should I ask if God has a favorite galaxy where he lives and judges people? I doubt the professor will answer no.
But he might reply that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omnipresent (everywhere), which always makes me want to ask why God doesn’t stop wars and prevent mass shootings.
Here’s a response I won’t hear: “God is an invention of mankind.” (Is there any truth in that statement?) Church people would say that’s agnostic.
I think a good response would be “God is beyond our human comprehension,” but my favorite answer would be “God is Creation, which is always happening everywhere.” I also like this answer: “God is the Ground of all Being.”
I know I’m going to hear about original sin, my most unfavorite idea. I always battled with the idea that God is supposedly good but makes people who are born bad. It makes no sense!
How does one fix original sin? The church says one must believe God had his son crucified (a horrible form of torture) to be the “sacrificial lamb” who washes away our sins. The daily six o’clock news reminds us that this concept is fallacious. But the Christian church still markets this Pauline fantasy.
I then suggest to the class that I have a systematic theology for the twenty-first-century. It starts with the principle that everyone is born good. The next principle is unconditional love, which is described in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) and includes forgiveness, acceptance of everyone, and caring for the hurting world. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31–40 to care for the “least of these.” So, our entire mission is to systematically minister to all the poor and oppressed. This would eliminate all that confusing dogma and doctrine.
The class is dead silent.
The next day, I receive a note from the dean. He wants to see me—immediately.