Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Theology Amidst the Rubble (of Earthquakes and Human Minds)

The New York Times on Monday ran a feature story about the devastation on one particular street, Avenue Poupelard, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. The documentary provides a snapshot of life in Haiti's largest city following the earthquake, a narrative of human suffering, survival, perseverance, creativity, and halting attempts to re-image the future.

There is an evangelical church on Avenue Poupelard - at least, there was a church. Prior to the earthquake, Pastor Enso Sylvert preached to hundreds of worshipers, crowds so large that many stood on the sidewalk outside the church doors, straining to hear his sermons. Now, according to the Times, Sylvert preaches outdoors within a makeshift camp of homeless neighborhood residents adjacent to the church grounds, and he is as zealous as ever, preaching that "our only hope lies with God."

Yet not all the homeless on Avenue Poupeland apparently share that sentiment. Within the camp, according to one resident, "We are trying to stay on friendly terms, but sometimes there are disputes." And what are those disputes? Food, water, clothing, or perhaps shelter? No. Rather, as the Times writer summarizes, "a theological debate about exactly what God was trying to say when he shook Haiti to its core."

At the time of one of the greatest natural disasters and human sufferings of recent decades, in the midst of a lack of the basic necessities required to sustain human life - theology divides the victims.

Some preachers, whether it be Sylvert standing atop the rubble of the Haiti earthquake or Pat Robertson speaking from atop the throne of his television empire, know and declare the mind of God, passing it along to lesser mortals. Meanwhile, among persons in the pews and streets, and even amidst calamitous ruins, God's mind is much less certain.

"Why can't we all just get along?"
said Rodney King, an African-American beaten by white police offers in Los Angeles in 1991. It's as good a question as any that gets to the heart of an unresolvable human problem: theology.

Ultimately, God is what humans say God is. Despite religious fundamentalists' claims to the textual perfection of their respective holy books (whether it be imaginary original autographs of a particular Christian canon, the preserved text of the 7th century Islamic scriptures penned from Mohammad's visions, the translated text of Joseph Smith's visions in the early 19th century, etc.) that forever settle questions about God, all religious expressions - from the most conservative to the most liberal - in reality place their respective faiths in a mental vision of who God is and an interpretation of what God does and says.

In short, apart from the human mind, there is no theology ("God-talk"). Absent theology, there is no God. God exists because we talk about God (or, if you wish, since we talk about God, God exists). If this sounds outrageous, consider that if no one in human history had ever thought or said anything about God (whether singular or plural), religion would not exist. Majestic mountains, fertile valleys and teeming wildlife on planet earth (not to mention the incomprehensible breadth and scope and diversity of the universe) may reflect the imaginative and unsurpassed power of a Creator who exists beyond time and space, but the frail and fickle human mind is the prism through which the Creator is imaged as God.

And so we return to the ruins of Avenue Poupelard in Haiti. Amidst the rubble, theology divides. Minds grasp for God, shaping and re-shaping God as personal circumstances, desires and environment warrant. God is who we say God is. And we too often choose a God who reflects the rumbling discontent of our own minds. Therein lies the danger of crusaders - preachers, priests, prophets, politicians, pundits and even pew-sitters - who devote their energies to conquering all Gods who exist apart from their own respective minds.

1 comment:

UncleJesse said...

Your right Bruce, everyone needs an answer to how God works. This somehow makes us feel better. Then we divide theologically, and this slows our human progress.