I taught a class a couple of years ago called Everyday Theology.
The main idea for the class was that we are always living out our theology. With every little decision, we are revealing what we value and the concepts we believe to be true. The most interesting part of the class was talking about and revealing some concepts that are not based in reality – what I am calling here ‘Bad Theologies.’
Of course, I’m using the word theology to mean something both bigger and more mundane that the academic discipline of study about God. By theology, I mean those often invisible ideas and assumptions that permeate our thinking about what is real, how we know what we know, and how we are must live. I hope you’ll get a feel for what I mean by exploring this Buzzfeed-style Top 5 list.
1. Cheap Karma
Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about Cheap Grace… in my own parlance, this is a way of misunderstanding God’s grace that ends up meaning that everything is just okie dokie. Cheap karma is similar in that it takes a religious concept that has value and turns it into a greeting card.
Cheap Karma is that idea that good things happen to people who do good things. The corollary is more dangerous – that bad things happen to people who do bad things.
Occasionally, it works (maybe just often enough to reinforce our cognitive prejudices): you are cut off in traffic by a person driving dangerously and a mile later you see them pulled over by the highway patrol. “Ha! Karma!” you think. But the idea that you do good things for a reward is really awful.
Plus, there are lots of people suffering in the world that surely don’t deserve it. Karma of course is a Hindu belief that the universe works in logical, cause-and-effect ways over many years and many, many lifetimes. Cheap karma is just a “what comes around, goes around” falsehood.
I lost my phone last summer at SeaWorld with my Girl Scout troop. My co-leader (a lovely non-traditionally spiritual person) suggested that we might think positively, sending good vibes to the universe that would bring my phone back to me. I explained that my philosophy is more akin to “it is what it is” and our spirituality consists of our response to life as it is. We had our different responses to the minor crisis of my lost phone. Maybe chance; maybe my friend’s good vibes… but a kind person shipped my phone to me the next week. So it’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about regarding Cheap Karma.
I won’t say too much about this one, except that if you think the USA is somehow a shining city on a hill on a mission from God… you need to pay closer attention. My first exposure to this Bad Theology was in high school when an evangelical youth pastor explained to me that America is now God’s Chosen People. Even at that tender age, I could smell something.
Because it’s an election year, we’ll see this particular theology left, right, and center – so to speak.
3. Transactional Salvation
This one is a biggie. The crux of the idea is that God requires something specific from us in order to escape the fires of hell.
For some evangelicals and fundamentalists, it’s the Sinner’s Prayer or ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’ or a personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior. For Catholics, the requirements are more subtle and more complex. But any kind of thinking that involves I do/choose/perform/pray/vote/act a certain way to get heaven/blessings/grace from God is a nonstarter for me.
Sometimes at Shadow Rock we call it “gettin’ your ticket punched” or Fire Insurance. Two huge problems with this particular Bad Theology: 1) it totally discounts and misunderstands the nature of Ultimate Reality or in traditional language, God’s grace and 2) after folks get their ticket punched (or pray the magic prayer or whatever), they tend to stop growing and learning.
4. Redemptive Violence
The Myth of Redemptive Violence might be THE Bad Theology. It’s everywhere. The premise is that violence is useful, even NECESSARY, for problem-solving. For the background and history of redemptive violence, see Walter Wink. For an on-the-ground feel for it, check out Batman, Rango (it’s particularly obvious in this movie), or any superhero movie or any children’s cartoon ever. “Good guys” use violence to defeat the “bad guys.” But if both sides are using the same violent methods, who can tell the difference? That’s why it’s so useful to get an intuitive grasp of this through fictional settings. It’s less jarring than looking at the newspaper, where the same exact thing is happening. I’ll start with two problems with this Bad Theology as well: 1) it keeps us from looking at more peaceful and creative ways to change bad things and 2) if we make good things happen through causing pain, it makes us more likely to assume that God does the same thing..
Human beings, in my estimation, are most likely to go off the rails when we think we have it all figured out. When we imagine that the universe works in a certain way through certain rules that we can grasp with our gigantic frontal lobes, we are foolish. Things change. Perspectives can be radically dissimilar. There is so much we don’t know. Yet at the same time, humans are meaning-making, meaning-grasping, meaning-creating creatures. THIS IS WHAT WE DO. We make rules, draw conclusions, see patterns. So it’s possible that I’m being too harsh on the species.
Religion and faith and spirituality are the sources for much good in the world… when they are grounded in reality. This Top 5 is just a start. Where do you see people – even yourself – living out Bad Theology?