In the week leading up to ETS, I took the itinerary of events that came with my registration packet and created a schedule of the parallel sessions I hoped to attend. I flipped through books by John Piper and N.T. Wright on justification. I read Grudem and Erickson on the same topic. I also browsed through Grudem's new politics book that I knew he would be discussing. I was as excited as a 4-year-old in a candy store; I was a theological student in a high-calorie theology cafe.
At the same time, a friend (who I had hoped would be attending ETS with me) was saying goodbye to his 4-month-old baby girl. Jane was born with some serious heart issues; and on top of that, she was born prematurely. For four months this little girl and her parents were in my prayers. They still are. She was in need of some serious surgeries, but they were not to be and she never left the hospital. She joined Jesus in heaven--I missed the funeral.
In the months leading up to ETS, I found myself thinking about how the application of my theology worked in the reality of the fallen world in which we live. Does my theology have hands that reach into people's lives? Does my theology have feet to go where God wants it to go? Is my theology accessible? Does it bare fruit or is it a seedless tree? As I looked around me and saw the life of real people, Christians and not, I started to examine my theology, deeply, in the real world. I was finding that my theology was okay (for the most part) but the application was not.
I was getting a feeling that my theology was a molded idol and I was bowing down before it. Many people do not see the problem with this so let me be clear: theology is a study that helps us understand God and his relationship with his creation. The study itself is not to be worshiped; neither are the doctrines, papers, books, computer software, theologians, professors, speakers, pastors, ideas, debates, sermons, lectures, seminaries, Church history, denominations, or any other aspect that finds itself yoked to theology. Rather, theology should be viewed as nothing but a tool to help us rightly understand the only appropriate subject of our worship. But my theology was giving way to something lifeless. I was starting to question if my theological lens would show me the same picture in other income levels, denominations, geographical locations, cultures, and even in different time periods. And if so, could I communicate my beliefs and theology in other environments, or is my theology dependent upon something it should not be?
When I arrived at ETS, it was hard not to notice the serious lack of diversity. The meeting is dominated by white, older men. Suits. Beards. And of the students, they either looked like "mini-me" professors or cloned Mark Driscolls. Conversations seemed to circle around seminary networking and debates that have little significance in the reality of anyone outside of the academic environment. Given recent circumstances and conversations, I quickly realized that there was an idol obstructing my view of the Living God.
My academic desires were limited in helping me understand God's sovereign dealings with little Jane and her parents. In fact, Jane's life taught me more about our King of kings than any professor ever could. In this situation, I didn't need to know about God, I needed to really, deeply know him.
Grudem, N.T. Wright and Polycarp had little to say to the man on the plane next to me who's understanding of his “Christian” faith was about nothing but the politics of abortion and our need to keep “In God We Trust” printed on our money. Neither did his faith keep him from looking at foot-fetish pornography on his phone as we flew from Dallas to Atlanta. And the economic collapse had destroyed his idea of any hope in anything, yet time and time again he would tell me he had been a Christian since high school.
Having to take work with me to the conference, knowing I was missing Jane's funeral, and being unable to get a flight home broke down my academic facade. Struggling under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, I left ETS and made my way to the house of some friends. The contrast between the hotel ballroom and MARTA (Atlanta's public transit system) was sharp. And when I got on a full Cobb County Transit bus, I discovered I was the only white person on board. Even more contrast was found as I observed the other riders. They wore their poverty. They were dishwashers and mechanics, fast food employees. A young, tired mother of three flirted with man in a McDonald uniform. Some were likely unemployed. There was no way the papers, panels, and debates I had heard earlier that day would have any reach onto this bus.
The next day, my friend took me out to BBQ and a Thrashers game. Over some great wings, we talked about the realities of being men-- husbands and fathers. Together we celebrated victories and laughed about our shared realities. We encouraged one another in our shortfalls and struggles. Right there in that wood-floored roadhouse we found holy ground. The theological application had life and it pointed us to God.
We had fun at the NHL game. The Thrashers shut out the Capitals. Then we made our way back into the bowels of the MARTA station. The platform was packed. People of all walks of life stood together waiting for the train. Standing out on one end of the crowd, slightly away from the pack, was a man in suit. I had him pegged in a second. “Are you here for ETS?” I asked the man. He turned around and was still wearing his conference badge. And right then, in the tunnel, my two worlds met. Academia and reality.
The man was no different than anybody I met at ETS and yet he was completely out of place waiting for the train. After introducing myself and exchanging pleasantries, I asked him about Wright's idea of justification. Suddenly, the man had a lifeline. He lit up and started postulating about the aspects of Calvinism and grace, free will and the inability to save ourselves. He used huge academic concepts. While I had a good idea of what he was discussing and I knew that he and I could have gone for about an hour on the topic, I could see that my friend and Christian brother was removed from the conversation. Even after an hour—if the professor and I had talked for that long—there would have been no fruit or life in the conversation. Here we were in a subway full of people not doing anything to point them (or ourselves) toward Christ. Our theology in that moment had no practical application.
I'm coming to see that Jesus took the complicated and made it simple. The Scribes and Pharisees did just the opposite. I've found that I have often missed the opportunity to make something simple for someone who needed to see God in a real way. In no way do I think seminary or the papers or the study is bad, but we Christians must remember the purpose for these things. (They are just tools, to be used in our theological workshop. When looking at a fine crafted piece of wood furniture, we marvel at the end product, not the tools that the woodworker used to craft it.) We must keep focused on making the complex simple. Our theological application must work cross-culturally and cross-economically. I pray that my academic pursuits remain what they are to be: a tool to better help me understand God and His revelation to us. I pray that I am able to keep it simple so it actually impacts lives and points people toward their Creator and Savior.
*Photo of a woman sleeping was taken by Damon "tigger89" and is registered under a creative commons license. Photo of professor was taken by Lamont Cranston and is registered under a creative commons license.