On Theology and Personality

I’m going to try and turn now to the whole issue of theology. Namely, how can I consider myself a catholic Anglican and yet be in favor of the ordination of women and same-sex unions?

I believe that there are good ways and bad ways to answer this question. I’m going to try and do it a good way but that necessarily (for me) translates to “long-winded”. (More on that below.) My goal here will not be to change anyone’s mind. Rather, I will try to lay out what I believe in I hope a consistent fashion. Whether it’s a convincing fashion will be left up to my readers…

Given my time constraints, this apologia will necessarily appear in little bits—hopefully bits that build upon one another. Once I reach what seems to be a satisfactory conclusion or run out of steam (perhaps the more likely alternative…),  I will attempt to weave them into a single statement. As such, what comes out here in these bits should be regarded as “provisional” and nowhere near “final” (Again—more on that below.)

First Bit

On Theology

I can’t conceive of theology as a single monolithic thing. Indeed, it’s impossible for it to be so. I define theology as our ways of interacting with God and how we relate to one another and the world in light of who God is and who we are.  As you can see, this definition isn’t just about thinking. It’s about acting as well. And—necessarily—feeling, and hoping, and assuming, and a whole bunch of other things rolled in there as well.

As I tell my students: everybody has a theology whether they’re aware of it or not. And I’ll suggest that much of our theology tends to remain in the realm of the unconscious and subconscious. We assume models and habits and frames of mind. Part of a good theological education is helping people examine their theologies and bring the main points to light for conscious reflection and deliberation, but even then there are swathes that I believe remain submerged.

The way I discussed this in preaching class is that people—especially seminarians—find themselves trying to operate out of at least two different sets of theologies which I refer to simply as “head theology” and “gut theology”. “Head theology” is what we carry in our conscious mind, especially those of us who have been taught theology in a conscious way. When you sit down to take a theology exam in seminary, “head theology” is what gets put on the page for professorial review. The way you answer a question at the church door or when you’re caught unaware in a hallway is more likely “gut theology”; it’s what just comes out… This theology, I’ll suggest, is more likely to be unconscious and subconscious. It’s the theology you’ve absorbed throughout your life from assimilating bits of liturgies and Sunday School classes and experiences and all the myriad moments that construct our lives of faith and sin. It tends to be less thought out, tends to be less internally cohesive, and tends to be more basic and primal to our person. Thus, an issue for preachers, especially novice ones but I’ve seen it in old experienced ones too, is when a sermon starts in “head theology” then drifts into “gut theology” and the beginning and end of the sermon find themselves in two entirely different places. The integrative goal of a theological education, then, is to bring to light at least the central core principles of one’s “gut theology”, to try and sort out the incorrect and toxic portions that don’t proclaim or that actively deny the Gospel, and to integrate the “head theology” pieces that are worth keeping. (For the record, toxic portions would include any that begin “God won’t/can’t love me because…”)

So what does this look like? It means when we learn about theology we hear lots of cool ideas. Some we discard upon examining them. Others, we really like the idea so we try and believe it. Some, we think we do. But only a certain number filter into that authentic place of subconscious cognition that is gut theology. I think the process of theological growth (related to but I think different from spiritual growth) is learning techniques to make our gut theologies every more consciously accessible and assimilating the truly important Gospel-bearing head bits into our guts.

It’s a process. I still marvel at how much of my gut theology is driven by Lutheran instincts despite having been an intentional and theologically aware Anglican for almost a decade.

Thus—I see theology on the level of the individual. So what about Christian theology? Or the theology of any particular church, sect or group?

Church Theologies

There are two ways to answer this question. One is to look at what “a church believes” which is to try and construct a picture of actual belief by taking the amalgam what all of its various members think, say, and do. We’ll short-hand this CT1 for convenience. The second is to look at what the church official declares as its beliefs. We’ll call this CT2.

When I talk about “church theology” I do it on the level of CT2, not CT1. I see the role of a church as drawing boundaries. They show the acceptable limits what what their given group will tolerate. Anything within those boundaries is fair game; anything outside of it is theology, put not proper and correct theology as taught by the group.

As far as Christian theology goes, I understand the boundaries of Christian faith to be described by the Nicene Creed, the Canon of Scripture, and Apostolic Succession. Unfortunately, there is disagreement between groups that understand themselves to be Christian about exactly what these mean. Personally, I take them to mean the Creed as understood literally, the Old and New Testaments including the Apocrypha, and the line of teaching of the faith that stretches back to the apostles. Thus in my potentially (but not necessarily) idiosyncratic reading, Baptists are in, Mormons are out.

When I left the Lutheran church, I had a high level of concern over the fact that CT1 did not match CT2. That is, I met a lot of seminarians at the ELCA seminaries who were not Confessional Lutherans. (Far more were Liberal Protestants in ways that I didn’t think stayed within the Confessional boundaries.) But that’s not why I left; I left because I knew that I was outside those boundaries and I could not swear at my ordination to preach, teach, and uphold them if I didn’t believe. Granted, I wasn’t hugely outside, but it was enough so that it could have caused major friction with congregations I was called to serve and that’s no basis on which to build a ministry…

I can state what I think Episcopal theology is (the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral + the theologies embedded in the 1979 BCP), but Anglo-Catholic theology is a more tricky problem. In theory I like the notion that an Anglo-Catholic is one who holds the doctrine of the Undivided Church but has freedom in areas of discipline, but I can see gray areas in both a definition of what the Undivided Church’s doctrine might be and what is doctrine and what discipline. (I have no doubt this point will get returned to, possibly multiple times…)

I’m setting up, therefore, theology as an individual activity that must fall somewhere within the boundaries sketched by one’s ecclesial affiliation.

On the Individual and Personal Nature of Theology

Hmmm. Why all the emphasis on “the individual”, you wonder… Where’s this heading? With all of this talk of unconscious, subconscious, “gut theologies” et al. is this an attempt at an end-run around the notion of big-T-Truth? No, it’s not.

I do believe that there are objective truths. For instance, I believe that the creeds teach objective truths. However (and you knew there was going to be a however, didn’t you), our apprehension of these is by subjective means. These will vary to a greater or lesser degree based on the objective truth presented. It’s hard to get too subjective with “God exists” although some people will start diddling around with the meaning of “God”. I think we all get the same fundamental picture when we hear of God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. There will necessarily different shades of meaning though for “father”, “creator” and even “heavens and earth” based on who we are, where we came from and what we were taught.

To my mind this isn’t fudge, this is a simple and straight-forward look at the reality that we deal with signs, symbols, metaphors, and images when we do theology and that language is only partly adequate to encompass discussion of the transcendent. If this makes me a wishy-washy relativist, then St Augustine is in the boat with me (See On Christian Doctrine).

What is more difficult and will definitely be revisited is our ability to distinguish and identify all relevant objective truths.

But no, a descent into relativism is not why I’m going the “individual” route. Rather, it’s because I think our personality has a rather large role in determining what our theology looks like, what we find credible and convincing, and what we don’t. What convinces me may not convince you. A personality requirement you hold for theology may not matter at all to me.

I could try and talk this out, but it’ll be simpler to give you an example by giving you a sense of how my personality interfaces with my theology.

My Theologically Pertinent Personality

Right at the top I’ll put these points have a significant bearing on my theological requirements:

  • I have a moderate-trending-low need for theological certainty
  • I have a high need for applicability
  • If the applicability requirement is being met, I can tolerate a moderate amount of ambiguity
  • I have a low tolerance for oversimplification

To come at this from a different direction, I like complex interlocking systems of thought that can produce clear principles for acting. Because I like a system that’s complex, I’m ok with it having a certain degree of provisionality that is subject to being revised upon a better understanding of the system or a constituent part.

My nature is fundamentally synthetic. That is, I’m always trying to gather as much data possible, then to construct models that fit the data as completely as possible. New inputs of data into the system require tweaking of the model. Life is data. Therefore no model of mine this side of the veil can ever or will ever be “final”.

This personality, then, has a bearing on how I “do” theology—and on the theology that comes out.

And I think that’s enough for this bit…

13 thoughts on “On Theology and Personality

  1. Robb

    I can’t really say why, but the portion of this reflection that stands out may very well have been a throw away line. You say, “Life is data.”

    This immediately reminds me of Edwin Friedman’s work on leadership, particularly the third chapter of A Failure of Nerve. The whole chapter is quote worthy, but I am especially drawn to this section: “As long as leaders…base their confidence on how much data the have acquired, they are doomed to feel inadequate, forever…Yet everywhere in our society, the social science construction of reality has confused information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change for almost anything new, and complexity with profundity. Neither parents nor presidents will ever be able to escape the flood of data that engulfs them, either by trying to limit its expansion or by trying to keep up with its flow. Now is specialization a way out, since it only sends the avalanche of information in the opposite direction.”

    Friedman goes on to argue that the only solution is develop a sort of criteria for discernment of information, for certainly not all information is worth gathering, much less integrating. He goes on to suggest that the way our society approaches data is a pathology.

    This over emphasis on data leads us to the place where we currently find ourselves far too often in the church: a place where the emphasis is on programmatic technique and quick-fix approaches.

    If I read you correctly, Derek, I think your emphasis on data is used to illustrate the provisional nature of your theological boundaries. Isn’t it possible, however, to allow data to become a foundation a sand? At what point do you say that you have gathered enough data to speak with certainty on particulars. For instance, you mention the Creed early on as one of your boundaries. Is this provisional as well based on data?

    More to the point, i guess what I am saying is that I am curious on how you will approach this: “What is more difficult and will definitely be revisited is our ability to distinguish and identify all relevant objective truths.”

  2. Derek the Ænglican


    The way I see it is (and I’ll probably flesh this out more later) is that the main shape of the faith is fairly stable and fixed. What the data changes is nuances. Think of it as a low-res scan of an image. The changing and provisional parts are more the fine-tuning and detail rather than the main shapes themselves.

    The Creeds etc. are more like the anchors that hold everything down. Those aren’t provisional but secure pieces. Christological doctrine as defined by the councils, the hypostatic union, these aren’t subject to change. There may be fine-tuning to help us appreciate better what the Fathers were trying to say, but that fine-tuning should be within the parameters of both the spirit and letter of the original definitions.

    Data paralysis is more of a danger when more needs to be settled—but that’s part of being a creedal Christian committed to the historic faith: there’s quite a lot that I don’t have to settle.

  3. Christopher

    Derek, I think the Anglican “sufficient” quite helpful in speaking precisely to your secure-yet-fine-tuning notion. We maintain the Mystery of a Person while refusing to suggest there is nothing about him which can be said. God become human in fact makes himself available to be identified sufficiently in language.

    What you describe here reminds me of certain modern strands of Anglo-Catholic-esque thinking, such as Temple and Ramsey. They have an openness and breadth to them that marks them also as Anglican.

  4. Derek the Ænglican


    What I cite above is, despite the many issues with it, the rough-and-ready definition I use the most, that the catholic faith is the doctrine taught by the Undivided Church.

  5. The young fogey

    Nice work. I’m not being sarcastic; you know I don’t agree but this gets my respect. I think I understand. The difference is the things you consider matters of discipline are things Catholicism considers matters of doctrine (at least on the level of the ordinary magisterium) so you’re still barely on the Protestant side of the fence from our POV. But you’re credally orthodox, high-church (including in the original, ecclesiological sense of authority… a stronger sense of the church than the Lutheranism you left*) and not a liberal Protestant who likes dress-up. We’re pointing in the same Godward general direction along with Pope Benedict and the Orthodox convert boomlet. Looking forward to more.

    *Weak ecclesiology including lack of apostolic succession as essential seem to me the heart of what makes Lutherans Lutheran (what makes them Protestants) as faith vs works was a non-issue all along.

  6. Christopher

    Actually this kind of applied openness, I’ve discovered is a typically Anglican catholicity and Anglican way of being Catholic that is distinct from the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox, who after all are not the beginning and end of catholic Christianity. I do not measure my catholicity by these other communions/churches and I don’t think Anglicans should. There is something quite monastic and contemplative about our catholic approach to life.

    We are comfortable with a certain contingency about matters and a respect for the mystery of persons and Persons that is comfortable with sufficiency rather than certainty, with indefectible rather than infallible, discovery rather than theory, plene esse rather than esse. I suspect that the influences of our past, including Celtic and Benedictine traditions as well as our bloody fights, have a play in this unique way of being catholic. At our generous best, this form of catholicity can reach both to Lutherans and Reformed as well as to Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

  7. Lee

    Derek, great post with some helpful distinctions.

    I think one issue begging to be explored is how to understand the function of doctrine. Is it to describe or depict reality in some way? Or does it have a more pragmatic function, e.g., to channel our religious experience, life, and piety in certain directions. Granted these aren’t clearly separable notions. Are you familiar with George Lindbeck’s typology? I don’t think he gets it right in all respects, but that’s the kind of thing I’m referring to.

    I also wonder if it might be appropriate to distinguish in some way between dogma and doctrine, with dogma applying only to the more central truths that (most) Christians hold in common.

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