Rational Theology

For several years, I have relied upon a website as my go to place for in-depth and way out there etymology, history and theology. The commentators know the Jewish and Christian scriptures in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Syriac and Coptic. They are scholars and they are also physicists and mathematicians. Their insights connecting theology to modern science are often profound. Recently I learned that this collection of scholars and theologians are connected to a place called the “Center for Rational Theology” located in Belgrade, Serbia.

As a scientist, by nature, I question everything. When I hear or study other preachers and religious speakers, I often become suspicious about what I am hearing or reading. Allow me to share with you some of my rules for hermeneutical suspicion.

  1. If the theological claims or interpretations make people feel guilty, ashamed, or bad in any way. It is anathema.
  2. If the theological claims or interpretations build up a huge following, it is anathema.
  3. If the theological claims or interpretations enable the pastors or preachers to earn more than ten times the average person in their congregation. It is anathema.
  4. If the theological claims or interpretations condemn other groups or people. It is anathema.
  5. If the theological claims or interpretations are designed to channel people into one particular church while casting doubt and negativity on all other churches. It is anathema.
  6. If the theological claims or interpretations carry an air of absolute certainty, it is anathema.

So, there you go. I am from Missouri, the “show me” state. Over the centuries, various groups have figured out ways to twist scripture and religious tradition to fill various human needs.  Here is a partial list of what is to be  gained by such theological contortions.

Institutional power – This role has been traditionally the domain of the Roman Catholic church in the west but is increasingly displaced by the power of evangelical churches (as in the presidential prayer breakfast)

Personal power – When a local religious congregation grows and there is poor oversight on the management of funds donated, individuals can amass enormous wealth. This is how TV preachers get large, private jets and mansions.

Political power – When a religious congregation or the whole body realizes it can accrue more power through a close political alignment, watch out. This happens both for liberal and conservative causes.

Social power – Sometimes scripture is interpreted in ways to reinforce oppressive social conditions. Slavery is one example. Today the scapegoats of biased scriptural interpretation include many other groups such as gays, immigrants, children, sex workers, women, and non-Christians to name a few.

Whenever theological claims and scriptural interpretations build up any of these forms of power, the will of man is displacing the will of God. These dynamics happen throughout history with all religions and cultures.

I am not suggesting that all large religious institutions are flawed, but the potential for misuse exists at every level. To be sure, most institutions are a combination of good will, good intentions, solid attempts to interpret scripture along with a host of temptations and darker motivations.

What are some practical tests of honest, rational theology at work in a local church?

  • Scripture is open for interpretation by anyone, not just the pastor
  • There is no guilt, shame or manipulation
  • Radical hospitality welcoming everyone
  • Focus on love, acceptance and mutuality instead of sin, guilt, and the need for redemption
  • The income of the leader is about the average for the group
If you can find a religious body with most of these items in place, you are much more likely to find the Holy Spirit at work instead of a system meeting the power needs of one or more leaders.

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