Theology and A Way of Life

By Glenda | February 22, 2012

Amazing.  I heard those same words many years ago, although in another context, to be sure.   The same words.  Though used differently.

Back then, it was a Native American elder speaking in a gentle and compassionate way to a group of interested non-natives. “Ours is not a theology,” he said, “it is a way of life.”

He went on to speak about the Native Americans’ reverence for the ecological whole of life, for the earth and all the things of the earth.  He said, “We know our place in the great scheme of things, and we understand that everything is related, everything is sacred.  We hope to serve life with our actions, not our words.”

How odd, now, to hear those words in a totally different context, used for a totally different purpose,  a few days ago coming from a political, this time using the words to criticize the morality of the president of the United States.  The politician said something like this:  “His (the president’s)  is not a theology, it is a way of life…It is not a theology of the book, of the Bible. The president believes that we are here to serve the earth rather than that the earth should serve us.”

Thinking about this “theology” the politician referenced sent me back to some basic sources.  First the word itself.

The dictionary reveals that the word theology comes from Latin roots theos and logos, which translates as god plus discourse.  Webster’s definition is “the study of God and the relation between God and the universe,” as well as “the study of different religious doctrines,” and “a specific system of this study expounded by a particular religion or denomination.”

A study, a discussion, a discourse.  Theology, by the dictionary definition, is not a way of life; it is a matter of words, discourse, debate even, used about God, in an attempt to understand or define God and our relation to God.

What the Native American elder meant, by contrast, was that he and his people did not merely “discourse” about the relationship between themselves and the sacred;  they attempted to live out their values, not just talk about them.

As for the question of “serving the earth,” I find a Jewish saying in the Talmud that instructs:

“Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say, ‘If there be a plant in your hand when they say to you, ‘Behold the Messiah!’ go and plant the plant, and afterwards go out and greet him.”  Abot de Rabbi Nathan, Ver. B 31.

A similar Hindu text reads, “The earth is upheld by the veracity of those who have subdued their passions, and, following righteous practices, are never contaminated by desire, covetousness, and wrath.”  Vishnu Purana 3.12.

“Following righteous practices” sounds very much like a “way of life” that “upholds” the earth.  But how often do we find this righteousness to be the case?

A quotation from the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks of the opposite:

“Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying, ‘Woe, woe is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children.  When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?  When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?’   And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth?’”  Pearl of Great Price, Moses 7.48-49.

For myself, as regards, this question of the morality, if not the theology, of “serving the earth,” I defer to Thomas Berry:

“The Earth with its layers of land and water and air provides the space within which all living things are nurtured and the context within which humans attain their identity. If, in the excitement of a secular technology, reverence for the Earth has diminished in the past, especially in the western world, humans now experience a sudden shock at the devastation they have wrought on their own habitation. The ancient human-Earth relationship must be recovered in a new context, in its mystical as well as in its physical functioning. There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment. This presence, whether experienced as Allah, as Atman, as Sunyata, or as the Buddha-nature or as Bodhisattva; whether as Tao or as the One or as the Divine Feminine, is the atmosphere in which humans breathe deepest and without which they eventually suffocate.”

But would that statement hold up to one concerned with the other bit of the aforementioned politician’s statement that stirred my contemplation?  “His is not a theology of the book, of the Bible, but instead is a way of life…”     This reminds me of the term “people of the book,” an expression used by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, though each in their own particular ways.

Here’s a summary by one writer:

“…In Judaism the term “People of the Book” (Hebrew: עם הספר, Am HaSefer) was used to refer specifically to the Jewish people and the Torah, and to the Jewish people and the wider canon of written Jewish law (including the Mishnah and the Talmud). Adherents of other Abrahamic religions, which arose later than Judaism, were not added. As such, the appellation is accepted by Jews as a reference to an identity rooted fundamentally in Torah…

“…In Christianity, the Catholic Church rejects the similar expression ‘religion of the book’ as a description of the Christian faith, preferring the term ‘religion of the Word of God.’ Nevertheless, other denominations, such as the Baptist Church, Methodist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church as well as Puritans and Shakers, have embraced the term ‘People of the Book.’…

“…In Islam, the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an, is taken to represent the completion of these previous scriptures. The term ‘People of the Book’ in the Qur’an refers to followers of monotheistic Abrahamic religions that are older than Islam. This includes all Christians, Jews, Karaites and Samaritans and Sabians. Because the People of the Book recognize the God of Abraham as the one and only god, as do Muslims, and they practice revealed faiths based on divine ordinances, tolerance and autonomy is accorded to all the people of the book in societies governed by sharia (Islamic divine law)…

“…Islamic scholars differ on whether Hindus are People of the Book. The Islamic conquest of India necessitated that the definition be revised, as most of India’s inhabitants were followers of the Indian religions. Many of the Muslim clergy of India considered Hindus as people of the book, and from Muhhammad-bin-Kasim to Aurangzib, Muslim rulers were willing to consider Hindus as people of the book…

“…Many Christian missionaries in Africa, Asia and in the New World, developed writing systems for indigenous people and then provided them with a written translation of the Bible. As a result of this work, ‘People of the Book’ became the usual vernacular locution to refer to Christians among many African, Asian, and Native American people of both hemispheres.  Organizations such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies, have resulted in availability of the Bible in 2,100 languages, which has further lent an identification with the phrase among Christians themselves.  Christian converts among evangelized cultures, in particular, have the strongest identification with the term ‘People of the Book’ as the first written text produced in their native language, as with English-speaking people, has often been the Bible. Many denominations, such as the Baptist Church and Methodist Church, which are notable for their mission work, have therefore embraced the term ‘People of the Book.’  From Wikipedia, ‘The People of the Book.’

So, perhaps it is well to consider a couple of quotations from “the book” itself on the question of theology and the way of life.  Here are a few:

Jesus speaking in Mathew 23:3 warns against those who “…say, and do not,”  the Pharisees, who were experts of the law, but who, Jesus states again and again, were “empty sepulchers.”  These righteous men, the Pharisees,  raised the “divine law” of scriptures against Jesus and his disciples, saying, for example, that Jesus and his followers healed on the Sabbath, which could be considered doing “work” which was forbidden in the “book” of the scriptures.

“But,” comments Henry Matthews, “our Lord would not be hindered from healing a man, though he knew a clamour would be raised at his doing it on the sabbath. It requires care to understand the proper connexion between piety and charity in observing the sabbath, and the distinction between works of real necessity and habits of self-indulgence. Wisdom from above teaches patient perseverance in well-doing.”

Still from “the book,” later than Jesus, St. Paul said: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3:6. And “No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. “ Romans 2:29.

There is ambiguity, then, surely, throughout history regarding the place of “the book of the law” in theology, in spirituality, in one’s everyday way of life.

How oddly congruent it seems that the above mentioned politician’s comments come during a week when, in Afganistan–where Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have been dying for years, partly over questions of theology—a new outbreak of violence has occurred because someone with an amazing lack of political and moral sensitivity trashed and burned copies of the Muslim’s holy book, the Koran, something forbidden by Islamic law.

How ironic.  Westerners, mostly, surely, “people of the book” by the politician’s standards, certainly violated the spirit of the teachings of any holy book by disrespecting the sacredness of another culture’s theology, and in so doing, set back every effort to bring a peaceful conclusion to the long and wearing war between believers, non-believers, and all the rest who struggle toward a righteous peace in the very homelands of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

The importance of the tension between, on the one hand, following exactly the sacred teachings of the holy book, and on the other hand, the importance of the requirements of the given human condition at any particular time—perhaps like the tension between the making and following of the letter of the law (whether in our Congress or in our own spiritual lives) and the living out our values in an always ambiguous and complex reality –perhaps this tension is worthy of all of our consideration in depth.

So, there are some rambling references to bring to bear to the politician’s statement, in an attempt to give it more “theological” context.  My own opinion, for what it is worth, can be summed up by the following two quotations.

First:  “Small men command the letter of the law. Great men serve its spirit. For the spirit of the law is justice… and justice is the spirit of God.” ― J.C. Marino, Dante’s Journey

And this from the 15th century Sufi poet from India, Kabir, translated by Robert Bly:

“I don’t know what sort of a God we have been talking about.

The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk.

Why? Surely the Holy One is not deaf.

He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks.

Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead,

wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,

but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?”

2 comments | Add One

  1. Sheila Collins - 02/22/2012 at 3:56 pm

    I’m so glad you picked up on this issue of the letter and the spirit, the theology and the way of life, of serving the earth or the earth serving us. It’s ignorant comments like the one you mentioned that demonstrate our need for the wisdom of the native peoples and those more in touch with the natural environment. And thank you for reminding us of what the ancients have said about these topics.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love, Sheila

  2. Christina - 02/22/2012 at 4:05 pm

    The politician said that the president had his own theology, but not one from the Bible.

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