Theological Worlds and Cognitive Dissonance

“He will come and save you,
Say to the weary one
Your God will surely come
He will come and save you.”

Psychology has confirmed that how people react to situations can be powerfully influenced by the events that immediately precede them. For instance, people who have been primed to think about the Ten Commandments tend to cheat less on an exam than those who haven’t, regardless of how many of the commandments they can remember. In the middle of the worship service this morning, I happened to read Dr. Richard Beck’s post on Theological Worlds, which in turn had a profound impact on my immediate experience of worship.

Allow me to explain.

As a Cliff’s Notes version of the post, Beck notes that people inhabit different theological worlds, where they see different theological problems as primary, and different spiritual answers in the cross. The most common theological world for Protestant Christians is one in which the main problems are sin and guilt – specifically our own personal sin and guilt – and God’s love and grace becomes the most important aspect of his death and resurrection.  In short, the most important thing Jesus did was put us in “right relationship” with God – he died so that each of us have the opportunity to get to heaven. This makes complete sense – if you inhabit a theological world where sin is the most important problem… the thing that keeps you up at night.

But what if, like Beck (and me) , sin isn’t the biggest thing you wrestle with? What if the thing that really bothers you is, for instance, suffering. This isn’t to say sin isn’t an issue, but rather it isn’t the main obsession of our relationship with God.  As Beck points out, you may disagree with the idea that sin isn’t the most important aspect of our relationship with God… strongly – but that’s kind of the point – we live in different worlds, and that has profound implications for how we see Christ. In my theological world, for instance, I see the cross as a demonstration of Christ’s solidarity and concern for those who suffer, more than as where my personal guilt is dealt with.

So as I sat in worship, the words of the song at the beginning of this post caused not a small amount of cognitive dissonance… namely how to fit these words into a world where suffering is powerful and present – a world where children starve and die of disease that could be cured with a few dollars. How do we fit this promise – the promise that Christ will indeed come to save the people whose lives are desperate and destitute – into the reality of the Kenyan slums that formed my view of God so much.  What do these things mean in *that* world? It’s a question I’ve been trying to resolve for something like ten years.

Part of my perspective comes from my time in Kenya, where I spent time in trash piles as large as my house, speaking to the children who lived their lives in squalor scarcely imaginable. How do you talk to *those* people about suffering, when the biggest inconvenience I face (and I suspect most of us face) looks rather less than inconvenient. I remember sitting in those trash piles with children who would never grow up to be as old as I was (at the ripe old age of 20), who would never know what it was like to sleep in a bed, never know what it means to be safe, or secure, or satisfied. I will never forget coming back to America and listening to people complain about their food, or their house, or their friends – all luxuries my kids in Africa would never know, and never worry about. I remember going back to the slums and feeling empty and hypocritical when taking about grace, or comfort, or God’s love. Frankly, in the context of Eastleigh, it was almost impossible to see.

In one theological world, the solution is simple: declare that the sufferings of this world aren’t worth comparing to the next world, and even if this world is bad for you, the next one is bound to be better. Who cares that you can’t eat or find a place to sleep in peace tonight – God loves you, and you get to go to heaven… isn’t that great!

The problem, for people in my theological world, is that this response doesn’t take our main spiritual problem seriously – in fact it declares it to not be a problem at all. People in my theological world tend to view this sort of response as a cop out, recited by people who have to those who don’t, more or less as a means of power and control. It is intended to direct concern away from the present world, where things are going badly for me, to the next world, where all will be made better.

Essentially, it’s a gospel of suck it up.

For those of you who aren’t quite buying this, try putting yourself in as close a position as you can to someone who has nothing. Imagine the worst tragedies you can happening at the same time – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of a terrible, debilitating disease that won’t kill you, but will keep you in chronic pain for the next few decades. My guess is that, if you’re honest, the whole “it’ll be better in heaven” bit, even if true, won’t exactly be a huge comfort. I’m forgiven. Great. But I’m *in pain*.  Something has gone wrong with the world, and it’s not just sin.

So what do we do with this promise – that Christ will indeed come to save his people? Ten years down the road, I don’t know that I’m any closer to having answers. I’ve come to believe that “save” has a much broader meaning than just, as Mark Love would say, getting my skinny butt into heaven. I no longer believe that sin is exclusively a personal affair, living in the hearts and minds of people, but that it exists in a whole variety of social, political, economic, and even religious structures – ways of “doing business” that perpetuate inequalities between people – structures I’m complicit in because they keep me on top. I am bothered by other promises of Jesus – that as we measure it will be measured to us, that the first will be last, and the last will be first.

I wonder, from my theological world, whether we really want Jesus to “save” us. Oh, sure… we would love for him to take us out of a world full of suffering and pain. But what if what saves us isn’t an escape to blissful eternity, but, following Christ, a descent into the midst of despair, to live and work among the least of the least? What if salvation was not found in suburban church buildings singing peppy worship songs, but in learning to stand beside the people in our community who have no voice? What if God’s transformational grace meant that part of our salvation as the rich was a conversion to actually care – in concrete ways – about the poor?

My guess is that these thoughts don’t necessarily make a lot of sense in other theological worlds. But my other guess is that the predominant Protestant theological world is becoming less habitable. No matter which world you inhabit, we all have our own dissonances to deal with. But as we sing songs and proclaim that Christ offers rest to the weary, I can’t help but wonder if we have any idea what that really means.

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