Theology Colored Glasses

glassesHenry N. Wieman once insisted, the issue is not, Does God exist? but, Which of the various realities one encounters functions as God? It is this orienting sensitivity which produces, universally and necessarily, the texture of the unique theological World which each individual inhabits. Selfhood is the process of owning, with conscious commitment, this World which functions as a construct of “convictions which one sees through like a pair of glasses.” These glasses are honed by root metaphors that function together as paradigm, so operating as to “author and authorize the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate, and the way we judge.                                             (“Theological Worlds,” by W. Paul Jones)

It would be nice if, when people are developing their theologies, they would do so in a neutral, abstract manner, evaluating their beliefs by their fidelity to scripture, context, tradition and internal consistency. However, the truth of the matter is that when theologies live in the minds of people, there are other criteria – how we were raised, what we were taught/conditioned to believe, our baggage, our fears, our culture, and so on.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

So, the pressing questions become:

  • How do our theologies function?
  • What do they keep us from seeing and what do they make us consider?
  • What inner attitudes do they validate or invalidate?
  • What outer behaviors do they encourage or discourage?

Professor, author and theologian W. Paul Jones ran a 10 year study that discovered five clusters of theological worlds each of which orients around a fundamental life posture. Each world is like a different colored pair of glasses through which people perceive and project alternative meaning into common-day experiences.

The worlds themselves seem to flow from an interaction between what Jones’ calls the obsessio and the epiphania. The obsessio is described as one’s defining life question. What is it that one continues to question about oneself or about life? What has so wounded one’s heart and soul that one continues to seek the answer? Everyone has an obsessio, and it is easy to pinpoint as it seems to stem from an early memory that brings back an acute sense of embarrassment. And, we may feel that it is crazy for our very selves to be twisted up in knots by something that may objectively seem like we should be over it. But there you have it. As Jones states, our obsessios seem, in the bright light of day, to be not so much our inner demons, but “mice with megaphones.” An obsession is never forgotten, but invisibly weighs other answers and life experiences into either substantiation for the question, or alternatives for resolution.

The epiphania is described as those moments of epiphany that may illuminate new possibilities for heal for our obsessio. At the very least, it keeps our souls hopeful, searching and even energized by the sense that our question might be worth pursuing for a lifetime.

The five worlds shake out to look like this:

  1. Separation and Reunion
  2. Conflict and Vindication
  3. Emptiness and Fulfillment
  4. Condemnation and Forgiveness
  5. Suffering and Endurance

(Depending on how self-aware you are, you may be able to look at these worlds and know pretty well where you fit. But there is a 60 question inventory that one can take to know for sure. If you’d like to see a brief summary of these worlds, and the inventory, click here.)

As an example, the obsessio for world one briefly looks like this:

  • Sense of abandonment
  • Feel isolated, small, lonely, misfit
  • Life is a quest to understand the mystery of this Whole
  • Long to find our way “home”
  • Yearn for a harmony to all things

Jones tells the story of a woman who shared her obsessio story: “When my mother left me in Sunday school, I always asked to wear her locket. She thought I like the locket. That wasn’t it at all. I knew I wasn’t worth coming back for, but I knew she would come back for her locket.” She was less sure about her epiphania, but her stories had echoes of Jesus’ parable of the lost coin.

This rhythm, this pendulum swing between obsessio and epiphania – whether conscious or not – becomes the set of lenses through which we see God, ourselves and the world.

Part of our spiritual journey, our personal healing, our path to wholeness, is recognizing or remembering that we see things subjectively, not objectively. We see all things, including ourselves and God, through colored lenses. Even if this model of theological worlds eludes you… the key is to become more self-aware, and also to remember that others come from a different place, different experiences and different teachings.