A Good Trauma Bond: Doing Theology with People with Whom You Disagree

A.J. Swoboda

Over the course of nearly two years, between 2013 and 2015, I had the distinct privilege of cowriting a textbook for evangelical communities on the ever-important topic of environmental studies. The book was eventually called Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis (Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swoboda [Baker Academic, 2014). The textbook was generously funded by a Lily Endowment grant. This textbook sought to help bring clarity and assistance to the evangelical community as they wrestled biblically, theologically, and practically with the various issues relating to the environmental world and the eco-crisis deeply affecting it. The journey of any writing project intense. But the journey of this writing project was acutely intense. What made the writing journey unique was, without question, the writing team who worked tirelessly to put the project together.

Our team consisted of three authors from three distinct and different theological and ecclesial persuasions and backgrounds — an Evangelical Lutheran professor (Dan Brunner), a United Church of Christ pastor (Jen Butler), and a Pentecostal/Charismatic professor and pastor (me). What may sound like an opening to a joke was anything but a joke. It actually happened.

Of course, people of such diverse theological backgrounds aren’t often known to write theological textbooks together. Many have commented on the hilarity of the writing team and how we managed to accomplish our task. How did you do it? Are you still friends? How did you not kill each other? Are you still Christians?

The truth is, all difficulties aside, the process of writing Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology was an abundantly fruitful and excruciatingly difficult process all at the same time — most things worth doing are both difficult and fruitful. The life of Jesus marks dangerous encounters between people of different theologian persuasions. For instance, when Jesus at the “home of prominent Pharisee” (Luke 14:1) Jesus embodied a kind of hospitality and servanthood that the church could, and should, continue to embody today. Hospitality is not the dispersion of our conviction and passion into the air; it is merely the making of space for the others. Yes, there were times we almost quit (at least I can say I almost quit). Yes, there were times we almost killed each other. And yes, there were times we wondered if there was enough common language and common theology to finish such a project. But we did finish the project. And the book, we believe, continues to be a helpful guide to the evangelical community, a community that increasingly comprises the kind of diversity as our writing team reflects.

Not everyone gets the chance to write a book with people they disagree with. Or, should I say, not everyone is on contract to write a book with people with whom they disagree due on a certain date with a big, well-known publisher. What made this particularly unique was that at the end of the day, we were on contract to deliver a finished product to the publisher. So, despite great disagreement on various issues, we still had to find language and theological nuance to put words on paper, despite our theological distinctives. Without question, there are still things we were not able to come to terms with. And while I don’t assume many will write a book with people they disagree with, I do think everyone will, at some point, do theological work alongside someone they disagree with. It may be in the local church, the seminary, the classroom, or even the workplace. But we will all be put in spaces to work alongside those whom we differ with.

Sadly, we often lack training on how to do theology alongside people different from ourselves. In the siloing of the church where Christians of a particular persuasion are more likely than not to spend their time working and worshipping with people with whom they share a great deal in theology, it’s rare to have to actually learn how to theologize with the other.

What could we take with us into these kinds of relationships? How can we do theology alongside people with whom we may worship the same God yet have many differences? I would like to share a few ideas.

We must acknowledge, first, that theology is not an end to itself. The purpose of theology is to help us get somewhere, not to do theology. In short, we don’t do theology to do theology. We do theology in order to help clarify our thoughts about God, and, in hope, encounter God himself. Words matter. Words kill. Words bear life. Words start wars. Words end wars. In short, words matter deeply. And so theology must always give keen attention to the stewardship of language as it relates to what we think and how we practice our religious lives. This is why we must never cease pressing in and thinking critically about theological issues.

Precise words lead to precise thinking, I believe. But if our theology is mere words, mere linguistic prolegomenon, then we fail to understand the great power of theology. To do theology for the sake of words is like buying a race car to hear it rev.

The end of theology is an encounter with the living God. A theologian, among other things, is a bit like a chauffeur. First and foremost, good theologians fulfill the task of helping people along on their Christian journey. The primary objective, thus, is not to insert themselves as the central character in any person’s faith development. Rather, theologians work tirelessly in assisting others to get where they are going safely, on time, while keeping things appropriate along the way. Good theologian, secondly, know how to vacate themselves and get out of the way. This metaphor may not be appreciated by all because, as it suggests, a chauffeur plays the part only some of the time. Any theologian is helpful, yet essentially not necessary. With the spirit of sensitivity, at the right time, the theologian/chauffeur knows how to get out of the way and allow the parties do what they are wanting to do on a date.

Good theologians know well their place in the drama of salvation.

The words of the theologian are not an end to themselves. As our team wrote and rewrote and edited what we rewrote, we gave great attention to the words we were using. The wrong word at the wrong place and the argument could fall to the ground and land on deaf ears. But the right word at the right time had the power to change a mind about something as critical as the environmental crisis. What we all agreed on was this: we believe that God can be found in the work of creation care. Similarly, we shared one main conviction about the environmental crisis: it’s getting worse and Christians shouldn’t put their heads in the ecological sand. Attentive mindfulness to do the work of stewardship and simplicity has the power to help people encounter the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. When words failed us, we relied on a deep trust that we wanted to help people encounter the life of God.

As theologians, we sought to trust that the other was not seeking to one-up us or prove us wrong. We trusted that each of us sought to serve God and serve the church by writing about creation. This trust — a trust that was at times broken — had constantly to be mended, cared for, and paid close attention to.

Second, people who do theology with others must be prepared to learn a great deal about being wrong. At multiple points along the way, each of us, having stuck our foot in our mouth, had to recognize our wrong, apologize, and continue to move forward with the project. None of us (although we could have) picked up our ball and bat and went home embarrassed.

I guess I’ve come to believe that the nature of doing theology is quite disconcerting and painful at times — if not outright embarrassing. Sadly, theology can too quickly become and enterprise in self-congratulatory praise, in making one bolster their already secured place of truthfulness. Theology may pad our pride, but the life of the Holy Spirit — the ongoing presence of Jesus in the church and the world — will perpetually upend us from our silos of ignorance. If theology is an honest seeking of truth, then true theology it is. If theology is a line of defense against ideas we simply don’t like, we’ve neglected to be theologians of the highest calling. I have often thought of Cornelius Plantiga’s words, in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, that any effort to use theology to feel better about one’s self is a misaligned approach to theological studies (Eerdmans, 1996], 83]).

Third, and finally, we all learned that doing theology with people who are different in sensibility leads to a great humility. You quickly learn you don’t have all the answers. And then you learn that nobody does either. In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis years ago reflected on Ps 22, which begins with the iconic and painful lament, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” — the very psalm Jesus spoke in the painful torment of his death. Lewis comments that he both was troubled and comforted by the fact that there is never, at any point, an answer given by God to the plea. In the passion narrative, we find, no voice from heaven answering the divine question.

Even Jesus didn’t get all answers answered.

Theology can easily become being an answer machine. And although theology does offer some answers, it doesn’t offer the ultimate answer. Because the ultimate answer is not in words, it is in worship. The word did become flesh, but it never became a word again. The worship of the living God is the end purpose of worship. And even in our struggle to understand the pain and suffering in this world, I’m often provoked to wonder if perhaps God refuses to answer all of our questions for the simple reason that if we had all of the answers we wished, we would no longer need God.

Doing theology with the spirit of humility rather than pride demands a willingness of the one embarking on it to be wrong. And being wrong in anything is hard. It’s hard all the more in theological studies. It’s really difficult to discover that your theology is wrong, acknowledge it, change, and then be bold to remain in relationship. When Copernicus demanded that the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth, historians would point out there soon came a rash of suicides among those who had built their entire theology and worldview on a wrong idea. For them, if the sun wasn’t the center of the universe (an absolute truth), then nothing could be true. If one absolute fell, then the rest fell.

We each encountered, as difficult as they were, our own prejudices, assumptions, and theological blind sides. We all learned more than we could imagine, but it came at a price. Not one of us stood perfect in the process.

When anyone embarks on a theological relationship with another, it’s essential to go in with a kind of humility that says, “I’m here to learn, not to prove my perfection.” Theology, then, must remain “an act of repentant humility,” as Karl Barth once wrote. Such an act postured “the Church [to] seek again and again to examine itself critically…. It has to be a watchman so as to carefully observe that constant threatening and invasive error to which the life of the Church is in danger, because it is composed of fallible, erring, sinful people” (“Theology,” in God in Action [T&T Clark, 1936], 39– 57).

A theologian who can’t bring himself or herself to repent should be wary of preaching a gospel of forgiveness and repentance.

We are, surprisingly, still friends. Our conversation now has a depth and weight that I find both refreshing and difficult all at the same time. In many ways, we’re still in great disagreement about many key and important theological issues. But our friendship has become deeper. How can I describe it? A psychologist friend was describing to me what happens when people experience trauma together: a car wreck, a lost family member, a tragedy, a shooting. Something happens for people who experience trauma together — a deep and lasting friendship that often lasts for the rest of the person’s life.

My friend said that counselors and psychologists call it “trauma bond” — a unique bond shaped by a shared painful experience.

I am slow to equate a shooting or tragedy or death to writing an evangelical theology textbook. But I can say that we share in some kind of “trauma bond.” In disagreeing, laughing, crying, and agreeing, we endured an experience that shaped each of us in deeply formative ways that I’m sure will continue to affect us for the rest of our lives; I am certain it will for me. Although I wouldn’t trade it for the world, I’m certainly not going to be doing it again anytime soon. I need a break. And some time to think and pray about what I sense God saying to me.

Because theology done with the disagreeable always leaves you digging deeper than you ever thought you would.

Posted Apr 27, 2016