To distinguish theology from ideology, I need to start where our faith is most insistent: our belief that God loves this world and its people. We believe the Creator loves the creation and has committed to its life and well-being. Moreover, God makes covenants and remains faithful to them even when the human partners in those covenants do not. So committed is God to these covenants that God no longer accepts a future (for God’s Self) without the covenant people. These are bold assertions, and the objections to them are many. The academic objections can take care of themselves as discussion continues. The existential protests against such a gospel come from human suffering and degradation that fly in the face of our assertions that God loves the world and wills its well-being and wholeness. This coming Sunday’s sermon on just this idea, not yet written, is called, “You Couldn’t Prove It by Me.”
These conflicts between our gospel and actual human experience we must not be dismissed or rationalized by making our belief ideological. To be faithful, we must stick with both the God who loves and the people whose lives belie that claim. To walk away from either is faithless, but strange as it may sound, the greater betrayal of God is to walk away from the world and its people.
Christian faith is incarnational: that is, we encounter God’s grace, God’s faithful love and mercy, in person – in flesh and blood. Just so, we understand ourselves as sent to represent God’s grace, however feebly, in person – in our own flesh and blood relationships and dealings with other people. To be faithful, the church needs to immerse itself in the world, in the conditions of life that belie the love of God.
When theology hardens into ideology, it begins to see people’s sufferings as problems, not to solve, relieve, or even sympathize with, but to explain and thereby justify. The explanations take one of two forms: blame the victim or dismiss the suffering as either inconsequential in the grander scheme of God’s plan or somehow mysteriously beneficial. In either form, the explanation invalidates the suffering person’s complaint against life and God. Real theology does not dismiss or invalidate suffering’s protest. Ideology does.