We should not write theology in pen.
Theologians are not the only ones who fall into the trap of writing/thinking/speaking with permanent ink, but it is a besetting sin of many of us. Handling such topics as “the Divine,” “eternity,” or even more pompously stated, “the counsels of God,” we can fool ourselves into thinking we are working with realities fixed and certain. Words spoken in ink sound confident and assured but they are not honest and can actually diminish the liveliness of faith when over time we believe in them more than in the Spirit that moves as it will. Barth provides both comfort and challenge on precisely this point: “The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49) Full assurance, yes. Certainty, no.
When Moses asked to see God he didn’t quite get what he had hoped for…he saw God pass before him. And really, that’s as good as it gets. There is no holding on to a moving and living God, no pinning God down, no snapping photos and capturing the essence of the Holy One. Nevertheless, when such a phenomenon is expressed it is often done so with much more triumphalism and self-assuredness than the reality permits.
We need to write theology in pencil and keep a thick eraser handy. This work is provisional, tentative, and always unfinished. There is no word or concept or beautifully crafted theological exposition that will sustain us through this life and the next. The Word can do this, however. The living, pulsing, and vibrant Presence of God is what animates words, inspires creation, offers hope, and births a people. Staying close to this Reality that–as Moses discovered–doesn’t stand still, will require revision, restatement, remaking, and renewal. It is smuggy, messy, and incomplete–it’s fulfillment may be written boldly in pen, but that day is not yet.
Returning to Uncle Karl: Barth was asked once about why he did not finish his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. “There is a certain merit to an unfinished dogmatics…it points to the eschatological character of theology! (Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 86)
Rigidity and fixity in theology (and other matters) may address our ill-at-ease-ness with ambiguity and our discomfort with chaos, but whatever is its subject it can never be the Reality that is God.