Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Theology: Bring Back the Coffee Hour Questions!!

DPC’s nephew (henceforth DPCN) is going on four years old. When DPCN comes to visit DPC, a repetitive phrase inevitably comes up when answering his questions: “But why?” It’s a simple narrative:

DPCN:                  Can we go get something from the bakery?
DPC:                     Not right now. Perhaps we should go to the park instead, or play with Playmobil?
DPCN:                  But why?
DPC:                     We just ate, so it would be a bit too soon, especially since you want to eat later.
DPCN:                  But why is it too soon?
DPC:                     Because your tummy isn’t big enough to take all the food!
(DPC notes that all evidence points to this being unlikely. But. We don’t need a four year old chock full of more sugar.)
DPCN:                   Why isn’t it big enough?
DPC:                      Because you’re young!
DPCN:                   But I’m growing! Why isn’t it big enough?
DPC:                      (Gives Up, Goes to Bakery)

While in seminary, Dread Pirate Crusty was once warned by a mentor, “You will be asked lots of quick questions that actually deserve dissertation-length explorations and answers. And you won’t have a dissertation to answer in.” Indeed DPC’s mentor was correct. In parish ministry, DPC has gotten plenty of these questions - often ones that can rival DPCN’s questions for sheer “unanswerability.”

“Can God make a rock so big that God can’t lift it?”
“Could Adolf Hitler be saved and end up in heaven, even though he’s bad?”
Or, as Homer asked Flanders...

“Will Gandhi go to hell, even though he was a good man?”
“Why to natural disasters happen to good people?”  

These are simple questions with profound theological implications. In some form or another, these quick, one-off questions - seemingly always involving soteriology (the theology of salvation) or theodicy (defending the justice and righteousness of God) - always tend to come up, invariably, when DPC has a cup off coffee in hand, is stuffing DPC’s face with coffee-hour food, and the person only has about a minute to get their answer before they need to shuttle off with their kids to soccer practice. And, unlike DPCN, the questioners are generally adults that look for some logical continuity. Big questions - short answers. It happens all the time in parish ministry. In their Theology question, GBEC has decided to channel the questions that DPCN will invariably ask his clergy when he gets older:

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayers A, B, C, and D in Rite II all contain the phrase “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In Enriching Our Worship 1, Eucharistic Prayers 1 and 2 contain the phrase “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”
The different words, “many” and “all,” have a bearing upon the theological concept of universal salvation. In an essay of about 1,000 words, compare and contrast understandings of universal salvation and Christian particularism. Include one biblical reference and one Christian theologian that address the concept of universal salvation.
In concluding the answer, address how an understanding of either universal salvation or Christian particularism relates to an increasingly non-churched and religiously pluralistic society.

DPC, quite literally, has been asked about this exact issue, by DPC’s parishioners. It is a question that will come up in ministry. It’s one that a dissertation could be written on, but that length of an exploration is an answer that parishioners have no interest in reading. Big questions, short answers - and in parish ministry, you’re gonna have to come up with answers.

So GBEC is asking examinees to answer a question they will answer in parish ministry. The question is clear, concise, and, can avoid the “academic exploration” trap that GBEC can often fall into (I’m looking squarely at you, 2011 Theology question on the applicability of theosis to the doctrine of ordained ministry.)

For DPC, an ideal GOE question in History, Theology, or Ethics is one that (1) is realistically will come up in day-to-day ministry (a coffee-hour theology question, for instance), (2) could, if one wanted, be
When Crusty took his GOEs, we wrote coffee hour questions in Blue Books.
worthy of a book-length answer because of its implications, (it has academic substance, and is not fluff) but (3) can reasonably be condensed into a short essay that’s the rough equivalent of a coffee-hour response without missing necessary parts of the content necessary to give a full answer.

(Editor's note from actual Crusty Old Dean:  GOEs used to do just that, ask a series of "coffee hour" questions which required people to think up short, quick responses to the kind of questions you get asked.  Closed book.)

Sometimes, GBEC misses the mark - for example, as it did in last year’s History Question, asked examinees to examine two issues with depth - the religious and political roots of the  English Civil War and Anglican Communion Debates over Human Sexuality - but asked examinees to give a 500-word treatment of each topic - a length that couldn’t allow a historically defensible examination of the topic at hand, when each could merit a dissertation of its own.

But other times, GBEC hits this mark square on the nose - and they did that in this question. While exploring understandings of universal salvation and Christian particularism could easily spawn a dissertation apiece, a short, cogent, defensible summation of each can be given in a paragraph - about the time you have to answer a parishioner at coffee hour. It probes a major field of systematic theology - soteriology - but does by using a question that can and will come up in the examinee’s everyday ministry.

DPC has a quibble with the question. But it is minor. The question doesn’t leave as much room to watch the examinees develop their own explanation - but points them to cite an existing theologian. The GOEs become truly useful when they are not simply tests to see how well students can regurgitate facts, but when they show how they *think* theologically and develop a theological argument, not just how well they can cite a theologian. The most boring sermons are the ones that endlessly cite favorite writers. So I wish the question asked them to cite the Bible alone while developing their own theology a bit more on their own.

But the quibble is, as DPC said, minor. GBEC has, all in all, created a solid question, that can be fully answered within the outlined parameters. DPC likes its applicability and practical dimension, and would recommend it to a friend. So DPC is pleased to offer an Axios! to this year’s theology question.

1 comment:

  1. I've wondered about this, not from a theological point of view so much as from a scriptural point of view. We have a few descriptions of the Last Supper (in the Synoptics and in, I think, Corinthians) that describe the Institution of the Eucharist. How important is it, or should it be, that the liturgy uses an accurate translation of what Jesus is reported to have said that night (I know there is some variation)? Is it honest to put in our liturgy something like "all" when the sources we have for what Jesus said are "many" or "you" or whatever? I'm a layperson, and I can't read Greek or reverse-engineer the Aramaic Jesus actually used, but it seems like hubris to use an inaccurate quote (if that is what it is) because we want to "improve" Jesus's theology.


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