Studying at the intersection of text.soul.culture calls for our entire beings. Our stories, ideas, and biases are named and brought into conversation as we seek to grow into artists, pastors, healers, and leaders with integrity. Education at The Seattle School, then, is highly contextual, calling students to wonder about how their stories and experiences have shaped how they view God, the world, and each other. As Dr. Chelle Stearns launched the Fall 2015 Theology I class, Lauren Sawyer, the Assistant Instructor for the course, offered the following reflection to help students embrace context and a variety of voices in the study of theology.
I want to introduce myself to you all in relation to this class, Theology I.
One of the big things you’re going to learn in this class is about contextual theology—theology formed out of a particular context, like the theology of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, the theology of white women, of men who have been dead for 50 years and men who have been dead for 1,000 years.
I’ve heard it argued once that all theology is contextual theology—what we might call plain ol’ orthodox theology might be better described as Western theology or white-male theology.
All theology has context.
This is my context: I grew up in the Protestant Midwest, the daughter of a Lutheran father and Jewish mother. I was baptized Lutheran then baptized again evangelical. I had a Pentecostal youth pastor, went to a Church of Christ summer camp. I graduated from a Wesleyan university and now attend the most un-Baptist Baptist church in Seattle.
This is where I begin my theological task.
Out of this diversity of traditions, the one theological question that has hounded me for so long has been: what do we do about the body, with its itches and desires? What do I do with my body? What do I do with the body of the Other? And consequently, what do we do with the body of Jesus?
Our bodies are what locate us in a context—like, for example, though my boyfriend and I are both living in Seattle, I am a white-skinned woman of German/English/Russian descent and he is a brown-skinned man, the son of Indian immigrants. And Jesus, too, was born a certain race into a certain culture.
To work out these questions, I’ve turned to the world of fiction, particularly to the work of John Updike, who spent his lifetime wrestling with similar themes. What Updike keeps coming back to in his work is the significance of Jesus’ bodily life, death, and resurrection intersecting with humanity’s bodily sinful nature and subsequent redemption.
So, I want to read to you a poem by Updike about the resurrection, a poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” It’s a favorite of mine, because I think it bears the scandal of the cross and resurrection in a way that only poetry can bear.
Upon researching the poem a bit, I learned that Updike wrote this around the time of an intense spiritual crisis in his 20s, which makes me wonder if this poem represents not what Updike actually believed but more what he wanted to believe. (This offers me a lot of hope and maybe offers you hope as well—an acceptance that our theologies are often inchoate, only in the process of becoming what we really believe.)
“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.