A safe space for the ‘big God questions’

HORSESHOE BAY, B.C. — Before lunch arrived at the Olive and Anchor restaurant here, my Presbyterian friend Valarie told me she had “a big God question.”

 A few others at the table feigned interest, but this turned out to be mostly a private conversation, so I was bereft of group wisdom.

“I think Nicea got it wrong,” she said of the 325 C.E. council that declared Jesus to be “of one Being with the Father,” both “truly human” and fully divine, “true God from true God.” Val indicated she thought of Jesus as subservient to the Father and wanted to make sure that what Jesus did on Earth he did of his own volition.

“Am I right or wrong?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. And, of course, what I meant was that she was right to be giving energy to this core matter of Christian theology, but chances are that none of us has it completely right because it’s arrogant to say anything at all about God.

Val turned to her husband to announce the verdict that she had not been found completely wrong. It seemed to satisfy her.

Well, on this vacation conversation we went on to unpack her Nicea decision and my response to it over seafood chowder and chicken pot pie, and in the end Val knew that I was far from ready to jettison the Nicene Creed (though I’m with the Orthodox in rejecting the Filioque.

And I gave her the names of a few books I thought would help her not to abandon the Christian formulation of the Holy Trinity — including Miroslav Volf’s lucid discussion of the Trinity in “Allah: A Christian Response.”

But what especially pleased me about the luncheon conversation was that two Presbyterians were discussing foundational theology and not predictions of the death of the PC(USA) or winners on “American Idol” or our retirement accounts.

If, in fact, every conversation any of us ever has is, in the end, theological in nature, then why not from time to time define our terms, lay some groundwork, revisit the questions that keep college sophomores up all night?

Our congregations could do a better job than many of them do in providing a safe space and opportunity to struggle with basic theology. Yes, living out our theology in the battered world is as or more vital, but that assumes we know who God is, what we mean by the Trinity, what the implications of Nicea are. In my experience, the theological education of many people in the pews ended in about sixth grade.

And when we do have occasions to dig into the essential tenets of our faith, we seem to find that each of us is on a journey that requires the help of others. That’s precisely my experience each Sunday in the adult education class I usually attend in our church building.

But my sense is that these occasions don’t happen enough. And if our congregations don’t provide safe spaces in which our Valaries can ask their big God questions, eventually those Valaries will look for such chances elsewhere.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at