When Houston Baptist University introduces its Liberal Arts Core Curriculum in the fall of 2011, Systematic Theology will become a required course. This change is part of a core overhaul that will make HBU one of only a few universities in the world offering an education centered on the classical texts in both philosophy and theology. Though I enrolled under the previous system, I have tailored my personal academic experience toward a balance of old and new. Systematic Theology, for example, is the course I preferred to take over the three alternatives, with permission from the dean.
I wasn’t quite sure what would be included in the course, but I knew that I wanted a deeper study of the nature and ways of God. I had questions that were not being answered in church sermons. Truthfully, I’ve been disappointed with most church speakers today, whose messages consist of various forms of the same ten or fifteen concepts, packaged up in twenty minutes worth of easily digestible garb.
Theology is an academic inquiry into the who, what, when, where and why of this being we call God. As I had hoped, the course has brought me into a new sphere of understanding of and relationship with that being. But there’s something fascinating that begins to happen when the origin of all things takes center focus in the hearts and minds of His people: a light is cast on creation itself. By creation, I don’t just mean people and things. I mean ideas, emotions, moments, seasons, conflicts, and laws of nature and justice. All academic disciplines come under the microscope of graceful revelation. Though I understood, conceptually, the vision put forth by the leadership of the university, only recently have I begun to experience it in a fuller sense.
One particular realization, of many, came one evening while reading about the free will of man. I thought of how many people I have met that point to the suffering of good and innocent people—the injustice in the world—as the primary reason for disbelief in any supreme being who claims to be just and good. I have empathized with this view, and at times struggled with this seeming contradiction, though I do not come to the same ultimate conclusion. Yes, there is pain, but this is a world in which humans walked away from God, and it is by His grace that there is any goodness whatsoever. Rather than point to the suffering, we ought to be thankful for beauty and joy wherever it is found. But on this evening I saw something new.
I was struck by two irreconcilable notions: that I should doubt God for want of goodness, yet not doubt goodness for want of God.
If it were suddenly proven that no god could possibly exist in the vast ordered cosmos, I would be at a loss attempting to understand why I should care in the very least what happens to my neighbor. There should be no definition of “good” or its opposite. My sense of justice must necessarily be interpreted as a construct of my imagination or social interaction. I should, by the direction of rationality and self-preservation, lie, cheat and steal in every circumstance where direct repercussions are unlikely. I should pursue no honor, no dignity and no restraint, except unless doing so will result in personal gain. If humans are mere physical shells with no purpose of life, then none of the things we value are of any worth after all.
This interpretation of the human being is a common one, though its implications are not laid out in quite this way. Consensus advises against attempting to convert people by telling them that there are no real virtues but hate and deception. I find it interesting that popular imagination has been sold an idea that essentially negates everything that we cherish in our common humanity. We look forward to giving a friend a gift, we smile when a stranger waves a sincere “hello,” and we celebrate the mysteries of love and passion through film and literature. We feel sorrow when another person is harmed, and we feel unsettled until justice is reconciled. Where do this things come from, and why do they matter?
Pain and suffering are real. But rather than view them as obstacles to faith, I see my concern and desire for justice as manifestations of God’s spirit, compelling me to make right what has been wronged. Without confronting injustice, how would I know justice? Without feeling the full range of possible human emotion, how can I relate to the One in whose image I am made, who is Himself angry, jealous and despairing over a fallen mankind and our constant efforts to keep Him at a comfortable distance.