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Some Thoughts on How to Make Theological Choices

If you haven’t heard, it is primaries season. I’m not much of a political animal, but I do enjoy a good debate. Watching some of the democratic primary and seeing the “Super Tuesday” results (and all the varied reactions to them) got me thinking about how we go about making theological choices when faced with a rather complex array of issues as we are in the U.S. elections.

Ultimately, I’m not going to turn this into a political post. The choice of a candidate is just a great example of the sort of challenges Christians face when making ambiguous choices. The temptation is to default to the lexicographic rule, which Gad Saad describes as “cognitively non-effortful” (in other words…its easy). When we follow this rule, we choose based on our most important criteria and no other. If we are choosing a political candidate and the most important issue to us is the national debt, we will rank the candidates on that issue and choose whichever candidate scores best.

We could apply the same logic to non-political decisions. For instance, how might we think theologically about choosing a new job. Again, we can certainly take the “cognitively non-effortful” approach and make a decision based on some specific criteria or small set of criteria (e.g. salary, time-off, location, required travel). We could try to determine what will make us happy, but that is also a challenge (as I’ve noted in other posts).

I’m not sure I’m ready to say that choosing based on a single criteria is a horrible way to make decisions. On some level, there just isn’t time to agonize over and deeply analyze every choice. At the same time, I’m not ready to call these theological decisions either. So, what are our options? I’ll offer three thoughts that might help us make more theological choices.

  1. Choose something that isn’t as clear cut as your top-level, most important criteria– One of the decision-making challenges we face as humans is avoiding sucker’s choices. We need to try not to assume that we have to answer the sort of “either…or” or “yes/no” questions that eliminate any possibilities other than those right in front of us. In an effort to avoid the sucker’s choice, evaluate choices from the perspective of a deeply held, complex belief. For example, rather than voting for a candidate based on a single, quantifiable issue (e.g. this candidate is for lowering taxes) so that one issue becomes your most important criteria, vote based on a criteria like the importance of the unity of the body of Christ which resists closure. What might it mean for Christians to use such a theological concept as the criteria by which they determine who to vote for? How might something like Romans 14-15 change the way we think about the candidates we support? How might we act differently we’re we to privilege unity rather than allowing the “issues of the day” consume us?
  2. Don’t start with human logic- There is a way that seems wise to humankind…and sometimes we need to ignore it. So, if we want to make theological decisions, we should probably tap the source. Pray, worship, study, find the time to listen to God. I know (from experience) that stepping away from a question to pray can seem less than productive. We may feel a sense of urgency to find an answer to our questions, but we are wrong if we think that the patient acts of prayer, worship, study, and retreat are not appropriate expressions of such urgency.
  3. Be willing to use your Christian imagination- There are some questions that the Bible answers directly. Others, not so much. It isn’t that the Bible doesn’t offer wisdom and insight. Instead, it is that it may not offer specific wisdom and insight regarding a particular issue that arises in a particular context. The Bible does more than give us answers. It shapes us into people who have the mind of Christ. We need to use that mind to consider factors we may not see otherwise. Part of making theological decisions involves using the imagination forged within the community of faith to make wise decisions.

Ultimately, I am only scratching the surface of this topic. Making theological decisions is, in some ways, quite challenging. In others, it is rather simple. Making theological decision requires us to be intentional about thinking theologically. We have to make room to do it. As I wrote in Thinking Christian, “…we must develop space for theological thought where the Christian mind can thrive. We need a space to have the sort of slow, deliberate dialogues that reflect our deep conviction that discerning the Spirit is crucial to offering faithful testimony.”

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