7 steps to turn theology into action

After I claimed in the last post that we all have a theology or two, my colleague Matte Downey asked me this question over on Facebook:

Thinking about theological integrity myself these days, but in a slightly different way. How do we translate the theology inside our heads into practical action? How do we flesh it out, so to speak? – Matte Downey

Excellent question. If I’m going to conflate theology and ethics the way I did yesterday’s post, this is exactly the question to ask. And perhaps it’s my speciality (theological ethics) showing through, but I’m convinced that the old adage is true, actions do speak louder than words. What we do reveals what we really believe, sometimes in spite of what we claim to believe. The hope is that if our claims are good enough, true enough, and beautiful enough, we may be able to persuade ourselves to act on them and bring our personal theology and personal ethic into alignment. I begin all my intro ethics class by demonstrating to the students that they are already living by some ethic, explaining that my job isn’t to give them an ethic where none exists, but to get them to recognize what is already there and how their ethic fits within the wider realm of options, because their ethic has already been tried and written about by others. Everyone has an ethic, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Everyone has a theology, some mix of orthodoxy, heresy, superstition, and who knows what else.  So, in the style of internet writing, here are 7 ways you can bring your thinking and doing into alignment with each other.


  1. Be aware of the difference. This was the reason for my post yesterday, to draw attention to the distance between what we say we believe and the somewhat different beliefs that inform our actions. It’s sort of like stereoscopic vision. We’re not usually consciously aware of seeing somewhat differently out of each of our two eyes. We have to make ourselves pay attention to it. Something in our brain though does the work of integrating those inputs into one thing our mind sees. That part of our brain is acutely aware of the difference and does the work of integration. People building cameras or robots with stereoscopic vision have to do a tremendous amount of complicated math to imitate this. And it all begins with an appreciation for the difference.
  2. Pay attention. Specifically, pay attention in our daily lives to this difference, to the distance between what we think we believe and what we actually believe. Just now, as I was making the vision analogy, I stopped and paid close attention to my field of vision. I can only see our fridge out of my right eye, Isaac’s oatmeal bowl out of my left eye. Do this sort of thing regularly with regard to our belief and actions. Commit to this truth: it’s all connected, however we act, talk (including our internal monologues), and feel are both based on and have influence on what we believe to be true of reality. A practice like the daily examen can help with this but it can also be done moment-by-moment. Be inquisitive with ourselves. Interrogate our own speech, thought, and actions. This only works to the extent that we’re willing and able to be honest with ourselves about ourselves. (And caveat: this one alone can be debilitating, leading to second guessing, regret, self-loathing, freezing up; this only works in tandem with the others listed below, otherwise we’ll just get stuck in our own heads.)
  3. Read Scripture as story and place yourself in it. The characters in the Bible are so real, so un-airbrushed, so unfiltered. They are a helpful shock to our system in this age of curated self-presentation. And they are in regular interaction with God. How are we like the characters in the Bible? We are a lot like them (even the villains). As you read, imagine you are each of the characters. Are we able to hear what is said to them said to us? Are we able to admit we act and think like them? I find this sort of reading the most helpful way to interact with the Bible, and especially when done with others. Practice this in community. Whenever I introduce this method to people who haven’t done it intentionally before, I start with the little book of Philemon. Read that through and imagine you are Onesimus. How would you feel? Would you go back to your master and submit to him? Then read it again and place yourself in Philemon’s shoes. What would you feel and think then? Would you take your thieving slave back and promote him to family member? Then read it one more time and imagine you are Paul. Would you have the wisdom and courage to say these things to both of these men? This approach works all through Scripture. It helps us measure the distance between what we say we believe and those beliefs we actually live out. It also helps us toward the integration we want.
  4. Read. There is really no way around this. If you want to grow spiritually, you are going to have to learn from others who are doing them same, and the primary way to do this is to read books. Thankfully, we live in an age when there are more options than ever. Read physical books. Read eBooks. Have Audible read them to you. You could even listen to podcasts (ahem). I have more to say about this. The next two are really sub-points of this one but they are so important they deserve their own numbers.
  5. Widen our circle of reading. Just as we can get stuck in our own heads, we can get caught up having the same discussions in the same ways with people who think like us and have similar experiences, leaving us with the same blind spots and the same discrepancies between what we think we believe and what we actually live out. One of the best cures for this is to bring in outside voices, people who think very differently from us, who live very differently from us. If we read the Bible carefully, we will find it to be a “strange, new world” (as Barth called it) but many of us are so familiar with the Bible, been exposed to it our whole lives, that it’s hard to really respect that cultural divide. It can be easier with other things we read, if we will search out different perspectives. Again, we live in an era when this is easier than ever. But you won’t find what I’m talking about at your local Christian bookstore. Those shops specialize in confirmation bias, only telling us what we already think we know. And look, we aren’t limited to just reading stuff specifically about spirituality. As I said above, it’s all connected. So much that we might read tells us something about reality and thus has an embedded theology. Especially read good fiction. Great art that is good and beautiful is also therefore true in ways beyond what is easy to articulate. But the embedded truth we encounter in those works downloads into our subconscious and carries on the work of changing and aligning our perspective. If that sounds a bit like magic, well, it is.
  6. Read sympathetically. I can’t stress this enough. While reading technologies and accessing varied perspectives are easy in our day, this one has become so much harder. We seem to live in an era of talking past each other, where argument is sport and the goal is defeat instead of mutual edification, and the work others produce is only fodder to use in attacking them and reinforcing our own correctness. It is deeply cynical and works to widen the distance between what we think we believe and what we actually believe. The integration we seek is only found in communion with each other, as we respect and learn from each other. No one wins a theological showdown. Losers all around. If we have to prove someone else wrong for our theology to be correct, we’ve only shown the weakness and thinness of whatever theological point we are trying to defend. There’s a reason we teach theology around the historical heretics. They drive the discussion because their work helped the church learn what it thought and decided to teach going forward. It works even better when we’re able to sympathize with the heretics, to understand (as best we can given the awful way the church treated many of them) what they thought and why. That same dynamic works for us too. Some of the most unorthodox, out of left field ideas are the ones that help us discover what we believe and ask better questions of own thought and practice. Plus, there’s a whole ‘means determine the ends’ angle here. As Christians, we value kindness and generosity, right? If so, then we have to practice kindness and generosity to those who think differently from us. In that way, we teach ourselves that we do value kindness and generosity and we also find the Spirit speaking to us from these very different voices that draw us more and more into reality.
  7. Experiment. As we come across these very different ideas and perspectives, part of how we learn how good, true, and beautiful they are is by trying them out. Take them for a test drive. See if they work. Let me give you an example. I love Mr. Rogers (yes, the sweater, neighbor guy). I watched him as a little kid, thought he was boring when my sister (7 years younger) watched him, and rediscovered him several years ago. The way he went through his life was so beautiful, so appealing to me, and yet so very different from how I naturally act and think. Reading what he wrote and what others have written about him have helped influence how I think and act. Just the other night, I was playing with my boys. They were playing a violent, war-like game. I didn’t like it at all. (I don’t know where they get it from, they don’t watch stuff like that.) My play time with them has been way too limited the past few months and this was at a level beyond what I was ready for. Then I remembered how Mr. Rogers always made friendship a focus of his pretend play, that he was convinced kids find such a mode of play appealing. So I experimented with it. My robot just wanted to be friends with the robots on either side of the conflict. And guess what? It worked! In no time, the robot war ended peacefully and all sides became friends. A deep theology undergirds Fred Roger’s perspective and I’ve been trying to align myself with it for a while now. It was heartening to experience an immediate, tangible affirmation of that, to see others find it so readily appealing.

I’m not sure I’ve answered Matte’s question well but these are the thoughts that occurred to me in reflecting on it. Like so many things, it is the question that is the really important thing. Various answers can be given or tried, even put together to answer in tandem. But the question itself, to the extent that we live with it and keep it close to us, is most likely the surest way toward achieving the integration and alignment we seek.

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