The Credibility Gap
So how many people out there have read Mildred Bangs Wynkoop?
Show of hands.
Is this thing on?
Anybody at all?
Right. Yeah, well, I hadn’t heard of her either until recently, but I stumbled onto her in some other reading.
I picked up her book, A Theology of Love. There, she starts by discussing what she calls “the credibility gap”. Essentially, she argues that theology tends to be exceedingly abstract and confined to sort of ephemeral ideas. What theology doesn’t tend to do is affect the way the grocer at the checkout stand does or how the teacher explains the quadratic equation to a collection of glazed-over eyes. The questions that Joe Everyman asks don’t tend to be answered by theological inquiry, which just makes theology come off as being irrelevant to the majority of not only unbelievers, but Christians as well.
Of course, it’s not inappropriate to ask if the credibility gap here is caused by Joe asking the wrong questions or theologians asking the wrong questions and therefore providing irrelevant answers. Wynkoop sides with the latter, and I’m inclined to agree with her in large part, though I’ll admit that some of that is because I find philosophical arguments (of which much theology depends) to be confusing and at times flawed (again, due to a wrong question or assumption that leads to a series of faulty corollaries. Philosophers now have permission to begin proving me wrong and arguing me into the ground 100 ways from Sunday.). I’m biased in my view that theologians are asking wrong questions and building off faulty assumptions; I’ll admit that. Still, I lean that way anyway.
The greatest commandment is to love God. The second is to love others as one loves oneself. Whether or not Joe is loved well or is capable of loving others well is something that will hit home for him. He might use different language or even have a completely warped understanding of what love is, but if he’s not loved well, it will affect him. If he’s not loved the way he thinks he ought to be, it will affect him. If he can’t figure out how to love others, it will affect him. If he can’t figure out how to love himself, that affects him. When theology doesn’t point to love, we end up with this credibility gap.
I don’t want to disparage theological inquiry into other issues. Some people really struggle with questions of the nature of atonement or determinism. I’ve wrestled with several. Yet if love isn’t the center of theological study, if that doesn’t form the foundation of one’s theological learning (and teaching), have we missed the point?
Spiritual formation (before it got its shiny new title and was just called growth or sanctification if you liked 50 cent words) used to be about the accumulation of knowledge and self-control. Neither are bad, but they aren’t enough to bring about transformation. The Spirit brings about transformation, but if another person is bringing that about, then there is a relationship there. The pinnacle of relationship is love. It is the ground of Christian growth, and if a lack of growth is stagnation, which is death, then it must be the root of the Christian life as well. And if the foundation of the Christian life, then it must be the ground of theology.
Even if Joe is the one asking the wrong questions, how does the church invite him to find the right questions more significant and meaningful? It seems to me that the only way the church can do so is to act in love. Apart from love, the church and her theology will be repugnant, and Joe will find such questions even less relevant or answered already before he cares to ask the church herself.
The solution to the credibility gap, one way or another, is love.