Theology as Autobiography

Theology is always, to some degree, autobiography. I've become convinced of this. I've heard it launched, however, as an accusation. I've heard some theologians accuse others of casting their theology in their own experience or "creating God in their own image," as though their own theology is innocent and objective; their assumption being that a good theology should drop from heaven instead of being birthed from someone's lived experience. Even if we wanted to believe that the doctrine of revelation implied that theology should be clean, without any human finger prints, I don't think we can help but speak from our own stories and relationships. I don't think we can hope to construct a theology that is not autobiographical, nor should we!

Some will be offended by this idea. Some will assume that if theology is, in some way and to some degree, birthed in human experience then it will always be self-referential, self-affirming, and ultimately self-serving. If that were the case, then I think it would be right to be offended and distressed. It would mean that there's nothing outside of us, acting upon us, and encountering our experience. But the fact is, God does act, God is outside of us, spilling over the edges of our experience. And theology, though it is autobiographical, is not merely self-referential or self-serving. In fact, because theology is autobiographical, it cuts us to our core and hits us where it hurts... challenging and transforming us in the midst of our life experience. Theology, as autobiography, is not merely a story of the self (it's not merely epistemological). Theology is a story of the self encountering God (it is an ontological collision). It is birthed in the human experience of the being and action of God. It is the story of the self encountered by God, and such an encounter does not merely affirm one in their experience, but "...awakens pain over the present internal and external enslavements of human beings" and of the self (Moltmann, On Human Dignity, 16).

Autobiography does not betray theology but, rather, gives it a heartbeat.

In my own theological work (if I can call it that) I've been working closely with Moltmann's eschatology, putting it conversation with the sociological literature of childhood studies, and directing it to the church's ministry to young people (youth ministry). The conceptual thread that runs through all of this is that human dignity precedes the assumptions of human development. Eschatology is not about development, its about redemption. And what's normative for youth ministry is not the "formation" or development of young people into maturity (even spiritual maturity), but the attention they deserve as actors in the social practice of adolescence, regardless of the standards of development imposed upon them. What's normative for youth ministry is not formation but seeking, as Andrew Root puts it, " share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God" (Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker, 7).

Not only is this autobiographical in the sense that it explicitly applies to my own experience in youth ministry, but I am discovering that it is autobiographical in that it directly challenges and convicts my own sense of self. It is ironic that I—someone who has become so obsessed with "advancing," someone whose sense of self-worth has become so dependent upon my ability to produce and perform—would choose to endeavor to write a theology of youth ministry that liberates it from gerontocentric standards of development. Perhaps I am doing this precisely because I need it and long for it. In this way my theology, though autobiographical, has been anything but merely self-affirming and self-referential. In fact, in a way, it has been painful.

I have encountered God in the very place at which I am my weakest and most frail. And I am being transformed. I think that this may be the way the doctrine of revelation works... not as a static and objective fact that drops from heaven, but as God working in the the lives of people, coming from outside our experience but, in a sense, being birthed in it.

This is, after all, the Advent season... perhaps it's appropriate to look to Mary's birthing of Jesus as a paradigm for theology. It's not just something that comes upon us, but as that which comes upon us, it comes from within us and wears our skin.