Theological Reflection

You may be here because of the commentary that arose from one of my more flippant Facebook posts.

I said: "I'm in that kind of mood when I want to tell people caught up in the spiritual significance of today being the shortest day and this the darkest time of the year to just turn on the lights and get on with their life." 

And I posted a picture of a light switch.  I would have labeled "Darkness Dispersal Device" but that would have been too much work, and probably overkill in explaining the joke. 

Anyway, much commentary ensued -- some silly, some very serious, but all missing my point, which I will now over-explain. Bear with me, please. 

We do theological reflection. It's our main duty as ministers. We think about the events and circumstances of the lives around us and draw out the connection between them and the conceptions of our highest values and ultimate realities of our religious tradition.

We have to be aware of the direction of the flow of meaning that we are demonstrating. Our purpose, if we are to be relevant, is to bring the wisdom of the religious tradition to the real, pressing and felt issues in the lives of the people we are ministering to. We do this to bring comfort and clarity to people. 

It is not  our purpose to show that the issues in our congregants' lives prove the relevance of the religious wisdom we hold. 

Our 21st century lives are not fodder for sermon illustrations to prove the relevance of ancient texts. 

No, our job is to marshall whatever wisdom of the ancient texts that is actually useful to the lives of  of our friends, neighbors, congregants and bring it to them. (And if the ancient texts are not useful to lives today, then to not try to force them to fit. See Ephesians for ancient and bad advice on how to have a successful marriage.)

Now, to the subject at hand. The point of my comment is that the length of the day, the length of the night, the number of hours of sunlight in a day are not pressing issues in the lives of most of the people we know. Thomas Edison, Lewis Latimer and the Rural Electrification Act have made the length of light per day a non-issue for most people in our ministerial settings. [Winter is, but cabin fever doesn't really set in until weeks after the winter holidays. Preach, if you must, about the crankiness that besets us in early March, when the snowdrifts are blackened heaps, slowly melting to reveal layers of frozen dog poop, and your housemate went in the basement two weeks ago to "check on something", didn't return, and you don't care.]

But the length of day (and the Solstice) gets talked about, though, because it is an observable fact that is connected to some religious traditions.  It gets talked about not to bring comfort and clarity to the pressing issues of the people, but to teach them about religious traditions that they do not know. It also gets talked about now, because it is the holiday season and some religious leaders to not want to have to talk about you know who.

The flow of meaning is going in the wrong direction. It's using theological reflection to speak to a problem which is not a problem. Which is why a smart-ass will ask, "Why don't you just turn on the lights and get on with it?"


  1. Elisabeth11:16 AM

    Tom, in the spirit of the season, may you just go right on being a smartass and reflecting as much light as you can. Thank you for making my mind work and for warming my spirit.

  2. Tom I agree that we have to be shedding light on life as it is lived in the 21st century, but one of the realities of the 21st Cantury is that conservative pundits, TV networks and politicians, eager for something to stoke the fires of their readers and voters, will gin up this totally phony "war on Christmas." In order to let our liberal congregants know how our Christmas celebrations actually came about, we need to go into Saturnalia, the Solstice, Yule and all that. Plus some of our folks are genuinely interested in reclaiming pagan spirituality. Light is a powerful metaphor for the spirit, being incorporeal, and the seasonal progression of the sun grounds us all in a rhythm that is longer than the day's news cycle. I have conducted a Winter Solstice celebration in every church I've served, and I observe an awful lot of my colleagues doing the same. We are accused of being an overly sunny religion and it is healthy to acknowledge the dark side of nature as well as the human heart.


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