The Theology of Glory and its Failure

Johanna Finegan presented an excellent address to the general session of Revoice this year on being caught between two theologies of glory; the theology of glory on the left that says we should celebrate ourselves as sexual minorities and the theology of glory on the right that says we should be able to “fix” ourselves or, at least, pretend all is hunky dory in our Christian walk.

Revoice19 – Johanna Finegan – General Session 2

Just after I watched her presentation, Issues Etc had two programs dedicated to a couple of documents recently released by the Roman Catholic Church. One was about a letter from Benedict XVI concerning the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Church. The other was the document “Male and Female He created them released by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Both documents have been hailed by conservative protestants and reformed, as well as Roman Catholics, for their strong stand on issues of sexuality.

I find this disturbing, not, for the most part, because of what the documents themselves say, but because of what they don’t say. Neither document really takes seriously the depth and endurance of the affects of the fall. They treat their respective issues as if they were somehow fixable if only we could find the right key to make it all work out.

In the case of the document on Male and Female, the answer presented by the Congregation for Catholic Education is that Christian families simply need to do a better job of educating children on the differences and importance of male and female and parents need to do a better job of modeling proper maleness and femaleness. They are not wrong. It certainly would be a better world if all families stayed together and parents were perfect. Where the document stumbles is when it hits the hard wall of reality. Parents and families will never be perfect. And even if they could be, some kids are still going to experience enduring attraction to their own sex and others are still going to experience a distressing disconnect between their self perception of their gender and the biological make up of their bodies.

This is where “answers” to the problem from those on both sides of the issues fail. Both sides espouse a theology of glory where issues of sexuality and experience of gender can be fixed. On the right, education, proper counseling and biblical admonition are what people need. On the left, what we need to do is to encourage a person to accept themselves and alter their lives and, if necessary, their bodies to fit their self perception. The answers of the right have already proven themselves to be failures over the last few decades and, in some cases, deadly to sexual and gender minorities. The little boy who was the subject of the “sissy boy experiment,” conducted by George Rikers in the 70s and hailed as evidence of Psychology’s success at redirecting boys in a more masculine direction, killed himself at age 38 after decades of struggling with depression and unhappiness. He is not alone in experiencing the damage done by many orientation change methods. Currently, the answers presented by the Left, to alter one’s life and body to align with self concept, are in the ascendancy. I rather suspect they will fail in similar ways.

Sometimes there is no answer. For some things there just is no “fix.” And this is where “Male and Female He Created Them” falls. It fails to acknowledge or deal with the real issue. What do you do when you have issues of sexuality and gender for which there is no fix, no repair? When that happens, how do we help people live in the tension? The impact of the fall on our bodies and brains is such that, often, there is no solution. And to present a “fix” as “the answer,” especially from the Church, simply sets people up for failure and loss of faith when it does not work. This document gives no help at all for those who are attracted to their own sex nor for those whose sense of self does not match the sex of their bodies. It is, for those situations, useless – or worse.

So also with Benedict’s letter on the sexual abuse crisis. Reading it, I can see why Benedict was so ineffectual at dealing with the abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. He essentially sees the issue as limited in time, a modern aberration in the Church brought on by the neglect of natural law and the success of the sexual revolution. His answer for the problem boils down to “we should be more Christlike.” Well, yes, we should. But we won’t be because we are sinners and, even if we could be perfectly Christlike, some men will still sexually abuse kids. It is a problem that has been going on ever since shortly after the fall, I assume. To believe and act otherwise is a failed theology of Glory.

What we have seen in the last 30 years or so has not been an increase in abuse but an increased willingness to talk about it, report it, and try to prevent it. That Benedict sees abuse itself as primarily limited to brief time in history and fixable is just plain scary and shows he has little concept of the depth of the impact of original sin. He, obviously, was not prepared to take the steps necessary to prevent abuse nor to deal with it when it happened simply because he closed his eyes to the depth of the problem. And if this is the view of the Roman Church in general it is little surprise that they have been so woefully unprepared and unable to deal with the crisis.

Once again, this is a problem for which there is no fix. A theology of glory does not work here. There have been, through all stages of earth’s history, people who prey on those weaker or younger than themselves. That will not change until the return of Christ. All we can do is take whatever step we can to prevent such individuals from being able to exercise their will over others, to deal swiftly and decisively with those abuse the weak, the young and the poor, and to give Christ’s love to those impacted by such abuse; all of which the Church failed to do in the current crisis. What is revealed in Benedict’s letter is the reason why the Roman Church failed so badly, the man in charge had a weak view of sin and the fall and a trust in a theology of glory that was corrupt at its center.

What churches need to start asking themselves, instead of “how do we fix these problems?” is “what do we do when there is no solution, no fix?” The power and glory of Christ is not how He grants healing and wholeness in this life, but how the Gospel gives people the willingness to carry a cross in a world in which there may be no answers and no solution. It is the Gospel, not the glory, that is the answer to sin and to the ills of the world, not by fixing, but by bearing and by communion in the Body of Christ. Theologies of glory; whether in the form of faith healers, Roman Catholic education, or protestant cultural warfare are doomed to failure from the start. They are built on a foundation of sand. The cross is where the power of Christ lies for salvation – and only the cross. The glory of empires, even spiritual ones, is weak and will assuredly fail and fade.