Sep 11, 2012
Dumpster Diving and the Silliness of Faith
In an “Ecology and Christianity” course I teach each semester, a consistent question pokes its head out for those who are registered: how are we actually changing the way we live in light of the gospel? As a community, we consistently take aim at any theology we’re constructing that isn’t doable. Without practice, justice-centered living is just idealism.
One student I encountered last year took drastic steps to enact personal changes based on the constructing theology we were discussing. Years earlier he’d gotten to thinking about the notion of simplicity and how it shouldn’t simply be an idea. This student (who shall remain unnamed) spent a year eating only food that had been thrown away. This led him to “dumpster diving”, which, in my state is illegal—food thrown away is considered stolen when removed from trash bins. One can even be imprisoned for “dumpster diving”. Despite the consequences, he practiced this in a painful effort to enact simplicity and solidarity with the poor in our city. In the process of doing such a practice, my friend tells me, so much about the world became clear to him. He could see afresh the cycles of injustice our society has built to keep God’s blessing (i.e. food) from those who need it most. He, nor I, could believe that our extra food couldn’t legally be distributed.
He said this eye-opening revelation about the system became possible only by doing something different.
Years later, he still willingly “dumpster dives” with his family. They have too much food, he says.
I’ve always believed this is how faith in Jesus works; we get to see new realities only after we’ve tried on those realities for a while. The early church father Anselm called it fides quaerens intellectum; faith that seeks understanding. We don’t do stuff once we understand it. Rather, we do stuff in order to understand.
And really, Christianity has always sought to go back to its basic understanding that belief will inherently cause us to burn some calories. Faith has legs. It uses muscles. Faith isn’t just about brain cells, folks. That is, our beliefs about God must be lived and embodied in order for them to be real beliefs. Otherwise, we have nothing more than a half-baked theory about God; not an actual lived theology. In the end, we don’t really believe what we believe until what we believe is something that we do. Until then, it’s a great idea or a great theory.
American Christianity, without question, struggles with this. We’re consistently having to catch ourselves from being lured and enamored by what the 17th century Christian and Pietist Reformer, Philip Spener, called, “charming things of reason.” Spener wrote, to my delight in a reading some time ago, “The study of theology should be carried on not by strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety.” Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s saying theology isn’t primarily worked out in the ring, it’s worked out on the road. Increasingly, as a church, we’ve fallen in love controversy to the simple pursuit of holiness in everyday life.
Throughout the history of Christianity, one can find a consistent cry to return to a practical expression of Christianity. Along with Spener, the Pietest reformers who followed the sweeping reforms of Martin Luther rebelled against the theoretical and scholastic forms of theology that they had been trained in that centered on philosophical and ethereal debates that had no bearing on real life. One such Pietest, Master Dinckel, decried in his writings what he called theologia spinosa, or “prickly theology”. By this he meant any theology that is simply debated, argued, theory, and ethereal—“prickly theology.” Dinckel and the other Pietist reformers always sought to call the church back to theologia practica; practical and livable theology.
Another theologian, the German Protestant Helmut Thielicke, comes to mind. He deals with the same issue in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. There, Thielcke deals with the dynamic of a theologians life between the life of professorship and the pulpit. With clarity, he diagnoses the difficulty of overcoming pride in both practice and identity. In the little text, Thielicke discusses the difference between church-goers and church-doers; those who come and sit to watch and those who go to seminary to learn and lead. The danger, Thielcke sais, is that once one has come to know the deep secrets of God, they quickly become academics and either leave the church or become completely useless to it. Or, he says, they live the stuff and change the world. The first group is widespread. He talks about it as theological puberty when the theologian knows more than they have lived. There is a “diabolical theology”; theology that is known but unlived. This, Thielcke says, is the theology of the demons.
The Scriptures speak to what I’m describing plenty. This call towards practical and doable theology is found throughout the pages of Paul’s writings. Therein, Paul warns Timothy to not be occupied with myths, arguments, and speculation (1 Tim. 1:4-7). He continues to the church in Collosae by suggesting they not be taken captive by hollow arguments and philosophy (Col. 2:8).
Which really just takes me back to my dumpster diver friend.
Here’s where I stand: I would rather die having practiced ridiculously silly looking stuff based on my faith than dying having practiced predictability with an impeccable system of belief. I want a better lived theology than a vocabulary of theology. Sometimes, faith should lead us to do silly things; be nice to strangers, walk barefoot, give away large sums of money, not put that extra money in our savings, eat less and more simply, sharing the gospel with family members. You name it. And, really, sometimes those acts just look so darn silly.
But I’m more and more cool with looking silly. Why?
Because our world’s new norm really seems to be boring. And not getting us anywhere.
Anyone want to go dumpster diving with me?
 Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans., Theodore G. Tappert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1964), 56.
 Echoing one of his teachers; ibid., 50.
 These two are contrasted in ibid., 53-54.