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My "Personal Experience" Theology

Last week, my placement tasked me with unpacking my "personal experience theology" - writing, sharing, and discussing my personal theology around many interrelated topics. As I wrote out definitions and thought about my experience of certain concepts, I was encouraged, challenged, and a little bit nervous.

And then I shared it with my colleagues, and they asked me a bazillion questions, and pointed out common themes, and shared their insights into my insights, and it was lovely and terrifying and gave me lots of food for thought.

And now I'm going to share some of these 'personal statements' with you. And, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts...

Evil – actively harming another, disregarding their autonomy and/or humanity, using them for personal pleasure or gain without their consent, intentionally deceiving – when I think of my own personal experience of evil, I think of two types – my own temptations towards evil, towards disregarding the value and autonomy of another – and the evils I have experienced, most of which seem to be related to my identity as a woman. The times I have felt most unsafe as an adult have been when a man has disregarded my autonomy and made inappropriate advances toward me. As I think about this, I am reminded that I have experienced very little genuine “evil” in my life, for which I am grateful.

God – Above, before, surrounding all things. A distinct entity, a being who is love and justice and mercy all at once. - There is a verse in the Psalms that says, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” That is how I have experienced God. I feel like there is less and less I'm sure of when it comes to God, but I believe that God goes before me and behind me, and has a hand gently upon me.

Grace – undeserved blessings, all that I have not earned  I'm very cautious with my use of the word “grace” these days, probably due to my shifting view of God and the connection between God's will and earth's events. Is it God's grace that I was born as a white, straight, cis-gendered, middle-class female in Canada in the 20th century? Would saying that imply that others have somehow received less of God's grace? Here are some things I do think are God's grace to me: graduating from undergrad debt-free, my inner-circle of lady friends, my husband, my grades this last semester. I do not deserve them, but I have them, and I am grateful. 

Prayer – prayer is giving attention to God. Sometimes it's wordless, sometimes it's conversational, sometimes we're looking for a specific answer, or to be heard on a specific topic. But I think prayer is anything in which we are mindful toward God – I used to keep a prayer journal. But as I've become more connected to my emotions, I find it doesn't work for me anymore. What works best is silence. I need time to still my head and my heart. In my last year of university, I had a vision/imaginative prayer in which Jesus asked (in response to my persistent demand for him to speak), “Isn't it enough just to be with me?” Ten years later, I'm still working on the same thing...learning to be with God, and to be content with whatever that looks like.

Religion – any sort of organized and structured community of practice that has at its heart an approach to the spiritual aspects of our lives – I don't think religion is necessarily bad, though religiosity seems to me to be an adherence to a religion that loses sight of the truths and metaphysical mysteries behind the formal structures of an organization, and I think that is a dangerous thing. For years, my religiosity prevented me from recognizing the mysterious nature of God and humanity. Like many, religion helped me sort the ineffable into boxes that I could label and stack and control. Or so I thought.

Spirituality – the personal beliefs, rituals, and efforts of a person to make sense of their humanity, the possibility of the divine, and other metaphysical questions  I grew up thinking of spirituality as a very eastern/non-christian idea in which people choose from a pot all the things they like and disregard anything unpleasant to form their worldview. Now I recognize my own spirituality as the part of my faith-life that is often facilitated by religious practice, but is much more deeply rooted into my identity than an external set of actions or statements.

Suffering – suffering is the unavoidable pain of life, the things we don't want to have to live through, and often feel we don't deserve. Evil always causes suffering, though I am not sure all suffering is directly caused by evil.I have always been keenly aware of suffering, both my own and that of others. I used to think there was a direct correlation between avoiding evil and avoiding suffering, but that collapsed quite quickly after university. Now, I am wrestling to view suffering as Paul wrote about it in Romans 5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” The idea that suffering can/should increase our hope is mind-boggling to me. I've been mulling it over for a few years now...

Worship – to place the highest value on something, to adore it, to praise it, to believe it ought to be central to one's life – We all worship things. Often we worship people. At least, that's how my life has been. But I am convinced that worshiping anything or one other than God leads to heartache, imbalance, and destruction. I used to think this meant I had to limit the value I placed on things/people, or I would feel guilty about being “too attached.” But now I believe that it is possible to value and esteem many things and people in a way that actually elevates our worship of God.

Forgiveness – releasing the hold another has on you through the evil they have done towards you – As a child, I frequently said, “I forgive you.” What I meant at the time was, “I will not bring this up again. I will not treat you unkindly anymore.” I knew that wasn't all forgiveness was, but I was not well-taught in how to process my emotions and release the anger and bitterness that oppose forgiveness. In my twenties, I began to work at forgiving some of the people who had hurt me deeply, and I have found it to be both far more complicated and far more freeing than I ever thought.

Love – choosing to care for, respect, value, and commit your whole self to something or someone – I grew up hearing, “Love is a choice.” This is a belief I am happily bringing with me into adulthood. I think there is both general love, that is, respect and care for all those we encounter, and specific love, the things we choose to build our lives around. For me, that list includes: my husband, my family of origin (which now includes his), my inner-circle of lady friends, poetry, writing, and some sort of spiritual service.

Vocation – a sense of personal vision, meaning, or life-direction – I used to think that vocation was something you figured out as a youth, and then simply DID as an adult. When my first job in full-time christian ministry proved impossible for me, this idea was really called into question. Now I see vocation as an ongoing journey of knowing my self, my desires, and what I can offer the world. As one author put it, vocation is “where my deep desires and giftings meet the needs of the world.” 

Mercy – respite, relief, an end to suffering – This is a word I've grown attached to in the past few years. Since my introduction to Anglican circles, I've become aware of how predominant it is in the liturgy. It seems to me to be at the centre of most of our prayers, and one of the fundamental cries of the human heart. I had the word tattooed on my side last year, as a reminder that I believe in mercy – I believe that God does & will show me mercy, and I believe that the life of a christian is one in which we consistently show mercy to others.

Belief – to accept something as true, to wrestle with something, to engage with concepts and ideas in a positive manner – This is a word that is so prevalent in church circles, yet we rarely unpack what we mean. The assumption for most of my life was that belief is static, firm, and propositional. Currently, my beliefs are far less static, but I'm far more engaged with them than when they were simply a box to tick.

What are some other church/theology/spiritual words we can unpack together??


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