Can we be theological chameleons?

When I went to Bible college, we were taught about a variety of theological viewpoints, with the implication that you would pick the one you liked the look of, since, you know, we’re all Protestants and so there’s nobody to tell you which one you should choose. (Although we will happily treat you like a heretic if you choose the wrong one.) And in terms of learning to work in multi-denominational teams and whatnot, that was all very useful to help us understand each other and, hopefully, not treat each other too much like heretics.

But we were also taught about contextualization and about presenting the Gospel in ways that make the most sense to the recipient, and so now when I come back to this idea of choosing which theological camp you belong to, I can’t help thinking, “Do I only get to choose one?”

Because my friend the social activist with brief dalliances with the Communist party is far more likely to respond to the earthy, radical Jesus of the liberal and liberationist theologies than to the spiritually powerful Jesus of the Pentecostal movement. But my other friend who’s a New Age spirit medium will relate much more easily to a Jesus who is the origin and source of spiritual power than to a Jesus who’s some kind of left-wing political hack.

So as I try to present the Gospel to both these kinds of people, I more and more come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as “the Gospel”, because Jesus is both liberator of the oppressed and source of spiritual power and a whole lot more besides, and if we only ever present the kind of Jesus that our own pet theology portrays, then not only are we doing Jesus a disservice but we’re doing people who hear about him a disservice as well.

But this idea of choosing one position and sticking to it is so entrenched in our culture - and not just in theology, but any politics and everything else: the urge to divide ourselves into opposing camps is a fundamental technique for making a complicated world more manageable - that not only are we’re almost made to feel traitors if we see any good or use in another position, but people just can’t cope if we flat out refuse to prioritize one position or another. (I remember a wonderful email exchange with a theology student who was trying to pin me down to either Calvinism or Arminianism, who was reduced to infuriated gibbering when I said “It depends on the situation!” Yeah, I choose my doctrines based on whether or not they’ll help people experience Jesus. Pray tell, how do you choose yours?)

Missiologically, we’re encouraged to contextualize and be “all things to all people”. Now then, it’s all well and good trying to contextualize the gospel to Japan, but Japan’s 120 million people and they’re all different: not just in their social groupings but in their personalities, values and everything else. If contextualization is an implicit admission that one size of church tradition does not fit all, is it not the natural next step that one size of theology does not fit all either?

Of course there is a sense in which the Gospel challenges culture and values as well as fitting into them - if we only ever preach a liberationist Jesus to politically left-wing people then they may never engage with the Jesus of spiritual power - and that’s a more general problem with contextualization. Actually this means that we have to continually encounter various facets of the Gospel which our own traditions do not emphasise in order for us to have a fuller picture of God, let alone anyone else. But can a missionary be happy to propose a picture of Jesus that is not his or her own personal understanding - or, going a bit further out on a limb, to hold multiple understandings of Gospel in tension, without privileging one or the other, and use whichever is appropriate to the time?

In short, can one be a Liberal and an Evangelical at the same time, a Calvinism and an Arminian…. what about a Protestant and a Catholic and an Orthodox? From my own faith journey, I believe so, and not only that, but if our primary allegiance is to Jesus rather than any particular theological system, I think this is the necessary end result of testing everything and holding on to that which is good, or of seeing Jesus at work in other Christians and treating them with love and respect.

I will try to interest my activist neighbour in a Jesus who stood with the poor, but I will also try to show him the Jesus of spiritual power; I will try to interest my New Age neighbour in a Jesus of spiritual power but I will also try to show her the Jesus who stood with the poor. And I myself must continue to experience both of these Jesuses, and many more besides, if I am ever to become all things to all people, so that I might win some.