We all operate with a framework for navigating life and work. For some it is a well-defined, intentional set of core beliefs and truth. For some it is an ever-evolving bowl of beliefs and experiences. For others, it is just “go with your gut” and make sure you don’t harm anyone … too overtly. But what is the source of said beliefs? Where and how do we construct our moral and wisdom framework for life?
Most of us have no idea how much we are shaped by the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the books and articles we read, the conversations we engage, and our own winding trail of personal experiences. Additionally, most of us have no idea how our much of our beliefs are shaped by our own narrative.
Enter autobiographical theology.
Autobiographical theology is the idea that your own personal experience is the basis for your belief system and over time, your belief system should be prescriptive for other followers of Jesus. Put another way, it’s the idea that your narrative is normative. It is the notion that what you believe is what others should believe. Or until you experience something, it doesn’t really count. As the world turns for you, your thinking shifts and changes.
Let me be clear here: In one sense, the gospel does need to be autobiographical. It needs to be personalized and it needs to affect my life in particular ways. It is supposed to inform and transform my life and work. Until I personally crawl inside the claims of the gospel I will never experience the grace and goodness of God as He intended. But my experience and journey doesn’t determine truth about God and His guidance for me.
I believe it was Francis Schaeffer who first introduced me to the notion of truth being an objective framework that sits above my personal narrative.
You might be asking “What does it matter?”
I have known pastors who changed their entire view and belief on divorce when one of their children got a divorce. I have a friend who didn’t really “believe” in ministry to the homeless and poor until his wife became close to a homeless story. I have heard countless young entrepreneurs declare how they would build the business if they were in charge and young couples who have no children extol the right school or activity choices for other couples who do have children. And then I have watched those same young parents move and shift once their experience catches up with them and a second or third child breaks their original mold.
We hold views of right, wrong, and personal preference, but then as our life moves … our belief system can also move.
Now this is a tricky thing. Because yes, I am supposed to be growing and maturing and always developing. And yes, many of us have a jumbled hierarchy of beliefs and convictions. And yet, when I make my narrative normative and prescriptive, it makes me short-sighted and judgmental.
A tool I have found helpful is to use what Al Mohler calls “theological triage.”
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We are often poor determiners at what is a first-tier issue and what is a second-tier issue. And for sure, the older we get and the more miles we have on life the better we are at knowing the better road to choose.
So, what to do?
- Be careful laying down too firm of beliefs outside the center core of the gospel.
- Don’t live in exclusion and fear but realize the extraordinary persuasion our culture has over our thinking regarding God, people, truth, eternity, purpose, happiness, and faith.
- Read and digest the Scriptures. Find meaningful and useful ways to engage the Bible. And then keep at it for a lifetime.
- As you experience life, grow your empathy and understanding for others who hold a different view than you. Speaking of Francis Schaeffer, he also said, “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Jefferson and I would have disagreements on some first-tier theological issues, but I think there’s something modeled there that applies in theology. In matters of autobiography, speak with suggestions. In matters of theology, speak with Scripture.