Theological Doctrines, Plain Speech, & the Public Square

What basic Christian tenet, doctrine, or word have you struggled to “translate” into plain speech? That question is part of an essay prompt I’m considering for a July writing workshop with Kathleen Norris at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. Can you help me think out loud on this one? I’d love to read your thoughts.

I recently hosted a Theology Pub on the topic “What Idols Do We Worship?” Those 20/30-somethings gathered enjoyed a raucous discussion of idolatry. I was struck by how easily the conversation progressed. Young adults didn’t need (or want) a definition of idolatry. They didn’t really care about its place in the ten commandments. They jumped into the discussion with both feet, I think, because they all knew idolatry. Some quite intimately. To speak about the classic Christian definition of idolatry with this group would require some fleshing-out, but the skeleton was already present.

We haven’t talked about sin directly at a Theology Pub in a while, but previous conversations have gone fairly similarly. Though those skeptical of God’s existence certainly questioned how sin relates to the divine, the basic idea that we humans are broken and prone to err is not difficult to communicate, superficially at least.

Other areas of doctrine strike me as much more difficult to communicate or, to use language approaching a doctrine itself — they do not come as natural theology. Grace unearned and undeserved, for many at least, fits this bill.

Similarly, a rich Trinitarian theology is a head-scratcher for many pastors, let alone parishioners or non-churchy folks. Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity is another tricky one. And, I’ve always thought justification and sanctification require some significant foundation work before they can be grasped. How the Bible functions — I suppose that’d be connected to the doctrine of revelation — confounds many as well (particularly religion reporters, it seems). And I won’t even mention atonement theories (whoops).

So, my initial reflections on Kathleen Norris’ prompt have me wondering what task is more needed, and what task is more difficult: should Christian leaders clarify particular aspects of Christian doctrines that already have some cultural cache (such as idolatry, sin, etc.) or should we emphasize discussion, instead, on doctrines that are less understood or even completely unconsidered (e.g. nobody really talks about John Calvin’s actual understanding of double predestination these days)? Yes, this is obviously a false choice, but it’s a consequential one.

What do you think? What Christian doctrines most immediately need to be translated for public consumption? What doctrine needs to be freed from theological language to enjoy communication in plain speech and, maybe, more clear understanding?


  1. Anne Gunn says:


    I struggle with the word doctrine. I think it is a huge stumbling block when one talks about religion (and that’s the second word). Faith is a word most people understand — whether they have it or not. But doctrine and religion — way too much baggage.

    Wow, I’m jealous — a writing workshop with Kathleen Norris. Good for you!

    P. S. I think the name of your blog. It reminds me of my Scottish granny.

    • Thanks for the reminder about “doctrine,” Anne. Indeed, it’s a word that has a lot of baggage with it. It does signify something that’s beyond other substitutes, though. Maybe “traditional theological claims” or “church teachings?”

      By the way, I have a Scottish granny too :) The name is no coincidence!

  2. RollieB says:

    It took 3-years to “adjust” my religious thinking. My Christian roots were very traditional (evangelical); but the questions and doubts grew to the point of requiring a “reset.” The starting point for the reset was an in depth discussion with a theology professor from an east coast seminary.

    The challenge that the church faces (IMO) is the “old school” way of speaking about the Christian faith does not resonate very well with the 20 – 30 – even 40 somethings, let alone teenagers.

    The traditional Christian message doesn’t work. The required transformational shift is from head (doctrine) to heart (relational). Young folk (I’m 67) base much of their life on relationships (think Facebook). I firmly believe the church needs to jettison the “traditional Christian” message and replace it with a new lexicon based on interpersonal relationships. This is hard work. It requires being inventive.

    While I still believe Jesus is a way to “God,” I don’t think, nor speak, in those terms anymore. My new theological understanding is now a type of “quantum theology.” Jesus still leads us to our creator but the discussion is way different than the language of my formative youth.

    Good stuff, Adam! Keep writing and posting.

    • Anne Gunn says:

      Rollie, I’m almost 69, but with you in thoughts. Please say more about “quantum theology.” I’m not familiar with the term. What a wonderful challenge it would be to transform the message into Facebook/Twitter language. Is there anyone out there working on this?

      • Anne, If you poke around you’ll find some interesting sites regarding “quantum theology.” I don’t like many of them – they don’t fit my experience very well. But, in general, Quantum Theology is a blending or accommodating science into religious belief. As a retired scientist and also a spiritual being I live in both worlds. Diarmuid O’Murchu wrote a book entitled “Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics,” which I’ve read and it started my rethink.

        Eventually each of us sort through pieces of info and spiritual leanings and define our own theology. A creedal organization (denominational churches) stifles much of this exploration – “we’ve figured it out, here’s what we believe, sign on.” Doesn’t work well in my case.

        After the reset the challenge is to find fellow explorers for the benefits of community. Fortunately we’ve found such a group locally.

        • Anne Gunn says:

          Thanks, Rollie. Several years ago I heard a series of lectures given by the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, physicist/theologian/pastor who did an excellent job of bringing science and faith together. I’ll add the O’Murchu book to my reading list.

          Keep on sharing, please.

  3. Mary Vance says:

    A basic tenet/doctrine/word that was troubling for me when I first came to accept Christian faith (even describing it like this is troubling actually), and one that i have found difficult to describe in casual conversations with skeptics and nonbelievers is the whole notion of salvation. What are we talking about? Saved from something? Saved for something? Is saved just a condition like being awake or asleep? And what about “the good news of salvation?” In a sermon I might say that the good news of salvation is that even though we all fall short of God’s plan for us, God loves us and forgives us because we are saved through God’s work in Jesus Christ. But if someone is listening who has no foundation or has abandoned their traditonal upbringing, is that going to have any meaning at all? I’ve said something shorter along those lines to people in a casual context once or twice and I either got a puzzled look or a I’ve found that I have unwittingly launched us into a conversation about “God’s plan” and that is a whole other tricky wicket!

    • RollieB says:

      Mary, I’m not convinced that first century Jews who followed Jesus thought of him as a savior. Richard Rorh and Cynthia Bourgeault speak in different terms about Jesus, which I find helpful. Rorh says that; – There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things. – There is in the human soul a natural capacity for, similarity to, and longing for this Divine Reality. – The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality. …I like those thoughts. Bourgeault speaks of Jesus as a “Wisdom Teacher,” in the Eastern tradition. Her writings are very helpful to me.

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