In-Sight: The Impossibility of Consistency

Over the years, I have sometimes been charged with being inconsistent in my theology.  When it happens, I remember Emerson’s statement, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

Applied to the theological task, Emerson’s words simply mean that our reach is always exceeding our grasp.  The yearning of the heart inevitably sends us on journeys beyond our current understanding of things.  And it is in the region of the unexplored where transformation occurs.

Of course, great harm can occur there too.  But to avoid danger is to surrender discovery.  To deny risk is to diminish revelation. To enthrone always being “comfortable” with our theology is to dethrone the possibility that God can speak a new word to us.  We remain stable, but become stagnant.  Information eclipses imagination.  We confuse wisdom with an experience from long ago that never changed.

In theology, we often hear of a person’s early period and a later period.  This is our way of saying that the person continued to ask, seek, and knock–and in doing so, their beliefs deepened and widened, sometimes in significant ways.

When we make consistency the standard, we are essentially saying we will only accept additional information that we can fit into our previous knowledge. Our theology is what we make of it, not what God may seek to make of us.  Mystery, wonder, surprise, and challenge are largely avoided in favor of remaining anchored to what we already know.

The Church invites inconsistency, while guarding us against contradiction.  It happens through the Creeds.  Within the fixed points of affirmation, there is enormous space to explore and experience every statement of faith that we make.  There is indeed a wideness in God’s mercy, and in that wideness insights are born.

Within creedal faith, new opinions are not heretical; they are fresh interim reports about eternal realities.  The Spirit that inspired the Church to produce the creeds is the same Spirit that inspires us to live creatively within them.  And along the way, we learn the difference between essentials and non-essential–between doctrines and opinions.  And most of all, we learn that in all things there can be love.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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