A Theological Shift

his piece was originally published on Medium.com.

As of late, I feel that so much of the national discourse has fallen along divides that I know all too well. Politics pull out our deepest beliefs about the world and our religious values. I see a wide range of these. My facebook feed is chock full of staunch conservatives, Church going good people who vote right, liberals, and change-making, activist liberals (labels that I give out lovingly for the sake of this post — not to box anyone in to a complete identity). It ranges the spectrum. So when I have read many commentaries on the recent election and the country’s reaction to it, I notice how many highlight the inability for people to listen to one another and even conceptualize in any way where the other person may be. I feel that I truly see this play out in my own communities (lived and virtual). I feel that I have truly lived the journey from one side to another in my life with my theology in tow. I’ve been mostly to myself about theological changes that have taken place over my life in the past 6–8 years or confiding in only supportive communities, but now I feel moved to share that shift for me for a couple of reasons: 1) to emerge from my theological closet, 2) so that some may hear a different point of view.

I attended a non-denominational church through middle school and high school that taught me how to be in the world. It kept me safe, kept me thinking on how to be positive to myself and those around me, and gave me a vast community. I am grateful for those very important parts of where I was able to come out of my shell as an individual and start finding myself in serious ways. I was galvanized to do mission work and deep study of the Bible on my own and in small communities that I cherished. The church taught me to love God and love people. I remember one lingering principle or mission type statement that seemed to motivate much of the church’s teaching and doing in the world: to be such a light in the world that others would see what you have and want it too. It was a mission to lead others towards a truth you found that could change their life. I didn’t feel any pulls away from this space and community until I started bumping up against serious challenges to it, of which I had never encountered.

I felt my theological foundation shatter in my introduction to poetry class, where I was taught a methodological way to approach poems. My professor began with the principle that each poem was it’s own experience. Within each poem was something from which we cannot add or take away — it is there. We do not affect it by our own experience but can only approach it asking, what are you saying, what is your truth? I was very bad at reading poetry this way. Each day I would walk in with annotated poems and diligent notes thinking, I really got it this time. I watched my classmates eloquently dance through these poems revealing what was clearly there to see. They were very open to what was there while I found myself clumsily grasping for pieces of myself in what was not mine. I don’t remember details of what was so hard for me to understand or which poem we were studying, but I remember sitting in the classroom when I realized that my way of being in the world revolved around only my own truth and perspective. Perhaps I was truly selfish in my beliefs or as part of my personality, but I do think that day cracked a foundational flaw in my theology. A flaw that exposed that much like the poems I could not grasp, my way of being in the world focused on exposing others to my own perception of salvation and life. I was not able to see a variety of experiences, truths, good people, and valid realities all around me just as I was not able to enter into a poem completely and understand its truth. It just clicked that I did not own the market on truth, I am not above any other, and it shook me to my core.

I should be clear that it was not only one moment in poetry class that led me to this conclusion as there were many small openings that led to this change. I was constantly challenged to think critically of every single argument, perspective, and worldview in my time at a liberal arts college where questions were more important than answers. I asked big questions of my faith and came to different conclusions than I thought I would find.

I used to hear in church, love the sinner, hate the sin — with the implication to inspire change in their life so that they could truly live. What I realized outside of that community was that people were truly living all around me. Even more, my misunderstanding of them (and poems) and inescapable judgment was not love at all. How can a person love another with the caveat of change in the most fundamental of ways right around the corner? Love as I know it causes you to open and open and melts the hardest of hearts. It changes us. I find it in the gospel when Jesus comes alongside an adulterer and shares a meal with people who could be considered wrong, sinful, and other. I see it in the creation story where we are each created in the image of God. I see it in the community of faith where I dabble with still coming to terms with my theology.

One of the clearest pictures to me of this tension of sin and love was when I worked with homeless youth in Nashville. I worked in a shelter that welcomed youth ages 18–24 to drop by for a hot meal, shower, clothing, and other services. The center particularly paid attention to LGBT identifying persons, because 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Many were homeless because they had religious parents who could not accept them. Perhaps they did not throw them out of the house, perhaps they did, but many of the youth I talked to were on the streets because of this conflict. How can this be? In these times I mourned the literal interpretation of scripture that ostracized people who are deserving of love, created in the image of God.

I believe in a theology that is inclusive, by nature, as is love, and an interpretation of scripture that allows for me to open and change all the time. This is not because I am selfish, quite the opposite I think. I studied theology in graduate school to stand firm in my convictions, and while I am not a biblical expert, I can read the text with this theology in tact.

I am aware that many believe I live “worldly, sinful ways” and have been “led away by the devil.” I am aware that many will pray for me after sharing my theological shift that centers on the inclusion of other ways of being in the world. These are things that have all been said to me. So don’t worry about telling me these things in response to my post, please.

I share this shift and broad, vague post to invite others to see a different way of being in the world. I only ask you to see and acknowledge it as real. Perhaps I will be more specific in the future of how I can read the text in a non-literal way to honor the core message and let it speak what I think it can truly offer even today. I would point others to more knowledgeable teachers that I learned from like Marcus Borg who can in a few of his books lead people to a new way of reading the text and encountering God’s love in the world. Mostly I would ask my friends and family, to ask big questions of your faith and see if it holds. For me it didn’t in the way I once understood it.

In times like these, when I see theologies spread flat, open, and raw in our Facebooks, across our country, and in our own selves, I want to add mine to the mix. I want to ask people to listen to my own without adding me to the prayer list, and blaming it on the figure in your theology that eternally damns people. I want you to hear this voice of a person seeking to love God and love others — though not exactly as you taught me. I want to ask: is the god in us more important than the god in others?

The Trump votes galvanized me and shook me to my core. For me, it comes back to theology a lot. It motivates me and moves me. It is a powerful force of love in the world and the opposite. In a time when the chasm between voters is so wide — I know because I lived in both sides and the spaces between — here’s my attempt to be known more fully and only ask you to listen.

-Tyanne Sparks