God-talk In Conflict or, When Retrospect and Prospect Collide

Few instances offered such a poignant illustration of God-talk at odds in a local Christian community of faith. The pastor listened intently at the way theology was unwittingly being discussed in terms of retrospect and prospect.

Theology done in retrospect occurs when we assign meaning to a series of events after they have occurred. We interpret events in light of an overarching concern. Should we buy this house?

Eighteen years ago our family moved to Tuttle. We lived in parsonages before responding to Snow Hill’s invitation to become pastor. We needed a house.

We planned a trip to Tuttle as the front end to a vacation with my larger family – parents and brothers. We took two days and drove hours looking at house after house. Our budget was limited. After nearly two days we were about to narrow our choices by default. We could not find anything else.

Then it happened. We turned on to Tyler Dr. Now two very important people in Milford, TX, from where we would be moving, bore the last name Tyler. One quarter mile east of what is now Highway 4 we saw a “For Sale” sign. The property was not on our multi-list. We did not know the asking price. We pulled into the drive and the owner, Mr Foster, was in the garage. I approached him and asked about the house.

He told us the house had just gone back on the market. A couple from Oklahoma City put a contract on the house and it had fallen through. The more we talked I learned that Mr. Foster’s father was a pastor. I then shared our situation and asked if he would be open to us moving into the place, if an offer were accepted, before closing. Not only did he agree, but gave an indication he would not charge us a prorated rent.

We contacted our realtor. We made an offer. They countered. We accepted.

As we looked back at these series of events. We did not find it hard to give meaning to any number of the smaller details that made up the purchase of the house. Our retrospective sense of meaning was that God wanted us to buy this house. Crockett and Thelma were great encouragers and supporters – they were the Tylers. Mr. Foster understood the dynamics of a pastor’s life and how “calls” were extended and what “votes” meant. He also knew we were just a young couple buying our first house. He had two and did not need them both. All of these singular features of this large event seemed to give us a great sense of confidence that of all the houses we entertained for purchase, this was the one.

Theology done in prospect takes Divine possibility into account first, not last. For instance, it did not specifically occur to us when we turned down Tyler a house might possibly await.

In the course of God-talk, theology in prospect calls attention to what God might do, the way God might act. Our church owns a bit of property. We have batted around the idea of selling a small parcel. During a recent discussion, Cary contended that from his perspective we might be putting an end to possibility if we sell. Who knows what growth might occur, what ministry might make use of the land, or other act where we might consider the Spirit leading.

Imagine these two sorts of conversations occurring around the same event. We Evangelicals tend to be schooled in both. We know when to employ retrospect. And, we know when to suggest prospect. It is when these two collide that we face the interpretive battle. Whose interpretation? Whose meaning? And, how could God-talk divide us?

What we need is a good dose of deconstruction. But, too many immediately consider this destruction. Religious pundits spout accusations of relativizing the truth. They spend much more time assessing the cultural implications often associated with postmodernism than the deeper philosophical turn that helps through the maze created when well meaning people face God-talk over the same event requiring a decision as retrospect or prospect.

Some will quickly attempt a rescue. The trajectory will follow from the retrospective to the prospective. In other words, look how God’s agency and activity were present in the purchase of your house, what possibilities await!

If I offer a narrative that points to a particular decision and inscribe in the details terms that point to what God might be leading a group to choose, some will immediately sense the leading of the Spirit. On the other hand, if another speaks and paints a picture of possibility that will be denied if such a decision is made, I have placed a retrospective narrative full of God-talk over against a prospective proposal that could lead to greater things. How to choose? Especially if God-talk shows up on both sides of the discussion.

These thoughts came to mind yesterday during a conversation over lunch. I had been asked about some recent writing I had done on a particular subject. I attempted to lay out the point of it all. Essentially I contended the Church, as I have noted a bit over the summer and recently, appears to be all-too willing to sacrifice the prophetic for power. When it needs to speak its un-holy alliances render it mute.

One of my conversation partners suggested that we need not worry about political correctness, we just need to tell them what the Bible says. I could not help but respond that many well-meaning people tend to reside on opposite sides of some important issues and they all point to the Bible. Whose interpretation? Whose meaning?

We really do need help with our language and the way we attach meaning. We like to think this occurs objectively. This is just a rouse that could turn delusional. The danger is that we continue to propagate a simplistic theology and wonder why we lose our young people. Just ask a college campus minister and see how appealing to an overly simplistic theology plays among students. Not very well.

What suggestions do you have for the way in which our theologizing often leaves us in contradictions not easily explained away? What do you do when retrospect and prospect meet in the course of an important decision?

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

5 comments on “God-talk In Conflict or, When Retrospect and Prospect Collide

  1. Kate says:

    As a person who walked through a lot of experiences that are now “things” (Oh hey, leaving church is a thing now?) I’ve known the joy of retrospect and the thrilling but dark walk of prospect. My personal solution for your questions has been to talk a helluva lot less than I used to. The fact is, I never know if my discernment will prove correct. Even in retrospect, the originally perceived lesson or gift, may in fact be entirely different over the long haul. Theology is fine as infrastructure, but in the real lives of hurting people and puzzling situations, it is the daily willingness to hold hands and live together in the dark that seems to work best.

    1. Kate,
      Thank you for taking the time to reply. I too think we may need to talk less. But, as you demonstrate so well, we cannot help but talk about those things that alter either our perceptions, understanding of reality, or are called to mind long after the fact. Your final sentence reminds all of us that we tend to make second order matters (ciphering) more important than first order matters (compassion/empathy).

      1. Kate says:

        Thanks for such speedy responses. One note I left out of my initial comment is how little patience I often have for theological parsing and yet, how much I appreciated what you wrote, the perspective that your reality gave to the theory/theology. I loved the story of finding your home and could relate to the joy you must have felt as you witnessed each moment of that journey.
        Yes, we must talk about those things, but my own experience has been that living always supercedes the chat.
        I’ll definitely keep reading. I’m glad I found your blog!

        1. Kate,
          Theological parsing can become something of a cottage industry. What I find destabilizing is to assume everyone means the same only to discover over a conversation how our assumptions may have embarrassed us. I clicked over and read your last post on your blog and you illustrate quite well this experience some must have had as you opened yourself up in new communities and new experiences. As an aside, I think you should write again as you have time.

          You took great care to note – “witnessed each moment of that journey.” I re-read those events to my wife last night after writing the piece. We did smile when thinking about those days and hours quite a number years ago.

          Glad you stopped by.

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