by Linda Ryan
“The man who cannot accept the possibility of complete, radical, personal failure in the carrying out of this Christian mission is not sharing that absolute poverty of spirit which characterized the freedom of Jesus to accept the divinely appointed means for his mission.” — John Narrone, A Theology of Failure
I’ve been thinking about failure lately, mostly personal, repeated personal failure. It’s not easy to admit that one often feels a total failure, especially when faced with the success of others but it has to be faced. The world needs failures as much as it needs successes. Somehow that’s scant comfort to one of limited success to know that they are part of the balance.
I googled “theology of failure” just by chance because I wanted to see if there were such a thing and evidently there is. The quote above was taken from an entire book on the subject. It seems that there is, among the many references to “theology of failure” available online, a large number of articles, books, and references to pastoral failure (or threat of failure).
There are also many articles referring to “theology of failure” as it relates to what might be considered by some to be failed theologies–failures in feminist, black, liberation, GLBT, liberal, etc.–theologies which don’t seem to match up to expectations that they will resolve conflict and ensure equality that many in the Christian religion feel is the gospel imperative. Despite years of attempts, discussions, marches, meetings, and the like, there are still ceilings that don’t seem to be crackable, and gaps that seem unbridgeable. While the struggle continues, theology as a whole has attempted to move on and yet has pretty much stayed stuck in the same ruts they were when the various branches of theology shot off from the tree.
This is not a new phenomenon. It just makes me wonder if a “theology of failure” is just a rearrangement of words for “failed theology.” The verse often used in discussion of theology of failure is that of Matthew 10:14, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” In essence, if the venture appears to be a failure, move on and try somewhere else. Was it the messengers who failed to present the message in a way that compelled others to willingly accept it, or was the message flawed and that caused the people of the town to reject it? Was it a theology of failure or a failed theology?
The Inquisition would probably be considered a failed theology; indeed, any theology that requires those who don’t accept it, for whatever reason, to be tortured into acknowledging and accepting it seems like a theology doomed to failure even though it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the story of Adam and Eve seems to have a built-in theology of failure in that when given free will to obey a simple command from God (or not), humankind chose to fail at the test. Or was it a test? Did God build in a theology of failure along with the components of DNA, the number of limbs and ability to walk upright?
Not everything is a success; for every success there are probably a hundred, maybe thousands or more failures. It’s all trial-and-error, if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed, get-out-there-and-win-one-for-
Human beings are going to continue to fail at things, whether by accident or design. Sometimes the failure will be theirs, sometimes it will be someone else’s that will affect them adversely. Where is God in all this? Did God plan it, did humans take on God’s role, or was it just something that happened? Is it something that even needs to be asked, much less answered? Probably, since humankind has been asking and trying to answer those questions since the second leaf fell off the fig tree.
We fail and try to move on. But when everything and everyone else fails, we still have an ace in the hole–God loves us. Pure and simple solution: God loves us unconditionally, totally, permanently. God doesn’t walk away when we fail, doesn’t turn God’s back, or tell us to buck up and try harder.
God loves us. No matter what. That sounds perilously like a success to me. I think I could get used to that, no matter what else happens in life.