Coffee and Convictions: Theology and Life

I like to make coffee. I like to make it even more than I like to drink it (and I like that as well). I have heard that coffee is an acquired taste, and I tend to agree. I used to drink coffee made in a variety of places, and I noted that it was hard to know if I would like the taste. More often, I drank coffee for the caffeine, and doctored it with cream and sugar to make it palatable. I figured that this was the best I could hope for.

Knowing that others like coffee, I started to make coffee at church. I tried to lure young adults to my Sunday School class with Starbucks coffee made in a French press. The result? Meh. But I liked the coffee a bit more than before. I tried different beans to try to find something I really liked even more. Eventually, I started buying green beans and roasting them in a small home roaster I bought. That was about 13 years ago.

Suddenly, things were different. The coffee was better, but not solely for the reasons you might expect. It was not that coffee was automatically better because I was drinking it fresh from the roaster. Some batches were overdone and tasted like ground cigarette butts. (Don’t ask me how I know what they taste like.) Some were underdone, and they tasted like some sort of sour berry juice.

But in time, as I grew proficient, I got better at roasting beans that made consistently good coffee. There was a learning curve involved in understanding the process – what kind of beans to use, how dark to roast them, how to brew the coffee, and what to put in it (or not put in it). This became far more fulfilling than simply consuming someone else’s coffee, both because of the product and because of the investment I had made in the process itself.

Making and drinking coffee is a good metaphor for doing theology. I have a couple of confessions to make. I didn’t used to like theology. In fact, I got in trouble once in seminary because I was giving out caramels in theology class rather than paying attention. Theology bored me. I didn’t see why I had to spend the time memorizing a bunch of content that didn’t seem to connect with anything I had experienced in church. For me, doing theology was like drinking someone else’s coffee. Occasionally, it was rewarding. Most of the time, it was underwhelming.

In some respects, I learned to make coffee twice. The first time was when I learned that coffee comes from grounds and hot water. I learned the basics of a recipe for a cup of coffee, and I was never really satisfied with the result. It was adequate at best. The second time was when I learned the process, and it changed everything.

I learned about theology twice as well. The first time, I learned about theology as a set of answers to predetermined questions about God. These were answers that I needed to internalize. Some were helpful, but many didn’t satisfy. The second time I learned about theology, I learned to engage in a discipline that was more like learning to roast and make coffee from scratch. I learned that theology relies on methods, norms, and sources, and as much depends on the questions one asks as on the answers one gives. I learned that theology is broader than I assumed, but that there are also limits. After all, coffee made with Lima beans instead of coffee beans is not coffee. Some ideas are not theological, even if they are popular.

I also noticed a funny thing about coffee. Once people knew that I roasted my own, they seemed less confident about what they offered to me, as though I were suddenly now a coffee critic. Not only is that not true, I am more aware than ever about what I still don’t know about coffee. What I like most about coffee is sharing it – no matter who made it – and how it facilitates dialogue and helps people cultivate relationship. Coffee can be done better than some make it, but it doesn’t require as much skill and effort as people assume.

People seem to view theology in similar fashion. Each time they brew a pot of coffee, they insist on reaching for the same old can of frozen grounds (hint: never freeze coffee, unless you want it to taste bad). Every time they brew a pot of theology, they reach for the same old can of frozen theology grounds they have been using for years. Oddly enough, it doesn’t get any fresher with time. And, it was prepared to someone else’s taste: the best you can hope for is to stumble upon someone who did the prep work who happens to be like you. There’s more to coffee than that, and more to theology as well. And theology, like coffee, is best when shared and consumed together.

I have come to love theology. My goal is to help others love it as well. How? I think the largest task is to demystify theology. Everyone does theology — even if not equally well — and anyone can learn to do it better. In theology, the first task is to remember that the most important is the process of framing and asking the questions. If we are not asking the same questions, it is any wonder that we don’t agree on the answers? A few people are happy, others are upset, and most people don’t even know how we got here. They just assume that this is the best we can do. It’s not, but the alternative requires a bit of effort.

If learning to make better coffee is preferable to simply complaining about the quality of what’s on hand, isn’t learning to do theology better than complaining what what is at work around us? That means that we are going to make some mistakes in the process. But isn’t making mistakes while learning better than making them through neglect? A number of our churches are presenting answers to questions that no one is asking, assuming that the old frozen can of theological content is still as fresh as it was when new. And they are as upset that other churches are brewing different brands as they are intent on serving. Have we forgotten so much that we can’t do better? More than that, are we afraid that by returning to the process, we might end up with something else, like carrot juice? We won’t. We will end up with theological coffee that is not only more palatable, but also appropriate to our context. Not everyone will like it, but that is okay. The question is this: Will we drink it?

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