There’s something freeing about being on an airplane. Soaring through the sky, admiring the landscape far below, temporarily removed from the concerns of everyday life. It’s nice. I can bury myself in a good book, do some writing, or just daydream out the window. On a plane in the clouds time stops, problems subside, voices dim, and I can relax.
Then the plane lands.
And I’m instantly thrown back into the chaos of email, due dates, and crises. It’s frustrating, but necessary. I’d love to stay in the air cruising lazily through the atmosphere. But as much as I enjoy the time out, eventually you have to land. Clouds are nice, but life happens on the ground.
That’s a great picture for a struggle that many have with theology. People like to stay in the clouds enjoying the view. But sometimes you just have to land the plane.
Landing the Plane in Theology
I use this analogy when explaining to my students why they have to take positions on difficult theological issues: women in ministry, image of God, election, etc. Every year I have at least some students who don’t want to land the plane. They enjoy reading, thinking, and debating about difficult theological issues, but when it comes to taking a clear stand on what they think, they hold back.
And they often make a virtue out of it: theological humility. They’ll argue that these issues are so complex and have been debated for so long that the principled thing to do is just not to have a position. And they’ve probably seen too many landings turn into crashes—maybe landing the wrong way or developing the arrogance that comes from thinking that you’ve got it right. Bad landings lead some to think that maybe it would be best just to stay in the clouds.
But I make them land anyway. Why?
3 Reasons to Land the Plane
1. Landings Are Necessary in Real Life
Can you imagine a student pilot trying to explain to his flying instructor that he loves flying but that landings are just too difficult and scary, so he’d rather not do that part? Tough. In real life you can’t fly if you won’t land. They go together.
When a debate breaks out in your church about some theological issue, real leadership requires more than just laying out the main positions clearly and fairly. That’s a good skill, but people need to know what you think. They need you to lead them through the issue, wrestling fairly with the positions, and then reaching a conclusion. Yes, there are some issues that you might be able to set aside by saying, “Well, that’s a tough one that Christians have always argued about.” But good luck doing that with something like whether women should be elders or whether an agonized parent should end life support for an apparently brain dead child. If you’re going to work with people in real life, you have to get the plane on the ground.
2. Landing Forces Careful Thinking
Cruising around in the sky is the easy part. You can even turn on the auto-pilot for a while and just enjoy the view. It’s the landing that makes you sit up and pay attention.
The same holds true in theology. There’s nothing like being forced to articulate and defend a position to make you really engage the material. And the process of landing will often help you see options you didn’t realize were there. You’ll usually land at well-traveled airports, places that many have visited before you. But sometimes being forced to land will help you see new airports that you didn’t realize were there, or even small airstrips out on the edge of those well-traveled airports that let you land at the same place but in a new way. And occasionally you’ll even find a way of landing between two popular airports, though that’s often the trickiest of all landings.
But you would have missed all of this if you hadn’t tried to land.
3. Landing Regularly Is Good Practice
Some people worry about landing on a theological issue because they know that they don’t know enough to have a firm position yet. They recognize how much they have left to learn and understand, so it’s seems premature to land now. What if they change their mind later?
That’s a little like thinking that if you land a plane, you’ll never get to fly again. I suppose that might happen if you landed the plane in the middle of a swamp and your Jedi powers were sufficiently underdeveloped that you couldn’t get it out again. If you do it right, though, landing just sets you up for future flights.
Landings work the same way in theology. Landing on a theological issue now prepares you to do it again later. You may land exactly the same way that you did before, indeed that is often the case as practice gives you confidence in landing well. But sometimes you realize on a later flight that you need to set the plane down just a bit differently. And that’s okay too. In theology, practice never makes perfect, but it does make better.
Landings Are Scary
Landings involve risk. There’s no question about that. You might be wrong, setting the plane down in the wrong place or crashing altogether. That’s bad enough when it’s just you. But in leadership, there are other people on the plane, and you’re responsible for them.
Refusing to land on a theological issue, though, while it may feel like a form of humility, may actually be a form of cowardice, a failure of leadership. The clouds are fun, but life happens on the ground.
So land the plane. Yes, you take the risk of being wrong. But life without risk is like flying without landing. It may be fun for a while, but what’s the point?