Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Pastoral Theology at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion. She is also author of a number of books on practical theology, including the forthcoming Christian Theology in Practice. In this post, Miller-McLemore looks back on a single architectural element from her childhood church — a stained glass window depicting the tree of life — that has had a profound and lasting effect on the way she understands and appreciates “everyday theology.”
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At the front of the sanctuary in the church where I grew up is an unusual stained glass window. Instead of a cross or the Gospel stories typical of many congregations, this window contains a magnificent tree. The tree is deeply rooted in the soil, with five branches laden with birds and leaves reaching up into a sky filled with symbols of the sun, lightning and rain, bread and grain, cup and grapes, the Bible, and much more. I can say without hesitation that I loved this window as a child. Sure, its beauty, color, and concrete images provided relief when adult worship made no sense. But there’s more to it than that. This window shaped my faith. Indeed, it shaped my theology.
All too often, when people hear the word theology they assume it means the abstract machinations of elite scholars and church intellectuals. And, true to form, some wonderful theology of this sort exists to help us understand our faith. However, this is not the only kind of theology — or even the most important. Everyone who participates in Christian faith has a theology, and this theology is formed within communities by such ordinary and beautiful elements as the stained glass window of my youth.
I didn’t realize how much my congregation’s stained glass tree shaped my theology until I visited another church in early adulthood that was almost exactly the same except for the tree. In its place stood a cross. This one variation made an enormous difference in the way I experienced God in that place. Sitting regularly in my home sanctuary, my early faith had gazed on God embodied in a fruitful tree of life. Until that moment, I did not realize the full impact of acts of regular worship on our religious thoughts and feelings. That window had filled me with awe, but it also had a more practical affect, aided by Sunday School teachers who marched us into the sanctuary to explain its meaning. I’m not sure why the original church members chose this window. I sometimes imagine that there must have been some controversy. But I know that the tree of life, seen weekly through my growing years, fostered in me openness to the many ways the divine enters human existence. The stained glass tree includes Christ without excluding other ways to God. This is how faith and theology are formed.
In Christian Theology in Practice, I trace my hunger to understand more about how local theologies evolve. In particular, I describe my pursuit of university disciplines that helped me understand and enhance the viability and accessibility of everyday theology. This isn’t the only or even the best place where I engage in such theology. Rather, the book explores the backbone or skeletal structure behind how I have done theology in other writings and in the teaching of seminary and doctoral students as I’ve thought about death and dying or women’s lives and children or spirituality in the midst of family life. Academic and doctrinal theologies certainly have their place. I am indebted to years of education that have allowed me to read the massive treatises of great classical and contemporary theologians. But on the wall over my desk hangs a reproduction of the window from the church. And it now adorns the book cover of Christian Theology in Practice. In both cases, it reminds me of the inexplicably mundane and wondrously tangible forms of theology as they press upon us in daily life.