Why Beer is Like Theology
I took Paxton to his first specialty, curated, beer store. If Asheville had a different motto than ‘cesspool of sin,’ it might be ‘beers and babies.’ This was one of those father-son bonding moments I’ve dreamt about, like eating hotdogs at a baseball game or monthly dates to the barber shop. Let’s fire up the grill and talk about last night’s Cavs win. But he’s only four months old and we have twenty and a half years before we can sit on the deck and share one. I'm optimistic. After all, he was relatively interested—his big, curious eyes scanned the colors on the shelves and then looked over at me paralyzed by the selection. It’s a big world, son.
The United States has largely operated under the assumption that beer is beer. It’s a lager, brewed with pilsner malts, with a pale straw hue that resembles, well, it resembles urine and sometimes tastes like it. Craft beer has opened us up new horizons: ales and pale ales and India pale ales; stouts and porters; dubbels, trippels, and quads. One drink is bitter—piney, resiny. Another is heavy, chocolatey, sweet. Beer is no longer a commodity, but a means to express creativity and aesthetic—an experience that engages all five senses. Drink it long enough and you might start to grow a beard, wear flannel, and talk about subtle notes of citrus, mango, and white bread crust.
This infinite diversity is derived from basically four simple ingredients: water, grain (malts), yeast, and hops. In 1516, the German Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria decreed that beer should contain those four ingredients and nothing more. There’s leeway for exploration and experimentation in the way they’re combined, but also strict boundaries—partitions where a drink ceases to be a beer and might better be classified as something else altogether. Our modern craft scene doesn’t abide by the purity laws, though the four staples are ubiquitous. We might call it traditioned innovation, a term about leadership coined by Gregory Jones.
One of my favorite podcasts, Homebrewed Christianity, has the motif ‘brew your own faith and theology.’ The host once said that your faith doesn’t have to taste like a watered down Natty Light. Hallelujah. How do we brew something tastier? The Wesleyan tradition has said that there are four ingredients to brew good theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There’s a great complexity and diversity in the stream of the Christian theology, but we all pull from the same four ingredients--though, in differing combinations and weight.
Methodist pastors are trained to use these four ingredients as a tool to deliberate and defend theological questions and quandaries—to demonstrate faithful and unfaithful theological positions. It’s a tool, an imperfect one, to get the conversation started. In our ordination papers for the United Methodist Church we had to pick an issue or question and put it through the gauntlet. Here’s how it works:
Scripture: Does Scripture address this concern? Water is the life force of beer and Scripture is that for theology. Without it, you might end up with something interesting, but it won’t be God.
Tradition: Has this ever been addressed in the history of the church? What is older is not always better, but you’re less likely to stumble upon something that’s never been discovered before. There’s a whole host of streams—ask them for recipes, drink from them, share the brew. Tradition will help you taste different notes that you couldn’t quite pick up on your own.
Reason: Does this make sense in light of Scripture? You might ask if the taste is balanced. John Wesley championed pragmatism; there’s no use in pursuing something if it’s contrary to common sense.
Experience: Have I heard God speak to this issue in my life? God’s not trapped in the Bible or the fourth century, but God still speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. Theology should be experienced, tasted. What’s the point of doing theology if it’s going to sit on a shelf?
"the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason."
If your theology is watered down look at the ingredients and see if something is missing. Am I immersed in Scripture? And not just for sermon preparation, but for my own personal formation? Reason is about worshiping God with my mind, loving God with my intellect. Do I have tin-man theology—all brains with no heart or experience? Attend to the spoken Word, Sacraments, song, and liturgy and let the Holy Spirit wash over you. How about the great tradition: am I conversing with communion of saints? Maintaining, revising, and re-appropriating the spirit of the work that has done centuries ago? You can accept what you’ve been taught in Sunday School, or you can brew something tastier.
“Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
The quadrilateral has been been depicted as a square, each corner represents one of the four ingredients. Or, it’s drawn as a stool with four legs, one leg for each element of the quadrilateral. Take a seat. It will hold you up. But the ingredients are not entirely distinct from one another like the image portrays. They interpenetrate one another, whether we are conscious of it or not. Reason, for instance, is socially constructed, not a separate authority that operates distinct from the other three ingredients. Nor, should they be entirely equal in weight—Scripture is primary in that it gives shape to the rest.
Here’s another helpful image, though imperfect:
Theology is work for a chef. The entire process is inherently creative and permeated with joy, amazement, and wonder. It’s about savoring the process, even the mistakes and endless questions, and becoming attune to the way your spirit connects with something you will never be able to control or completely understand. This is not about perfection. You’ll never get there. But you might learn to love mystery more deeply, to taste and see that the Lord is good. Then, taste again.
If you’ve been trained in the ingredients then you don’t need a recipe—there’s traditioned innovation. You’re able to improvise and create something delicious. Each brewer will throw in different amounts of the ingredients at different times, but the water is always primary. Steep it in Scripture and new flavors will blossom, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. Tinkering takes place—you’ll learn what fits where, when something is off, or when you need a little more of this and that. Let the work ferment for hours and years until you have something worth drinking. An experience of God will pervade the entire enterprise.
Which brings me to the fifth element, call it a bonus, and that’s community. Beer tastes better when it’s shared. The same goes for faith and theology. It’s about sharing a table with a world that’s really thirsty. Join together with a community, especially one that’s diverse, and taste what others are brewing. You’ll start to think differently about what you’ve made for yourself. Refine. Brew again. Enjoy.
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