My Dad was an auto-mechanic, and a good one. He worked in the pre-computerized engine days. The way cars and trucks operated was pretty much the same as the airplane engines he worked on in World War II. I never learned more than a fraction of what he knew, but I learned a few things. This one is very important: “It’s usually not the carburetor.”
He would come home from work relating stories of interesting jobs he’d done that day. A common tale was of a car that wasn’t running right. Cars need gas in order to run. So, when the car’s not running right, the customer would have the bright idea that it must be the carburetor, the thing that measures and sends the gas to the cylinders so the spark-plugs can ignite it, make it burn, and power the engine. But, as Dad said, “It’s usually not the carburetor.”
What would limp into his shop was a car where the owner had been fiddling with the carburetor and made a minor problem into a real mess.
“So,” I asked, “If it’s not the carburetor, what is it?”
“It’s usually in the ignition system” (the parts of a car that work together to produce the spark to ignite the gas). The carburetor doesn’t really have many moving parts to wear out or get out of adjustment. The ignition system, though, is sending powerful jolts of electricity thousands of times as you drive. That’s where things tend to break down.
Knowing stuff like that was important when you were working on the line in Casablanca keeping bombers in repair so that they could return to their boming runs in Southern Europe. The war needed smart mechanics at least as much as it did heroes to fly dangerous missions.
So, chances are, the car needed spark plugs, points, condenser, etc. But leave the carburetor alone.
This has not come up in my life very often other than when my lawn mower starts misbehaving. I approach the offending machine whispering, “It’s usually not the carburetor.”
What I learned in listening to my father over the years, was to think of an automobile as a collection of systems (fuel, ignition, braking, etc.). They each do their part and all of them are necessary. Knowing what each did and what each needed has been an important part of caring for these expensive things we drive around.
What does that have to do with theology?
In my thought, theology is not a collection of ideas, much less a collection of unconnected ideas. Theology is a reflection on what is true, and a reflection on what is true in the light of what has been made known to us in the God/Man Jesus Christ. Because it is true, theology is not many things, but one thing (just like a car is one thing). We describe different aspects, but we should never describe them in a way that doesn’t fit with everything else. No one fact or thought exists by itself. Everything relates to everything.
And it’s usually not the carburetor.
There are those who imagine that a segment of theology here or there can be radically altered (say, a moral teaching) and the whole not be harmed. My experience over 40 years of ordained ministry has been to watch “theological machines” falling into disrepair, becoming little more than a collection of popular slogans. Looking through the catalog of present-day seminaries is to gaze at a collection of newly-deranged carburetors, as though someone’s bright new thought in specialist studies will somehow change the world, save the Church, or address the injusticies of society at long last. (This is thankfully not the case in Orthodox seminaries).
I have been chided by some for my interest and studies in systematic theology. The trope is that Orthodoxy “does not do systematic theology.” This is true – because Orthodoxy already is a fully organic system like all truly existing things in nature (and all of nature itself). It is not a human project, but a profound expression of the world as it is. A tree is its own argument and explanation. In the same manner, Orthodox theology, rightly seen in its whole form, is the whole world.
I am wary of every new thing, every fad, every keen interest.
The troubles we encounter in our lives are not nearly as complex as we sometimes imagine. When I first began reading Orthodox books, I remember excitedly ordering the one volume selections from the Philokalia. I read about it in The Way of a Pilgrim. It seemed to me, that a knapsack, a Bible, and the Philokalia, were all that anybody needed (per the book). I quickly learned that the Philokalia was way over my head, and of very little use to what was happening in my life – or, if it was of use, I had no idea what that might be.
I have written recently that “we are not saved by information.”
Matters of prayer, of pride, of shame, of love, of forgiveness, of generosity, and suffering, are much closer to that place where we live. The rest of the world (and theology) are true, but, like Quantum Mechanics, it’s not always what we need. It is said that Orthodox Christianity is a “way of life.” This is true, and means that it cannot really be read. It can be sung. It can be prayed. Mostly, it can be stumbled around in so that we learn what it means for it to be the way.
I bought a car from my Dad. I had a flat tire one week and I changed it out on the road. I felt pretty competent. A day or so later, however, the wheel began to make a noise and to shake. When Dad got home, I asked him to take a look at it. He did and he began to laugh. Big belly-laughs.
“You put the nuts on backwards!” he howled.
I didn’t know they had sides. Pointy side goes in – flat side goes out. I was embarrassed. But now I know something about tires (and I’ve never forgotten).
I also remember that it’s usually not the carburetor.