Theological Hospitality: A Primer

May 17, 2021

By: David Williams, President, Taylor Seminary

In the Kairos Project, we talk a lot about “theological hospitality.” It is one of our defining practices and is essential for us to do the work God has called us to do. In this post, we are going to dig deeper into theological hospitality to correct some potential misunderstandings and to better understand just how important the practice is.

Let’s begin with what theological hospitality is not. Theological hospitality is not theological neutrality. We don’t expect anyone in the Kairos community to take a neutral stance theologically on anything that is important to them or their tradition. We don’t ask participants to check their commitments at the door so that they can participate in the Kairos journey with us.

Over against theological neutrality, theological hospitality values deep theological differences and creates a context for each person to bring their theology into conversation with people of different views. When we launched Kairos in 2014, we engaged in conversations with an array of folks dedicated to many different traditions in order to cultivate learning outcomes that Lutherans, Methodists, Wesleyans, Reformed, and several other theological traditions could journey together toward without denying their own deepest impulses.

Our practice of theological hospitality strives to welcome, appreciate, and desire the contributions of those from different Christian theological traditions. In this way, we encourage people to develop, understand, and share their theological convictions. We value difference. We believe those who are different than us have something to contribute to us. No, theological hospitality is not an aspiration to be theological neutral. The are many other things it is not, but we will save those for another day.

Theological hospitality is a practice that requires humility. It is an invitation to care about our posture toward others as much as our theological position. Theological hospitality is difficult because it cultivates fellowship in the midst of difference. It is quite easy to see difference as a direct challenge – a challenge to ourselves, to truth, or to one’s community. We experience this challenge as being about right and wrong, as us good and others bad, or about truth and error. It is shaped by the metaphor of the battle where we take “sides,” “attack positions,” and “defend” our position. This approach situates difference as essentially a power struggle. It is reflected in James 4:1-2:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.

As followers of Jesus, we know that it is all too easy to use our power to defend ourselves, to build ourselves up, or to protect “our side” against all challengers, especially when we believe we are right. The canvas of human history is a mural of great evil done in the name of defending good. Our suggestion is to view difference through a Christological lens. Jesus teaches us to reject this approach to power.

Paul draws on Jesus’ revelation of this truth in Phil 2:4-8 where Paul admonishes the Philippians:

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (NRSV)

The way of Jesus is not to use one’s power for oneself, but rather for the sake of others. Submission, rather than domination, is the appropriate use of power. Of course, this is hardest when one is convinced of being right, but that’s exactly why Paul points out that proclaiming “a crucified messiah” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). It simply doesn’t make sense to approach these kinds of conflicts by submitting to the other, even giving one’s life for the other. It is perceived as either weakness or foolishness.

It is when we face difference perceived as error that we most need a good dose of “epistemic humility.” Epistemic humility is the recognition that as sure as I am that I am right about something, I could be wrong. I don’t think I am (obviously!) and I have good reasons to think the way I do (or I wouldn’t be so convinced of them), but nevertheless I could be wrong. Such a posture provides us opportunity for mutual submission as we invite others to help us see where we might be getting it wrong. There may be flaws that we cannot see. There may be errors to which we are blind.

If we are honest, we know it’s the case because we know that there have been times that we didn’t want to see the truth even though it was right before our eyes. This reality is reflected in the prophet Jeremiah who reminds us that “the heart is deceitfully wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). We must embrace humility with the hope that in taking such a posture toward things we believe to be true it is more likely that God may actually break through our self-deceit to correct our own errors and by the power of the Spirit make us more like Jesus.

And that is the goal. At all times and in all ways, we are seeking to follow the way of Jesus while inviting others to join us on that journey.

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