A friend recently shared her model of understanding different views of theology within a tradition like Christianity. I loved it so much, I decided to share it here, putting my own words to her lovely analogy.
When a child is first introduced to the alphabet, all he or she sees is swooping shapes, colors, the white space around and in the black. A is not A, it is a shape, a texture, a color, a form. Gradually, the child is taught the formal names of letters of the alphabet like "a", "b", "c". Each piece of the alphabet has a kind of life of its own, independent and yet part of a string of letters that the child imbibes through color, music, and verbal repetition, much to the delight (and sometimes consternation) of the adult in his or her life.
Next, the child is introduced to the concept that groups of these singular shapes create something larger than themselves--words! Education is gradual, rule-bound by grammar, and communal as children of a certain reading level gather together to make meaning. The teacher is a necessary guide at this point, shepherding and correcting and adjusting so that a common language and accepted concrete meanings help integrate the child with the classroom and society.
Eventually, with experience gleaned from formal learning, words can be read so that now the world is filled with sentences, paragraphs, short stories, poetry and books. The child transcends the little letters which become symbols pointing to a larger idea. Emotive energy is added to mix, imagination fires up, logic is put into play. The child is learning to stand into their own ideas, see their own inner voice mixing with both the concrete and abstract concepts of written language.
Finally, the student learns not just to read but to write, to express themselves and their ideas with the same small marks of black on a white page. The letters, the words, the sentences all stream together to pass on meaning filled with the very stuff of life--memories, feelings, thoughts, reactions, interactions.
If you were to ask a child of three to five years old (just at the beginning of their reading and writing adventure) what all those squiggles meant, their answers would be concrete, shape-oriented, often bound by the lines of the page. Your ability to read to them would seem marvelous, magical. They might not see the image of tree in their minds if you spelled out T-R-E-E unless they were precocious indeed. Their view of reality at this point is not wrong, simply bound by their experiences and developmental stage. And that is also true of people at different stages of theological development.
So, too, when we begin to study theology, we have to learn to read God in the world, moving from the partial and particular rules and construction of scripture to how the letters of creation spell complete words filled with the vast and unspoken name of the divine (moving from concrete to abstract and metaphoric). In time, we begin to "read" the larger narrative of how the pieces of our universe fit together, and eventually, we come to understand how we participate in and "co-author" reality. We learn to not just see God, we also learn to express that same creative impulse through the fabric of our lives.
People who break the world into "my religion" or "saved and not saved" or any of the other units of faith that divide reality up are simply working at a level of the alphabet and occasional word rather than reading the whole "script" from a vantage point of age, experience and communal sympathy. The great gift of good religion is to create for us the perfect classroom to transcend the bounds of the alphabet, the rules, the grammar (scripture, dogma and ritual) and find the living energy of deep meaning that infuses the entire world as much as the the brilliant flashes within our own individual minds and hearts.
Again, each stage of the journey is not wrong, merely not as complete or skilled in some cases. The children of God learn to read the alphabet, and later, the dynamic tome of creation in their own time, at their own pace, knowing that those older siblings who are deeper in their study or simply more open in their play and joy, will always be calling them forward to sit at the table together.