I do a lot of sitting around coffee tables and speaking about God and the Church, and as far as I can tell there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of people who sit opposite me: those who are impressed by certitude, and those who aren’t.
I would put myself firmly in latter category. I have been certain about God, life and Church and been wrong too many times to pretend that I’m certain about my beliefs now. In fact, to be brutally honest, those who talk theology as if there is no mystery, no unknown, no room for doubt really annoy me.
Can we just state the obvious for a moment: as we are sitting across that coffee table from each other, we may agree that the Scriptures have more authority than either of us sitting at the table, and that it’s a solid idea to defer to them when confused; but we don’t agree that your interpretation of said Scriptures is nearly as powerful. You can be absolute about the Scriptures, but you have to be very careful when you extend that to your interpretation of them, and I know this may come as a surprise to some, but there is actually a difference.
There is a brand of church on the rise through the likes of Mark Driscol and John Piper (the Neo-Calvinists) who don’t seem to be able to distinguish between the two, and while I believe they have a great deal to offer, this is an error in judgement which will cause a lot of pain and division.
Well because you either agree with them on every point, or they will write you off as hell-bound heretics.
A great example in the last week or so is the promotional video for Rob Bell’s upcoming book called, ‘Love Wins’. Here it is:
Now whether you agree or disagree with the things he says in here, we have to acknowledge that this is only the promotional video; there is very little content here to be able to judge what he is actually saying. The video is designed to pique interest, the book holds the actual content. In fact I’m sure he goes to great lengths in the book to be true to Scripture as he unpacks this issue. I have heard he goes so far as to quote every mention of ‘Hell’ in the Bible, and then look at it in it’s context so as to gain a better understanding. I can’t wait to read it personally because, even though I may not agree with everything he says (I rarely read a book where I do), I have no doubt I will learn a great deal.
Unfortunately this isn’t everyone’s view. In fact the blog-sphere has been blazing this week with vitriolic hate speech from the aforementioned clan of western church. It seems they don’t feel the need to read the content for themselves; the mere suggestion that he may be saying something they don’t agree with is enough to attack. There has been much written, but I suppose the comment that annoyed me the most was John Piper who simply tweeted, “Goodbye Rob Bell”.
Where’s he going?
Are you going somewhere?
Just the arrogance of this man who has placed himself in the position of arbiter of truth for all Christendom (another term I dislike).
Here are a couple of the comments from an online discussion I was involved in:
“Sigh – I’ve always been OK with Bell’s theology because I just ignored the crap that didn’t mean anything. He had some good points mixed among some mostly pointless stuff. This is different though – I haven’t read the articles yet, but just watched the promo video and it’s pretty clear that he’s gone from wishy washy to just plain bad theology. As far as Christianity goes it looks like he’s stepped out into something else – a distorted version of Christian theology. I guess it was almost inevitable given the progression of his theology through his other books and DVDs.”
“Ugh, I don’t think I even care enough. Bell just comes across as a trendy, pretentious ass. He has some good thoughts in his theology, but I’m totally over him now. I found some of the Nooma videos helpful over the years and Velvet Elvis was mostly good stuff for me as well as Everything Is Spiritual, but I just don’t care any more – he mixes his good thoughts with utterly pointless and vague comments. Most of the time he just asks questions and doesn’t even go any way towards even thinking of an answer – I think questions like that are great and very useful, but if that’s all you’re doing then don’t write books because really, what’s the point – people can ask questions on their own without Bell’s smug face doing it for them. I think I’d rather read someone who makes good points and minimises the pointless crap (and doesn’t look smug while doing it).”
Where does this stuff come from? It seems pretty strong. Why the over-cooked reaction? The only way people can talk like this and feel justified is if they consider themselves completely right, and this guy completely wrong. Surely no human being would be that arrogant and ignorant?
Sadly I think a lot are. Like I say, this kind of discussion lands people on one of two sides of the fence; either you are claiming certitude, or you are looking to ask better questions. This new Conservative Evangelicalism seems to be enforcing the former almost militantly, because in their minds there is no room for doubt.
Let me explain.
During my final year at seminary we had a guy named Graham Codrington come and speak to us on a weekend away.
He began his talk asking us, “What is the opposite of Faith?”
Hands went up and from all quarters people offered ‘doubt’ as the answer.
He went on to say that faith and doubt are far from opposites; they are in fact bed-fellows. One can’t exist without the other. By way explanation he asked us whether we would need faith to believe in God if we were standing before Him physically right now? Most of us muttered ‘no’. He continued, “Of course you wouldn’t need faith, because you have all the evidence you need in front of you. Faith, by definition, requires doubt to even exist.”
He went on to make the point that it is possible for us as Pastors to rob people of their faith-journey because we paint an overly-simplistic picture of certitude on all matters. We have simple cut-and-paste answers to every problem, and we guilt people into compliance with those answers, even if secretly we know it’s way more complicated than that, and we actually don’t know. And I worry that this is what is happening in many Evangelical streams; that people are being robbed of their faith because they aren’t encouraged to doubt and question.
Doubt is essential to a mature faith journey.
Copying-and-Pasting theology is not faith.
St John of the Cross coined the phrase the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ as he sat in a prison cell the size of a cupboard. He describes a complete unknowing, a void where nothing seemed to make sense anymore.
We know from reading Mother Theresa’s diaries that she acknowledged serious doubts, and yet continued her work with great faith until her dying day.
Søren Kierkegaard suggested that in the absence of doubt there is in fact no faith at all.
In the scriptures the Psalms are full of doubting, most of Job is an account of a man’s doubts and questions (which interestingly doesn’t constitute a win for the devil in the story), and just read Ecclesiastes if you want a solid dose of existential crisis
Even Jesus had His own ‘Dark Night’ in the Garden. He doesn’t want to do this any more and asks God to take Him off the hook, but eventually chooses to exercise great faith in the face of great doubt. Some commentators even suggest His cry of abandonment on the Cross was a loss of faith too (heretical I know, but I figure the guys who would have the biggest problem with this have already stopped reading).
You just get the feeling that this renewed surge of pushy, insecure fundamentalism would never allow for this kind of journey. They just hook their followers up to an IV drip of over-literal interpretations of scripture and frown on uncertainty. It pains me to think of the millions in churches who are experiencing their own ‘Dark Nights’ (I keep thinking of Batman:) and are unable to share their experiences, their doubts and fears, and be guided through because they are scared of getting the same treatment they see their leaders giving a guy like Rob Bell… before they’ve even read the book.
A message to people in these churches: It’s great that you’re in a place that takes Scripture seriously, but don’t be bullied into conformity by this lot! Good spiritual leaders don’t demand uniformity, but with great personal security they encourage people to journey and question honestly; Scripture seems to even encourage it.
Remember faith is not the absence of doubt, faith is journeying on, even when you have doubts.
And, whatever you do, don’t join in the bullying.
A bit of wisdom from St John of Mayer:
“Belief is a beautiful armour, but it makes for the heaviest sword.”
We have to learn to hold our theology lightly. To be as honest as we can in our searching of the scriptures, and our journey to know God more, acknowledging that we are still only clutching at straws in the dark. And we need to be as gracious to our fellow pilgrims who are just trying to do the same.
If you want to hear a great message on this stuff which will challenge your proverbial socks off, have a listen to this message from Peter Rollins on Pyro Theology.