Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Problem with Unbelief

This post by Peter Rollins is absolutely stunning. I have been trying, and failing, to make this connection for years. To think that the root of my traumatic relationship with Christianity and Church was believing TOO much. And here I always thought the problem was my doubt. This makes so much sense.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The John 14:6 Challenge

Recently a challenge was given over at Homebrewed Christianity. The challenge was to record our responses to the John 14:6 quote bomb about Jesus being the exclusive way to God. I'm not sure if I'll send this in, but I at least wanted to commit some thoughts to writing.

There are a lot of ways this passage could be, and has been, spun. I think that scholarly examinations of the text have proved, and will prove, very useful and enlightening. As with most texts, it will be possible to come at this from a variety of angles and wrest from it a variety of nuanced interpretations which will mostly be congruent with the mindset and tradition the interpreters bring with them. I would like to simply respond with a story.

My wife was raised in a home that was essentially non-religious. Her father is of Jewish ancestry and her mother of Christian, but both are non-practicing. As far as I can tell they are not Atheist's, they simply seem to have a willingness to accept that God is whomever or whatever God is, and don't seem to have any compelling need to "figure it out".

Of course my story is the exact opposite. I was raised in a very biblicist and legalistic Christian environment. Our denomination was so concerned about maintaining doctrinal purity that we even had our own schools. It was of paramount importance that we knew and understood the (somewhat distinctive) fundamental beliefs of our church and we were guilted into encouraged to "share our faith" whenever and wherever we could. We were so conservative and confident in our beliefs that we would consider even the Southern Baptists as apostate and liberal.

By the time I married my wife I was no longer attending church on a regular basis, but I still held to the beliefs instilled in me by so many years of attending church and 14 years of "christian" education in denominational schools. My wife was attending a United Methodist church and had no problems identifying as a Christian, but was completely free of religious baggage (a state I envy more and more all the time).

Several years ago, early in our marriage, we had our first theological discussion. I think it was prompted by seeing a couple of LDS missionaries riding their bikes into a neighborhood. The conversation reached its crux when I stated that however genuine their faith and admirable their intentions, since they didn't believe the right things about Jesus and were not "christian" (as defined by my beliefs of course), they were almost certainly lost. My wife then calmly asked if that meant her father would not go to heaven even though he was a very good man and a kind and loving father. I immediately kicked into full-apologetics mode and explained why it didn't matter how good or kind he was, it all hinged on him accepting the free gift of salvation offered by Christ. She, again quite calmly, made a statement that has triggered a complete deconstruction of not only what I believe, but the very nature of belief. She simply said that when she stood before God she would ask God where her father was (heaven or hell), and if God said her father was in hell then she would reject God to God's face and go to be with her father. That she would rather spend an eternity in hell with her kind and loving father than spend an eternity in heaven with such a monstrous being.

Only someone steeped in the biblicist/evangelical mindset can understand the way in which that statement rocked me to my core. Here is someone I love saying something that, on the one hand, makes perfect sense, but on the other hand seems utterly blasphemous and horrifying. I tried my best over the ensuing months to convince her of the error of her ways, but to no avail. You see, her threat to reject God was purely theoretical because she never had believed, and never could believe, that such a scenario could ever happen. Her worldview and view of God just simply wouldn't allow for such a thing to happen. She instinctively knows, without any biblical, philosophical or theological education, that she can affirm the value, and even inspiration, of the scriptures, while at the same time understanding that all attempts to construct airtight theologies and interpretations of scripture is simply an impossibility. And this causes her absolutely no angst, concern or confusion.

It has always been so important to me to "get it right", to find the truth and figure out what I should believe in order (I suppose) to "be saved" or avoid hell. My wife instinctively knows that trying to define and believe the right things, as it comes to these matters, is not only impossible, but is totally wrongheaded and a supreme example of missing the point. She instinctively understands that following Jesus is not a matter of believing the right things about Jesus, but is a matter of actually following him. She instinctively understands that even if John 14:6 means that the only way her father can come to God is through Jesus, that, far from being a scary thing, that's really quite a good thing. She instinctively understands that if Jesus was just a good man or a prophet whose example we should follow, that her father is in pretty good shape. But that if Jesus is actually God incarnate who came on a mission to save the whole world then he probably, being God and all, is able to actually accomplish that. In which case her father is in even better shape.

So when people quote bomb John 14:6 at me, I can't do any better than my wife. The only thing I still lack is the utter and complete innocence and guilelessness with which she can completely fail to understand why John 14:6 is a problem. May she never lose that childlike faith. May she never ever hold up the Bible and eclipse the face of God.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Believing the Right Things

I recently received an emailing from the Christian Research Institute regarding a book they are putting out by their president, Hank Hanegraaff (The Bible Answer Man). This book apparently attempts to provide "right" answers to questions regarding heaven, hell, near death experiences (NDEs) and other "afterlife" related subjects.

After a short discussion centered on a particular account of a near death experience, Hank wrote the following.
I have no doubt that Colton and the others had actual subjective experiences, and I am in no way questioning either their sincerity or their motives in sharing those experiences. But our culture has forgotten one very simple fact: you can be sincere and still be wrong.
This is why we must “test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Truth matters, and what we believe about the afterlife will matter for eternity, so it’s vital that we get it right.
I've written my new book Afterlife to help you “get it right” and provide biblical answers to your questions about what life will be like in heaven, the theology of hell, NDEs, and even whether your pets will be with you after death.
I have no quarrel with Hank's particular opinions regarding NDE's and the afterlife. He is welcome to his interpretations and opinions just like anyone else. What I do want to focus in on is the following sentence: "Truth matters, and what we believe about the afterlife will matter for eternity, so it's vital that we get it right."

It wasn't all that many years ago that I would have accepted that statement without batting an eye. And I suspect many in Hank's target audience (fairly conservative, evangelical, etc.) would not bat an eye. But when I read that sentence today I was disturbed by the ramifications, and confused logic, of that way of thinking. If I'm not mistaken, what Hank is saying is that our eternal destiny is riding on our ability to believe the right things about our eternal destiny.

It's not difficult for the average person with access to the Internet to discover that Christians down through history, and Christians across the doctrinal spectrum today, differ widely on their beliefs about the afterlife. Even Christians who put a premium on the inerrancy of Biblical inspiration differ quite significantly from one group to another and even one individual to another. So should we actually imagine God, at the final judgement, making decisions based on what a person believed about the afterlife? From a purely statistical standpoint it is highly unlikely, given the broad spectrum of Biblical interpretation on the matter, that any one group or individual would have managed to "get it right".

If salvation is primarily a matter of "getting it right" in terms of our beliefs, whether they be about the afterlife or pretty much anything else, I'm afraid none of us is looking very good. As my wife always says, "we're all going to be in for some big surprises when we get to the other side. And those who are most certain they've 'got it right' will be in for the biggest surprises of all". But those surprises, as she'd say, won't be the terrifying surprises Hank assumes so many will encounter, they'll be joyful surprises as we encounter the "depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!" - Romans 11:33