If We don’t Talk About it Then Maybe it Will Go Away…

In the last few days I have heard the word ‘de-construction’ (in relation to theology) used so many times I have lost count. Ok – so I did listen to a ‘Nomad‘ podcast – which is asking for it – then I tuned into Carey Neuhoff interviewing Shauna Niequist (and yes – he does need to change that dreadful intro to this podcast – sounds more like a gameshow!)

But it’s also come up in personal conversation several times as I’ve listened to people trying to reframe their theological understanding.

‘Deconstruction’ is happening for many people whether we like it or not. It was encouraging to hear Shauna Niequist speak of her mother’s experience in this area. As the wife of a well known mega-church pastor she may have been expected to not encounter faith questions and challenges, but fortunately when the fog descended on her, both her husband and the elders of the church gave her permission to not attend church if she wished and to walk thru the questions at a pace that she could manage.

Clever people.

I have observed that some people like to lean into their questions and ‘fog’ whereas others want to either avoid the fog altogether or chart a very certain course through it.

I’m not a fan of the latter. There is so much fog in the Bible that we are foolish to try and pretend we can shoo it all away. Systematic theology may have appeal, but these days I look it all with a bit of skepticism. It sounds a little too certain for my liking – too clean-shaven to be believable. The Bible far too complex to try and organise it neatly into blocks of clearly explainable data packets.

As an example, in 31 years of being a pastor I have never taken the time to teach thru the book of Revelation. I did begin the process, only to encounter the varying perspectives on how to engage with the book and eschatology in general. There was so much reading and learning involved that I just gave up on it. I spent a significant amount of time on it – but I simply didn’t have enough time to do it justice. Nor could I just choose a perspective and teach as though the other angles didn’t exist. That would be unfair to the people in the congregation. But I also doubt anyone wants me to spend time unpacking the various ideas and then leaving it to them to make their minds up. If you want to know what I’m talking about then watch this video titled ‘An Evening of Eschatology’. where 3 theologians of different perspectives engage respectfully in a conversation around this issue. Once you’ve listened you’ll find it harder to dismiss any of the views. As a consequence I’m very wary of people who nod knowingly and say ‘we’re in the end times you know…’

Whatever the issue, I am convinced that as churches we need to create communities where people can express their faith questions, where ‘heretical’ views can be aired and shared and where good conversation can help move people forward rather than leave them pretending the questions don’t exist. And by ‘forward’ I don’t mean so they agree with the consensus. I mean to a place where they can rest before God with their conclusions.

This week I listened to Robin Parry present his perspective on Christian Universalism – the idea that one day God will reconcile all people to himself thru Christ. My mate Stuart asked me if I’d heard him.

‘No… but I will check it out’. Stuart didn’t speak either affirmingly or otherwise, but I did think I’d like to hear this bloke’s perspective on a thorny issue. Some of you reading are already concerned for me – worried I am on a slippery slope… Hold that thought.

Universalism wasn’t the view I grew up with so I was interested to hear how he constructed his argument. I’d much prefer his ‘Christian universalism’ to be true than either ‘eternal conscious torment’ (which I just can’t swallow) or even my current preference which is annihilationism. But chances are if you raise this kind of question in a church there will be people rushing to shut you down with comments like ‘don’t listen to that nonsense’ (which only makes people want to listen more!)

How do people figure out faith if they are not given permission to explore the tough questions in a safe environment? How do people grapple honestly with Old testament violence or biblical inconsistencies if they aren’t allowed to air questions and ideas that are frightening? How do they develop new theological understandings if they aren’t given the capacity to release old ways of thought?

This morning I stumbled on a provocative blog post from Richard Middleton who asks ‘did Abraham get it all wrong with how he chose to obey God with the sacrifice of his son?‘ He argues that God wanted Abraham to object and to challenge him because child sacrifice was the domain of pagan deities. In his conformity Abraham failed the test God put for him. That’s a new thought for some of us right?…

I remember reading that theologians fall into two categories when it comes to new ideas. There are explorers and protectors. If you just read that last paragraph and instantly dismissed it as yet another speculative theologian with too much time on his hands, who has missed the point then you are probably a protector. if you want to know more and you are currently scanning his blog for other articles then maybe you are an explorer.

The explorers wade into the new ideas, try them on, look them up and down to see if they are a good fit. If so they ‘wear them’. If not they leave them aside. The protectors are different in that they adhere tightly to a well developed theological understanding so when questions arise they are ready with answers or reasons to not pursue a line of thought.

I fit firmly in the explorer category – which means I have veered into theological ideas that are far from orthodoxy at times because I need to think thru the implications. I hesitate to give an example as I may well end up in a theological fight I don’t have the will for… That said I wonder about the importance of ‘correct theology’ especially when it comes to the issue of salvation. How ‘correct’ do you have to be in order to make the cut? Because we are Baptists we assume our theological understandings are correct (not at all arrogant) But what about Anglicans?… Catholics?… Seventh Dayers?… JWs?… Mormons?… Where do you draw the line?

In doing some research for a sermon I stumbled on some Youtube clips of a mormon conference. It wasn’t until I did some diving into the origins of the clip that I realised it was from them. It sounded like solid Baptist fare. How will Mormons stand in the judgement? If they live life as Jesus speaks of in his kingdom, but fail the theology exam for heaven (and ‘heaven’ is another subject to be pondered) are they then consigned to hell for ever?…

If this post makes you decidedly uneasy then I am probably flaring your ‘protector’ instincts. But please hear me all of you who protect. Thank you for your work in helping form and organise theology as you have done. There is much good in the work of the protectors. But please don’t dismiss those who find themselves not accepting your answers to difficult questions. Please create space somewhere for people to talk heresy and to ask difficult questions.

Because it will happen whether you like it or not. Deconstruction can turn into demolition and devastation if people are dismissed and left to their own devices to think thru difficult questions. However if a church can be a safe place to have difficult conversations then chances are we will see people reach maturity and ‘re-construct’ in a positive way.