When God's mystery begins where our curiosity ends

So I’m reading Tribes by Seth Godin, which is a fantastic book on leadership that I highly recommend to those of you who like to think outside the box, pursue big ideas, or quit your job and stick it to The Man.

The book is not specifically religious, so I was a bit surprised to bump into what I thought was a really interesting assessment of religious fundamentalism on page 63, where Godin writes:

A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it.
As opposed to a curious person who explores first and then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.
A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it…
It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished.
I don’t think it’s a matter of saying a magic word; boom and then suddenly something happens and you’re curious. It’s more about a five- or ten- or fifteen-year process where you start finding your voice, and finally you begin to realize that the safest thing you can do feels risky and the riskiest you can do is play it safe…
What we’re seeing is that fundamentalism really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with an outlook, regardless of what your religion is.

These observations reminded me of a frustrating conversation I had with some friends a few weeks ago about the theory of evolution. My friends told me that they had very strong convictions regarding evolution, and yet no desire whatsoever to explore the science surrounding the issue. They had already determined that evolution could not be true based on their religious convictions, and so any logical or scientific inconsistencies within the young earth creationism model were dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and a pithy statement about the mysteries of God.

“I’m just not so arrogant as to think that I can understand the ways of God,” one of them explained.

It is a conversation I have repeated over and over again, though in the context of many different issues and with many different people. Nothing is more frustrating than engaging in a good, healthy  theological debate, only to reach a point in the conversation when, rather than conceding that you might actually have a good point, your opponent defers to “God’s mysterious ways,” as if reason is only  useful up to a point, when it supports what he already believes. 

And then things start to get personal when your curiosity gets you accused of “trying to know the mind of God.” I hear this all the time, whenever I have questions about creationism or Calvinism, the Problem of Evil or the destiny of the un-evangelized. “Who are you to question your Creator?” I am asked.” But I’m not questioning my Creator!” I want to shout. “I’m questioning you!” I’m questioning whether a certain position is biblical or rational or consistent.

It is as though there is an invisible line between acceptable inquisitiveness and dangerous rebellion that I inadvertently cross whenever I make someone uncomfortable.

Now, before this turns into a self-righteous rant, I should note that I too am guilty of defaulting to “God’s mysterious ways” when backed into a corner, and there is a degree to which this should be expected within a faith community. As Christians, we must recognize that paradox is inherent to our tradition, that mysteries will always exist, and that faith is more often a matter of the heart than the brain.

However, the fact that we can’t know everything about God should not lead to the conclusion that we can’t know anything about God and therefore shouldn’t try to understand his character and his world better. 

Perhaps the solution is to simply enter into every theological conversation acknowledging the shared assumption that we see through a glass darkly, but that reason is God’s good gift to mankind and that we insult his generosity when we refuse to use it. Perhaps the solution is to give our brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt and assume that they already believe that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” rather than reminding them of it when they make a good point or ask a good question or challenge us a little more than we want to be challenged.

Have you ever felt as though you were punished for being curious? Have you ever been in the midst of a stimulating theological conversation only to have it end abruptly when someone reminds you that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or that “in much wisdom is much grief”?  How do you respond? And what do you think of Seth Godin’s definition of fundamentalism?

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A New Kind of Fundamentalist

I’ve signed my fair share of doctrinal statements through the years. I’ve recited many creeds. I’ve defended my orthodoxy by insisting that I believe Jesus is the Son of God,  that he was born of the Virgin Mary, that he died and rose again, and that he is coming again. I’ve tried to take all the right positions on all the right issues—salvation by faith, the inspiration of Scripture, the Holy Three-In-One.

But no one has ever asked me to promise to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength or to love my neighbor as myself.

I’ve been called a heretic for believing that God will show mercy to the un-evangelized, a “cotton-candy Christian” for being an Arminian, a liberal for accepting evolutionary theory, and a “danger” for having questions about biblical inerrancy.

But no one’s ever questioned my commitment to my faith based on my tendency to gossip, to judge, or withhold from the poor.

When I started this blog, one of my goals was to re-examine the fundamentals of my faith in the context of a changing culture and my emerging doubts about Christianity. This has led us to deconstruct and reconstruct our theologies together—sometimes debating, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not knowing exactly what to think. 

So it almost surprised me the other day when something was said about the “fundamentals of the Christian faith,” and I thought to myself—“I think I know what those are.”

Love God.

Love people.

It seems so simple and so obvious, but it took me three years of serious doubt, two years of study, an ongoing sense of skepticism, a trip to India, a blog, and a book to really figure this out for myself. I guess when you live in a town famous for “fundamentalism,” you have to sort through a lot of so-called “fundamentals” before you get to what’s most important.

When Jesus was asked about the fundamental elements of the faith, he replied with uncharacteristic directness. Referring to the celebrated Shema of Deuteronomy 6, Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depends the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22)

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that carries extra significance when considering the fact that the Jews hated the Samaritans for their mixed Gentile blood and alternative worship style. Surely Jesus foresaw the irony of “Samaritan” becoming synonymous with kindness!

The first disciples clearly treated Christ-like love as the most fundamental part of being people of faith.

As John famously wrote:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love…No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. “ (I John 4:7,8,12)

In the days of the early church, what made someone a “true Christian” was his or her reputation for love.

Both Paul and Peter wrote that above all, we are to love (Colossians 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8). Paul said that without love, no amount of eloquence, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, faith, charity, or sacrifice can compensate for the fact that we are little more than noisy, clanging symbols. (I Corinthians 13:1-13.) Paul encourages his readers to abide in faith, hope, and love, and adds that “the greatest of these is love.”  James wrote that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

Love is fundamental. It’s more important than being right. It’s more important than having all our theological ducks in a row. It’s more important than any commitment to absolute truth or a particular hermeneutic or a “high view” (read: “my view”) of sovereignty or the Bible or faith or the Church.

Writes Greg Boyd, “For the church to lack love is for the church to lack everything. No heresy could conceivably be worse! Until the culture at large instinctively identifies us as loving, humble servants, and until the tax collectors and prostitutes of our day are beating down our doors to hang out with us as they did with Jesus, we have every reason to accept  our culture’s judgment of us as correct. We are indeed more pharisaic than we are Christlike.” (The Myth of a Christian Nation, p. 134-135)

What’s wrong with the church when folks like Shane Claiborne who have reputations for loving their enemies, giving without expecting anything in return, and withholding judgment can’t get speaking gigs because of their “questionable” theological positions? What’s wrong with evangelicals when surveys show that people perceive us as gay-hating, judgmental, hypocritical, and closed minded?  What’s wrong when people can get kicked out of churches for getting pregnant or being gay, but not for being unloving or prejudiced? What’s wrong when folks in theological societies scream and yell at each other over a disagreement about divine foreknowledge?

We’ve labeled all kinds of things fundamental…but we’ve left out love, which is why I think it’s time for a new kind of fundamentalism.

This, of course, raises some important questions: How does love as fundamental work itself out practically? How do we call out violations of love within the church without defeating the purpose and becoming judgmental with one another? How can we hold the church accountable?  What does love as fundamental look like in day-to-day life? How important are statements of faith and creeds? How do we foster unity where there is so much division? What does it look like to really imitate Christ in this culture, during these wars, amidst all of this wealth and privilege, despite all of our past failures? Can I  hold love as fundamental and still stay mad at John Piper? (I know the answer to that.) 

I’ve been doing a lot of deconstructing over the past few years, but now that I’ve got a new foundation, I think it’s time to start the reconstruction process.

Will you help me?

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What is Fundamentalism?

In our book club selection for this month, author and religious expert Phyllis Tickle describes the origins of Christian fundamentalism. On page 65 of The Great Emergence she writes:

Within twenty years [of 1874] the threat of evolution and the kind of biblical criticism and liberal theology it and other concomitant trends were seen as empowering had reached such a pitch that a series of Bible Conferences of Conservative Protestants were held at various sites in the United States. In 1895, the Conference of Conservative Protestants, meeting in Niagra Falls, issued a statement of five principles necessary to claim true Christian belief: the inerrancy of the Scriptures; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the historicity of the Virgin birth; the substitutionary nature of the Atonement; and the physical, corporeal return of Jesus, the Christ. Those five principles of doctrine would become ‘the Fundamentals.

The term fundamentalism evolved from there, and as we all know, has taken on an extremely negative connotation.  In my book, I describe a fundamentalist as being someone who holds nearly all of his or her beliefs about God to be fundamental and absolutely non-negotiable.  This results in a reactionary faith, one characterized by militant certainty and a fear of change.  One of the themes of my book is the importance of shedding away false fundamentals—as individuals and as a Church—so that our faith can survive changing environments.

My question for you today is this:  How do you define Christian fundamentalism? Is it simply belief in the five principles outlined by the Conservative Protestants, or has it evolved into something much different?  What do you think are the most fundamental elements of the Christian faith?  What do you think are some common “false fundamentals”? 

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Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and the Palin/Bryan Factor

A few weeks ago, just when I’d decided I’d had enough of lipstick, pigs, and the feigned outrage of the suddenly feminist Republican Party, I picked up the local newspaper to read: “Dayton invites Sarah Palin to Speak.”

“Ahhhh! She’s everywhere!” I screamed. I’d already glanced through two Newsweek cover stories about her, read a lengthy Time piece, suffered through seemingly endless TV news coverage…and now here she was on the front page of the Dayton Herald.

 (This was, of course, before the financial crisis dramatically re-focused the nation’s attention.)

As I read through the article, I noticed that, for the third time that week, the vice presidential candidate had been compared to none other than William Jennings Bryan.

Local Republican Randall McGinnis told the Herald, “[Dayton] is essentially the Bible Belt. Palin is going to be the candidate of evangelicals, so what better place to speak than on the steps of the Rhea County Courthouse where William Jennings Bryan so eloquently defended evangelical Christianity in 1925?”

McGinnis’ statement was similar to one made by journalist Michael Gerson in the September 29 edition of Newsweek. In an article entitled “Starbucks Does Not Equal Savvy,” Gerson compares Palin’s small-town values and religiously-charged rhetoric to that of Bryan, claiming that “the closest I have ever come to witnessing a Bryan moment was Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention—the triumph of another backwoods, highly-religious populist. Palin praised the honesty and sincerity of small towns; pressed her credentials as a hockey mom, member of the PTA and small-town mayor; and rallied against the ‘Washington elite,’ ‘power brokers’ and (a little closer to home) ‘reporters and commentators.’ If hats had been in style, they would have been thrown.’”

There are more than a few ironies surrounding this comparison. The most obvious are that: 1) William Jennings Bryan was a democrat, 2) Bryan ran for president three times and lost, and 3) Bryan’s defense of the Christian faith during Dayton’s famous Scopes Trial was, by all objective accounts, less than eloquent.

However, my visceral reaction to the Herald News article was negative, not because of these ironies, but because of the use of the term “evangelical.”

McGinnis said something that has become increasingly apparent over the last several weeks: “Palin is the candidate of evangelicals.”

This election has just about convinced me that I must not be an evangelical after all. Polls show that evangelicals overwhelmingly support John McCain and Sarah Palin. I don’t. Whenever a pastor is called on by the media to present the “evangelical position” regarding anything from gay marriage to tax codes to global warming, I find myself passionately disagreeing. The term “evangelical” has taken on an extremely negative connotation for me, even though I grew up with that religious tradition and still identify with it in many ways.

It all came together late last week, when I read this comment by Scot McKnight on his fantastic blog:

"in the 1920s and 1930s many American evangelicals fought the rise of liberal, critical thought and rallied around the term ‘fundamentalism.’ That term referred to a steadfast commitment to some basics that could not be surrendered. At the time, fundamentalism was a decent and useful word. In time, though, the term was worn out by the abusive use of that term by its critics. So, Carl Henry stood up in the 50s and 60s and said something had to be done, and out of his famous book ‘Uneasy Conscience’ arose a new movement: ‘evangelicalism.’ Fundamentalism at the time called it ‘neo-evangelism’ and that was no compliment. But the movement survived the early attempts to smear it….Evangelicalism lasted--until the 80s and 90s—and now the term works the way ‘fundamentalist’ worked: the term today can hardly be used without having to explain yourself.”

So perhaps Sarah Palin is to evangelicalism what William Jennings Bryan was to fundamentalism. Perhaps she represents the last stand of a struggling, increasingly irrelevant movement.

I’m wondering if there are more Christians like me out there, who are tired of being associated with evangelicalism, and who are looking for a new term to describe their religious affiliation.

So here’s the question: Do you think that “evangelicalism” is beginning to take on the same negative connotation as “fundamentalism”? Also, what do you think of the Palin/Bryan comparison?

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Dear Focus on the Family

Dear Focus on the Family,

It has come to my attention that a representative from your organization has encouraged Christians to pray for rain—not rain in Ethiopia, where more than 10 million people are short of food because of drought—but rain in Denver, Colorado, where a few thousand democrats plan to hold their convention in an outdoor stadium.

You say that good Christians should pray for rain in Denver because good Christians are pro-life—not pro-Iraqi-civilian life, of course—but pro-unborn-child-life.

I guess that in a world where 39,000 children die each day from preventable disease, where around 90,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq, where the current global food crisis causes a child to die every seven seconds, where 47 million Americans cannot afford basic healthcare, and where women and children continue to be murdered in Darfur—nothing says “God is pro-life” better than a bunch of wet democrats.

You say that good Christians should pray for rain in Denver because good Christians support the sanctity of marriage—not the sanctity of their own marriages,  of course, which are plagued by higher divorce rates than those of atheists and agnostics—but the sanctity of the idea of marriage, which is being threatened by gays and democrats.

I guess that in a world where more than 15-million children have been orphaned by AIDS,  where thousands of American foster kids are waiting for adoption, where the UN estimates there are around 34 million refugees and internally displaced people, where girls continue to be sold as sex slaves, where thousands of Americans are losing their homes and their jobs, and where almost 5 million Iraqis have been displaced by America’s invasion—nothing threatens what Focus on the Family calls “the nuclear family” more than gay people getting married.

You say that good Christians will ask God to bend the rules for this very important occasion, that Jesus didn’t really mean it when He said God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

I guess that in a world where war criminals continue to commit genocide in Sudan, where dictators suppress religion freedom in China, where people suffer from extreme poverty under the corrupt government of Zimbabwe,  where sovereign nations are getting invaded by power-hungry Russian leaders, and where our own government exaggerated intelligence in order to occupy Iraq—Barack Obama is God’s biggest concern, worthy of a little extra attention.

You say that good Christians will pray for rain because of their Christian values—not those concerning care for the poor, love for enemies, or hospitality to foreigners, of course—but those concerning national security, immigration reform, and tax breaks for the wealthy.

I guess that in a world where 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, nothing threatens Christian values more than a man who wants to take our tax breaks back.

Dear Focus on the Family -  I’m a good Christian, but I will not pray for rain in Denver.

I will pray for rain in Ethiopia.

[Click here to see the praying for rain video.]

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