So I Have This Idea . . .

Theology Thursday

This is my idea in generalisations:

Conservative (by which I mean fundamentalist and/or evangelical) seminaries should require their students to take at least six month internships at liberal (by which I mean mainline and/or progressive) churches, and liberal seminaries should require their students to take at least six month internships at conservative churches.

Once upon a time, I used to be afraid.

Okay, heck. I’m still afraid of lots of stuff, probably, but in this case I mean I was afraid of Bad Theology.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I study theology. I love theology, and I think it’s super important. (Thus, you know, Theology Thursday.) So naturally I believe there is both bad and good theology. But if church-people across the spectrum of Christian thought are honest with themselves, I think they might admit that the Church in general is struggling, at least in the United States of America. And I think Fear of Bad Theology just might be one of the sticking points.

Either way, it appears to be the Mad Hatter

Either way, we appear to be heading toward the Mad Hatter

Now I’m a theological mostly-conservative working at a theologically mostly-liberal church and I think the experience has been good for me–and hopefully for Now Church, too. I feel like I believe my own beliefs better and with more certainty than I used to, and that maybe because of that I’m either more willing to let other people believe theirs they way they do, or more assured of the Process through which God brings individual people as we each get to know Him. I feel fortunate. I didn’t ask for this, but not everybody gets this kind of experience and perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

But I get the Fear. I do. I used to be afraid of some sort of theological contamination, in an almost superstitious fashion, as if hearing the Wrong Thing would automatically make me think the Wrong Thing and somehow impinge on my salvation or something. And I guess something like that can happen, though not superstitiously–I mean I guess people can be gradually persuaded into a different point of view if they’re exposed to it enough, and I do think some things are truer than others and it matters–but I also guess I think we’re all heretics on some level, and God loves us more than we sometimes think, and will “guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus” though I suspect it helps if we want Him to.

Anyway, I just think there’s a lot of fear between different branches of the Church, and it mostly comes from a skepticism that the people in the other branch aren’t “real Christians,” and that maybe that somehow Not-Real Christianity is contagious like ebola.

ebola1

And ebola is scary, guys. It is.

But I suspect that if we stopped worrying about whether or not other people were Real Christians (or however our tradition talks about it), and just worked on where we ourselves are in relation to God, and then tried to love each other in light of that, we might discover more commonality in Christ than we thought, or if we didn’t, at least more freedom in Him to interact with each other and serve Him anyway.

As for seminaries and internships . . . well, from my experience, I hear all kinds of liberal theology from my conservative classes, but no matter how open-minded my truly exceptional professors may be, I wouldn’t understand that theology in the way that I can when I encounter it from real people who actually believe it at Now Church. And I don’t think that RevCD, for example, can understand the conservative theology she’s heard about in her liberal seminary training until she encounters it in people like me.

It’s possible to know something about what “the other side” believes, but I think it’s tough to know how they believe it until we’re immersed in it, at least for a little while, and that immersion, I think, gives us a better capacity to decide what we really believe about, say, the Trinity, or the gender of God, or the Bible, or sin and salvation and atonement, for example, than if we only get trained up in what we already think we believe and know. And . . . maybe more importantly . . . we might get a better glimpse of Jesus’ love for the Church, His Bride, and be better equipped to love Him and serve her in many different contexts, without needing to fear losing Him, or faith, or even necessarily our own distinctives.

What do you think?

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27 thoughts on “So I Have This Idea . . .

  1. I remember once in high school, sitting in a leadership meeting, each of us being asked what God was speaking to us about currently. I responded that the biggest impression I had was the desire to gain understanding of the wide-range of perspectives that each human being has. To truly listen without having a preconception about what they are saying, to see who people truly are and how they had arrived at whatever place they are now. I’m not sure people really understood what I was saying as the “top pastor” quickly moved on to the next person instead of asking me more about it, as he was with the responses of others.

    I think that many of us listen to what others are saying with judgment. We are analyzing their words and considering whether or not we agree. Is that really listening? I’m not quite sure..

    I love your idea for 6 months of “the other side” experience for students. It’s fascinating how so many people form opinions about the other side based solely on information from their own side. In the deepest sense of truth and reality, there are no sides..

    • That was really brave of you to suggest that as a young person! I can completely imagine the scenario. 🙂

      I don’t think analysing perspectives is a bad thing, necessarily, but I think when you’ve EXPERIENCED one that’s different from your default, it gives you better tools for that analysis.

      I’m still mulling over “there are no sides.” I think there may be something in that, but because I always like to qualify things, I feel like I would need to qualify it. But don’t worry–it’ll probably take me at least a year of turning it over in my head before I even begin to know how! 🙂

      • Certainly. And perhaps “analyze” is less accurate as to what I mean than “judging.” Meaning, there are so many times that I may say a sentence, and the person I am talking to responds with “I disagree with that.” I’m always curious if they disagree with the deeper reality of what I am attempting to communicate with words, or, if they disagree with their own filter of how they interpreted the words I said to mean? If the latter is the case, then we aren’t really communicating at all but just talking to ourselves (our own psychological filters). But if we can suspend our need to think we know what someone is saying, we will ask them questions and grow in deeper relationship and understanding (what Paul called forbearance :).

        • Hmm…interesting perspective AGAIN! 🙂 You are providing lots of food for thought. I definitely think you’re right that people each have a filter, and most people (I include myself in “most people,” though I suspect I may be an odder version of most of most people!) tend to choose the filter over true listening.

  2. I don’t have a problem with the original idea… However, the statement, “if we stopped worrying about whether people were Real Christians…” concerns me. Should we ever stop worrying about people’s eternal destiny? Should we jeopardize people’s spiritual condition for temporal harmony? There are some things people can agree to disagree on, but other things that we shouldn’t dismiss. I am not afraid of bad theology in the sense you suggest. I am afraid of it in its power to damn people to hell. I know that sounds harsh:)

    • This is great! I’m glad you kicked off the push-back. 🙂 Probably your questions/observations warrant an entire new post–so here it is, for now, I guess?

      Having spent most of my life WORRYING about people’s eternal destiny, I’m starting to doubt that’s exactly the right approach. I mean, Jesus said not to worry and Paul said not to worry about ANYTHING, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving to present our requests to God. I can’t say I’m very good at that yet, and I do think that people’s eternal destination is an important thing to keep in mind, but I’m also beginning to feel more assured (rather than just knowing it in my head) that I’m not the one who will “save” anyone anyway, and I’ve seen God work in less likely ways than through fellow churchpeople (unless, of course, we’re all the least likely of all, which is possible), whatever their “slant.”

      I also am not convinced that bad theology damns anybody. I do believe (against my preferences) that not everyone will enter an eternity with God, and I also believe there is some really bad theology out there, some of which obscures the really Good News about Jesus. AND I think it’s important to put good theology out there. But ultimately I believe that JESUS Himself is the one who saves us, and that it’s possible to know Him/be getting to know Him and being going to join Him in the next life without having all the technical details figured out . . . or even quite right . . . first. I certainly don’t think I’ve got it all down, so I HOPE that’s true! It’s what I mean when I say on some level we’re all heretics.

      As for my “idea,” I guess I feel like we are better able to communicate Jesus and His good news via relationship (as He Himself did) than via theological propositions (though having those propositions as an underlying starting point MAY help–maybe), and that as we cross the “barriers” and examine our own views in the light of someone else’s, we win the right but also privilege to speak about them. At least, this seems to be my own experience. People (usually) listen a lot better when I listen first.

  3. That sounds all well and good, but where do you expect it to lead you? I don’t study theology, but after 57 years of life I’ve learned that to see an aspect through the eyes of another always compromises a conviction, in one way or the other. Don’t mistake it as a search for the truth. Tolerance can be a two- edged sword. More often than not it turns into a surrender. Is that what you seek?

    • If seeing something through someone else’s eyes compromises one of my convictions, it was not much of a conviction to begin with. I have been shocked at times by how flimsy – and sometimes out of kilter – my beliefs are, a fact that is rarely revealed until they are challenged in some way.

      And I don’t think that Jenn is talking about tolerance (a loaded word, these days) or surrender or compromising truth, but rather grace. It is hard to see how grace can be a two-edged sword…

      • Great response, Susan! I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Although I probably will blab a little more just ’cause it’s kinda what I do here. 😉 )

        I’m running around today, but tonight or tomorrow I will do my best to respond more fully to both your (Susan and Joseph’s) comments.

        Thanks so much for engaging in dialogue with me! I love it!

    • Susan’s right. I’m really not asking for tolerance. I think mere tolerance is often quite intolerable, and that a lot of times it prevents the exercise of grace (and, frankly, honesty). But I DO think grace is vital, and I also agree with Susan that having an idea challenged is what tries it to see how strong/worthy it is.

      In my own experience at my current church, I can say I certainly have changed my approach about many things, and maybe even my views on a few, but most of my previous convictions about, say, salvation and atonement and the Trinity, are stronger and more certain than they were, if anything. I just don’t feel like I need to assert them so vehemently anymore. It’s more of a secure resting, with a willingness and openness to talk about them when the opportunity arises which, since dialogue is open, it does, surprisingly often.

  4. Interesting thread here…( of course I’m one of those weirdo conservatives that find Jenn’s brain interesting). The other day my wife had a couple of boys at the house while the Mom went to a Dr. appointment. My Daughter has a ball that has stars all over it and the words “He Lives” on it. One of the boys asked my wife, “who lives?” . She told him that my daughter received the ball from a Vacation Bible School she went to and that Jesus was the one who lives. Imagine my wife’s surprise when he responded, “Jesus isn’t real and neither is God, My Mom says they are fake and that people made them up to feel better about things they don’t understand. I bring it up because this thread is kind of exploring other perspectives… and I will admit my first instinct when I heard this was to want to run to the Mother and have a conversation with her …. well I won’t go on here but I do expect to write about it soon and to hear what other thoughts are on the subject.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, JT. And don’t worry. Weirdo liberals also find my brain interesting. Or incomprehensible. Or ridiculous. Or something. 😉 The manifestations of the reactions are different, however.

      I think missistine’s approach below is similar to the one I would take with the scenario you bring up. I guess I really feel like God crossed the divide (the Original Divide) first, by becoming one of us, and Jesus taught us the TRUTH with GRACE (John 1.14)–in powerful teachings like the Sermon on the Mount, certainly, but I’m sure at least for those first century people even moreso by the way He lived and the way He loved them and the sacrifice He made in His own body. I think the fear on both sides of the divide often prevents the communication of both that grace and truth–to each other in the Body of Christ, and because of that, to the rest of the world.

  5. When I read this post Jenn, I thought- “What an awesome idea !!”- then the next thought I had was “Which side would I visit??” (lol) Since I am a person who truly does try to identify and understand perspectives that differ from my own……I think if I had been at the house where that boy told me that His mother said that Jesus is not real- I would have addressed it with something like- “People are all very different and we all believe different things. Jesus is real and alive to me and if you ever would like to know why I believe that- I would be happy to talk to you about it.” I wouldn’t “call his mother” out on her beliefs but I would pray for God to provide me with opportunities to interact with her. I would just be kind, friendly and open and hope and pray that God would make a way for my life to intersect with that woman’s. Hearing what she told her son doesn’t make me want to “correct” her with propositional truth- it makes me want to love her with radical Jesus love.

  6. Nice one, Christine. I agree. Although I suspect–regardless of where you fall in the SoE spectrum–you’re still basically theologically conservative. 🙂 Or maybe I’ll find out something different in our class this fall!

    • Ohhhh I suppose Jenn……that if I were FORCED to choose a camp….I don’t know. Having just left the church that I was a part of for many years- (the church that nurtured me and “raised me up” to a leadership position) only to hire a new Senior Pastor who was not able to continue to support my path to ordination because of his theologically conservative views on gender and church leadership……I must say that I am personally biased against conservative evangelicalism at the moment. That camp ultimately hurt me and rejected me and I am still reeling from the ramifications of leaving them.

      Then again, when looking for a new church, I was not able to go back to the more liberal group that I had once been a part of either. I am too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals. Which is making me more and more uncomfortable in the Church and more and more comfortable expressing my faith and calling in my 12 Step recovery community- where I see God working amazing things in people’s lives each week and many of those people do not call upon the name of Jesus- yet He still seems to answer their prayers and perform miracles in their lives. Still trying to work that all out in my theology……..

      • I hear that! I’ve been too conservative/liberal for a long time. I keep trying to remember that Jesus loves the church and gave Himself up for her, but although I have sustained some hurt in churches (on both sides of the theological divide), I don’t think I’ve been hurt the way you have, so maybe it’s easier. I dunno.

  7. I am just curious what details are OK to get wrong. What are the essentials of saving faith? How do we act out the Great Commission without the proclamation of truth? Does faith come by hearing the Word? When does the Gospel become another gospel (not a true gospel)? Where do we draw a line? Do we judge say Mormons as not “Real Christians?” Yes, Jesus is the one who saves. That does not negate our responsibility to uphold the revealed Word.

    • I agree very much with your last statement in particular. But I don’t think spending 6 months in “another camp” precludes that. I think what it DOES do is clarify whether that group is, indeed, another camp, and why, as well as opening up even more opportunities to proclaim the Word/the Gospel. I think putting oneself in a different context also provides a way to be a little more objective about our original context and perspective so we can weed out what turns out to be trappings, and hold tighter to what turns out to be core.

      As for where the line is drawn between saving belief and damning error, or between Gospel and false gospel (and I suspect the lines between each of those pairs are different), well, those are questions I’ve been asking for years, and although I feel more reasoned and certain in my understanding of truth, I feel less so about the moment or “thought-specific requirements” of salvation. What I do believe more and more, though, is that the only salvation I need to work out with fear and trembling is my own, and that God’s the one who knows about everyone else’s status.

      Why should I need to figure that out anyway? I’m constrained to “preach” (in whatever manner or context comes to hand) the Gospel no matter what. Believers should be proclaiming the Gospel to each other as well as to everyone else, all the time. So while I see a place for PRAYING for people’s salvation, we should probably do that whether we think they’re saved or not, and spread the great good news of Jesus’ salvation whether we think they’re saved or not, because that’s what our purpose is in this life. But that to me seems like even more reason to cross barriers than not to.

      I also think that if we stop making these divisions between branches if what is at least seen by the “outside” world as The Church, it will not only allow Jesus’ love and Gospel to circulate more freely among His own people, but be a better witness (and provide more opportunities to intentionally witness) to the world around us.

  8. You’ve been very general and I can’t tell if I agree with you or not. So I know where you’re coming from, what would you say if someone in your church came to you and asked, “Jenn, I’m scared that I’m going to Hell. What do I need to do to avoid that?”

    • I plan to unpack some specific theological items around this question in future blogposts. I can tell you (now that I know which Sarah you are 😉 ) that you and I probably aren’t EXACTLY on the same page theologically, but in a concise answer to that precise question, I would say something about Jesus being God on earth, taking the ultimate consequences of our rebellion against Him (sin) on Himself so that we could never have to worry about Hell again. I would say that our part is to trust that this is, indeed, the case–that He is both capable of taking those consequences on Himself in such a way that we are freed of them, and that He actually did it.

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  10. LOL I hail from the Reformed Presbys in the EAST coast, mind you. Boy, are we stiff (Biblical, I say, but stiff to many). And here I am in sunny, happy CA where the laid-back culture has infiltrated the church and her theology. Good preaching (and by this, I mean Christocentric preaching and teaching, not seeker-sensitive talks and shows) is hard to come by here. But we do have it, thankfully.

    I’m a theological mostly-conservative working at a theologically mostly-liberal church

    YiKeS! That’s awesome you’ve grown as you have, J. In patience, I’m sure!~
    Wonderful post, thoughtful and compassionate.

    D.

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