Saturday, August 1, 2015

Progressive Christianity: Encouraging Curiosity

I will start, again, with a quote from Rachel Held Evans' Faith Unraveled. It comes from her chapter titled 'Living the Questions'.

With the best of intentions, the generation before mine worked diligently to prepare their children to make an intelligent case for Christianity. We were constantly reminded of the superiority of our own worldview and the shortcomings of all others. We learned that as Christians, we alone had access to absolute truth and could win any argument. The appropriate Bible verses were picked out for us, the opposing positions summarized for us, and the best responses articulated for us, so that we wouldn’t have to struggle through two thousand years of theological deliberations and debates but could get right to the bottom line on the important stuff: the deity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the role and interpretation of Scripture, and the fundamentals of Christianity.

As a result, many of us entered the world with both an unparalleled level of conviction and a crippling lack of curiosity. So ready with the answers, we didn’t know what the questions were anymore. So prepared to defend the faith, we missed the thrill of discovering it for ourselves. So convinced we had God right, it never occurred to us that we might be wrong.

In short, we never learned to doubt.

I want to make a little fuss over the first five words. The world is filled with people who are angry and bitter when it comes to those in their past who goofed. But that is not Rachel. She shows her gracious character in those five words. Though she disagrees with what they did, she does not impugn their motives. They had 'the best of intentions'. Another reason why I enjoy reading her.

Based on what Rachel wrote here, it appears that she and her peers at church were being trained to be apologists. The goal was to go and do battle with the world in order to prove the truth of the Gospel. I wonder if this was chosen as the goal because it was assumed that she (and her friends) had the most important thing down pat, being saved by faith in Jesus.  I wonder if her church saw being a Christian as basically being sure you're going to heaven and then doing all you can to get others in also. I don't know anything about Rachel's childhood church, but I do know of too many churches where the contents of the Bible were seen simply as those things necessary to know in order to get to heaven. It makes sense then to train the young (who have already been saved) to do their part to get others saved.

But to limit the content of the Bible to this one notion is to miss incredible beauties contained in its pages. The Bible isn't about how to get to heaven. The Bible is about how to know and enjoy God and other people. To be sure, it is impossible to do those things unless a person embraces Jesus as Savior and Lord. But that's only the first step. There are so many other steps (an eternity's worth) that the Bible also talks about so that we can really enjoy God as well as each other.

Seeing this will help to explain Rachel's comments in the second paragraph I quoted above. There are four things she points to. Let me briefly touch on two.

So ready with the answers, we didn’t know what the questions were anymore.

The hot questions of one generation are rarely the hot questions of the next generation. And before you can offer any good answers to the people around you, you need to know their questions. And that means that you have to listen. Listen patiently. Listen without interrupting them to make your 'sure-to-win-the debate' point. It needs to be a conversation between people instead of a dispute between adversaries.

So convinced we had God right, it never occurred to us that we might be wrong.

I think this can be summed up with one word: humility. We all have much to learn - and unlearn. And maybe this person I'm listening to - the one that I'm sure is so wrong - maybe he can help me make some progress.

Then, there are these two points that I want to spend a little more time on.

As a result, many of us entered the world with both an unparalleled level of conviction and a crippling lack of curiosity. … So prepared to defend the faith, we missed the thrill of discovering it for ourselves. 

I remember talking with a mom about education. In that context she asked me what I thought would be important goals in the training of children. I mentioned a few things like the love of reading and the ability to think. I also included this. Help the child to develop a curiosity about life. So much of education these days boils down to an information dump from the teacher to the students. And the result? Automatons who can regurgitate facts. When churches adopt this way of thinking about their kids, they grow up knowing all sorts of facts about the Bible but have no sense of wonder at God. Instead of seeing Him as the amazing person that He is, He is made into a theological specimen pinned, labelled and displayed under the glass. As a result, there's no need to be curious about God. He's been all figured out. After all, they know all the verses. How incredibly sad! There is so much that a person can discover about God, about life, if he or she is even just a little curious.

And that leads to what Rachel called 'the thrill of discovering' the faith. There is no thrill if all you need are Bible formulas that explain our religion. It is as you become curious - curious about the things that you don't know - that you begin to discover what those Bible verses are actually about. You begin to discover who Jesus really is and what it means that you have a Father and that the Spirit lives within you. At the heart of this is a God who doesn't fit in a box. He does things that surprise us, sometimes resulting in great happiness and sometimes great sorrow, but always with the goal of getting us to know and enjoy Him more. This is how we get to know Him as a person instead of as a theological specimen.

We do need apologists who will explain and defend the faith. (If you think about it, Jesus was an apologist.) But more than that though, we need Christians who are getting to know their God. So, once again I give a hearty 'Amen!' to what Rachel has written.

Now, at the end of the quote above, Rachel offers an alternative. She thinks it would have been better if she had been taught to doubt. I really don't think that that's the best word for what she wants to say. I intend to discuss that next.

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