Recently it has been suggested to me that God does not want us to question the ‘how’ of Christianity. Surely God wants us to have a child-like faith they suggest. I never quite understand what people mean when they use that phrase. I sense an implied criticism, though probably none was meant. I have also become aware that some Christians feel threatened in the context of theological study. Some even wonder if God in some way would prefer it if we didn’t ask. Why is this?
Have you ever wondered if its ok to ask questions? Do you ever question the lyrics in worship songs? Do you feel that accepted answers are just too simplistic ? Me too.
Right from the start I want to say, once again, that it is more vital to our discipleship to experience say the Trinity then it is to explain it. This has become like a mantra for me, and applies to so many areas of our Christian life ~ atonement, prayer, healing, communion etc etc. Obviously you cannot expect to fully explain the infinite, and anyway without the mystical and experiential elements of our walk we would dry up and wither. l know many Christians who profess a simple faith, to which I say Amen. Go for it. I am not knocking that at all, if you are comfortable with it.
But as I have grown bolder in sharing I have found that many people are hungry, and uncomfortable with some areas of their understanding. These folk are asking questions of their faith, and of me too!. Sure, they know the ‘experience verses knowledge’ argument, and they love the fullest expression of intimacy in worship in their daily lives. But they want more understanding. If you dig down into these people they love God and are sincere followers. Some of them though, have what you might think of as a sore spot that irritates. For example they just cannot come to terms with the genocide in the Old Testament. Or Paul’s sexism. Or Jesus suggesting that you should hate your parents. You get the idea.
This blog is my small attempt, in my small corner, to help us all ask better questions and to know when to lay those questions aside. Oh yes, and maybe even find an answer or two.
Theologians are ruining the church
I attended an all boys secondary school and over the road was a school for girls. In year 10 the two schools ran a joint Christian Union, along with all the increasingly rare other clubs that teachers once had time for. Needless to say this CU was the most well attended club bar none – I remember at one meeting there were over 200 students present… This enthusiasm spilled out into a local church youth group, for which I will always be thankful. Between the CU and the youth group I cut my theological teeth, and met some very agreeable young ladies. Naturally we looked up to our leaders who put in the time and effort week in week out. I remember one of them saying “Theologians are ruining the church”.
Theologians are ruining the church??? I carried this concept with me, almost subliminally, for years. Perhaps it was because the church I was a member of was undergoing a charismatic renewal (whatever that means), with the underlying assumption that the old was bad, and the new was good, it’s (healthy) emphasis on experience, and its distaste for what it saw as ‘dry and dusty’ academic books. Later, at university the CU was intensely academic, and unbelievably dull. More evidence to suggest the stifling effect of theology. It took me some years before I seriously challenged this idea.
Children ask the best questions… they just do
In chapter 4 of the gospel of Matthew the disciples ask Jesus who will be the greatest in heaven. In reply Jesus calls for a child to be bought to him and says:
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matt 4:3-4
The answer to the question is of course a reversal of the values of the world – where greatness goes with aggrandisement – usually self -aggrandisement. Children, especially young ones, exhibit trust in their parents, who they know love them, care for them and want only the best for them. Knowing they can trust their parents puts the child into a place where they can be happy, content and at peace. So Jesus is saying (amongst other things) that if we want to participate in the heavenly kingdom it requires of us that we trust God. This is the sense of the humbling of self in the passage knowing that ‘all manner of things shall be well’ and that it does not depend on you, but on your heavenly Father who cares for you and knows what you need before we ask him. This is a 100% turn around from the empire building that most of us engage in.
So there is a clear element of trusting dependence here. This interaction is saying nothing at all about the use of our intellect or our rational minds. However, this idea of ‘child like’ faith is sometimes used to suggest is that our faith is meant to be unquestioning. I am not talking about that type of belligerent question that asks ‘why’ as a challenge to authority – clearly that is not usually appropriate with God. Rather I refer to the asking that is a genuine request for understanding. I see no conflict between seeking understand and childlike trust. The two go hand in hand, and are are facets of the same thing. So it is clearly to be encouraged – we can be ‘theological children.’
My experience of parenting has led me to know what every parent knows – children ask profound, penetrating questions some of which have no easy answer. Watch any small child to see the joy that the inquiry which is hard wired into the human animal brings. Of course, there is a time to lay the questions aside; the bible speaks of a child at peace in its mother’s arms, which suggests a laying down of things.(Ps 131:2) On the other hand it exhorts us to ‘get understanding’ (Prov4:7) and there are many examples of the ‘intellect in action’ such as Paul debating at the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9)
Taken to its extreme, this idea risks producing Christians who parrot agreed, inherited theology without having given it any thought of their own. You can end up believing something because you were told it by someone who was told it by someone who was told it someone … and so on. If this continues then as time goes by the inherited theology becomes less fit for purpose as things move on. People can sense this, and it is easy for such a faith to be shaken or challenged.
This is happening all around us at the moment. Clearly the gospel is highly relevant – but without the process of engaging with the issues, ie honest, questioning and seeking of answers, we run the risk of disengaging from the culture around us and loosing our vitality. The difficulty is of course how to do this without watering down the truth. But as someone said to me recently ‘Jesus was really flexible in how he dealt with people’. I like that a lot.
This is becoming increasingly clear to me. Taking one example few people in our culture have any understanding of the concept of animal sacrifice for forgiveness – and why would they? The idea is completely abhorrent in a time of animal rights and in which the mandate to love and care for the garden is becoming a really serious, pressing issue. Many in my daughters’ generation would surely dismiss this penal explanation of the atonement out of hand. And this is just one issue.
We have to wrestle with these issues which make our faith vital and energising. Those of us who are called to question must not leave our brains at the gates of thanksgiving. How come its fine to spend years studying say physics or leaning to get really good at a sport, but it is not acceptable to apply the same rigor to what is after all, the most important, thrilling and fulfilling study of them all? God.
I mentioned above a couple of scriptures which I think encourage us to question. It’s obvious really isn’t it? Why else could someone write that Paul’s teaching is hard to understand and easy to distort? (2Pet 3:16) Luckily Jesus himself made everything so simple and crystal clear didn’t he? And what about the profoundly insightful writing of the Church Fathers and Mothers, or Luther, or Julian of Norwich, or Calvin, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi or C S Lewis. You get the picture.
Do I feel strongly about this? You better believe it. Deep breath Edward, deep breath. I want to be a theological child. Oh, and here’s a big shout out to theologians – you shine the light.
I’d love to know what you think. Have you come across this belittling approach to thinking? Have you felt that you were sinning by not being content with simplistic answers? Have you felt that there must be more? What is your irritating sore spot?
- This is profoundly humbling – especially since I clearly don’t have all the answers. These conversations usually end in a stimulating open ended discussion – not necessarily with answers
- this is a clear nod back to the initial state of humankind.