Living a life of fluid dogmatics
If I have learned anything about “living the Christian life” over the last four decades since high school, is that the Christian faith is more than about a study of dogmatic beliefs, and more than a creedal declaration of faith, and more than a spiritual experience. I have throughout these decades of living in a society that is constantly in flux, have had to navigate the cultural waves in society, as well as the subcultural centrifuges of the “Church world” as it interacts with and responds to the waves of change in our world. The one and only constant is “change” and that means we cannot and should not be “closed minded” to change in our own lives as we engage with God and the world in which we live.
Life is not linear. Timelines may be linear but how we live our lives is fluid, and whenever we come across obstacles in our lives, we usually find ways to either go around them, over them, or through them. When waters breaks forth, like when a dam breaks, the waters go either over everything in its path, or go around larger obstacles, and some of the time they just go right through and overrun what lies in front of it. Living our lives requires more fluidity, so that we can course around, and over obstacles in front of us. If we choose rigidity we will have a head to head impact that is destructive to all parties. Some people just can’t handle change. Some people just cannot handle your “truth” that has awakened you and stirred you to the changes you have embraced. And, that’s OK. Just like the scene from A Few Good Men, there are many in the Evangelical world who just can’t handle the truth!
I believe one of the main issues facing contemporary churches and Christians is the issue of “dogmatism”
Of the collections of theology and historical theology books in my possession, there is possibly no other collection I treasure more than the books of Karl Barth, the Swiss Neo-Orthodox theologian of the last century, and especially his “Church Dogmatics”. I loved his theological method and process, references to the ancient Christian writings and the evolution of a particular doctrine. The study of “dogma” fascinates me as much now as it did when I was 16. Mind you I have loved the study of philosophy just as much, and for the first 20 centuries of the Church, philosophy was part of the theology department of universities.
I have always thirsted for knowledge and have been a lover of books and good writers my whole life as far as I can remember, be it history, philosophy, theology, biography, and so many other fields of interest. From boyhood I have loved the Bible, and all the books I can get my hands on that helps me understand the Bible more, church history and historical theology. I went through a season of about a decade, where I stepped away from the “heavy reading” of theology and philosophy and moved more into the area of practical theology.
For theology to matter and make sense it had to move beyond the walls of philosophical presentation, to actually being and becoming beliefs that could be practiced. If your beliefs cannot be tested and put into practice, what use are they?
Some people hold on to cherished beliefs dogmatically, like a dog holding on to a bone
Seven years ago, I went through a very difficult time in my life. I had grown a personal relationship with a group of men, and we met weekly for five years. Each week we met, at the local “St. Timothy’s Chapel”, a.k.a. Tim Hortons Coffee Shop. We met on Sunday mornings at 7 am, and some of us stayed at the shop until after 11 am. It was a real time of male bonding, dealing with male ego issues, and heart issues, and reading the Bible together, praying and sharing our lives together, and we occasionally shared meals with our family members, and we had movie nights. Who can forget our Lord of the Rings trilogy marathons? All that great food, fun and fellowship. It was an incredible time of personal growth and development for all of us that participated. All five of us, just grew to truly become a “band of brothers”. It was a beautiful thing. It was beautiful until “doctrine” came into the discussion in a divisive and destructive manner. It was then that I truly learned first hand the old saying, “doctrine kills and takes no prisoners.”
Even though it was just the reading of six pages on a book written by Frank Viola, From Eternity to Here, a short discourse on our “union with Christ”, my whole world was thrown into upheaval. Our little band of merry men was torn asunder by someone who wanted to focus on their dogmatic understanding of a pet doctrine. All the rest of us who were assaulted by this onslaught were essentially told the old separatist and divisive threat, “turn or burn” kind of rhetoric. If we did not change our views on the matter, then I was a “false teacher” and I was “deceived” and I was leading all the other men into “deception and error” and putting their “souls in danger.”
Well, that certainly jolted me to my core. My one friendship ended, only to be rekindled as a distant connection when the man in question and I met while both of us were in the emergency ward of one of our local hospitals last year. The relationship has never been the same. We met once and it was fine, but it was guarded and emotionally distant. The close bond we once shared had no spark whatsoever. The other men, well, one moved to the USA, another got more involved with his local church and the dynamics of raising teenagers. Another remains close, in fact more close than it has ever been. The other gentleman is caught up with “what the Lord is doing in the region and the nations” kind of thinking. So, yes, the fall out all but destroyed us. But I tasted something good and satisfying, until a rigidity in thinking and a dogmatic hold on doctrine destroyed it.
Some people are addicted to their dogmatic understanding of doctrine
I discovered that people love their pet doctrines. People really do. I have found Evangelicals to be as fundamentally dogmatic about the “faith” as some Muslims I have met, who speak about their own faith. Evangelicals have not stepped over the edge of threatening death and violence to those who don’t conform to truth, but they do their “slaying in the name of God” through their rhetoric and their theological and philosophical attacks against people they perceive and understand to be in error. Beware of the wrath of an Evangelical scorned!
Some of the vehemence and vitriol I have heard spewed in the name of “truth” over the last half dozen years has really brought to the forefront the need for Evangelicals everywhere to take a stand on acceptance and tolerance of diversity of views and opinions where people are not castigated and trashed, just because they think differently than ourselves. All of us just need to flash back to 2011 when Rob Bell came out with his book Love Wins.
When people can’t control you, bully you, or put you back in line, they smear you with the word ‘heretic’
Rob Bell’s book was not even on sale yet. It was a few weeks before the official launch and the promotion of the book was in full swing. There was that promo video above, which really upset some people. There were articles, blog posts, video posts on Youtube, where Bell was attacked, even before people had read the book. The fall out was huge for Rob Bell. He ended up resigning from the church he founded, and his life took a turn off the “Evangelical Super Highway”, and the previously thought of successor to Billy Graham, was off, in the wilderness, cast out, like some scapegoat you read of in the Old Testament, and all the “sins” of “failed Evangelicals” were placed on his head and he was let loose to wander until he either returned to the fold of accepted “Evangelical Beliefs” or he would be cast out forever, left to the mercy of God for his soul. I saw this firsthand for myself. I saw what it was doing within the Evangelical community. I heard the apologetical jousts and debates, and I saw and heard the personal attacks and the rhetoric coming from people I once respected (but no more). Perhaps the worst was the rejection of Rob Bell by John Piper.
Rob Bell now stands among a growing pantheon of brothers in Christ — Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren and N.T. Wright among them, who have been cast aside by the self-promoted “defenders of the Evangelical faith.” Bell is just another one that “bit the dust” and was dispensed with. But they did not count on him having a much broader audience, especially after being on Oprah and getting his own show on her network. Many people will hear the Gospel spoken in articulate ways that they would never hear in church, because these people in his audience don’t darken the doors of Evangelical churches. Rob Bell is secure enough in who he is and in Who he believes, to not take offense and not become defensive when overzealous Evangelicals attack him. Take the time to listen to Bell speak about Love Wins on the video below. You will get a solid idea of where he is coming from.
The fixation with a holy book, traditions, and ‘who is in’ and ‘who is out’
The Evangelical world, much like the Roman Catholic world and the Islamic world, is bound in a tight grip of defining truth and holding on to that truth and never deviating from that truth. The analogy of Evangelicalism with fundamentalist Islam is a good one. Both of these movements are fixated on their respective books, The Bible, and The Koran. Both believe they are the keepers and the interpreters of their respective books, and both do not leave much room for deviance from the accepted core beliefs that are taught as they see it in these books. And both judge and condemn those who deviate, and in the case of militant fundamentalist Islam, they kill all those they deem to be blasphemers and infidels who do not see things their way. This fixation with who is in and who is out, is just one more example of the problem with Evangelicalism.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura has produced the awful fruit of sectarianism and segregation and exclusionism. This has to change. If the Church is going to really be a force in the world, this kind of judgmentalism has to change.
Embracing change through deconstruction
Derek Flood wrote a wonderful book, Disarming Scripture, in which he explains the need to disarm the Christian Scriptures by deconstructing our approach towards the Scriptures and learning to read them again, and this time to read them like Jesus, and not like all the commentators have told us to read them. The basic premise as we read the Scriptures is to engage with the Scriptures and question them and their content, especially when it comes to the serious issues of genocide, slavery, poverty, sexual identity and gender roles, military power and a whole bunch of other issues. It is a fundamental need today for Christians to engage with the Scriptures and to question them as they engage with them. This means we need to deconstruct all the dogmatic teaching we have been taught, and go back to the beginning and see and seek and question. It is good to question, and it is good to come up with a new and better understanding that reflects the character and nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The following is a great interview by Brad Jersak with Derek Flood talking about the book Disarming Scripture.
Re-entering the text, and the meaning to the original audience and the principles for our own time and audience
When our approach to Scripture changes, it allows us to again see the beauty and the reality of who Jesus is and the work of the cross, and what we have commonly known to understand as the “Gospel”, the Good News. In his other important book, Healing the Gospel, Derek Flood goes to great lengths to again to bring about a re-examination of the core of what the Gospel is really all about. He begins with the most fundamental of all questions, which is why did Jesus have to die? Right away he delves into what is currently becoming one of the more enticing and promising theological discussions of this generation, the theory of the atonement, and Flood challenges the preeminence of the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and offers alternative readings and understandings to this very violent understanding of the cross, suffering, and death of Christ. Flood is bold enough to ask the question that many of us have asked, in our thoughts, if not out loud. Did Jesus die to save us from God? Flood takes us on this theological and biblical journey of deconstruction and reconstruction, to get us to move away from our rigid and fixed perceptions, to reveal that there are numerous other options which are just as biblical, if not more so, than the traditional penal substitutionary atonement theory. We end up with many questions that help us look for more and better answers, and we begin to reconstruct a better Christlike theology in the process. The natural fallout questions are addressed when Flood asks how can anyone believe in, trust in, and love a God like this? If this is concept of the atonement is true (PSA), then how can we dare to call the atonement of Christ “Good News”? The whole premise of this important book is found in the way that Flood challenges our basic understanding of justice and the need for violent punishment which has led to this view (PSA) becoming the most accepted and dominant view of the doctrine of atonement in the Western Church, and its pungent fruit that has resulted in how we understand and apply our concept of justice in all sectors of society, from criminal justice, on down through just war theory and practice. He challenges us to look at other alternatives that are not violent, and does not make our God a violent God. He challenges us to a new paradigm of “restorative justice”. Flood reveals God’s heart in the cross and the grace that has been provided for us, and it is rooted in a Gospel that is Good News not only for us, but also for our enemies (what he calls ‘enemy love’). Jesus dying on the cross was an example of enemy love, and it was not an act of retribution or of violent appeasement to the wrath of God.
In the sum of it, it is a refreshing example of how theology is changing in our day, moving away from the rigid dogmatism that has plagued much of Evangelicalism since its emergence from the shadows of Protestant Fundamentalism. It is high time that this form of fundamentalism be left behind for good. It only seeks to divide, conquer, and separate from those they do not agree with, and the bond of unity between Christians gets sawn asunder by such narrow perspectives. Today is a day to move away from the dogmatic, exclusionary Gospel, which portrays and preaches a violent and angry judgmental God which is a distortion of the Gospel of Grace. We need less dogmatic pronouncements. We need humility and grace and love, and a passionate moving toward embracing the world that Jesus loves, especially when it makes all of us squeamish and uncomfortable. That is usually an indicator that God is in it.
Embracing the love and grace of God fully revealed in Christ Jesus
We not only have to move away from all this critical and judgmental mindset that continues to manifest in the Evangelical movement, especially in the recent debates concerning marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, because it is causing harm to the witness of Christ in our society. Evangelicals are being called for being judgmental and intolerant, and to a large degree it is true. Most of us Evangelicals and Recovering Evangelicals and Post Evangelicals, care about the Evangelical movement, and like the critics in the world, in society at large, we don’t like to see the anger and tension, and venom that has arisen when people are discussing issues in the public arena. I am convinced that we don’t know how to behave, because we have embraced the understanding that God is angry at sin, and that our response should be one of anger and judgment. We have made God into an idol of our own theological making, and our God reflects our beliefs, rather than the nature and character of God we see revealed in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe many Evangelicals, especially the dogmatic kind with narrow and fixed opinions and theological views, I don’t think they know how much our understanding of God has become an idol made in our own dogmatic and narrow perceptions, and how much these opinions are doing more harm than good. We can no longer afford such destructive and narrow dogmatism.
I have over the years found much to meditate and reflect on the research and findings as well as the insights of Brad Jersak and his books. I find Brad to be a breath of fresh air when I am reading either his articles, blog posts, social media posts, as well as his wonderful books. Brad’s approach is rooted in a deep love of God, the Scriptures, and the grace of God for all humankind. He literally effuses that love of God and the grace that is available through Jesus Christ, and he believes it to be central to our understanding of not only God, but the Good News of the Gospel. It is not a dogmatic declaration, but an impassioned invitation to fully embrace the God that is revealed through Jesus.
In fact Brad Jersak’s newest book, A More ChristLike God is a well written and well presented case for looking at our understanding of God through the lens of the person of Jesus Christ. Jersak deals with a lot of issues in this book and part of the journey is shaped by our perceptions and experiences, and as such, the climactic question becomes “What is God like?” Brad tackles all the images we have in common experience in our lives, God as a punishing judge, the deadbeat dad, the genie in the bottle, and he masterfully leads out of these false paradigms to the God of love and grace. Brad’s answer, which is articulated throughout the book is simple, “God is like Christ,” a God who is loving, self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering, and his love is revealed on the cross. I do believe him to be correct.
Jersak takes us through all our false understanding, and our narrow dogmatics, to take us to a fresh pool in the River of Life, embracing the cleansing power of love and grace, which is broken and set from the dogmatic restraints of poisoning religion and its bondages and distorted caricatures of the God of the Bible.
Emerging out of an addiction to “certainty” and forging onward in divine mystery
As we emerge from this deconstruction and reconstruction, we will find ourselves with a heart and mind that is able to grapple again with the Scriptures in search of truth and understanding, which is not laced with judgement and criticism, but rather is rooted in love and grace, and the hope we have in the finished work of Christ. We can and should emerge much freer from our need to know with certainty. We can embrace the mystery of Christ in the Gospel. Jesus is a mystery that continues to be revealed as we journey life with him. He can never be restricted or controlled, either by a system of theology, or a philosophy, or a definition. He will not be constrained or restrained. Jesus keeps breaking out and will flow with ease and gentleness wherever hearts and lives are open to him, and he will manifest his life and Kingdom wherever he chooses.
This is a mystery tour that all of us who claim to belong to him can actually participate in. But, it will require that we all leave our dogmatic beliefs behind. Jesus is so much bigger than a set of beliefs! It also means that ANY doctrine, ANY passage of Scripture, is open for ongoing review and examination. We alone are responsible to work out our salvation in humility before God and the Scriptures! Don’t be afraid to look at Scriptures and let go of all the dogma that has held you back from doing so!
~ Sam Buick