In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams pits two philosophers against a supercomputer named Deep Thought, whose purpose is to discover the meaning of life. Their demand is for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, so that they might continue to have jobs. I’m prompted to reflect upon this idea in response to a couple of Red Letter Christians blogs. Gungor and the Two Faces of Evangelicalism which looks at the reaction against a band who denies what some Christians believe to be essential to the faith, namely a literal (day I say literalistic) reading of Genesis 1-11. The other is the edgy piece Do Christians Really Need the Bible? For me, both pieces raise a number of issues about “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”, or what Ron Choong of The Academy of Christian Thought calls “theological safe spaces”.
I think God is bigger than our doubts, our fears, our concerns, our misunderstandings and even our heresies. Try talking about the Trinity for more than five minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Not that I am advocating a free for all, breaking all boundaries and smashing all symbols like so much Henry the 8th style iconoclasm. What I’m wanting is far more nuanced.
Someone once described to me the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology as like the difference between the jungle and a botanical garden. The later is perfectly ordered, but its ordering may obscure the real relationships that occur in the wild. We need to constantly come back to the wilderness that is Scripture, with its many voices, to understand whether or not our arrangements tell us anything sensible.
In Scripture and the authority of God, Tom Wright divides the bible into five acts, not as rigidly as dispensationalism, but nonetheless as a useful guide to reading the bible as a story, and know where we are in it. By story, he doesn’t mean something made up, but an unfolding narrative of revealed truth, a story to tell and retell, to become absorbed in. The role of the reader is to let God bring their own personal narrative into the biblical one. The five acts are Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church or age of the Spirit. We are called to perform the fifth act, improvising in the light of what we know of the previous four, and the start and end of the fifth.
A narrative approach doesn’t oppose story to propositional truth, it simply grounds those truths in the narrative and warns us that too much abstraction will lead to deforming those ideas. The narrative approach is not opposed to Lectio Divina, for our stories become part of HIStory, and then the bible can be mined for inspiration, encouragement and daily nourishment.
The narrative approach should make our reading centre (center for my US friends) focused, not boundary focused. Rather than being gatekeepers, we can discover a Generous Orthodoxy as Brian McClaren put it. I mention Brian deliberately because some associated his ideas with universalism, which I’m not convinced is true. But more than this, Christians at both ends of the spectrum need to grow up from the immature hermeneutic of “guilt by association”. Quoting a person on one idea does not mean they are being endorsed in all areas.
If we must use labels like conservative, Evangelical or Liberal, let’s use them with much care. After reading much Roger Olson in books like Reformed and always Reforming, and How to be Evangelical without being Conservative, I call myself a post-conservative Evangelical because of this narrative, centre set approach. For me, Liberal is a hermeneutic of suspicion towards the bible, not necessarily a set of beliefs. Certainly, we must stop the immature mud slinging of the word Liberal at anyone who doesn’t conform with our set of beliefs, not at least until we’ve properly understood our own thinking, and then theirs as well.
I’ve spoken to a room full of progressive Christians (or liberals?), spoken fearlessly about a bodily resurrection, and still been embraced as a brother, told they didn’t see me as Evangelical, and by one member of the audience, told I’d make a good Jew! For the record, I think Romans 10:9-10 is a pretty good place to look for the minimum of belief.
Doubt is another funny thing. At the of the book of Job, Job is not rebuked for lack of faith, but has his worldview stretched well beyond where it was. God is far more interested in loving others and in so loving, bringing them closer to the Truth, who is a person. I’m not sure God who have ever blogged “farewell Job”.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy. In his book Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd makes it clear that we kid ourselves if we think that faith means forcing ourselves to believe something that we find hard to believe. Faith is far more subtle, alive, a struggle, a fight. It is that which carries us forward that next step through life based on the promises of God. Faith can stumble, faith can fall, but it only needs to be mustard seed big and ask for help in its own unbelief.
So a theological safe space is where we are free to ask the questions that plague us. As a fellow of ISCAST: Christians in Science and Technology, I’ve been inspired by Ron Choong’s idea of the theological safe space. Science forces us back to our texts again and again and asks us to reconsider our readings. Not that science alone does that, as John Walton in The Lost world of Genesis One or Richard Middleton in The Liberating Image do with theology and so on with Genesis. We can’t simply stick our heads back in the sand, such an approach is intellectual dishonesty as Mark Noll pointed out some years ago.
We are also forced to think harder with new challenges such as global climate change and the possible collapse of civilisation, or genetic modification of humans and so on. We need to produce new wine, and sometimes the old wine skins of theologies past won’t cut it, yet the bible as our love story, our narrative of rescue, the saga of the journey of humanity from God’s good creation to God’s even better creation will be our guide, by the Spirit of truth, in the Messiah.
To explore the way forward, to express our doubts, to argue lovingly our differences, we need theological safe spaces. Oh that the entire global church could be that, but for the gatekeepers it cannot always be so. Thank God for those spaces, those people we can be safe with. Keep searching for the Truth, because He loves you.