You’re wrong. Not sure what about, but you are. Something you believe is wrong. It’s doubtful that anyone would publicly profess that one hundred percent of everything they believe is irrefutably true. While most would agree with the premise, in practice we inherently assume the validity of all we believe and teach. In some sense, it is difficult to maneuver around it. We can not go on living in constant skepticism of our own fundamental beliefs. However, many have developed a dysfunctional habit of staunchly opposing all contrary viewpoints and fighting over every ideological hill. Untold bodies are spread over the hills of politics, science, and religion. The body count may be just as high within the Church as it is out. The divisions between denomination and theology more often than not create a battlefield rather than an open exchange. As each opponent plants his or her feet and lunges forward with polemical attacks, the opponents only move further apart rather than actually meeting on middle ground. Each side assumes the other’s close-mindedness and thus concludes that all they teach is intrinsically false. Both side’s unwillingness to relent and give up ground only reinforces each other’s stubbornness and idioticy. Their unwillingness to be wrong not only prevents them from becoming right, but also prevents others from seeing what they have to offer in the discussion. They both are right and they both are wrong. They are both jerks.
I was recently given a new nickname. Some of my colleagues and I were discussing atonement theories when I made the point that there is an over-reaction against (or away from) Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I went on to describe that all of church history may be represented as a pendulum. We are quick, once the current status quo is questioned, to dump the whole thing and swing to complete opposite side. In so doing, we throw out so much of what the current status quo got right and adopt everything the new fad gets wrong. At the same time, on the other side of the pendulum are those who are unwilling to vulnerably consider the weaknesses of their own view and, instead, zealously cling to whatever dogmas they deem gospel. In my personal studies, most of the atonement theories I agree with and most of the atonement theories I disagree with. This is when my colleague said, “That’s why we call you Push–Back Paule.” It was slightly amusing the reception this had with the others. Apparently, the nickname works: I can push-back against almost anything. In order to process information I usually first disagree with it…even if I agree with it. I am not sure if I developed this over time or if it is just who I am or a bit of both.
I, like many, have a blending of church backgrounds. I was first introduced to Christianity through a Baptist church. The church that I would say I grew up in was a Christian & Missionary Alliance. My overall social sphere, however, was a cacophony of pentecostal, Calvinist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and charismatic. For my college, I chose a restoration bible college while I worked at a fundamental Baptist church. I never had one particular tradition that framed my entire christian experience. As such, I have learned to both appreciate and be analytical of any tradition I come in contact with. It has also exposed me to the close-minded and assumptive positions all sides take: fundamentalist, progressive, orthodox, charismatic, Republican, Democrat, evolutionist, creationist, Calvinist, evangelical, christian, atheist, and on and on. If you find yourself on the inside of one of these, the obstinate and axiomatic vernacular is there. It often isn’t just a vernacular of bewilderment at the “other” side’s inscrutability, but also of moral judgment against the “other” side, either subtly or aggressively. Look for it the next time you’re in that social sphere of ideological uniformity and you may even find that you participate in it; I know I do. What is more worrisome for me, though, is the generation of jerks we could be raising.
Theological No Man’s Land
While it would be hyperbolic to claim that Christians are worse than anyone else at this, I would concur that we are just as bad at it and not just against non-christians. We wage dirty warfare within our own kingdom. I often find myself trapped in a theological No-Man’s-Land. Each side having legitimate beliefs and practices, stuck between the polarized proponents usually lies a fuller truth. Even progressive theologians with a more subjective bent accuse more conservative theologians as being too black and white, but what they are really saying is that the conservatives are not the correct black and white. I doubt even the most polished of theologians would ever be pretentious enough to publicly state that all of their doctrines are completely correct… actually, some might. How presumptuous is it to assume that after 2000 years of theological debate, dissonance, and discord someone today finally has it all figured out? Would it not be moronic to assume that the other traditions, denominations, and theologies have nothing worthwhile to contribute towards “our” truth? Are we to suppose that God is no longer guiding us into truth (John 16:13)? No church’s theology is completely correct. And, yet, the theological discussion has been replaced with a deluge of soliloquies.[tweetthis]The theological discussion has been replaced with a deluge of soliloquies. -[/tweetthis]
In the towering structures of our systematic theologies, if one bolt is replaced or nut removed it becomes a threat to the whole. Everything must be resolved. Everything is Gospel. In turning every issue into a black or white, we have converted every ambiguity into a justification of disfellowship and sometimes disqualification. When we make everything gospel truth, we bury the Gospel. The God-inspired Bible does not offer us a systematic theology, at least not in the way we define systematic theology today. We oft approach the Bible from our western philosophy where everything must fit neatly together but the Bible was not written by westerners. Scripture frequently seems to be purposefully ambiguous, containing seemingly contradictory statements, undefined metaphors, vague explanations, and messy stories. It is almost as if God did not want to give us a theology textbook. But if God had published such a systematic theology, we would all be idiots.
Oh wait, He did. It’s the Bible.
Binary Bitmaps and Bigoted Bullies
I would suggest that in our objectification of everything, we have lost the full picture of God and his creation through two means. The first is that instead of searching we are only defending. There are absolutely absolutes that must be taught and stood firmly upon, but this does not necessitate that we can stop searching and learning. In the grandeur of God’s unfathomable character and intricate creation, there is necessarily a plethora of areas we can not begin to grasp. While we have divine and natural revelation, these are not exhaustive. Even these revelations are often ambiguous and left unresolved. There are things intentionally left secret (Deuteronomy 29:29). God’s tempts us to search it thoroughly and to wrestle with it. As we do, we can find foundations to fall back on and hand holds to go deeper. But if we ever assume to have brought all the mysteries of God to conclusion, we cease to search and, as such, cease to follow.
Secondly, we deface God’s full color masterpiece of the world by making it into a binary bitmap. We lose not only the shades of grey but also the vast spectrum of color. We deceive ourselves into thinking that just because there are some black and whites that everything must be black and white. Truth is objective. It is also messy. Whether it is things unknowable or complex interactions between opposing absolutes, there is a vast space of eccentricities and obscurities. The transcendental shades in the gaps between the blacks and whites, creating an opulent canvas of dancing colors, swirling contrasts, and subtle shading, painting a dignified appreciation both of truth and of uncertainty. Theology cannot remain just a science. It struggles with concepts that do not fit beneath the lens of a microscope. Theology is art. We can study it but never confine it. We can know it but never fully. When we can embrace the unknown, we can rest in the known.
Lastly, how we engage with others is also a matter for truth. In view of the vast shifts of theology that God’s people have had since Abraham, it would seem that our actions are at a minimum of equal importance to “proper” doctrine (James 2:14-17; 2:22-24). Today, we have elevated belief over behavior. As such, we can preach the truth and act like bullies. Christians and their pastors are quick to justify it as a holy act in an epic war. To be sure, there are times for pointed and direct words but let us look to Jesus then as our model. Our supreme ethic must always be love, as he taught. When we are heated and verbose, let it be against the religious isolation and exclusivity that prevents people from coming into his kingdom (Matthew 23:13).
May we stop being threatened by secondary doctrines and view points. Let us seek Truth, not just what conforms to our current belief system. Let us fight for truth, not against people. Let us win people, not arguments. May we stop being jerks.