Do We Try to Answer or Respond: 9 Questions for Theological Exploration

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The rear of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (taken in April 2012), which I have always found more beautiful, spiritual, and wondrous than the front.

As was discussed in my previous post, I am interested in exploring big questions not frequently or adequately “answered” in the Christian faith. I use the term “answered” loosely here because I believe there are many times when questions cannot be answered at all. Too frequently, we endeavor to ask about “big issues” and are unsatisfied, for a variety of reasons, with the “answers” we find. In this life, there are so many questions to which an answer is either not available or so complex that the word “answer” seems a supremely unsuitable descriptor.

Author Brian D. McLaren chooses to approach these queries with a “response” rather than an “answer.” From his book, A New Kind of Christianity, “…question-and-response, rather than question-and-answer times–since many questions aren’t suited for a simple answer.” Too often, I have sat in a room with another person of faith and asked questions only to receive a trite, Christian-ese answer. This has happened both at church, outside-of-church, and at seminary. What if the “answers” are too easy and leave you with more questions than that with which you began? Simply telling someone who is not a Christian, “This is what I believe because it is in the Bible,” is probably not going to win over any converts. Recently, a friend of mine told me that, for her, Christianity and biblical works hold truth because she has found that the wisdom held within its pages and teachings have matched up with her life experiences. This is, perhaps, one of the most sensible and sincere explanations for “faith” that I’ve heard. Yet, I suppose, for many this has not been their experience. Their lives may not have matched up with what they know of the bible or Christianity, and without a compelling reason to put their faith in a deity they cannot see, touch, or otherwise sense, the truth of the gospels is lost on them. Combine their lack of a God-experience with typical Sunday school answers and they are not likely to be convinced that Jesus Christ is the way.

Now, suppose we engaged these friends in conversation rather than set out to convert them with the “same old” answers? Suppose, rather than pipe out the usual Christian-ese, we actually responded, thoughtfully and prayerfully, discussing theological or religious issues with intellectual vigor allowing for growth both in our own hearts, minds, and theologies, and encouraging the same on the part of our friend. What if, rather than shut down well-intentioned and honest inquiry, we sought it out and joined our friend on an unexpected and enriching journey? We should not fear the questions or stifle intellectual examination. We should encourage it and welcome God into the process rather than assume our God is not big enough to handle such brazen exploration. We were given the ability to think, wonder, and question–why not put this wondrous creation to good use?

The point of the above paragraphs is merely to set up an introduction to some questions–many that have been on my mind for years–to which I hope to thoughtfully, prayerfully, and honestly respond in the coming years. I will briefly present them below and expand in a later response as I more fully grasp what it is I am getting at. So here goes:

1. If we accept that there is a loving God and Jesus came to save theĀ worldĀ (John 3:17, Luke 19:10), how can we claim that is consistent with the popular Christian notion of Hell?

2. If God is everywhere, we can worship him anywhere, then why do we go to church?

3. If God is so loving, powerful, and knowing, why would God create souls to live on this earth who God knows will perish in eternal torment?

4. Jewish people, God’s “chosen,” do not believe in Christ as the “way, the truth, and the life,” so are they doomed in the afterlife?

5. If the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:39), then why do so many people approach others with anything but love? Do we hate ourselves?

6. If all sin is equal in the sight of God and we believe all people have free-will to make their own decisions, then why are some so invested in limiting the behavior of others based on some human-constructed hierarchy of sin?

7. If the American Constitution provides for freedom of religion and pursuit of happiness (and we agree that Sharia Law as enacted in some countries is wrong), then why do some want the “rules” as laid out by the Christian bible imposed on everyone in America, even non-Christians?

8. Depending on the denomination and the person, the words, “I am a Christian,” can mean a multitude of things. What do we mean when we make this declaration? Which Christ are we following?

9. How did we get from Christ, who railed against the traditional teachings and synagogues of his day, to such a diverse and confusing array of faith traditions, rituals, and Christian denominations? Which one is “right”?

I have many more questions, but these are just some that have been at the forefront my mind lately. I am not proposing these questions in hopes that readers will “answer” them. In fact, I do not want “answers,” but I do welcome responses if you’ve given some thought to any or all of this. I also open up the comments section below to new questions, which you may have been pondering or which sprung to mind as you read mine.

Faith: A Lifelong Pursuit

In my estimation, faith should be a lifelong journey. I am not a person who subscribes to a one-size-fits-all spirituality. I believe firmly in Jesus Christ as my personal savior and in Christ’s teaching–or what I understand of it at this point in my life. I also believe, however, that we are likely to find kernels of truth in many world religions as I cannot discount the possibility that God is big and good enough to have revealed Godself differently to those in times and places where the Gospel wasn’t available.

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think anyone does. When we speak of being “Christians” (or atheists, agnostics, Muslims), we cannot always be certain that person to whom we are making this claim knows what we mean by that. And so, while I boldly profess to be a Christian, that word may mean something wholly different to me than it does to a person of the Catholic persuasion, to a Calvinist, to a Muslim, or even to an atheist. In other words, the moniker of “Christian” has a rather broad meaning these days. It has for some number of centuries, I suppose. After all, with the vast array of versions, translations, and interpretations of those versions and translations, of the “bible,” it is no wonder that so much confusion lies within the “definition” of that term. Unlike some folks of a more fundamentalist persuasion, I am hesitant and truly unwilling to label anyone professing to be a Christian as “unchristian” regardless of how they act because, as I am neither God nor a mind-reader, I cannot know what lies in the depths of their hearts. I do not want to pass judgement on others, but I am less hesitant to discuss behaviors, policies, and attitudes that it seems are decisively unchristian. As I am no expert, however, I will put aside my perceptions and simply get to the point of this point on my blog:

Many know that I hope to become a published writer. This is no grand surprise or revelation. I’ve been talking about it for a long time and writing stories, essays, and journal-like things my entire life. Since I took a break from seminary the semester I was due to deliver my second child, I had been somewhat stifled in my reading and writing life. This isn’t strange on its own, when does any new mom have the time to read, let alone finish books? The interesting thing, however, is that in recent months, I have suddenly begun to seek out books at a pace unmatched in the last decade–more over, I’m even finishing them (what a novel concept!). I sit down in the middle of the afternoon when I could be napping (justifiably so, I have two very busy boys and get very little sleep), and I pick up a book not feeling sleepy or sluggish at all. Given the focus of this reading, however, I cannot say I am surprised at this. It’s totally a “God thing.”

I have been reading some of today’s leading sensible theologians (Wills, McLaren, Bell, Borg) and referring back to ones I studied at both Lancaster and Asbury theological seminaries (N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Nouwen, Kierkegaard). My understanding of the bible, Jesus, God, and “the faith” have broadened and deepened immensely. Combining this with daily bible reading (something I am consistent with for the first time in my life) and rather regular theological discussions with people of varying approaches (from a more conservative biblical approach to more liberal biblical thinking) has me feeling quite spiritually fulfilled, yet thirsting for more. I haven’t felt this way since my first semester in seminary, and I am wholeheartedly grateful for all the thinkers, writers, family and friends who have helped me reach what I feel is a major turning point in the enrichment of my spiritual journey.

I have many more questions than I do answers at this point, but I hope to mindfully and prayerfully work through some of these questions through these discussions and reading so that I may have something of interest to contribute to the volumes written by theologians who came before me. I may not be able to return to seminary in the near term (given how complex life is with two children under the age of 5, one of whom has autism), but I know that when I do return, I will be light years ahead of where I was when I started my seminary career four years ago and this fills me with immense joy and gratitude.

So, for those wishing to read my evolving questions and thoughts on theological issues, stay tuned. It’s about to get very interesting.