Test Driving Some Thoughts On Past Controversies

I can now officially say I’ve written my most controversial sentence. It’s various versions of “I am rethinking what I believe about God.”

I know. I know. Somehow this has been translated into “I’m no longer a Christian,” “I’m abandoning Christianity,” and “I’m ordering anchovies on that pizza.”

Why has this idea been so upsetting to some of my readers? I’ve tried a few explanatory thoughts out. If you are interested, you can test drive them as well. (If you have to translate this post into my conversion to Buddhism, I’d recommend moving to a blog with more pictures.)

1) Ministers are supposed to have all the answers.

If you are Southern Baptist minister, you had an ordination council. I had mine 8 years after I became a Christian, seven years after I declared my intention to be a pastor, two years after college graduation and one year into seminary.

I was asked a few things about a few things, but to tell you the truth, there wasn’t enough theological content in my ordination questioning to fill up a good 4 X 6 card. And that’s fairly typical.

I have no idea where anyone in Southern Baptist life anyone gets the idea that it would be a bad idea to rethink what you knew when you were 15 or 23. Nothing about being called into ministry stops you from being ignorant. If you don’t know that, you aren’t listening very closely.

Of course, in my case, it was life, not theology, that challenged me to start over and reacquaint myself with the God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ. And I can’t apologize for Life. It seems to have a syllabus that I don’t have access to. If you are one of those people who can say “Life has nothing left to teach me,” then God help you. I don’t want to sit next to you during a thunderstorm.

Read Job for more details.

A minister is set aside to proclaim the Gospel, but no one promises to not have a personal spiritual journey along the way.

2) They are misunderstanding what I mean. (Accidentally or on purpose.)

And that’s pretty likely in some cases, I’m sure.

I never meant that I was abandoning the Christian faith and only the most hostile selective reading could come up with that.

I’m not abandoning the confessional framework that I affirmed as a Christian and an ordained minister. I’m not renouncing the faith. I’ve clearly said so in every post.

Michael Bauman taught me years ago that theology is the wind in the sails, but the creeds are the anchors. I may have pulled up anchor and let down the sails for a journey, but I never abandoned the anchors. I need them and always will.

Imagine that you are a parent. You’ve been confident you know how to raise your child. You do everything “they” told you to do. You followed the book, you followed the seminars, you followed the advice of the experts.

Then, one day, your child comes home and says “I’m a gay atheist who plans to spend his life as an urban terrorist.”

Is it possible that you might say, “I’m going to rethink everything I believe about parenting?” Of course.

If you said that, would you be saying “I am renouncing my role as a parent and will never claim that child is mine”? No, of course not.

Second example. You are a baseball coach. You have a system. You believe in your basics, your methods and your experience. You are certain that if your team follows your system, they will win.

Your team does everything you ask. To a “T.” Week after week; game after game.

You lose every game.

Is it possible you might say “I am going to rethink everything I believe about baseball”? Of course.

Would you be resigning as coach? Renouncing baseball? No.

3) “When you say that, you make the rest of us feel wrong and condemned.”

If that has been the case, I sincerely apologize. I probably was thoughtless on this score at times, and I regret it.

There are several ways to approach the process of rethinking a faith journey.

One IS to blame everyone for misleading you.

I do believe I was misled early on in my life about what God is like, but I was misled by good people who took what they were saying very seriously as truth. They weren’t messing with my head or playing games. They were following what they’d heard preached and taught. They were trying to get it all right.

But I was the one who came back again and again to beliefs that were increasingly distant from Jesus as I would meet him in the Gospels. When I defended my theology, my agenda and my version of religion using those beliefs, it was entirely MY fault.

I hold myself responsible for what I’ve persisted in believing and what I’ve taught others. Like Luther, I think the only way to have integrity is to say, from time to time, that people can be (will be) wrong and our consciences have to be captive to the Word of God. I’m #1 on the list of people who can be wrong. Like Luther, it may not be comfortable to go back to the Word and start over, but “reformed, always reforming,” should mean exactly that.

The reason we have hundreds of false teachers misrepresenting Jesus with trash from the church’s theological trash can is we didn’t realize you have to return to the sources regularly or you lose credibility.

What we all believe about God personally exists on several levels at once. Sometimes those levels co-exist peacefully, even in the face of information and experiences that indicate something is very wrong somewhere. But at other times, we realize we can no longer hold all those levels together and still really believe.

At that point, our faith has to “go into the shop,” so to speak, for a re-calibration. Some things have to change for that faith to be healthy and continue. The faith we had as children or teenagers or in a particular stage of life has to grow to fit new realities. I’ve taught that for years as healthy faith development. Apparently living it is a bit more controversial.

The absolute wrong response is to take that experience of growth as an excuse to blame others, even if there is some degree of blame to be assessed. This is MY faith journey. It’s who I am. The only thing that needs to change is how I think of and experience God. It’s not a blame game, but a growth process.

4) People aren’t comfortable with change and new beliefs in those who are supposed to be mature, dependable Christians. It frightens people to think those who are supposed to really know Christ are asking serious and fundamental questions.

I’ll refer back to the “Jonah 4″ post and the absolutely unavoidable certainty that the Bible presents all kinds of people at all sorts of places in life doing fundamental reassessments of God, with good fruit resulting.

But let me use some non-Biblical illustrations.

What if white ministers in the south had’t questioned the God they’d been told approved of slavery and segregation?

Would anyone suggest to Jeremiah Wright that his ideas about a Black Liberation God could stand some re-examination?

Would anyone suggest that health and wealth preachers like Joel Osteen could benefit from comparing their God to the God of Jesus, especially as he’s seen and worshiped among the poor?

Does anyone thing that the nationalistic, flag-waving God of many culture war Christians could stand to be compared to the God of Jesus?

What ideas about God do I have that allow me to spend more on coffee than I do on relieving hunger or digging wells?

Most of us would be happy if someone would rethink God and come out where we think God actually is. Well…..how can you deny that, in the face of obvious personal pain and crisis, some persons who were formally quite sure they had God pinned down in the box have decided to look at God again, and to go to school with Jesus as their teacher?

5) If we rethink God, that could mean we’d also have to rethink…..other stuff!

The fact is that beliefs and rhetoric about God are usually propping up other things that we believe or really want to be true.

We want to believe that following the principles, steps and theology of our leaders will ensure great marriages, great kids, great lives. (If they are, then good for you.)

We want to believe that we are really experiencing the presence of God in church. Many of you are and many of you are not. No one is saying it’s the same for everyone, but those who are experiencing God in their church have no reason at all to be judgmental or angry that someone else isn’t having the same journey. But those who aren’t….aren’t bad people ignoring Jesus. They are hungry and thirsty, but right now they aren’t satisfied.

We want to believe there’s an answer to give to suffering people that makes perfect sense of the worst situation. (Of course, Dobson wrote “When God Doesn’t Make Sense,” so perhaps some people don’t have that answer yet.)

We want to believe that if people would just listen to our pastor or our denomination or read this book or listen to that DVD…..they’d see the truth right there in front of them.

We’d like to believe that everyone who believes what we believe is right, that what we’re doing is God’s will and that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

It’s all very comforting. And for some people and their journey, it all works.

But not for everyone. Some of those who know it’s not working go to bed and say “If I would just try a little harder and be more sincere and prayerful, it would work. I just don’t believe enough.” That’s sad, because it may not be their fault at all.

And if you find this blog by this strange guy who hangs out his personal spiritual laundry on a clothesline right there where everyone can see it, and he — a married Baptist minister who tells other people what the Bible says and what God is like- HE says that he’s going back to Jesus and he’s going to rethink what it means to believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…then what? Is everything suddenly unsure? Is it a bad thing that he reported his journey and let others talk about theirs?

Sometimes in the journey, it feels very scary and alone. But God still has hold of us. He’s just bringing us along a different road. His covenant love hasn’t failed. We just have a further to go to see the light on the trail.

Could it be that people sometimes realize that they need to get up in the night, go get on their face and say:

“God….I’m not sure I really know what you’ve been saying to me. I’ve been talking a lot, but I haven’t been a very good listener. I’ve been good at repeating what I was supposed to say, but not very good at taking Jesus honestly and completely. So would you please help me to start over; to read the Bible and open my eyes to Jesus in a fresh, life-changing way.”

Yes, it is scary. But would it be better to just turn over and say “I already know what I need to know?” And go back to sleep?

Well folks, I’m awake. And I’m going to read my Bible, look and listen. Maybe God will meet me and answer that prayer.

30 thoughts on “Test Driving Some Thoughts On Past Controversies

  1. I so understand rethinking, particularly after my post-ordination, in-the-pulpit conversion to historic, biblical Christianity. Suddenly I was turned rightside-up in an upside-down world (er, church). It’s been a wild ride down the ladder of success. More… http://www.pilgrim-platform.org

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  2. I would hope that with age, experience and wisdom, followers of Christ would realize that we are constantly “sifted like wheat.” A lot of our ideas, preconceptions (and mis perceptions)will be blown away like chaff. I find that this is leading me, personally, to a simpler, yet ultimately more profound, understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Grace is much more real and precious. Thanks again for sharing your own journey!

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  3. In my experience, as a good Southern Baptist boy, and good PCA young man and finally a “goodly” Navigator man . . . — J Michael Jones

    When I was in college, the Navigators had a rep for the most in-your-face Wretched Urgency witnessing and the highest burnout rate.

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  4. I’m one of the “old guys” with a nephew that seems to follow all this stuff – and thought I might enjoy reading some of it. Guess he knows I try to see what’s happening with people that actually take their life journey serious. When we become ‘fixtures’ in establishment stuff, that’s usually what we become – stuff. I noted the comments above by and in response to Dan Smith. Suspect I know him and am not suprised to see him on here – if he’s the DS I know. Exploring one’s own faith is almost a necessity to growth. When a person or church isn’t growing (often even when they are adding numbers) they are dying. A church often wonders why people leave as quick as they come – same reason. A person becomes a part of church because something is happening in their life spiritually. They get inside a church group where nothing is happening spiritually and in order to survive, leave rather quickly. Watch, or listen to the response: They weren’t really converted,they must have been the seed on the hard or rocky ground, etc. This can sometimes be true. But you will never hear a dead group selfanylize and wonder if maybe there was no miraclegrow in their church. (I’m not talking miraculous stuff, etc. just nothing happening spiritually). Deadness can’t recognize it is dead. So … keep on traveling, keep on growing, keep on questioning, keep on listening for answers, keep on discerning whether they are from the Spirit – or the Angel of light masquerading as the Spirit. DanN

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  5. I know everyone has their own journey and one’s own journey can’t be transposed on to another.

    In my experience, as a good Southern Baptist boy, and good PCA young man and finally a “goodly” Navigator man . . . I was a closet doubter, at times even a closet agnostic.

    I came “out of that closet” while on the mission field, as the entire fabric of my “Christian Being” came unraveled.

    I remember telling my boss (field director) that I was leaving the Middle East, going home and deconstructing everything I had been taught about God . . . and try to start all over again. I remember his great frown and admonition, “That’s very dangerous! Most of those who allow themselves to doubt . . . eventually leave the Christian faith forever.”

    The first year was a Descartian year. I started with nothing but knowing that I am. The next year I began with Francis Schaeffer’s lecture (very fundamental) “Possible Answers to Basic Philosophical Questions.” I eventually rebuilt a Christian faith (over several years) but it was very, very different than the one of my roots.

    I’ve remained open (with myself at least) about my continuing doubts and questions. Looking back, I think how dangerous it would have been if I had not come out of that closet and had not had the privilege to doubt boldly. If I hadn’t, then either I would not be a Christian today (having repented abruptly from the faith) or I would have become only a smiling shell of one.

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  6. Why should it be controversial to rethink God? We can’t expect to fully understand Him – that’s an absurd vanity. I don’t understand my own self sometimes, how am going to grasp my Creator? Only with His help do I even have a clue. Just imagine how mind-blowing Jesus was to Jews of His time, who were expecting a worldly savior not a transcendent one. He was functioning on a whole new level and even His disciples didn’t get it ’till He was resurrected.

    Shouldn’t our own pinched confined but comfortable view of God be exploded by His greater reality on a regular basis? Michael one of your finest attributes is the desire to know the expansive transcendent God as He is, rather than accept the easily digested, non-challenging God we hold on to in fear of change.

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  7. ” .. would you please help me to start over …”

    Very brave and very necessary for everyone. I believe in a God of second chances and third ones and fourth ones etc. Not that I mean you have failed and need another chance but rather that seeking Him is a life long journey and now you’re taking another bold step forward toward Him. How could He not answer you if you’re seeking Him in humility? He suffered and died to answer prayers just like that one. I’m excited for you and can’t wait to read what happens next (once He sees fit to answer you and if you see fit to tell us, of course).

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  8. Along this journey, do we ever pass some landmarks that never need revisiting/rethinking? If not, then Christianity is just a religious philosophy. I’m not sure that is what missionaries and martyrs had in mind.

    When the circle of life becomes truth then the subjectivity circle is complete. New volumes every year.

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  9. I always enjoy this blog.

    I have been spending a lot of time with the Spiritual masters (John of the Cross, Merton, Cloud of Unknowing) and had to rethink things as I grow on my jouney as well. Sometimes I’m covering the same ground and othertimtes I am breaking new ground (for me anyway). But if we are not continuing to grow, to look at to question, then what are we doing? Standing by the side of the road?

    I also have seen some comments on your interest in Spiritual Formation. My wife is just finishing up a two year certification in this – in case you are curious..

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  10. What’s wrong with anchovies? 🙂 — Fred

    Have you ever heard a surreal record called “No Anchovies Please” that Dr Demento used to spin on occasion?

    “THAT’S NOT A BOWLING BALL! THAT’S MY WIFE!”

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  11. Aren’t we all supposed to be constantly reevaluating our relationship with and understanding of God, in sort of a constant personal reformation? Especially in light of what God’s revealed to us through the scriptures and through life?

    But for some people, an interactive God isn’t what they signed up for. They like their gods small, stone, and encaseable. And their pizzas anchovy-free.

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  12. I am in the process( at age 55) to rethink all I have had faith in ,how that “fits” with what we call “church” and ‘worship’. Thanks for your posts about your journey.

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  13. “Is everything suddenly unsure? Is it a bad thing that he reported his journey and let others talk about theirs?” – Absolutely not! Thank you for being so open and so honest. I’m new to your blog but I intend to hang around for a while. People with all the answers scare me. Questioners inspire me.

    “Sometimes in the journey, it feels very scary and alone.” – Sometimes?! Be encouraged – you are not alone.

    A fellow traveller.

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  14. What we all believe about God personally exists on several levels at once. Sometimes those levels co-exist peacefully, even in the face of information and experiences that indicate something is very wrong somewhere. But at other times, we realize we can no longer hold all those levels together and still really believe.

    Oh that is good.

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  15. What human relationship doesn’t change with time, as one learns more about the other person? We continually learn more about other people, but we have God all figured out?

    On BHT, someone questioned what Christians could learn from a Jewish teacher. They need to study Martin Buber. An “I-Thou” relationship is not possible with a god who can be put into a theological test tube. A god reduced to our logic or ideas becomes an object. As a result, so do we. As J. Neville Ward stated in “Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy”:

    “Dr. Erich Fromm, commenting on the ‘God is dead’ discussion…argued that we confront now the possiblity that it is man who is dead in that he has been transformed into a thing, a producer, a consumer, an idolater of other things. He sits in front of a bad television programme and does not know that he is bored…He joins the rat race of commerce, where personal worth is measured in terms of market values, and he is not aware of his anxiety. All this represents death as Christians understand it.”

    I don’t recall reading in the gospels about anyone who followed Jesus being bored or having him all figured out.

    God doesn’t change (I Samuel 15:29); that doesn’t mean that our understanding of Him doesn’t. Otherwise, we worship our concepts of God and not God Himself.

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  16. Dan Smith, if your church really functions like that, consider yourself one lucky man. I’ve taken my five kids through, let’s see, four churches, (five if you count the church in Egypt we attended). They were all uniform in what they tried to teach my kids, against my greatests efforts;

    1) Doubt is the opposite of Faith
    2) Questioning anything that we (that particular Church) says is rebellion against God.
    3) Depression or “sadness” is sin.
    4) Asking questions is a sigh of spiritual immaturity.

    I’ve taught my kids to question everything. I tried to lead the youth group at my present church but was replaced when I suggested that we don’t always know all the answers and that it is better to doubt God (for youth) in the safety of the Church and around those who love them, than to doubt God when they are far away, attending a secular University and dating a luscious babe . . . who’s a Buddist

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  17. What’s wrong with anchovies? 🙂

    Like you, I’ve been questioning a lot of my beliefs about God, etc., and have been driven back to Jesus. While my thoughts have not been as deep as yours, (Bible college degree instead of seminary), I am thinking. I appreciate what you write. Keep it up. You are not alone.

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  18. Michael,
    Thank you for this, the whole thing. The blog, the new path, the honesty. I have to tell you not to listen to those that are scared of people who really strive to grow closer to Christ throughout their journey. I think the people who claim really know Jesus in full and have their theology all worked out, they are the scary ones.
    Thanks again for all your work and the feeling of “yes, I’m not alone” that you convey in these thoughts and posts. I am looking forward to the continuation of JSS.
    I don’t know you. Not really; this is just a small part of you, I am sure. But I love you.
    Thank you, monk.
    joshsblake

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  19. I’m sorry we’re in different worlds dood. The Christianity I’ve experienced (both through reading and personal experience) thinks that the idea of NOT re-examining what we (think) know about God is a point of concern.

    I can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you need a retreat I’d love to help you out.

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  20. Michael,
    Very good post. I can totally relate. I have been asking some of these same kinds of questions. Getting angry from time to time at some of the answers and generally trying to sort things out. A friend of mine, who I questioned about some of the things that I am starting to learn for myself, chuckled the other day when we were talking and said, “I thought you were going to tell me where I was wrong”. I am finding that it is a good thing to ask questions and let God guide. Thanks again for your honest heart and writing.
    Jeff M

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  21. Michael,

    Thank you for this post. This is a much, much better and clearer way of saying what you’ve been trying to say. Sometimes we need to take the foot out of our mouth to be understood. As a corollary, sometimes we listeners need to take the earplugs out to hear more clearly. 😉

    I’ll be praying for you as you examine yourself and your faith.

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  22. Michael, to me all this proves is that you’re still alive. Dead people have nothing left to learn, and no wrong thinking to repent of. Alive people, who are actually walking with God, find that the act of walking takes them somewhere further along than they were before, and the process of walking means that you leave some things behind (and sometimes we have to grieve that letting go). But He is with you in the journey, indeed He IS the journey, and our commitment must always be to be faithful to Jesus, not to our idea of Jesus. At the time, those assumptions were the best understanding we were capable of, and that’s fine for where we were at (we don’t need to beat up ourselves or anyone else for being finite human beings) but if we continue to cling to old assumptions whne God is calling us to move on from them, at that point they become idols.Journey blessings, and may all your pilgrim wanderings be further into His mercy.

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  23. Michael,

    I think you might have just provided the most cogent and complete possible answer to the question: “What is Emergent?” Let those with ears hear.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi

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  24. Sadly, your comment “Somehow this has been translated into “I’m no longer a Christian,” “I’m abandoning Christianity,” and “I’m ordering anchovies on that pizza.” really hit home.

    Lately, I have been wondering why the heck it is more socially acceptable to be an addict than to question where God is in certain seasons of your life. Why is it that questioning things regarding your relationship with God makes you any less a “stellar witness”. To me, it makes you more authentic….

    Just my thoughts….

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  25. This made me think of a comment I always made to my kids as they were growing up: “You didn’t come with an instruction manual or a money-back guarantee!” It was my way of saying, “hey-we’ve never lived this before, and we’re just doing the best we can. We’ll get off on the wrong track from time to time, but we’ll reevaluate and course correct along the way. We’re also stuck with you, and you with us, so we’ll try not to make a mess of the whole business.”

    Seems like that kind of honesty (with at least a minuscule amount of humor because too many of us bloggers just need to lighten our tone!)is what you’re calling for. Why is it that we can allow for that kind of breathing room in our thinking in other areas, but not when it comes to our faith?

    It seems fear would have us keep our faith in a tidy little box on a shelf somewhere–dust it off occasionally, but don’t ever check to see if it still fits. Blessings as you follow the God of the gospels, the God of “new things” (Is. 48:6, 42:9).

    Your writing has been very encouraging to me!

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  26. Thank you for this post. Looking back at my own journey, I can see where seeds were planted, and my own comments pointed toward directions that I wasn’t going to travel (until I found myself on that road.)

    May your journey continue to be fruitful. I know that I have, and hope to continue to enjoy them.

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  27. Great stuff, Michael!

    Our small congregation is continually exhorted to question everything we believe. We expose our teens to contrary views of the Christian faith: Darwin, Ehrman, etc. Our Bible classes frequently present contrary (to our Campbellite heritage) view of doctrines.

    Our aim, of course, is developing faith that is unshaken when faced with adversity or challenge.

    God bless you as your sabbatical continues.

    Dan

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  28. I said I probably wouldn’t be back, but I “rethought” it. Your posts, like this one, are too good for my faith.

    Thanks for this.

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