Wednesday with Michael Spencer
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.