Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Exploding Brains

Alan Jones, in his book Reimagining Christianity, shares the old story about two frogs. He calls them Bill and Ted. Ted lived by the ocean, Bill lived in a well. When Ted tried to explain the vastness and beauty of the ocean, Bill was impressed, but couldn’t get his brain around it, “You mean it’s so enormous that it’s half as big as this well?” Ted tried and tried to covey the hugeness of the ocean, but Bill, so impressed with his own little world, just couldn’t grasp it. In the end, Ted persuaded Bill to make the long journey to the ocean to see for himself, and after a series of adventures they came to a hill from which the mighty ocean could be seen. Leading Bill up to the crest, Ted finally said, “Now, open your eyes.” When Bill opened his eyes and saw the vastness of the ocean, its expansive shining presence, his head exploded in a thousand pieces.

This could be a parable for our time. I have experienced the explosion from both sides. I remember when a professor of New Testament tried to help me see the vastness of the ocean and my head exploded. I couldn’t take it; it was too much for my limited vision to grasp. I got angry with that professor and left that school; a decision I now deeply regret.

I am now that professor, not literally of course, but in my theological work as a Pastor and writer. I am trying to help Christians who stand where I once stood, who live in a well where I once lived, see the vastness of the ocean, and, as to be expected, I have on a number of occasions been showered with exploding brains. (What’s the old cliché? What goes around comes around).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Gracious than God?

In some of my conversations with Christians about theology I’m discovering believers who are far more gracious, inclusive, and compassionate than their beliefs.

A case in point: Baptists Today is currently running a series of articles on the topic, “Homosexuality and the Church.” People who have different perspectives have been assigned to present their point of view. The pastor who wrote the article for part 2 (November, vol. 27, no. 11 issue) set forth a theology of condemnation. The harsh, condemnatory language of the Bible was cited and argued that it is all applicable for today.

The reader was made to expect, based on the severe, wrathful, condemnatory language of the Bible cited, that the conclusion would be one of condemnation. And yet the author concludes (even though he has argued that the Bible, meaning God, condemns the homosexual with angry, vindictive language) that to fail to show compassion toward the homosexual is inexcusable. He even says: “The church should support legislation that would give homosexual persons equal rights in employment, housing, and public accommodations.”

Here is a situation where the pastor whose argument from the Bible is laced with condemnatory language is more gracious than his theology; the pastor shows more compassion and grace than the vindictive God he pictures and imagines God to be.

In my conversations with Christians I am seeing this again and again, namely, Christians more gracious and understanding than the God they profess to believe in and serve.

Amazing! Why not let go of a harsh, exclusive, judgmental theology? Otherwise, the gracious Christian who believes in such a God comes across as a much better person than the God he or she worships.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Large God Requires a Large Faith

We come to know God through both understanding and experience, which are always limited.

Think of the story of Moses standing before the God who appeared to him “in a flame of fire out of a bush” (Ex. 3:2). When Moses inquires as to God’s name, trying to understand God and wanting to explain who God is to his people, God responds, “I am who I am.”

The name communicates mystery and ambiguity. Why? Because a name cannot capture God; God can go by many names. To define God by a name would be to confine God to a particular expression of God’s self.

Later in the story of Moses’ relationship with God Moses asks to see (experience) God’s glory (Ex. 33:18). In the interchange between God and Moses God says, “And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

What’s that about? It’s the biblical writer’s way of saying that we can only “see in part.” Our experience of God is always limited, because God is inexhaustible and his full glory is always hidden.

I would suggest that our capacity to experience God is greater than our capacity to understand God, but both are severely restricted in numerous ways.

This is one reason why all our creeds and faith confessions must be held tentatively, because God is so much greater and larger than our definitions, depictions, and descriptions of God. And so to insist that our understanding and experience, our explanations and expressions of faith are the only “right” ones is arrogant and misguided.

Because God is who God is our questions are more important than our answers. I love what Pastor Rob Bell did at his church (described in his book, “Velvet Elvis”); they hosted “A Doubt Night” where no question was off limits.

Why are questions important? Because they reflect humility and honesty; they allow God to be God instead of trying to make God conform to our image.

A large faith in a large God does not need answers to all our questions. When we allow God to be larger than what we can know, understand, or experience, we become larger too. We come to appreciate the mystery and paradox that is God.

I often wonder why people who insist that there is only one truth and they have it, want to settle for such a small “g” god.