Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Thinking Faith

A while back I made the mistake of picking an online fight with a high Calvinist. As most online arguments go it consumed a lot of my time for a few days with little positive result.

Anyway, he threw around a lot of heady theological and philosophical terms around such as secondary causation and libertarian volition. You know, stuff that Jesus talked about all the time. I was mildly familiar with these concepts but hadn't studied them in years and at one point just went on a frustrated mini-rant on ivory tower philosophical drivel that has no bearing on reality. The dialogue didn't last too much longer.

Fast forward to a funeral I did a few weeks ago. I sat down to chat with the funeral director for a few moments and he spoke of another pastor who 'would always use big words. I needed a dictionary whenever I talked to him.'

At one point I would have been happy to know all the typical orthodox theological concepts inside and out, be an academic, and then go forth into the world and bestow this knowledge on the masses. Then 9/11 happened. Then a good friend was killed in a tornado. Then those big elaborate terms and concepts didn't matter so much. And generally I'd wager they don't matter as much to Joe Christian who needs a word of hope after losing his job and Jane Christian who wants reassurance that her parents will be okay in the nursing home.

Now, lest I be labled anti-intellectual, I have mentioned in the past the importance of a 'thinking faith.' So how might one hold that in tension with calling secondary causation ivory tower drivel? Well, one does it the same way one reads Shakespeare: take the time with the material, read over a paragraph a second or third or fourth time, use a dictionary, and then give yourself permission afterwards to say, if you truly mean it, 'Man, that was terrible.' Perish the thought that anyone would say that about Shakespeare, of course (actually I say it all the time about 'Merchant of Venice,' but that's for another day).

There are many theological systems that have been and are vigorously defended by those who hold them as absolute (I speak now of systems like dispensationalism, Calvinism, Armenism, and others neatly packaged and labeld for one's convenience), and two reasons among others why some find criticism of these systems to be abhorrant:

1. They're argued from scripture. Often, 'scriptural' equates with 'right.' If a system is scriptural, and scripture is God's Word handed to humanity to be supremely revered as the written Truth, who are you to argue against a 'scriptural' system? The problem comes when another text pops up that doesn't quite gel with the argument one has laid out. For example, high Calvinism may cite Malachi 3:6 ('For I the Lord do not change') to illustrate God's being unaffected by the world. Unfortunately for such a system, Exodus 32:7-14 tells of Moses talking God out of destroying the Israelites. Verse 14 even says, 'God changed God's mind.' Here the Hebrew for 'changed' can also be translated 'repent'! So can a system that is 'scriptural' be 'right?' Perhaps. Which scripture and how are you using it? But usually, if one argues against a system in this manner it may lead to the second defense against criticism, which is

2. You don't understand it well enough. Sure, if you throw a bunch of terms like 'secondary causation' (which even after you start reading about it doesn't make a whole lot of sense) into it. And if you come to a different conclusion about something like secondary causation, one still somehow doesn't know enough about it. This happens with scripture as well. Take my example above. The Malachi text and the Exodus text actually somehow DO work together, it's just that one doesn't understand the Exodus text well enough.

I'll bypass a third defensive fallacy, which is, 'Oh, you're just rebelling against the Truth.' Convenient.

So where's that leave us with a 'thinking faith?' As you can see, it's actually pretty important. It keeps us from swallowing church traditions whole even when they seem strange, contradictory, or irrelevant. It helps us to understand not only our theological heritage better but also who we are and should be as Christians today. It's also more challenging and vibrant. An unquestioning faith is a dead faith. How ought we to live if we aren't allowed to question what we believe? The world is ever before us presenting us with new situations that we've never faced before, new hopes, new setbacks. One's faith can't effectively answer those new situations without our being able to question how it might, or whether it can. This is the importance of a thinking faith: it keeps us on our toes, just as life does, and just as God does.