Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Stats or the Dance?

[This one is from Cal rather than Josh.]

First comes the conference (“Theology After Google” in this case). Then come the critics like so many sharks searching for the tasty blood of heresy. Constructive dialogue about the mission and future of the church in a high-tech, postmodern age isn’t going to consist of a neatly nailed down lists of certainties. It’s going to be open, dynamic, messy, and unsettling. Anything else would fail to do justice to the issues being discussed.

Many of the critics seem to be focusing on their conviction that mental affirmation of unquestioned “facts” about God are our only defense against heresy. Narrative? Conversation? Open ended quest? All anathema to these authors. They remind me of something I read recently attacking the emerging church moment by using the analogy of marriage. The authors insisted that “the correct facts” about one’s spouse were what really matters—that the relationship is defined by them rather than by things such as conversation.

Honestly, at this point I don’t know how much my wife weighs. I don’t know her measurements. I don’t know all the numbers on her latest blood panel from the lab at the doctor’s office. Even though I’ve devoted years to the academic study of the neuropeptides of love and attachment, I can’t say I know her plasma levels of any of them. What I do know is the narrative, the “dance,” the joy of conversation, and the cumulative shared experiences that have shaped us as a couple. I’ve changed my mind on some things I thought were true of her, we've worked through some misunderstandings, and neither the language I use to describe the relationship nor the way I experience are identical to what it would have been the day we said “I do.” And what I “know” about her and the way I describe her is different from how our children, her parents, or the people at her work know and describe her. No “propositional profile” of facts would begin to do justice to any of that. Or be what I need most as I build a future with her.

The people who are obsessed with fixed, measurable stats are more likely to be on Craigslist looking for hook-ups rather than enjoying marriage to an actual spouse.

I see several problems to the “stats” approach of the heresy hunters and litmus testers:

First, they create barriers between people and Jesus. The blogosphere is full of heresy hunters who are effective at inciting the passions of those who already agree with them (after all, having enemies is great fun). But I hear regularly from people outside the circle of believers who find this approach a great stumbling block in their spiritual quest. The insistence that only full certainty about the “right” (and highly detailed) answers qualify one as Christian leaves many people with unanswered questions with the feeling that it's impossible to ever join the dance.

They also make it sound as if Christianity is some new version of Gnosticism—that we are saved by precise knowledge and formulas.

Finally, they seem to completely overlook the dynamic nature and “situatedness” of faith, spiritual growth, church, and understanding. Actual thought always entails detours and development. I should certainly hope that I would think something heretical at some stage of the process--the alternative is being brain-dead or some kind of robot. And much of the change in my thinking over the years has from Bible study itself, not from some descent into some dark underworld of Godless conspirators. Even in church history we see how the categories, the questions we assume the Bible authors are answering, and the formulas people derive cannot be separated from the cultural context and the thought forms of the age.

I have convictions, commitment, and community. But hopefully not concrete. And I appreciate those who are involved in the dynamic dance of faith and discovery and open-ended quest to explore the future of the church—even if I don’t agree with every single thing that gets said in the process. I’ll take the dance over the stats any day.


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