Underestimating Theological Interest

I’m finishing up a week speaking at Mount Hermon Conference Center, in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. And I’ve been impressed that a family camp such as this would keep asking Ph.D.’s in theological studies such as I to join their roster of more typical speakers: counselors, devotional leaders, preachers, and the like.

I’ve been here before and once again I am delighted to report that many Christians, even on vacation, are eager to hear serious theology and to wrestle with important questions of exegesis, history, philosophy, and doctrine. I’ve spoken on Christology all week, and I have deliberately taken on some thornier questions, such as whether Jesus actually claimed to be divine (answer: yes, but mostly ambiguously, such that no one understood him on this point until after his resurrection); what it means to say Jesus was “tempted as we are”; whether God the Father turned his back on his Son on the cross (answer: no, I don’t think so); and whether Jesus is enjoying a nice rest between his first coming and his second (answer: no, he’s staying pretty busy).

Of course theology can be dull. I’ve read more than my share of dull theology, and probably taught more than my share of it, too! But so can any other discourse be dull, done badly—even stand-up comedy.

And of course some people, even long-time Christians, and sometimes especially long-time Christians, don’t care about theology. They want confirmation of their existing beliefs plus a little inspiration and maybe a tip or two to help them with their bratty kids, demanding marriage, or whatever. But not everyone wants that.

In fact, given dropping church attendance numbers in most regions of the U.S. and Canada today (as well as in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere), most people nowadays who actually bother to come to church or a Christian conference can be presumed instead to actually care about theology, to really want to know about the faith.

So let’s aim higher: preachers, Christian education directors, conference planners, and speakers. Let’s take people seriously and encourage them to take themselves—and God—seriously.

I’m glad Mount Hermon does.

0 Responses to “Underestimating Theological Interest”

  1. dan

    Hmmmm… I’d be interested to read a post on why it is inaccurate to say that God the Father turned his back on the Son, when the Son was crucified. That seems to be a difficult thesis to maintain, in light of the evidence.

    I’m closer to the opinion expressed by Moltmann — the Father did abandon the Son, but that act caused the Father just as much suffering as it caused the Son. The Son suffers being forsaken by the Father. The Father suffers the loss of his Beloved Son. Thus, to say that the Father ‘turned his back on the Son’ is accurate (IMO) but only tells us half of the story.

  2. Matt Nightingale

    Dr. Stackhouse, it was a pleasure to spend the week with you. Thank you for the deep theological reflections and for taking so much time to talk with students like me between sessions.

    After interacting with you, I am pleased to report that I have come to an honest-to-goodness CONCLUSION about the whole Father/Son split at the cross. I’m on your side. 🙂 Thanks again for everything, and I look forward to continuing our friendship here in cyberspace!

  3. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, Brother Matt, for your conversation this past week. I’m glad what I said was of some help.

    As for Brother Dan, well, we’ll add this to the list of items on which we don’t (yet) agree, eh? The Father indeed suffers, but his is the suffering of a parent observing a beloved child in agony, not the disgust of a parent turning away in horror from a repellent offspring.

    Perhaps I can set this out in a blog entry sometime…

  4. Alex Ouligian

    Thanks, prof. for your well directed teaching this week. I am still struggling, however, with the concept of salvation with regards to Jesus. When I talk about Christianity with my Jewish friends, the conversation seems to be reduced to simply that Jesus is the magic ticket to salvation. I don’t know what to say to this assertion because when the doctrine is reduced to such terms, Christian belief sounds just like any other religion that demands belief in arbitrary doctrine rather than more pragmatic teaching such as “love your neighbor as yourself.” I feel small minded after such conversations.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Brother Alex,

    I think there is important confusion evident in the symbol of “magic ticket.”

    Yes, Jesus has done great things for us that we cannot do for ourselves, and he offers the benefit of his work to us freely. But receiving those benefits involves much more than getting a voucher of some kind. It involves entering the Kingdom of God, which Jesus warned was hard to do. And once you’re in, it’s hard to be in, as every serious Christian knows, for you are now a friend–yes, even a child–of God, and a participant with God in his strenuous work of saving the world.

    So it sounds like it’s time to talk about discipleship, and faith, and vocation, and mission, and all those good things–and not just about salvation as rescue, even as it surely is (partly) that. It’s also about rehabilitation and reformation and renewal and rescue of others and much, much more.

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