When Theological Disputation Is Too Much…

The United Church of Canada.
The Anglican Church of Canada.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
[Counterparts in the United States: United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist…]

As a scholarly observer of the North American church scene, I have noticed a pattern of recurring phrases. They are recurring again here and there.

1. ““We don’t want to debate theology.”

2. “We don’t want people clobbering each other with the Bible.”

3. “We want to avoid arguments.”

4. “We don’t want to have to pick sides.”

5. “We just want to hear people’s stories of exclusion.”

6. “We want unity, not division.”

7. “We want to find a middle way.”

8. “We should stop hurting people.”

9. “Ever since my [significant other] came out, I now believe…”

10. “We just want to have a conversation.”

Observation: If you hear the first nine, it doesn’t matter about the tenth. The conversation is already over. Only politics remains.

The one way Christians can hope to hear God saying anything other than simply what they want God to say is to listen to each other, yes—but in the joint enterprise of searching the Scriptures with the sincere intention of understanding and obeying God’s Word as the Spirit teaches us through the Bible, in whatever direction that Word may cut.

Once a group decides to dispense with theological argument (too elitist, too logocentric, too intellectual, too painful, too boring, too difficult…) and to opt instead for storytelling, testimony, and intuition, it is unclear, at least to this theological epistemologist, what keeps anyone and everyone from arriving happily and triumphantly at foregone conclusions.

Yes, theological disputation can be sterile or stupid, pretentious or pedantic, arcane or absurd. But to claim to listen to God without it, to think that we will truly hear God by just listening to each other (perhaps in the context of a few Scriptural generalities: love, acceptance, etc.)—which means, at the end, to simply pick those with whom we ultimately agree on the basis of…whether we agree with them—is to dispense with the wisdom of the Church through the centuries. It is to part company, in fact, with the Church that produced and studied and revered the Bible as the main way in which the Spirit of Jesus would teach and guide the faithful truly seeking a Word that was not merely of their own convenient manufacture.

What God might be saying in and through each other’s experiences can be precious and important. I have myself been provoked to fresh Scriptural insight by listening to previously repressed voices. And theologians have not gotten, and will not get, everything right. Only God is infallible.

But if ignoring the cries of minorities in the Church is bad theological method—and it usually is—marginalizing intensive and extensive Scriptural argument is not theology at all. And, thus, it isn’t serious discipleship to the Jesus who conducted himself by Word and Spirit in tandem and expected his disciples to do the same.

How Can I Block Out the Cruelty?

The stereotype of the schizophrenic is a poor soul beleaguered by a cacophony of voices telling him what to do. But we all now are subject to imperative messages from sources that do not have our best interests at heart.

Some of these are commercial, which foster the spiritual pathology of consumerism. “I alone matter, and I alone shall decide what is best for Me, Me, Me! So, ah, what shall I select? Oh, right. What you told me to buy….”

Some of these are social, whether this or that parent, this or that coach or teacher or director or other authority figure, this or that corporate culture or team attitude or church culture or other groupthink. Voices, voices, voices in our heads—and silent, but powerful, forces in our hearts.

Many of these commands, alas, are not merely manipulative, advancing their own interests at our expense. Some are truly cruel: dangling ideals before us that are impossible to actualize, demanding standards that no real person can achieve, and denouncing us for our inevitable failures to perform so as to earn the esteem of these malignant judges.

Prof. John Barclay of the University of Durham in the UK has recently gifted us with a popular-level précis of his splendid work on the theme of grace in the writings of the Apostle Paul, Paul and the Power of Grace (Eerdmans, 2020). Most of the book is what it ought to be: straightforward exposition of this theological theme: God’s unconditioned gift to us of salvation in its many splendours. At the end of this book, however, Professor Barclay looks up from his notes to survey our world, and what he sees compels him to urge us again to receive the good news he has seen in Paul.

We live in an age when self-esteem, or self-worth, is under intense pressure, especially among young people. Indeed, research in Western societies shows that crises of self-worth have reached epidemic proportions. Schools, colleges, counselors, churches, and health workers report a sharp and shocking rise in the number of people suffering anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and loss of self-esteem. These elements manifest in numerous ways: self-harm, panic attacks, eating disorders, sleep disorders, obsessive behavior, suicidal thoughts, and, tragically, suicide. The problem has multiple roots, but it seems to be exacerbated by social media, with its requirement to project an attractive self-image in popularity, appearance, body-shape, and success. The combination of impossibly high expectations and fragile egos is a recipe for distress. In an age when people fear the judgement of their peers more than the judgement of God, we have become increasingly petulant, critical, even cruel, and it is proving hard to take. [Emphasis added]

In Paul’s good news, human worth is founded on the grace of God, which is not dependent on any form of symbolic capital, ascribed or achieved. No one can, and no one needs to, make themselves “worth it” in the most important arena of all.… Many have urged that people should “let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are.” [Barclay refers to Brené Brown and her well-known book Gifts of Imperfection, 2010.] But that does not help if “who you are” crumbles under your own embrace, as happens for many people today. If that embrace does not come from outside of ourseves, and if it is not completely authoritative and utterly secure, we are left wishing ourselves into worth, rather than knowing we have it.

… When all else fails, the love of God does not. What we need are better, fuller, and more down-to-earth ways of making this message clear and practical, and in the present psychological state of many young people, few things seem more existentially urgent.

John Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 154-56

Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), and so all matter. Each person matters, not only as a creation of God, but as the much-loved object of God’s self-sacrifice. That is how much you matter: a crucifixion-of-the-Son-of-God’s worth. However bleak, or bland, your life may seem now, it is a life God made, a life God suffered and died to redeem, and a life God wants to bless forever and ever in unimaginable delight on a renewed planet and in a renewed society rid of all the stupid, harmful, and even cruel injuries we sometimes must suffer for a while here and now.

The world is deranged. It wildly rewards the wrong people and ignores and even punishes the right ones. We must not, must not, must not take our cues from who wins an Oscar or Stanley Cup or Grammy or Order of Canada. We must not adjust our lives by those who are glamourized by “Entertainment Tonight” or celebrated on “Saturday Night Live.” We must not strive for likes and friends and followers—how very thin and small the definitions of “liking” and “friendship” and “following” have become! What an insane way to govern your life, the very gift of God intended to last forever and to result—in just a few decades!—in stupendous glory as you become the very best version of yourself, finally recognizable and recognized, joining in a society the beauty of which exceed Disney’s greatest imaginations. (Read Revelation 20 again for starters. What a city is coming to us!)

Thanks, then, to Professor Barclay for calling us to What Really Matters, and Whose voice should be our only guide. “Trust in Yhwh with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall straighten out your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Where (and How) Do I Want to Be?

I’m about to complete the academic year here at Crandall University, on Canada’s east coast, and return (if the Lord and the public health officials will let me) to the west coast for the summer en famille.

I like both lifestyles. I miss my wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandson in Vancouver terribly, yes, and the North Shore continues to beckon with long trails, big trees, gorgeous mountains—and Thomas Haas chocolates, Lee’s doughnuts, Memphis Blues barbecue (“whose god is their belly,” etc.,). I miss my friends and my motorcycle and my TV and lots more besides.

But here in Moncton, I have what I like to call the best dorm room in the Maritimes: my guitars, keyboard, and drum set are nicely connected through a mixer so I can play along with iTunes and Spotify whenever I like; I have a kitchen stocked with only what I prefer to eat; I enjoy laundry facilities en suite; and I have plenty of time to work, work, work—and I like working. Good friends at the university, fine student assistants, and work I enjoy (did I mention the working?).

Still, I can think of various ways I’d like to improve the feathering of both nests. I’ve got plans (and I know my wife has plans for me) to work on the Vancouver house and yard this summer, and then maybe buy a few more nice things for the Moncton place in the fall…

And then, this morning, Søren Kierkegaard tells me what the Holy Spirit of God seeks in a dwelling place:

We have our treasure in earthen vessels, but thou, O Holy Spirit, when thou livest in a man, thou livest in what is infinitely lower. Thou Spirit of Holiness, thou livest in the midst of impurity and corruption; thou Spirit of Wisdom, thou livest in the midst of folly; thou Spirit of Truth, thou livest in one who is himself deluded.

Oh, continue to dwell there, thou who does not seek a desirable dwelling place, for thou wouldst seek there in vain, thou Creator and Redeemer, to make a dwelling for thyself; oh, continue to dwell there, that one day thou mayst finally be pleased by the dwelling which thou didst thyself prepare in my heart, foolish, deceiving, and impure as it is.

[Quoted in The Oxford Book of Prayers, #192]

God seeks to live in my very heart: a place of corruption, yes, and of vanity, stupidity, and stubbornness; a place badly lit, foul-smelling, stacked with hoarded peeves and slights, strewn with porn of several kinds (sex porn, yes, but also house porn, clothing porn, fame porn, food porn…), clearly arranged to suit my lifestyle of petty appetites and aspirations and horribly inhospitable to such a superb roommate.

To call such a disaster a “fixer-upper” would be scandalous on a real estate agent’s website. Yet God freely, lovingly chose to move in and help me rehabilitate it. We’ve been at it together for a long time now, and it’s better than it was. But it’s still much too dark, and dank, and dumb. We’ll be at it for years yet.

May God inspire me to inhabit everywhere he puts me with a similar sense of constructive purpose: not to live here and now as comfortably as possible, but as creatively as possible. So much needs fixing up. So much needs cleaning and repairing and caring for. If God is willing to live in me, may I embrace wherever, and however, he wants me to live. And may I live more and more as God does wherever God lives: always holy, always loving, always creative, always making things better.