Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Heads You're Right, Tails I'm Wrong

(This post was prompted by a discussion over at Locusts & Honey.)

There are some people for whom theology is a set of propositions to which one may subscribe. If you subscribe to one set of propositions, you are a Christian. If you subscribe to another, you are Jewish. If you subscribe to another, you are a Muslim. And so forth. Even agnosticism and atheism fit in nicely here, as the subscription to their own respective sets of propositions about God.

For a Christian who has this mindset, evangelism seems to be a rather rudimentary process of comparing sets of propositions and ascertaining which set is “right” and which set is “wrong,” and convincing people to subscribe to the “right” one. The “right” set of propositions is almost always the set held by the one doing the evangelizing, which makes the set of propositions held by the object of evangelism, by definition, “wrong.”

So, the evangelist starts off telling their target, “You are wrong; I am right. The only way for you to get right with God is to stop subscribing to your set of propositions, which are wrong, and adopt mine, which are right.”

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the most effective way to spread the good news to me. In my humble opinion, it’s not even very faithful. It leaves no room for wonder, or doubt, or imagination. It is buttoned down, girdled, caged, boxed-in thinking that, when taken to its logical extreme, does not allow for a whole lot of movement of the Spirit. Plus it’s just no fun at all.

To start out, theology is more than a set of propositions. Peter Hodgson (I think) says that theology is a kind of “creative fiction,” or a poetic retelling of that which we know to be true about God. (I’m paraphrasing.) Dovetailing this idea, I see theology as the art of describing God and God’s relationship with creation. It is less scientific than imaginative. Reducing it to a mere set of propositions is like hanging color-by-number paintings in an art gallery.

Secondly, Jesus did not say to his followers, “Go therefore and compare sets of propositions with all nations, convincing them that their sets are wrong and yours is right. And lo, I will be with you (and only you) always, till the end of the age.” No, he said, “Go and make disciples.” It’s about relationships, not doctrines. Jesus seems to care a whole lot more about how we treat one another than about how we get other people to believe what we believe.

If you want to make a friend, you don’t try to convince them of how wrong their current friendships are and that they should abandon them in favor of being friends with you. You just treat them nice, show them some love, smile at them, help them out. If you want to introduce someone to Christ, you don’t recite orthodoxy at them and point out how wrong they are not to believe it. You just love them like Christ does.

Finally, it occurs to me that I don’t put as much stock in being right as some people do. There is a stagnancy to being right that is unappealing to me. If you’re right, there’s no room to grow. What, am I going to somehow get “righter” over time? Right and wrong are categories that do not often enter into my way of thinking.

It seems a little bit too deontological for me, too. I would much rather be considered faithful than right. My telos is faithfulness, and that guides my theological reflection in a way that being right never could. In that way, I am continually a work in progress/being perfected in love/in the process of becoming/working out my salvation with fear and trembling/emerging.

That’s what I think. But of course, I could be wrong.

Update: John has posted a response: click here.


Vivienne said...

Yes I agree. Interesting stuff.

Clayton said...

Good post. You should be getting that white coat in no time!

Jason Woolever said...

Good post Andy. You and John represent two of many different understandings of faith and doctrine that exist in the UMC today.

My question is, How do we stay together and work together and live together while honoring (and maybe celebrating (?)) folks with the other ideas.

I don't know if its possible or not!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why this is an either/or issue, but rather a both/and. Faith, discipleship and relationship-building are, indeed, integral ingredients in the Christian experience. I think reason, logic & rationality play a big role, too.

The Apostle Paul used reasoning when he put forth the Gospel to worldly men. Charles Finney, who was a lawyer before he became a preacher, made extensive use of logic and argument in his sermons, sparking revival in the first half of the 19th century. C.S. Lewis was another "logical Christian" whose apologetic book, Mere Christianity, has influenced multitudes.

There are many people out there who respond to a "relational" Gospel. Others respond to an "intellectual" Gospel. There's a lot of folks who are a mix of the two--Lewis, for instance. He had a vast intellect that he applied to defending Christianity, but was also "surprised by joy."

As we are an inclusive church, I think we can say that left brains and right brains--and the people who accompany them--can experience valid, vibrant Christianity.

Andy B. said...

Jason, I answer that question this way: We need to remove the animosity from our conversations by deemphasizing the whole right versus wrong framework. If we frame our conversations with faithfulness, it is most definitely possible to stay together as the body of Christ and celebrate our diverse ideas without need of bitterness or division.

Brad said...

As soon as we believe we're right, the message becomes about us. And that's not our job. It's "right vs. wrong" thinking that leads to animosity that leads to defensiveness that leads to anger that leads to hate. This may be extreme but I don't think so. I propose a "We're both trying to figure this thing called life, death, faith, afterlife, purpose out" attitude. I think it might go a long way.

Jason Woolever said...

good idea.

Kevin said...

Hey Bro,

I was just reading a discussion in great sympathy with yours. Check out the first chapter of Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith," where Rob talks about sharing Jesus with others as either jumping on a trampoline or in defending a brick wall. A trampoline spring is the metaphor for doctrine/theology that can stretch with the wonder and understanding of a relational God, while doctrine/theology is a rigid brick, whose removal from the whole doctrine/theology wall could cause the whole thing to crumble. The question is put... which is better in sharing Christ? Holding up the wall, or jumping on the trampoline?

Kevin said...

Sorry for any confusion in my last response... my intent is to contrast theology/doctrine as either a trampoline spring OR as a rigid brick... not theology/doctrine as both.

sparklesax said...

"right" on dude!

Anonymous said...

Ok, so I can be on board with saying that God is bigger than us and that being "right" stunts our theological growth and hinders our Christian journey. I can even agree with centering our conversations around "faithfulness."

But what I can't be on board with is the idea that Christ shouldn't be the center of the center of our conversations! I can't remember who's blog I've read (simply because I'm down to my last 10 hours of class for this semester, and I can't remember which way is up at this point), but using the idea of the "both/and" philosophy of deciding who God is can become very slippery and counter productive.

As soon as we take Christ out of the picture we lose our focus. I agree, Andy - our center should be around faithfulness - faithfulness to Christ - to answering the call of the missio Dei - to loving God and our neighbor as best we can because Christ did, and he calls us to do likewise.

If Christ isn't in the equation, then we're all just "good people."

I'm not called to beat people over the head with biblical musings or condemn them for disagreeing with me - I'm called to love the best way I can.

When I begin to forget that I'm to love others because God died for me, then I might as well pack it up and start paying back my student loans for a seemingly useless degree...

Anonymous said...

I wonder if what you said would apply to someone with a Muslim or Jewish or ? perspective? What if they just loved people and were faithful to Jehovah or Allah? What would the difference be? Really, why hold to one theological point of view over another if it really doesn't matter? If we think that Christ's Cross is just one of many ways to God then what you say Andy is very true.

Having said that I echo your sentiments about right and wrong. I guess my point (if I have one) is that, at some level, we must believe that Jesus is the "right" way for everyone. If we don't we just lapse into a 'it is not important what you believe only that you believe' form of drivel that helps no one. For me, I believe that Jesus is the only way but the revelation of that truth is the job of the Holy Spirit ... what people do with that revelation is another story.

Anonymous said...

Andy...you silly postmodern you. Apparently you have been reading postmodern material.

Oh yeah, I 'spitboxed' you again. Check it out at noon today. (11 your time)



Anonymous said...

Andy...you silly postmodern you. Apparently you have been reading postmodern material.

Oh yeah, I 'spitboxed' you again. Check it out at noon today. (11 your time)



Anonymous said...

I am not a theologian. I am your mother. And I totally agree with your ideas on evangelism. But something about all these 14 or so responses really strikes me as astounding. I am amazed that you folks haven't spoken to the area where I think the whole "I'm right and you are wrong" question gets espcially difficult and that is in addressing social issues like abortion, death penality, war. If my faith leads me to beleive certain things about these issues and yours leads to another conclusion for you, my faith leads me to work to prove to the world that I (or my position) is the right one in order to help bring about justice and fullness of life for others. I am compelled by my faith to try to win others over to my position so they will work in the political, economic, and social systems of this world to bring what I perceive as God's will to be done on earth. That is this layperson's take on the issue. cb

John B said...

I know it's not consider kosher for a United Methodist to use scripture during such a discussion, but here I go anyway.

If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. For it is with your heart you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Romans 10:9-10 (NIV)

Sounds to me like what you believe is pretty darn important.

Tim Sisk said...

Andy B: Is war evil? Many people believe that it is. But what if I were to argue that it isn't, but is in fact a good thing. One reponse would be that it is repellent to all that we know about God that has been revealed.

But is this not propositional theology to say with certainty what God is and isn't for? Not to get lost in a thread about war versus just war and the like, the point I want to make is that much of your faith (and mine) is propositionally based. Your very views of inclusivity are in fact propositional beliefs.

And everything you have written against propositonal belief can be turned back on the propositional belief of inclusivity.

We are all comfortable with propositional theology, whether we are honest about it or not. There are deal breakers for our faith: I suspect by the title of your blog and the content of your posts that you are an opponent to exclusivity. But it is every bit propositional to believe that inclusivity is a kingdom principle and as it is to believe in a theology of "Jesus is the only way."

I, myself, am growing wearing of arrogant certainty. As I grow older I have felt less secure in my "knowing" than I did at a younger age. The older I get, the less I know! So I'm finding that my tent is getting bigger. But not so big that I still don't have walls. Who wants to live in a tent without walls!

Tim Sisk said...

Rereading my comment, I doubt my point is very clear. So apologies. I started the comment, worked on a few things, and finished it and I'm not sure I finished the thread of my thought.

The point I wanted to make, simply stated, is there is a lot of propositional theology (pt) that we live with and remains unquestioned by those who oppose pt. (For example, war is wrong and murder is evil. Even the belief that God is inclusive is propositional). Your beef with an exclusive understanding of God expressed in "Christianity as the only way" really isn't rejected because it is a propositional belief but that is repellent to the understanding of the God you know and worship.