(We’ve been having a really good conversation here and there in the Methoblogosphere about the idea of pluralism/doctrine/inclusivism/Gavin’s tattoo etc. It is thoughtful, respectful, and humorous at times, and has evoked some really good insights. Thanks, everyone, for engaging in this healthy conversation.)
What one believes is important. Doctrine is important. And a lot of theology is couched in propositional terminology. I agree with all of these statements.
What I have said in this conversation is that theology is more than merely a set of propositions, and that reducing theological conversation to a rudimentary comparison of proposition sets minimizes the mystery of God’s relationship with the world. Such thinking leads us inevitably into “I’m right and you’re wrong” territory, and that territory is not where I see Jesus calling us to live.
Let’s use John’s analogy of Gavin’s tattoo. He says that either
1) Gavin has a tattoo, or
2) Gavin does not have a tattoo.
One must be true, and both cannot be true, says John, and he asks if there is a third possibility. There is!
3) I saw something on Gavin’s body that looked to me to be a tattoo.
This statement is true, no question about it. (Unless the speaker is lying for some weird reason.) Statement 3 is a testimony or a witness in which the speaker is sharing from her or his own experience of seeing Gavin’s body and noting what appeared to be a tattoo there. However, let’s just say it turns out that Gavin has a large freckle on his body roughly in the shape of the UM cross and flame, had it since birth, doesn’t like to show it off to his friends, kind of embarrassed by it – whatever.
In this case, statement #3 would STILL BE TRUE, although statement #1 would not. See that? I witness to what I believe, to what I have seen and experienced, and that is that there appears to me to be a tattoo on Gavin’s body. That’s pretty much all I can say, unless I am Gavin himself, the tattoo artist, or Gavin’s doctor and can offer a more … um … “intimate” testimony that would either confirm or refute my witness.
I believe that Christ Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, sent on God’s gracious mission to save the world from sin and death, and that in his life, death, and resurrection, all creation, including me, is reconciled to God by grace through faith. These doctrines are vitally important to me, and to who I am as a child of God seeking to become the person God desires. But without the “I believe that…” in front of it, this statement may very well become a stumbling block, rather than an entry point. In fact, God alone can confirm (or refute) this testimony fully.
There are ideas that are “I believes” – there are ideas that are “you believes” – there are ideas that are “we believes.” When we talk about the “I believes” and the “you believes” one of the topics of conversation is how we developed these beliefs, or the theological method we use. (Writing my Credo at the end of my seminary time was deeply helpful for me in that I had to closely examine my theological method and ask myself, “Why do I believe this?”) This kind of conversation leads us into thoughtful, sometimes intense dialogue, as we critically engage our own perspectives and the perspectives of others who have their own set of “I believes” to talk about.
The goal of this crucial conversation is not to verify that one person is “right” and the other “wrong,” the goal is faithfulness. We are called to be faithful witnesses to the truth. We are not the truth ourselves, we are but witnesses to it. I’ll testify to everything that I believe, you give me your testimony, and then we’ll celebrate the “we believe” ideas and reason together about the other stuff, in a grace-filled, loving, respectful relationship with one another.
How does that sound?