Let me tell you about how I wandered off the path.
Somewhere, somehow, I decided that I needed to have all of the answers. I decided that I needed to know everything there was to know about God, to understand what his purposes were, and to understand how, exactly, he was accomplishing those purposes. This would make it possible for me to tell people why either (a) they aren’t following those purposes or (b) they ought to feel pretty good about things because they are doing what they are supposed to do.
Subpart (b) was more subtextual than the last paragraph suggests. I’ve never been in the habit of overtly patting myself, or anyone else for that matter, on the back, trying to reassure everyone that we’re “okay” with God. But the fact is, I often found myself on a quest to explain scripture in a way where I could feel like I had everything under control. (More on that later).
But you understand the idea: study, analyze, categorize, systematize, understand the “plan” God had laid out. Then, like a good evangelical, I could let other people in on the secrets I had brilliantly discerned.
I hope that you won’t be too hard on me for slipping into this mentality. About 500 years of Western history (what is that, about fifteen or twenty generations?) had created a culture/society which told me that I was doing the right thing.
Reflect on this for a moment. As a result of the Western value placed on scientific inquiry and education, we managed to accomplish a whole heckuva lot. Political and social thought led to democratic societies, with booming market economies. Inquiry into the biological sciences allowed us to defeat polio and smallpox, among other things. The applied physical sciences led to industrialization, miniaturization, the micro-computer, and – eventually – a world-wide network that allows a massive percentage of the world’s population to access these words, if they so choose.
Of course, I’m just scratching the surface in the last paragraph.
Just educate people about their world and encourage them to seek out the way it works in objective, verifiable ways, and nothing is impossible. Right?
Is it any surprise, then, that somewhere along the way, somebody thought Christianity ought to work the same way? Educate ourselves properly, learn all of the truths there are to be learned about God through scripture, and we will inevitably see what he is up to and understand exactly how to go about being/doing what he wants. Easy, right?
Protestantism, as I understand it, was borne largely from this way of thinking. At some point, some guy named Luther (and, if I understand my church history correctly, a few others) decided that, rather than letting an elite group of church leaders dictate how we ought to think, we can discover God’s truths for ourselves, just like we can discover how electricity works or how elks breed. This idea is so powerfully ingrained in my identity as a protestant/evangelical that even as I type these words, I realize that it still has a strong hold/influence on me. I’m still not fully ready to let go of this idea.
But there was just one problem with the analytical approach to God.
It didn’t work so well.
After the reformation, protestants splintered and re-splintered into varying denominations again and again. Every time people reached a disagreement about points of doctrine, some seemingly minor, a new “faith” would form. Often, each denomination defended its turf as if its particular set of beliefs was the only “logical” way of interpreting scripture and, hence, understanding God.
There was an assumption that we could all discover and agree, rationally, on who God is and what he is doing in our world. However, on many points, no consensus has ever emerged.
Some of us tried to get away from this. We really did. But our efforts often backfired in unimaginably disastrous ways. My faith heritage – which finds its roots in the American restoration movement – is a particularly stark example. Our fellowships of churches started out by declaring that we wanted to be non-denominational: simple Christians. And we did that for a while. But it wasn’t long until some of us decided that we were the ones that had everything figured out, that no one else did, and that our relatively miniscule set of churches were the only ones who understood how God wanted things: in worship, in baptism, etc. Then, we continued to split and splinter endlessly, over issues like whether water fountains should be placed in churches, and whether it was appropriate to have a sunday school.
Is this state of affairs – where people assume responsiblity for thinking about and discovering God on their own, rather than letting someone else tell them who God is – better than what preceded it? Almost certainly. But – as I hope you can tell – it has also become bogged down in an overly analytical mire that was created by the modern age; a mire that has resulted in a staggering array of denominational distinctions, many of which are constantly bickering with one other.
News flash: God and his purposes in this world, it seems, can’t be fully understood by humans. And when we assume that we have to understand and agree on point after point about his nature, in the same way that scientists can agree on averages in human growth charts or measurements of arctic temperatures, we will quickly lose our way.
There are several reasons for this. Not only is God much more complex than our ability to comprehend, but it also seems that he acts in different people and different cultures and with different temperaments in radically different ways. He also reveals himself in vastly different ways to different peoples.
This is unsettling for me. I want to understand the “plan”, whether it is for myself, my family, my church, or for all of humanity. To think that I don’t see it all, don’t know it all, can’t appreciate the whole picture – all of that goes against my modern, protestant/evangelical instincts. I need to understand.
But there is a certain freedom that comes from surrender to something bigger, and wildly mysterious. There is great release in saying, “I don’t know.” Suddenly, the God who at one time had to be small enough to fit into my mind and my intellect can become much larger. He can reach into my life in ways that are surprising and, therefore, wonder-filled. I no longer have to expect him to act in specific ways and explain everything about him. And I can rejoice with others when he moves in their lives in ways that I don’t understand or even anticipate.
I don’t have to worry any longer about “getting it right” because “getting it right” (from the standpoint of intellectually understanding everything about God and how he works) isn’t the point. Nor do I have to be obsessed with whether everyone else understands everything “correctly.” I just have to follow, trusting that the pilgrimage that I am taking through life will end at an unimaginably terrific place.
This doesn’t mean that analytical, educational approaches to understanding God have no value. I believe that there is still a place for thinking about God and his movement in the world in analytical ways. But I no longer have to rely on that process in defining my faith. Because I know that it can’t all be known.
And there, in short, is the first step that I have to take if I want to untangle the gospel from the confusion of the modern age: I must find a way to lose my seemingly insatiable desire to hold all of the answers and begin to accept the mystery of the ways of God.
I hope to explore the profound implications of this change on my relationships with other Christians – a way of thinking that Andrew Jones calls deep ecclesiology – at a later stage. However, right now, I am too impatient to wait any longer to make another point. I want to talk about a story that I have all but lost in the modern age – a story about the Kingdom of God.
Up next: My adventures in missing the point.