On Breaking Points and Deal Clinchers: A Conversation With a Friend

Note: I first posted this over at Canon Fodder, but as that site will soon meet its demise, I’ve moved it over here to Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Below is a conversation a very good friend and I have been having via email regarding some of the things frequently written about on this blog. The conversation is still ongoing, but since it does touch on so much of what gets talked about here, I thought I’d share it (I got my friend’s permission, of course). My friend said:

Recently I told my devoutly Catholic friend, “I just don’t care whether or not the host is the actualBODY of Christ; it’s meaningful either way”. Then, in a separate conversation with my dad, not a professing Christian to my knowledge, he said to me, “I just don’t care whether or not God sent Jesus or whomever to the world-it makes no difference to me. I just believe there is a God/Spirit moving and it’s mysterious and good. My responsibility is to evolve with it”.

my actual question: Jesus is usually my historical breaking point/deal clincher when it comes toTRUTH, but sometimes my understanding of God,/my aspirations for life don’t seem all that different from people like my dad. How can we truly define the one way, with people citing all manner of God’s movement? I know it’s not an original question, but it’s the one I’m stuck on.

Here’s my response: I think you’ve asked a great question, and it’s very much one that I’ve struggled with too for a while and have been actively engaged in coming to terms with- if not answering. Your question is actually the classic postmodern one, which is sometimes framed in terms of Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives.” To put it very roughly, this has to do with the recognition that there are lots of “big/grand stories” that give an account for how the world came to be and that speak of a god (or lack thereof). The Christian story is but one of these stories, and obviously many (though not all) of the other ones offer a very different and conflicting account. In the Evangelical world that I grew up in, this was usually described as relativism and it was accused of being internally inconsistent (because absolute relativism is by definition impossible). Many postmodern Christians, including myself, recognize this classic evangelical response as containing a lot of hubris, because it seems to assume a level of certainty about the Christian story which can only be attained through faith- a position which is itself internally inconsistent- because faith describes “surety” regarding what we hope to be true, “certainty” regarding that which we in fact do not see. So, all of that is again simply to say that you’ve asked a great question and it’s one that I also struggle with.

So where does that leave us? If faith is the only way whereby we can say with any “certainty” that the Christian account of the world is “true” over/against all the conflicting accounts, and if even in saying that what we’re really asserting is that our interpretation of the Christian story as found in the Bible and our lives is somehow “true” in a way that others aren’t, doesn’t this leave us standing not on a “sure foundation” but rather on significantly shifting and hard-to-hold-on-to sand? I think quite simply that the answer to that question is “yes,” but only insofar as our faith is based in any exclusive sense on the Bible. I think postmodernity poses a significant problem for Christians (but only) to the extent that many Christians are thoroughly Modern, that is, bound by Reason, the scientific method, a correspondence theory of truth, etc. Regarding that last bit (a “correspondence theory of truth”), in case you aren’t familiar with this, when this comes up I often talk about my seminary prof. who asked “The story of Jonah- is it a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” He used this a jumping-off point to suggest that the fundamentalist/liberal debate within Christendom is misguided, at best, if not entirely unhelpful. He talked about how this debate seems to center on the question of whether or not the Bible is “true” (again, according to that “correspondence” theory), that is, did the events (especially the seemingly supernatural ones) described in it actually occur? In other words, do the symbols (words) used to describe what’s in the Bible correspond with events you could have recorded with a camera?

All of that, my professor argued, really misses the point, which he suggested has much more to do with what the Bible is for . Is it supposed to be a transcript of happenings “on the ground?” Is it a proper history in that sense, according to our Modern understanding? Is it primarily a “rule book,” as so many seem to reduce it to (“checklist Christianity”)? Is it a science textbook? Is it meant to answer all manner of questions science might ask given all that we’ve learned thus far throughout human history? Of course, if the Bible isn’t meant to serve all of those purposes, then it shouldn’t be all that surprising when it “answers” some of those questions, (the science ones, particularly) “wrong.” Nor should it be surprising when Jesus changes the “rules” anyway (“you have heard it said, but I tell you…”), since as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So none of that is really what the Bible is for. Instead, the Bible is meant to serve as the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout the ages. Is it important, then, to know whether or not Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale? In my humble opinion, not at all! That has little to do with what the story is for. The point of that story has to do with our relationship with God and what happens when we run away from our responsibilities in light of that relationship. It also might have a thing or two to say about who’s “in” and who’s “out” in regard to right relationship with God, because as in the Jonah story, God seems to have a “thing” for outsiders. Christians these days would do well to take that to heart.

In a nutshell, then, the Bible points to Jesus, and is best understood when Jesus is the “lens” through which we read it. So I don’t believe “in” Jesus “because the Bible tells me so.” Because I trust/believe Jesus and have found the Bible to reliably point me to him, I continue to find the Bible useful and important to my life. I would even concur with what the Bible “itself” says, that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” but I don’t need the Bible to be “inerrant” in order to affirm any of that (and in my experience, it’s not), which is fine because my faith is about my relationship with Jesus, not about my relationship with the Bible (that’s “Bibliolatry”).

So then, let’s get back to your question. If the Bible gets some of its facts wrong (according to our Modern understanding), then how do we know it’s right in regard to its description of “the one true God” and in its assertion of Jesus as the “only way” to the Father? This takes us right back to much of what I was saying above. I would agree with you that Jesus is the “deal-breaker” when it comes to faith, right relationship with God, well- everything, really. As I alluded to above, I “trust” the Bible because it reliably points me to Jesus, and so I believe what it says about him, but Jesus is the foundation for all of that, the “solid rock on which I stand.” What that does, of course, is put a ton of pressure on me and any other Christ-follower to have an actual, bona fide relationship with a being that I can’t see, touch, etc., which begs a number of questions, like: How do I know that I’m really relating to God and not the voices in my head? How do I know if I’m ever “hearing” from God and not “simply baptizing (my) own opinions or desires and Christening them God’s opinions and desires?” How, really, can I “give account for the hope that is within me?”

Of course, the Christian story as I understand it is one in which God, who is spirit, put on flesh and dwelt among us, “full of grace and truth.” For those lucky few in human history, they could touch him, see him, etc. As we know, though, for most even that wasn’t enough and what Jesus and his kingdom are all about didn’t really “click” until after the resurrection- until the Spirit came. To me, this is part of the wonder of Immanuel- of God with us- because through the Spirit God is still “with us” as we are present one to another in Jesus’ name. Even so, if God is spirit, and if to a large extent I am too, then whatever relating I do to him will also happen spirit-to-spirit.

Call it mystery, call it ecstasy, call it whatever you will, but this experience of relating to God spirit-to-spirit is one that I have had. It happened especially when I was younger and particularly through worship in the Pentecostal congregation of my youth, but it still happens today. After all, God has written his “law” (which is love, which is Jesus) on our hearts, and so there is something within me that resonates whenever I hear the gospel (the GOOD news), like when I read (out loud!) the piece by Bart Campolo (which I recently posted here in Canon Fodder), which expresses his hope/belief that if God really wills that “all should be saved,” well, by God, maybe that’s just what will happen. Anyway, my point is that when I “hear” the call to follow Jesus each day, there is something within me that can not help but give a resounding YES, however cynical I may feel about it all from day to day.

So I believe that somehow Jesus is the “only way,” but I suppose when I say that it doesn’t mean what most Christians mean by it. I often point to the thief on the cross. According to scripture, aside from all the agony they endured together, he and Jesus only exchanged a few words, and Jesus didn’t hand him a checklist of orthodoxy before assuring him that they would be in paradise together. Likewise, if Bart Campolo and Mark Stenberg and probably C.S. Lewis and others are right, then God’s will that none should perish will finally be accomplished anyway. In the meantime, like Bart,

“I still convince…people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want (folks) to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe it’s a better life. Eternity aside, I want their lives to be transformed by God’s truth right now, for their sakes and for the sake of all the hungry and broken people out there who need them to start living (as) His disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. But most of all, I evangelize people because I know they are my loving God’s beloved children, and I don’t want them to live a minute longer without knowing too that most wonderful fact of life…”

…to which I can only add my heartfelt, “Amen-” let it be as you have said.

So my friend then replied:

Yes, I think my question is a version of the postmodern one. At the moment I’m not wondering so much about Christianity “up against” other narratives, but more about what constitutes Christianity, particularly when the most like minded of believers when asked to list the core tenets of Christianity would likely disagree. If you sit in a circle with 10 self professing believers, I would imagine it’d be likely that two of the 10 would have such different definitions that they would question the authenticity of the others’. I think you’re right though to say that that hypothetical scenario is probably off base, as the core has nothing to do with tenets- that’d be tenetolatry, right? My mind NEEDS to distinguish, classify, label, determine what’s in what’s out. Hence the question in the first place. Not sure what to do with my tendency…

I agree re: your comments on the Bible and Hell. Haven’t gotten to Bart’s article yet, but I will. I recommend the This American Life podcast called Heretics regarding the Hell portion of this.

I guess another part of my question is, what’s the difference (qualitatively as well as morally) between a relationship with God and a relationship with Jesus? Also, what is the difference between relating with Him and fulfilling his Kingdom works without intentionally relating to Him?

Last, a question about your own experience: if your most memorable times encountering Jesus were in the Pentacostal setting, why don’t you worship in that setting today?

And here then is what I said in response:

I’m intrigued by the distinction you make about your own struggle. You suggested that you’ve been wrestling less with Christianity as a metanarrative over/against other metanarratives, and more with what Christianity itself is. You admitted your need to “classify, label, determine what’s in and what’s out” in regard to faith, etc., and you stated that this tendency is what gave rise to your questions in the first place. I think this is where many of us (would-be post-)Moderns instinctively go. At least I know that’s my instinct. Raised to believe in a world governed by scientific, moral, and theological Rules, I struggle immensely when they don’t seem to account for everything I experience, or when the account they give is a poor one. I think this begs the question that seems to be at the heart of your struggle here- is Christianity primarily a belief system, a “religion,” or does the term Christ-ianity serve us best when it describes a relationship with a living Being, which will necessarily be as varied as there are parties to that relationship? By my framing of the question, I’m sure you can tell that I lean towards the latter, which doesn’t offer much help in terms of our mutual need to classify and define everything (and perhaps everyone). I hope, though, that it at least lends some perspective and gives me the opportunity to approach the question with a great deal of humility. After all, I can hardly describe my own relationship with God. What business have I trying to tell other people about theirs, and in the end, really, why would I want to except to appease my insecurity about mine? If God is Love, I serve God best when I do my best to plumb the depths of that love so that I can offer it to others, because, like Abraham, I am “blessed to be a blessing.”

As for the difference between a relationship with God and one with Jesus, and the related issue of being about the business of God’s kingdom versus seeking citizenship in that kingdom through “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” as some put it- well, that’s a tough one. I believe and find meaning in the Christian story, but am able to do so only because it is the CHRIST-ian story. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible, the culmination of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, the One who stands at the center of history. I can’t make sense of the rest of the story I find in the Bible and in the pages of history without believing that all of it points to the grace, love, and reconciliation found in the person of Christ. The God of the Bible, and the one that may or may not be “in control” of history, is frightening to me, both when he seems to be dishing out suffering and evil or, most notably perhaps, when he seems to be absent in the face of it. In short, again speaking for myself, I’m simply not interested in relating to God without Jesus. I simply won’t settle for anything less (or more). So if somehow Jesus is “what it’s all about,” I think that holds true even for those who do the work of his kingdom without acknowledging or being aware that they are doing so. I quote Frederick Buechner a lot, and you may have heard me use this one before, but it’s extremely relevant:

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin, Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who at least has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

So Buechner suggests you can be “on the way” towards right relationship with God and the world without even really knowing it, assuming of course that God stands behind everything and is somehow at work accomplishing his will, including his desire that “none should perish.” This, by the way, is a suggestion that my atheist friend Jared (whom I blog with here at Canon Fodder) and perhaps others like him take great umbrage at, and I certainly understand why. If they’re right and there is no God, then it takes a lot of nerve to suggest that God could do God-like things, like orchestrating all of our lives and the very universe itself. Then again, if we’re right that there is a God and he is the God of love fully revealed in the person of Jesus; that is, if metaphysically somehow God IS love, then it would be impossible for any of us to ever love, let alone “live, move, or have our being” without God being at work making it all possible, whether we believe and acknowledge that this is so or not (in which case a Christian then really is “just better informed”). Also, what I love about this notion of being “on the way” is that it helps us to not get hung up on the question of who’s in and who’s out. To make an almost equally controversial analogy, I suppose the question of when life in Christ begins is similar to the question of when life in the womb begins. Who’s to say? I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to make that determination in either case because there’s far too much at stake. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Finally, regarding my experience in the Pentecostal community of my youth, I guess these days I tend to be wonderfully grateful for that experience and I seek to take with me the best of what I learned there, while acknowledging all the negatives that came with it too. Unfortunately, there are enough negatives that I don’t know that I could ever fully go back to the kind of community I grew up in. Perhaps if I found a Pentecostal faith community that had managed to hang on to the best of what such communities can offer while also growing and learning in some of the ways that I hope I have, I might consider it. Unfortunately, I don’t know of such a community…

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