We had a great turnout last night at Harmony Brewing Company, in Eastown, Grand Rapids. This little brewery has been open since February, and features a cozy atmosphere, spins some good tunes (last night was Vinyl Thursday), and brews up some great offerings.
A few of us started off with Jackson’s Joy Fall Festival Ale, which was a good, if a bit sweet, oktoberfest-style ale. Others jumped in with the Hideout IPA, which was a stand-in for the usual Fiddlestix IPA. My favorite on their board is the Star Stuff Belgian Dubbel. The Black Squirrel Porter was unfortunately also tapped out.
About a dozen of us squeezed in together in the upper-level, a small, quiet space of about 10 or 12 tables. A couple familiar faces, a few Pub Theology first-timers, and some regulars made for a great discussion.
The sheet had the following topics:
1. True or False: the better you can articulate what you believe, the more spiritually mature you are.
2. How do certain [spiritual] practices open you up to new possibilities?
3. Is there a difference between the Word of God & the words of scripture?
4. Is it ever wrong to try to convert someone from one religion to another?
5. What’s the difference between Christian education and indoctrination?
6. Is a believer [ontologically] different from a nonbeliever?
We kicked off the evening on the first topic, and there was immediate push back to the notion that ‘spiritual maturity’ is linked to the ability to speak well about one’s beliefs.
Immediate counter-examples were offered: an older person who has a wisdom and maturity about him but is not a good source for systematic theology; a mother who lives in a way that bespeaks spiritual maturity (it was noted that there is more than one way to articulate things, we shouldn’t limit it to verbal articulation).
Another person thought the whole notion of ‘spiritual maturity’ was dubious. “Doesn’t that whole idea speak of having arrived? Does one ever arrive? Isn’t spiritual maturity that thing you strive for but never reach?”
We then mused about whether the church often falls into the trap of equating these two things: articulation and maturity. In my own tradition, it’s when you can say what you believe, when you can give the right answers, that we acknowledge that you have reached at least some level of spiritual achievement that you weren’t at before. Perhaps there are other means for evaluating faith — in fact I’m sure there are, and I think many of us are wanting to think more holistically about what it means to grow in one’s faith, beyond just words.
At the same time, someone noted that if you can’t at a basic level explain what you believe, perhaps you have some work to do. Fair enough.
The second topic had us discussing the various practices that lead to spiritual growth, and open one up to new possibilities, new ways of experiencing God, or living into one’s experience of God. Things like prayer, meditation, Scripture reading were mentioned, as well as getting involved in justice issues like poverty, slave trade, etc. “My faith is deepened as I seek to live among those who are marginalized in our society.”
One person noted that in his own very evangelical tradition, spiritual maturity equaled the ability to share the gospel with someone else: “How many people have you led to Christ?”
This led us naturally into topic no. 4: Is it ever wrong to convert someone to another religion?
There was some hesitation. It was initially noted that there are certainly wrong ways to share one’s faith: the in-your-face model, the used-car-salesman-routine, the forcing-awkward-family-relationships routine. Yet some felt, if eternal things are at stake – how could it be wrong to convert someone?
Then one person at the end of the table piped up: “Absolutely. There are times it is flat out wrong to disrespect someone else’s culture and religion by trying to convert them. I have friends in Buddhist and Hindu countries and I don’t think it would be right at all to go in there and try to convert them. I plan on seeing my Muslim and Buddhist friends in heaven. But maybe that means I’m not a real Christian.”
This provocative perspective made some uncomfortable while others cheered. What do you think?
We ended the evening on topic no.3: Is there a difference between the Word of God and the words of scripture?
This took us many places, but we began by looking at the perspective that there are two books in which God speaks to us – one, the book of the Bible, the other, the book of creation. It was noted that in a recent NPR story a person from a more evangelical background noted that someone could not believe in evolution and be a Christian. “This drives me crazy! How can we not be willing to find God in the world he has made, even if that forces us to reconsider some of our [long-held] theological positions?”
We then wondered about extrabiblical books, other gospels, the apocrypha, and so on. Are these ‘God’s Word’ in any sense? How does canon come into play, and should we restrict the Holy Spirit to speaking only through what ‘made it in’? And what about other traditions that include other books? Or what about books that were left out, were those for spiritual or political reasons, or some other reason altogether? Finally we wondered, what about words in the Scriptures themselves that portray God in a less than flattering light. Are these too the “Word of God”, or are there instances in the canon where we see humanity struggling to understand God, and perhaps not always getting it right? This latter line of thinking made several mutter “Marcion” under their breath, and made plenty nervous. Others felt these were legitimate questions that we should be able to ask.
In the end, it was a great night. Good beer, new relationships, honest conversation. All agreed that the pub is a place to have these open and honest conversations, to have our thinking pushed, and to recognize that God just might be bigger than we’ve thought. (And of course we ended in plenty of time to watch the Detroit Tigers beat the Oakland A’s behind the arm of Justin Verlander!).
Feel free to weigh in on any of the above topics in the comment section below!