Tomorrow’s Theology. Today’s Task.

A recent article in The Banner, the online and print magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, began with the following:

I suspect that a thousand years from now Christians will look back at the 21st century and say, “How could Christians have let themselves think that?” They’d have in mind our theology—some of the doctrines that are so precious to us and that we consider to be the backbone of Christianity.

Some saw this as provocative. Some as overstating the case. Others as unthinkable.

My thought was, “People are already saying this now.”

EvolutionGodThe article more or less centers around the issue of evolution, which, at least in one form or another, has attained a near consensus status among scientists as being part of the process of the development of life on earth, including all animal life. Animal life includes people, which is in many ways where the rub is.

Are we, as C.S. Lewis puts it in the Chronicles of Narnia, the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”?

Scientists argue that it is not genetically possible for present DNA diversity to have issued from a single pair of ancestors in recent history.

So the writer of the provocative article in the Banner rightly notes that we must begin to assess certain readings and/or doctrines which seem to rely upon a view of the world which may not, in the end, be accurate.

Yet some would say, can’t we just read the Bible literally?  Well, no. At least not accurately (with regard to science. Or literature).

As Pete Enns put it in a Biologos article:

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.

There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.

In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.

So reading the Bible literally is problematic for scientific and historic reasons. And there is another reason:

There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins.

Bingo.

And many people realize this, and have realized it for some time.

But apparently not certain readers of the Banner.

Objections ranged from: “Asking a whole lot of big complex questions without any attempt to answer it is not helpful” to “This article should have never made print” to “This article implicitly affirmed a lot of heretical propositions” and finally, “Is it possible to overture Synod to remove and replace the editor of the Banner for behavior so damaging to the well being of the churches?”

There were many more reactions, some of which were very thoughtful, others of which were more of the above (and worse!).

Was it a perfect article? I suppose not. But neither was it terrible. It opens the door to further dialogue, and that’s what we need. It is OK to ask a lot of big questions. And not only OK, imperative. Asking questions is an important, crucial step in learning anything.

Whenever you are no longer allowed to ask questions, you can safely assume you’re no longer in a good place.

We should be asking questions, and not just about tomorrow’s theology a thousand years from now, but about what we might, by grappling with Scripture, science, and the best of human understanding, believe today about ourselves, our world, and God.

Many are already doing it, and we should join them.


A few recommended resources:
Looking for the Missing Link – a documentary by my friend Leo Hagedorn
The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins – Pete Enns. One of the best works I have read regarding how we are to read Adam through the biblical lens, both as understood in Genesis, by Israelites and Jews, and by Paul and Jesus.
Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned to Ask The Questions – Rachel Held Evans
Network for Science, Technology, and Faith – the Episcopal Church

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19 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s Theology. Today’s Task.

  1. “What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach. We may admit that our groping is often inspired, but we must be on our guard against the belief, however deeply felt, that our inspiration carries any authority, divine or otherwise. If we thus admit that there is no authority beyond the reach of criticism to be found within the whole province of our knowledge, however far it may have penetrated into the unknown, then we can retain, without danger, the idea that truth is beyond human authority. And we must retain it. For without this idea there can be no objective standards of inquiry; no criticism of our conjectures; no groping for the unknown; no quest for knowledge.” (p.39)

    Karl Popper
    Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963)

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    1. Nicely done. In that same work Popper further shows the difference between theology and science:

      “Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them.”

      Karl Popper
      Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Harper & Row, 1963)

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  2. Bryan,

    That was a very helpful response for understanding where you’re coming from. Thanks very much.

    I am left, however, suspecting that it’s not really possible to hold certain aspects of your position consistently. In any and all of this, I certainly welcome clarification and correction where I have misunderstood you.

    The first reason I suspect your epistemology is inconsistent is because the scientific knowledge you suggest is so much more firmly knowable than non-empirical knowledge (like theology) is itself dependent upon non-empirical faith/trust. For example, science cannot demonstrate that our minds are reliable. We have to presuppose that before we can assume we “know” that what science/math seem to be demonstrating is, in fact, true. And in order to assume that the mind is reliable, we need a worldview that warrants such a presupposition. Perhaps you’re familiar with Alvin Plantinga’s contention that if naturalistic evolution is true, we’d have no reliable way of claiming to know it’s true. You must first have a (Plantinga argues “theistic”) worldview that gives you proper warrant for the presupposition that our minds are reliable. So my point here is that even the claim to “know” empirical proofs is itself dependent upon non-empirical presuppositions that are an awful lot like, if not identical to, faith.

    In addition, based on the epistemology you articulated, I’m not sure it’s consistent for you to put as much confidence in the modern theory of evolution as you seem to do. The theory is an interpretation of empirical data filled with enormous non-empirical presuppositions and extrapolations (data that many submit can be interpreted very differently). I contend that to be as committed as you are to the modern theory of evolution requires copious amounts of faith in non-empirical (I’d even say some are counter-empirical) assumptions.

    The second reason I don’t think you can hold your view consistently is because it appears certain aspects of it are self-refuting.

    You wrote: “I do tend to get more bent out of shape (or care, as you noted), when people insist on unchanging positions on these matters of faith, as if we know these things definitively, objectively, and without question. We do not.”

    But you sound pretty definitive here. And this statement is exactly the kind of statement that you assert cannot be known definitively; that is, it’s not the kind of claim that “we can prove or quantify or put in a test tube.” Thus it seems to me to be self-refuting… you sound quite certain that we can’t know these kinds of claims with certainty.

    You also wrote: “So what John and I were articulating was not ‘a doctrinal line’…”

    Let me first define what I mean by “doctrine” so that we don’t miss each other on semantics. I don’t really care whether or not we agree to the term “doctrine;” I just submit that whatever we call it, we’re both talking about the same kinds of claims. By “doctrine,” I simply mean a claim or assumption about God or humanity or the relationship between the two. And by that definition, I would call John’s and your view ‘doctrinal.’ A ‘stance toward doctrine’ itself necessarily assumes things about God, humanity, and/or the relationship between the two.

    By this definition of doctrine, the statement, “What’s true about God (i.e. doctrine), isn’t as important as following Jesus” is doctrinal. Not only is it doctrinal in itself, it’s loaded with other doctrinal assumptions (e.g. God isn’t that concerned that we know what’s true about Him (either that, or He just hasn’t been clear enough for us to know); Jesus is, for some reason, important enough for us to follow; we can somehow know what it means to ‘follow Jesus;’ etc.) And again, it seems to me it’s also self-refuting doctrine; it’s an assertion/assumption about God that asserts assertions/assumptions about God aren’t important. And in spite of your insistence that we can’t know these kinds of things definitively, you hold this non-empirical conviction at least definitively enough to advocate for it.

    And the last reason I’ll give for why I don’t think you can hold your view consistently is that I strongly suspect that there are assumptions about God / humanity / the relationship between the two that you are as firmly committed to as any empirical reality.

    You seem to be saying that, while you trust certain things about God, you have stopped shy of asserting anything about God “objectively and definitively.” But I wonder, how long would some member of your community have to claim, for example, that “God wants us to kill blacks” or “God hates homosexuals” or “God wants us all to be rich” before you’d get, to use your words, “bent out of shape.” How long before you would conclude, “Ok, we’ve let him say his peace and be a part of the conversation, but that view of God is (definitively and objectively) mistaken. And if we even consider compromising with a view like that, we will necessarily misunderstand God / humanity / the relationships between the two (i.e. doctrine).” And by what authority / criteria would you draw this line? Or wouldn’t you?

    In conclusion, I submit that the line you’re drawing between ‘more certain knowledge’ and ‘less certain knowledge’ cannot be drawn between ‘the provable / quantifiable / empirical’ and the ‘non-provable / etc.’ I fully agree that knowledge of God and knowledge of the physical world are not arrived at via identical means; and yet I believe we can know things (not everything) about God with just as much certainty as the empirical things in the world around us. The proper debate, I submit, is not about whether anything is definitively knowable about God / humanity / the relationship. The proper debate is about what is and is not definitively knowable about God / humanity / the relationship.

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    1. Hi Craig-
      Thanks for continuing to engage and for some thoughtful pushback.

      I do realize that there are presuppositions at work in all of our views about anything, including whether or not the mind is reliable. I also get that there is a sort of “faith” involved in many views, including materialist ones, as well as in evolution. Agreed. But faith that a chair will hold me up when I sit on it, or that my car will start when I turn the key is not of the same order as faith in a very specific supernatural being that no one can see based on ancient texts in a language none of us speaks from people we’ve never met. Those are entirely different ‘truth claims’, and it is unhelpful to lump them together. I disagree that, as you said, we can know about this divine being with “as much certainty as the empirical things in the world around us.”

      In the scientific approach, we often find that culture is not the defining factor for one’s findings (though it may well play a role). But one pound is 16 ounces whether you are Scottish, or Chinese, or Pakistani, or an American (US). Yet a simple definition of God=Jesus is not shared based upon where one is born. If these areas of knowledge were on a level playing field, we should expect that it would be shared. But we know better than that.

      Science works based on testable hypothesis, repeatable experiments, peer-review, and the like. This doesn’t make it infallible. Hardly. But it will have some consistency across varying labs, research facilities, and nations.

      Religious faith, on the other hand, is often largely based on the accident of one’s birth, the culture one was raised in, as well as the things mentioned earlier (ancient texts, etc).

      There is rigorous work that has gone into developing and postulating various scientific understandings and theories, including evolution. These views are all subject to modification and adjustment as our knowledge increases. But that doesn’t mean the process is unreliable. In fact, that might be a preferable approach to our usual theological approaches, in which we entrench ourselves in a given view regardless of new information.

      As for some of my views being self-refuting, I’m not sure I agree entirely. I would say that it *is true* that we don’t ‘know’ certain things about God definitively and without question. If we did, we would *be* God.

      But it turns out we are human, and our view is, as Paul puts it, through a glass darkly.

      If we had definitive, unquestioning, absolute knowledge of God, there would be no need for faith. We would be automatons responding to the obvious.

      God called his people Israel because they were those who ‘wrestled with God.’ Are we any different?

      To call the claim “we can’t know certain things definitively” self-refuting because I’ve just said we can’t know certain things definitively is clever. But notice I’m saying certain things, not everything. Though I may lean toward the latter. And yes, how do I know that? I don’t. As with anything, it is an educated guess.

      I also agree that we can call anything we’re discussing about God and humanity as ‘doctrine’ and our practices/beliefs/values as ‘doctrinal lines.’ Obviously. I just choose other language because for many of us those words connote rigidity, inflexibility, and lack of imagination.

      So where am I coming up with those practices/beliefs/values or ‘doctrinal lines’? By what I see and read of in the person of Jesus, who (by faith), we understand to be the fullest and clearest picture of what God is like. But this also means that I might give preference to a parable of Jesus about forgiveness or an injunction to forgive 70 x 7 over another text which portrays God himself as being unable to be so forgiving (are we really called to a higher standard of forgiveness than God himself?).

      So sure, we have standards, values, lines – obviously. It’s hard to be coherent without it. But that said, we seek to be generous in our orthodoxy, welcoming and hospitable in our practice, and incarnational in how we live our lives. And I get it that those are all based at some level on presuppositions and faith — which is the whole reason not to be overly obsessive about exactly where those lines fall. (Taking this approach does not mean one has gone to the absurd position of ‘everything goes’).

      Subjectivity is unavoidable at some level in our own understandings of Scripture, theology, science, or any other area of knowledge. But as Merold Westphal notes in his terrific book on hermeneutics, this does not mean our only option is radical subjectivity or ‘anything goes.’

      As for your framing the argument about what is definitively knowable about God/humanity/the relationship, I’d ask, what do you mean by ‘definitively’? If you mean absolute, unquestioning, and with 100% accuracy, I’d say: nothing. If I had that kind of knowledge, I’d have no need for faith, and would be quite intolerable, much like the resounding gong Paul speaks of avoiding in the name of love.

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      1. Bryan,
        Just a quick note to let you know that I appreciated your response. I had intended to reply by now, but haven’t had the time. I do still intend to do so.
        Just didn’t want you to think I had stomped off.
        Craig
        P.S. How’s the beer selection in D.C. as compared to West Michigan?

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      2. Bryan,

        Sorry again for the delayed response.

        First of all, just quickly, I guess I could be clearer that I’m not trying to claim that scientific knowledge and theological knowledge are the same. I’m trying to zero in specifically on the issue of “confidence”. The question I’m trying to answer is this: Can we have the same level of confidence in (some, not all) theological faith that we have in scientific observation? For example, can one be as confident that he/she is loved by God as he/she is that the chair will hold him/her (even though they’re two different kinds of knowledge)?

        My answer is yes. Because I believe such knowledge comes from the Holy Spirit, and through the Holy Spirit we can be (not that we always are) just as confident in (some of, not all of) the unseen things of God as we are in the things we’ve observed. I would also say yes because I believe the language of scripture denotes this kind of confidence and assurance. So, again, my contention is not that theological knowledge and scientific knowledge are identical. Rather, I’d contend that through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, we are warranted in having as much confidence in (some, not all) theology as we have in empirical realities.

        And even though we disagree on this point, what I find most relevant to our conversation is there is a level of confidence that you and I share when it comes to (some, not all) theological claims. I’m not too concerned with the semantics of what we call this confidence (definitive, educated guess, or otherwise), but I’m talking about the kind of confidence that leads one to say or think things like the following: “I’m committed enough to this position to suggest that those who disagree are wrong. I’m committed enough to this position that I will argue against those who contradict it and push them (however gently) to change their views. In fact, I may even be committed enough to this position that I believe teachers in the church have a responsibility to defend this view; and not present it as open to negotiation.”

        And whatever we call that level of confidence; I simply want to acknowledge we both have it in regard to certain theological assumptions.

        I gave the example of people who might believe that “God hates blacks” or “God wants us all to be rich”. I can only imagine that, however pastoral and gentle and patient you might be with someone making such a claim, you have the above described level of confidence that he/she is mistaken (i.e. you’d argue against them; you’d not be very open to considering that they’re right; you believe that teachers in the church should not present such a view as being a legitimate possibility). And for you to have that level of confidence does not make you “anti-question.” It doesn’t mean you assume you have an infallible doctrinal structure or that you know everything there is to know about God or that you ARE God or anything of the sort.

        Well, that’s the level of confidence I (and those you push back against in your article) have toward some of the views Walhout throws out. Just as you would say that the person open to considering that “God wants us all to be rich” is entertaining error (as would I), so I’d say the same about the view that the fall, original sin, the role of death, and salvation need to be radically changed to account for the (I believe seriously mistaken) modern theory of evolution.

        So getting back to the initial claim I made at the very beginning of our exchange, the debate is not so much about whether or not we permit questions; it’s not so much about being humble vs. being over confident; and it’s not so much about whether or not to draw ‘doctrinal’ (or whatever word you prefer) lines. We both believe there are things we can be this confident about. The real question is what those things are and are not. The real question is where the lines should be drawn (and how do we know?); not whether such lines should be drawn at all.

        So I’m happy to debate evolution, Adam and Eve, etc.; but I suggest that debate is already on the wrong foot if the main issue is framed as “question permitting” vs. “question stifling” or as “free inquiry” vs. “line-drawing.” The debate is over where the lines are.

        And so, more along the lines of discussing the details of Walhout’s article, I do not dispute the reliability of the scientific method itself. But in historical science (as opposed to operational science), we’re not dealing simply with the scientific method; we’re dealing with non-empirical interpretation of data. And interpretation of data, particularly when we’re talking about origins, is necessarily influenced by worldview.

        When it comes to the historical sciences today, there’s only one worldview permitted for interpreting the data (meaning, you can’t get published or taken seriously if your claims contradict the framework…no matter how much your claims fit with the data itself). And as long as the evidence is only permitted to be interpreted through a certain framework, no evidence will be seen as challenging that framework…instead, all the data will necessarily be read as reinforcing that framework. The framework I’m referring to is naturalism.

        I’m not saying all scientists are naturalists—of course not, but when they publish their work, their proposals must be entirely naturalistic to be considered legitimate. Which means that IF biological diversity does not have a fully naturalistic explanation (which I’d argue is the contention of scripture), then the presuppositions of modern historical science have already precluded them from reading the data accurately, no matter how much data they amass—in much the same way that IF a client is guilty (but wants to plead innocent), his defense attorney’s story is already precluded from being accurate.

        The notion that historical science is free of worldview and bias, and simply ‘goes wherever the evidence leads’ is, I would contend, quite mistaken.

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      3. Hi Craig-
        Thanks again for continuing the conversation. Good stuff.

        I appreciate you clarifying or shifting the conversation to ‘confidence’ rather than seeing various forms of knowledge as equal. An important distinction, and I apologize if I was missing that earlier.

        This conversation could continue forever, but I think you’ve helped us move to some fruitful ground here. I think we’d agree on some areas of confidence, and disagree on others – but yes, trust in the Spirit is a key component in these matters, as is the textual witness, the historical witness, and so on.

        And yes, historical science is not free from bias or worldview – but neither is theology, whether we are developing it in the first, third, or 21st century.

        As for the beer selection in DC, it’s not bad, and the local craft beer offerings are on the increase. Hard to compete with Michigan, I think – but then, I’m still a bit biased (there it is again!) toward the mitten state.

        Thanks for the conversation, and it’d be fun to pick this up over a pint in the future.

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        1. Bryan,

          Thanks to you as well for the conversation. I thought a number of times that this conversation was much more ideally suited for the pub. It’s a small enough world…who knows.

          The only place I’ve been (and I’m not that well traveled) that’s better than Michigan in the craft brew department is Denver. So, rather than attributing your preference to ‘bias’…I think a more apt description would be ‘good taste.’ Michigan’s pretty excellent that way.

          Thanks again and blessings as you continue your transition,
          Craig

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    1. Thanks for drawing out some reasons to show that that phrase is not helpful. Such language is often employed to win an argument without having to do the hard work of actually having an argument.

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  3. Brian,

    My name is Craig Hoekema. I’m a fellow CRC pastor in Sarnia, Ontario. I think we overlapped a bit at seminary but didn’t really get to know each other.

    I appreciate your openness to questions and share a desire for a reasonable faith that both welcomes and can stand the light of intense questioning. I believe that is the faith scripture commends to us. The question your blog leaves me with, however, is not so much the role of questions, but whether or not you believe certain answers to certain questions are ever out-of-bounds; and if yes, when and how do we know that?

    It’s one thing to say we should allow for these types of questions. It’s quite another to consider that some proposition, other than the clear teaching of scripture, might be the right answer. Walhout doesn’t just say, “Here are some things we need to be thinking about.” He clearly says that there are doctrines we are going to have to change. And these doctrines he suggests we change are fundamentals of the Christian faith. They are doctrines on which the most essential truths of our faith rise and fall.

    The issue is not so much whether we permit questions. The issue is whether certain questions have right and wrong answers. I will let my children question why 2 + 2 is 4. But I will not let them think that the answer is open to ongoing consideration.

    Do you see any validity or usefulness in the distinction I’m pointing to?

    Craig

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    1. Hi Craig-
      Thanks for stopping by.

      I would say that we should be open to whatever might be true, and not assume we already know what that is, nor assume that we hold to a doctrinal structure which is infallible in every respect.

      The simple fact that there are hundreds of doctrines and deviations within the larger umbrella of Christianity (today and throughout history) shows that in many (some would say most) situations there is no such thing as: “the clear teaching of Scripture.” Thoughtful, well-meaning Christians disagree on just about every point one can imagine.

      Just because one’s doctrine ‘rises and falls’ on whether a certain presupposition is true, this does not make the presupposition true. It only means that there might be more restructuring of one’s views if that key point turns out to not be accurate. A simple example, as Walhout notes, is whether or not a historical Adam existed. Given the nature of the biblical text itself, and leaving aside science, this is a dubious proposition. Literarily, we have in Genesis two creation stories, which are clearly told from differing perspectives and don’t line up if one reads them literally. Further, the poetic-mythic nature of the stories themselves lend toward reading them symbolically or parabolically, rather than as actual history. Add in the scientific realities that nearly precludes the possibility of the diversity of the human genetics deriving from one single pair, the age of the earth, evolution, etc., and it becomes fairly clear that the idea of a simplistic perfect garden origin is a nice story, but not actual human history.

      This does throw a wrench in a number of other doctrines, but that’s not a good reason to keep holding on to something which may not actually be the case.

      This is stuff we can and should be wrestling with—in the church—and not shying away from, at least, not if we’re actually seeking what might be true, and not assuming we already know.

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      1. Bryan,
        Thanks for your response. I appreciate the conversation.
        To try and keep a manageable scope on what could otherwise be a huge conversation, I’ll try to zero in on my initial point, and if you’re open to further conversation about the details of evolution/Adam & Eve/Genesis, I’d be happy to do that as well.
        You wrote: “The simple fact that there are hundreds of doctrines and deviations within the larger umbrella of Christianity (today and throughout history) shows that in many (some would say most) situations there is no such thing as: ‘the clear teaching of Scripture.’”
        The question I have for you would be, “Yes, but is there such thing as ‘the clear teaching of Scripture.’ at all?” Is there anything in scripture that could be classified as such? And if so, would that “clear teaching” be an authoritative presupposition for guiding further inquiry?
        Or another way of asking the question is this: Are there certain scriptural truths that, if one denies them to be true, he/she is no longer “within the larger umbrella of Christianity”? And if so, isn’t it appropriate for those who are “sure of what they hope for and certain of what they do not see” to rule such denials out-of-bounds?
        My inclination, Bryan, is that it’s not fair to frame this as “those open to questions” vs. “those closed to questions.” I suspect and strongly hope that you (as a teacher of the gospel) have doctrinal lines that you believe, once crossed, will result only in confusion and deception. It’s really a question of where those lines are.
        Craig

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        1. Craig. Your note inspires me to write a blog post next week on your question–“Are there such things as “the clear teaching of scripture.” I think I’ll give it a go. It is a good question. That is a different question, however, than your followup question (which presumes a certain answer to the first question, which sort of begs the question) “Are there certain scriptural truths that, if one denies them to be true, he/she is no longer “within the larger umbrella of Christianity.” With that second question you’ve burdened yourself with all sorts of rationalistic, propositional, Enlightenment kind of presuppositions. And does the answer –if there is a correct one–even matter? In Matt. 25, just for example, there doesn’t seem to be much concern about the relation of doctrine to being on the right side of judgment (a great works-righteousness text whose plain sense we’ve devoted many commentary pages to explaining away). Many who say “Lord, Lord,” presumably because they believe they have the answers, are on the completely wrong track. Don’t worry so much about being within the larger umbrella or crossing doctrinal lines (or not crossing them). Focus on the following, on trying to do the right thing because we have seen what that is in Jesus (who wasn’t much on systematics himself, from what I can tell–if the historical record, as contradictory as it is, is to be trusted very far to make such judgments).

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      2. John, thanks for jumping in, I was just shaping a reply somewhat consonant with yours.

        For me, creating lines is not the point. I’m interested in cultivating a community of people following Jesus for the good of all creation, and exactly what one believes on insolv-able (insoluble?) doctrinal minutiae is neither here nor there. (I tend not to think of doctrinal statements created by later councils—with somewhat questionable motives—as being on par with revelation. That isn’t to say I dismiss them out of hand, hardly. But I don’t consider them infallible either).

        That said, I suppose things like, “Does God exist?” and the divinity of Jesus are fairly central, but even there, I’d be happy to have an agnostic humanist in my group, or a God-believer who thinks Jesus was simply a person highly in touch with God, but not different ontologically from any other person in history – yet still worth following and emulating.

        And as John noted, even if there is a ‘right stance’ on some of these things – does it even matter, or is it even the point? (Or is it even perfectly know-able by us?)

        Our tradition, as rich as it is, has gotten so hung up on refining orthodoxy to more and more precise terms that orthopraxy is seen as secondary and optional, whereas for Jesus, it seemed the other way ’round.

        (And I get that you can have both, I’m just not sure the former is worth all the energy we spend on it).

        Are there things that the Bible clearly teaches? Sure. But even so, some of those things we no longer believe or hold to (God commanding genocide, or endorsement of slavery, or patriarchy, or polygamy, or the sun standing still, or ancient cosmology, or…), so even there you haven’t necessarily arrived.

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        1. Thanks again for your reply, Bryan.

          I hear in you an ambivalence toward truth that I’m not sure I’ve quite understood. I’d love clarification.

          On the one hand, your blog itself is intended to address those who shut themselves off to further learning by assuming they already have the right answer. And you said in your reply that we should be open to truth, whatever that might be. You seem interested that people not shut themselves off to what’s “true” about science and history. In these types of comments I sense from you that you value the truth and think we should be seekers of truth who continually adjust our views to align more and more with what is true.

          But then in your last post I sense a tremendous indifference to truth. You “suppose” God’s existence is an important truth, but you don’t really care whether or not people believe it as long as they want to emulate Jesus. And you ponder whether or not it even matters that we have the “right stance”.

          So with regard to the first emphasis I hear in you, I’m left wondering why you don’t share the same desire that those in your community accept what’s “true” about God’s existence and Christ’s divinity (or do you?). But with regard to the second emphasis, I’m left wondering why you care that people don’t want to listen to Walhout. What does it matter if they shut themselves off to (what you and he believe) is “true” about these matters as long as they want to emulate Jesus?

          So these are things I genuinely seek clarification on. Again, it seems inconsistent to me; and so I’m not sure I’ve understood you.

          With regard to your comment: “For me, creating lines is not the point. I’m interested in cultivating a community of people following Jesus for the good of all creation.”

          “Creating lines” isn’t “the point” for any of us. However, it’s simply a necessary part of what it means to form any kind of community with any kind of purpose. How can you possibly cultivate a “people following Jesus for the good of all creation” except by defining that as a necessary requirement for being a part of your community? You could not do what you’re doing except by saying to those who “seek to reject Jesus and harm others” that their views and conduct are not in line with what your community is all about.

          Do you see the self-stultifying nature of John Suk’s statement to me: “Don’t worry so much about being within the larger umbrella or crossing doctrinal lines (or not crossing them). Focus on the following, on trying to do the right thing.”

          The statement itself is a doctrinal line he’s telling me to work within. I need simply ask, “Should I agree with you? If yes, then aren’t you encouraging me to ‘be within’ your doctrinal lines? If not, then why did you just tell me to do/think that?” And how can I “do the right thing” except by having “rationalistic propositional” assumptions about what “the right thing” is?

          I’m appreciate the conversation and look forward to clarification. Thanks Bryan,
          Craig

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      3. Craig-
        Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

        Yes, clearly there are things that are true and things that aren’t true. We can agree on that. However, our ability to know definitively which of those are true is where it gets trickier.

        Too often, in our Western modernist approach, we conflate knowing with facts. And we conflate facts with truth.

        We need and rely on facts in many areas of our lives.

        As someone else has noted: “Almost anything we need to do in the physical world depends more or less on the reliability of factual information. Catching a train, using a computer, cooking a meal, wiring a plug, even holding a conversation all rely on the basic accuracy of factual information.

        The point is simply that facts, while vital in practical matters, are nonetheless limited, partial and provisional. They cannot tell us everything about all we need to know, and in some areas they can tell us very little of use. There are whole dimensions of our lives in which the kind of information that underpins science and technology is largely useless. These are the areas that deal with things like meaning, purpose, value, rightness or wrongness, human relationships; with things like suffering, death, love, eternity and God. For these we need another conception of truth, one that encompasses the ideas of personal truth, poetic and symbolic truth, non-factual or beyond-factual truth.”

        I tend to think that too often we equate the kind of knowing we might have for math and science and technology with the knowing we have for theological mysteries. They are not of the same order. The knowing that we have when it comes to matters of God and Spirit are more like trust, and require a certain amount of faith. We cannot plug Jesus and the Spirit and God into an equation and come out with 3.14, or three in one, in a way that is verifiable scientifically. It doesn’t even make sense to talk that way. In that sense, the Trinity is not a ‘fact’, like 2+2=4 is a fact. It is a matter of faith, hope, and trust.

        So in our community, we tend to value things like: relationships, incarnational living and following Jesus: having a measurable impact on one another’s lives and the world around us. And yes, we do those things in the context of faith and trust that certain things of mystery are also true: God exists, invites us into community with him and others, and is at work in the world through us, and knowable most keenly through Jesus. But these are faith claims. Not things we can prove or quantify or put in a test tube. And so I don’t get bent out of shape about things that are at heart mystery, and at best, ‘known’ at the level of trust, not verifiable fact. I do tend to get more bent out of shape (or care, as you noted), when people insist on unchanging positions on these matters of faith, as if we know these things definitively, objectively, and without question. We do not.

        So what John and I were articulating was not ‘a doctrinal line’, but a stance toward doctrinal lines, more like an ethos and set of values. You can call it a doctrinal line if that makes you feel better.

        You asked how we know what the right things are in terms of what we seek to do as a community: that is why we are in community, to listen together to the biblical text, to seek to understand the message and model of Jesus together, and to listen to the Spirit in how we might incarnate God’s love today.

        Ultimately, I’m not unwilling to rethink certain doctrines that are grounded in this place of trust when we learn new information (comparative religion, unearthing of new texts, archaeological finds, better understanding of historical context, linguistic advances, etc); or, as they come into conflict with new findings in mathematics or science, for example.

        Not that doctrinal positions are up for grabs, but—since they are by and large at the level of mystery and faith—as we grow in knowledge in other areas, our ways of articulating ideas about God and humanity will need to grow and shift, even as we grow and shift. To think that faith doesn’t evolve and grow is mistaken. It does, and we do. If something isn’t growing (including our faith), we usually classify it as dead.

        To me, focusing on relationships in community, on deepening one’s spiritual life and practice, on making a real difference in our neighborhoods and city – that is what is exciting, meaningful, and worth investing in. Being open to the mystery that is God, yes! But claiming that everyone signs on to such declarative and definitive theological statements (some of which the biblical text itself contradicts) that they remove all mystery when it comes to God, even in the face of evidence to the contrary: for some reason that is less and less compelling to me and many others.

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  4. Been there (both as editor and as someone who came to realize that if evolution is true then we have to start rethinking a lot of stuff). My daughter-in-law is a biological chemist who does DNA research. I wrote about her and evolution at: http://tinyurl.com/cgsaqw3 Her story is quite compelling, I think.

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