A Gospel Conversation
Let me be the first to welcome you to our new blog, which we hope will be a place of beneficial theological discussion. For some reason I have been commissioned to offer up the first post on the blog theme. If my well-worn introspective piety is serving me properly I can only assume I was chosen because I am the least intelligent of the four of us and so am bound to offer up some fodder for lively critique. Such is my cross to bear.
Although the genesis of this conversational theo-blog has more to do with a place than an idea (see the About page), as the four of us put our heads together about what we wanted to be the guiding image for our group we quickly realized that we wanted to meet on common ground that none of us possessed rather than clamour over contested turf on which we staked exclusive claims. We weren’t trying to do something radical but to be faithful to that which is radically other and yet mercifully revealed in Jesus Christ.
Inspired by a theologian whom we have been mutually studying, we reflected on the imagery of the parable of the prodigal son and agreed with Barth that because the Son has come into the far country and reconciled it to God, we have been commissioned and therefore freed to speak of Him, precisely in our humanity. For us, particular emphasis here needs to be laid on the ‘we’. As we recognise and confess that the triune God has indeed met us in just this way, so are we formed into a community which together seeks to articulate and enact the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In that spirit we would like to welcome you to join our gospel conversation.
Too often, I think, we get gospel conversations in church (or more often online!) which end up being exercises in sidelining one another according to some preconceived idea of what comprises commitment to ‘Absolute Truth’ or the ‘Authority of Scripture.’ In as much as those terms refer to Jesus Christ and his authoritative Spirit-inspired and -illumined self-witness, I am personally very intent to honour those commitments.
But sometimes it seems like appeals to the ‘authority of Scripture’ are actually to the authority of one’s own interpretation or preferred hermeneutic – which is then used as a broom to sweep arguments away before hearing them out. Similarly, sometimes it seems like banners for ‘absolute truth’ are actually veils for the presumption that any one person or group can have absolute knowledge of the truth. I suppose this could just be my preferred hermeneutic speaking, but is it not more proper to confess a living Lord within a community where we ‘consider others better than ourselves’ not just in pious humility-speak but in the way we actually discuss things with one another? Surely I fall short of this often enough myself, but it seems a worthy goal.
I mean, Francis Chan seems incredibly humble in the promo video for his book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and it is an encouraging sign), but if he proceeds with the same caricature-and-dismiss strategy that has been employed by so many early respondents then I think there will be some warrant for questioning the manifestation of that humility.
In Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf memorably expounded ‘the epistemological side of faith in the Crucified,’ describing it as God’s self-giving love at work in those who dialogue with others about matters of truth. Such a thing does not amount to the forsaking of one’s convictions, but the openness to the ever-present possibility of having one’s perceptions enhanced or sharpened by the challenges of others, especially those with which one expects to disagree. Political scientist Seyla Benhabib called this sort of thing ‘enlarged thinking,’ but as Volf explains it it is not a social or rhetorical strategy, but is simply what true followers of Christ do (214, 212). When I turn from Volf to Barth I reckon that the only way they can do it is with faith in a God who was not only crucified but rose from the dead.
We’d be remiss if we turned ‘speaking the truth in love’ into a cleverly perpetuated and justified theological indecision. Only authors of bestsellers and theo-blogs can afford to repeat mantras like the ‘questions are more important than the answers’ and that its ‘all in the journey.’ There is a truth in those catch-phrases , but if they turn into general principles the truth is sucked out of them and their usefulness to actual congregations is diminished.
Rampant curiousity on one hand and stringently enforced protectionism on the other both seem to me to be symptomatic of a community which has its faith in the false peace of conflict-avoidance or unity-contrivance rather than in the Prince of Peace that passes understanding and guides us into it.
While it might be a luxury of the blogosphere to be theologically adventurous and open-minded at the expense of constructive (if provisional) proposals, we will have to be careful not to be so ‘out of bounds’ as to be irrelevant on the playing field. But where it might be tempting to be reactively dogmatic from the safety of our online enclave we will have to be careful not to pretend that we are anything but church-people trying to love the Lord our God with all our minds – connected as they are to our hearts and souls and bodies and neighbours.
Our conversations may at times be pressing and passionate and at times speculative and experimental, and will no doubt enjoy some of the advantages of time and space for reflection, but if our theology is totally disconnected from the church and the world it ceases to be theology. Not because we can presume to say anything about God, but because where two or three have gathered in His name He has promised to be with us.