St. Patrick Was Not A Heretic, But His Analogies Are Another Story

This is a great and cheeky little introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of our friend, St. Patrick. (As far as I know, the only of these analogies that St. Patrick ever used was that of the clover…and even that is historically questionable.) The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult. I often tell my students that every attempt to make an analogy to the Trinity will result in heresy. St. Patrick was no better.

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The Problem: You Just Aren’t Religious Enough

the problem you arent religious enoughAn increasing number of people, and especially the young adults that I work with each day, have come to identify with the malleable phrase “spiritual, but not religious.” There is good reason to believe that all kinds of people identify with the phrase, including some of the most highly religious people in the country, those conservative Evangelicals that proclaim “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship.” Even setting this ambiguity aside, it’s undeniable that many folks today are pleased to find “god” without the trappings of associating with a traditional religious community.

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How N.T. Wright Saved My Faith: A Call for Theological Complexity

nt-wrightAfter a couple of years of diving into the depths of theology, it had become clear that the “Sunday school faith” I had absorbed from my local congregation would not be enough to answer my difficult questions. At the same time, the deeply liberal theology of my college professors projected a God that was too weak and too far from the Jesus of Scripture for me to accept. Was I going to have to choose between being faithful to the God that I loved and having intellectual integrity?

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The Tension of Gray

I had a friend ask to write a blog entry about how I understand interfaith relationships and the future of interfaith relations.  His blog can be found at: http://uindyinterfaithforum.wordpress.com/

This is my humble response:

Thirteen years ago I walked into a banquet hall with a 12-foot suspended ceiling (the kind you see in hospitals and grade schools) and completely bare walls.  It was once a roller-skating rink, but this night it had been transformed into a worship space. I mean, I guess it was a worship space, but it looked more like a rock concert.  Huge guitar amps and a 9-foot high wall of speakers told me that this wasn’t like the non-instrumental Church of Christ that I attended as a young boy.  When the room filled with more than 500 teenagers jumping to the lyrics “I believe, I believe!” I knew something was about to change in my life.

Within about three weeks, I realized that this was a radical group of Christian disciples.  And my life was never going to be the same.  It hasn’t been the same. 

About seven years ago, I had another life-changing experience.  This time it was a small chapel with a couple dozen college students.  There was incense and statues and brightly colored robes with a priest who spoke in a slow and monotone voice. He spent the next hour or so explaining each element of the Roman Catholic Mass.  He told us about how the multiple readings of Scripture pointed to the importance of the whole Bible.  He explained about how the Eucharistic prayer recounted a summary of the whole of salvation history.  And then he handed out little wafers and a quick drink of wine and told the group gathered that Jesus was present in those humble gifts: and he meant it.

But I had long thought that Roman Catholics had hidden the truth of Jesus Christ among their stylized rituals.  Suddenly I realized that the faith I held so dear was at the center of those rituals.  After talking with a few Roman Catholic friends, it became clear to me that life was never going to be the same again.  It hasn’t been the same. 

Not only did I discover that I had been sorely wrong about the faith of my Roman Catholic friends, but I began to realize that I may very well be wrong about a great deal of other things.  But you simply can’t live that way.  You can’t walk through daily life without some idea of how the world works and what your place in it is. 

So I made a pledge.  I cannot dismiss the religion of another as foolish.  And I must not give up the faith I hold so dear as I explore life and faith and truth with those who see things quite differently than I.  Those notions were formed in the context of a Pentecostal Christian learning from Roman Catholic Christians.  But the tension between these two commitments doesn’t stop at the border of confession of Jesus.

The tension between learning from the Other and holding on to the faith which gives you life and hope can never be resolved easily.  And the generation who I serve as a University Chaplain at UIndy is ready to fully explore a world that is marked by shades of gray.  I think that the future of interfaith relationships is going to be marked by these two realizations. 

People in the emerging generation have eaten at table with Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Wiccan.  Some of the beliefs and commitments of these folks strike them as dead wrong.  On the other hand, I don’t know very many Christians, even those who count themselves among the radical Christian disciples, who have a prayer life which equals the prayer lives of their faithful Muslim friends.  We have some things to learn from each other, but some of our differences go down to the core of who we are and will never be reconciled. 

Dismissing the Other without questioning your own beliefs and practices is too simplistic.  The problem is, you might be dead wrong: just as I was about my Roman Catholic friends. 

But giving up the good gift that God has given me as a Pentecostal Christian denies the gift that I have to offer the world as I pray for healing and I live for Jesus.  If I give up my commitment that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” to pretend that we all worship the same God, then it seems that I have little to bring to the conversation and little hope for my life or theirs. 

There must be another option: one that is filled with ambiguity.  But the ambiguity encourages a life where faith is the “evidence of things not seen.”  It takes a mature and faithful person to raise their hands to God in worship and be fully aware that another faithfully religious person thinks you are deeply mistaken in that act of worship.  These are things that you discover when you refuse to let these difficult questions at the intersection of faiths be resolved with bumper-sticker theology.

This generation of faithful leaders will not be so easily charmed by images of a black and white world.  And I think their commitment to God will be better for it. 

Some closing reflections

OK, so these aren’t really closing reflections…in many ways they are only the beginning…but here it goes.

2 years to finish my Bachelors in theology
2 years to earn my Masters of Theological Studies
2 years of coursework for my PhD.

I am nearing the end of six years of classes to learn how to talk about God. It’s not that I didn’t talk about God before that. I did. Sort of.

I use to say a lot…I say even more now, but I am much more cautious about what I say. Part of the reason I am more cautious is because the words that I say are often more nuanced and deliberate than they were before. Maybe I am more cautious because I am more aware that I really don’t have this entire theology and bible thing figured out. Before I started this journey, I and all of my friends thought we knew pretty much what everyone should say about God. Now I am much less certain. And then, sometimes I am more cautious because I am aware of how my words may offend others. Sometimes I still choose to offend because I think someone needs to be offended, but I know when I am doing it now.

I think the biggest question at this point in my education and my faith journey is…Has six years of higher education in theology made me a better Christian?

I think that was really the thing that my Assemblies of God friends were afraid of when I left for this journey. They weren’t sure that I wouldn’t come back hating the bible or Christianity, or at least not believing them.

The reason that churches are often afraid of their people going away to school should be obvious by now. A great number of them really do return with big doubts about the existence of God and the truth of the Jesus stories. Even those who still believe are often no good for ministry anymore. They like to include all of the big words for their congregations, especially if those words are in Greek. Of course, the people in their congregations are really impressed with this for the first two weeks. After that they realize that the newly educated minister knows much more about Greek grammar than they do about practicing the presence of God.

So I don’t want to push the question aside that is so often pressed upon educated people of my tradition: Did higher education take away my Jesus?

Maybe the question seems odd. I suppose after all of my ramblings above, it doesn’t seem that odd. I think the question is legitimate.

My first response is …no. I know that learning all that I have about the historical situation in which Jesus ministered has changed my view of what Jesus was teaching. So in some ways, the Jesus that I once believed in has been altered. I use to think Jesus was trying to teach us all how to get to heaven. Now I think Jesus was trying to teach us how to be ready for when God brings heaven to earth (read Revelation 21-22). That is a pretty significant change. Some may see that change and say that my education has taken away my Jesus and replaced him something else. I prefer to think of it more like the man who was blind and Jesus spit in the dirt to make him see. When I was saved, I could see people walking around as though they were trees. Now I see people where the trees once stood. I certainly am seeing different things, but I don’t think that is so bad.

But then, after thinking about it a little, I would have to respond with a really emphatic …NO. I’ll put it this way.

Though it now takes me 25 pages to write the same idea that use to take me seven sentences, I still believe the same things about Jesus that I did seven years ago. I believe Jesus was God incarnate. He was made to suffer on a cross by the Roman and Jewish leaders who feared him. After three days he was resurrected to a glorified body and visited his disciples. And then he ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to empower the infant church to do great miraculous works in Jesus’ name.

That doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

So, why am I writing this?

I guess I am thinking about two people tonight. First, I am thinking about my friends in my faith tradition. So many of them want to be faithful to God and want to be all that God called them to be. I only wish that they would take up a diligent study of theology and trust that God would sustain there faith. I am witness to the fact that this study will only make you stronger as a person of faith.

Second, I am thinking about my friends who want something of the person of Jesus and his teaching of love, but generally think the bible and the confession that Jesus was God is a little strange at best and at worst, dangerous. Many of these friends were told by a science professor in college or history teacher in high school, that religious belief is for the weak. They have been told so many times that belief in God is irrational. I can assure these friends that belief in God is neither irrational, nor dangerous. Believing without thinking can be dangerous. I was that at one time. But a thinking person can evaluate the evidence and believe that Jesus was God, the Holy Spirit still miraculously heals today, and God created the heavens and the earth. And, none of that belief will cause them to kill Muslims or hate homosexuals. If you want to see hatred, read the patron saints of (the New) atheism, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. You will see that religion isn’t dangerous…sin is dangerous.

OK, so hopefully I will have some more time for posting now that I am finishing up my coursework. May this be only the beginning.