- Lately (over the last year more accurately) I have done a great deal of theological questioning and exploration. I have not “arrived” yet (and probably never will), but I think it might be good to take a moment now to tell where I am, so that in the future I can look back on these days and remember how where I’ve been. (for those who aren’t interested in this, skip this post. It is more of an essay really than a normal blog post anyway.)
I’m going to back up though a bit to give you some context on all of this…
Growing up, I came from a strict text-based legalistic Christian tradition (The acapella music only branch of the Churches of Christ). This satisfied me until I got older and began to question the intellectual grounds for that kind of faith. It seemed the more that I studied the Bible, that I could not honestly come to the same conclusions as I was taught to believe.
These doubts came to a head in my early twenties when not only my head but my heart raised objections. Without getting too confessional here in a public forum, my life was going in a bad direction and out of desperation began to pray with an intensity that I hadn’t before. In that moment, I had an experience that could not be explained thorugh the paradigm of a CoC faith tradition. In that experience I heard what is sometimes called “the still small voice” from deep in my heart that addressed clearly the issue that I was dealing with. The problem though was that this was not supposed to happen in a “sola scriptura” (Latin for “Only scripture) faith tradition.
Yet, I knew with all of my being that the experience was genuine, so I knew my belief stucture would have to change.
This experience of direct spirituality set me on a quest to know God in an experiential personal way. In time I decided to embark on this quest in a more deliberate fashion, so I switched colleges (changing from regional public university in Oklahoma to a small theological college in Austin, TX) to be more free to search without familial preasure.
In the end I ended up at a church of a more charismatic persuasion. I still had lots of questions and doubts, but I definitely felt like I fit better there than I had in the CoC. The next few years in general were good ones (some of the best of my life) in which I was part of a faith community that was extremely real with each other. In many ways I came into my own during those days, because those folks accepted me for who I am. I also discovered the joys of a more expressive worship style, the importance of the arts in the life of the church, and especially the importance of personal experience (as opposed to reading about other people’s experiences in a second-hand way) in one’s faith walk.
Yet, there were still tensions in my soul. One of the problems I encountered was in dealing with the practical nitty-gritty of how God speaks, especially in the context of community. It was one thing for I myself to believe that God put something on my heart, but it was something else for someone else to come to me and tell me that they heard something that was intended for me (this practice is commonly referred to as the gift of “prophecy” in Charismatic circles). Sometimes what people “prophecied” to me about seemed to be good, but other times the direction those people had was completely off-base. Thankfully I never experienced manipulation from someone who was falsly claiming to have that kind of gift, but it scared me to know how easy it would be for someone to do that, and how hurtful that would be.
Another concern that bothered me was the issue of how/when God would intervene in this world. — Charismatics generally believe that God works in a very active way today, believing that all of the miracles that are told about in the New Testament can and do happen today. — If one has a charismatic theological perspective, the problem that develops is how can one explain the horrible things that happen in this world like the holocaust?
To me if I believe that God controls everything, then that would mean that God intended for the holocaust to happen, and frankly that idea is reprehensible for me.
If on the other hand God doesn’t directly control everything but just intervenes from time to time, then that raise the question of WHY didn’t God intervene in the holocaust? I know the theological excuses for why God wouldn’t intervene (God’s respect for man’s freewill, etc.) but that to me raises other questions if one believes that God sometimes does and other times does not intervene. (i.e. God must be playing favorites)
Those questions never were resolved but while I was in Austin those questions didn’t bother me too much. The doubts remained but were pushed to the back of my mind as frankly life was not much of a struggle and little came up to really make me question things.
That changed during my last year or so in Austin when the wife of a friend died suddenly. She was a young mother (their first child was born only a few months before) who did well in the pregnancy and everything, but a few months later caught a fluke strep infection and was dead a few days later. — Her death hit me hard and for a time I was bitter and angry at God (and still am to some extent). While in time I came to peace about her death, that experience reopened a lot of doubts that continued to linger.
It was also during this time that I began to grow spiritually in another way, in understanding more fully the social justice teachings of the Bible, particularly those of Jesus. All of my life (in the very deepest of places of my heart) I knew that violence was wrong but I had always convinced myself intellectually that my heart was wrong. As time went by though, I began to realize that I could intellectually back up a non-violent philosophy and that it was good to listen to my heart on this subject.
Finally I moved back to Oklahoma (mostly for economic reasons but also out of a desire to be closer to my roots). Once I settled there I never was able to find a church that fit. I tried several charismatic type churches and found one where I had friends but over time it didn’t seem right either. The folks there were good people, but I couldn’t get past the mixing of patriotism and spirituality (something I never saw at my old church in Austin) and also was beginning to be more and more hesitant about what I saw as the bad points of charismaticism (spiritual manipulation).
So to make a long story short, I ended up back at the CoC I grew up at. At first I went there because frankly I didn’t know where else to go but also because I felt God wanted me there (the congregation had been through some hard times lately and I thought maybe I could be an encouragement to them). Shortly after that, their minister left to go to a more stable situation in ministry, so I ended up becoming their preacher on a part-time basis (starting in the fall of ’02).
But I still continued to doubt. The doubts did not go away but rather grew more insistent. Preaching became such a hard thing, because each week I have to confront my faith head on. I know other people can psych themselves up to preach something they don’t believe, but not me. I either have to believe it I won’t preach it. So… I’ve been focusing on textual studies that are for the most part inoffensive, and avoid pushing deeper into the subjects so as to not offend. I hope and pray that the congregation will be pushed to think deeper on the social justice themes of scripture but I can’t push it on them.
Finally (sorry for the slow buildup)… these doubts and my own faith struggle come to a head about the time this war started. I (as did many others both here and around the world) prayed for peace and continued to pray through everything that somehow, someway peace might come. Even at church (where most of the folks regretably are pro-war) I would pray for peace in the prayers I would lead.
Yet war came.
This finally was the final nail in the coffin. I had to find a new theology to explain how and why God does and/or doesn’t work in this world.
Neither the hyperfaith of the charismatics (esp the “name it and claim it” doctrine), or the lifeless, cold and dull faith of those who think that God doesn’t work in this world at all, would satisfy my heart. I needed something else.
So… where does that leave me? I’m still figuring that out, but I am beginning to sink my roots into some solid truths.
What I do know is that God is real. I can’t not believe in him, if for nothing else because nature is breathtaking and my garden is coming alive. I can’t accept a godless world. It too me makes no sense to my heart, or my head for that matter either. Despite the ugliness, there is still too much good in this world to believe that God isn’t there somehow.
I also believe that God in someway speaks to human beings. Not in the dramatic way (or at least that is not my experience) that the charismatic “prophets” claim, but in that inner place. Really to me the best explanation I’ve read of it lately is from both Emerson and from some of the Quaker writers, in that this voice (if you want to call it that) is that place where you KNOW with all of your heart that something is true or real. It’s that place where I KNOW that war and killing is wrong. It’s that place where I KNOW that all human beings have worth in the eyes of God. In short, that place is what animates us as human beings and is the source off the good that happens in this world. This inner voice is what has given courage to the cowardly, it’s the voice that makes the blind see the injustice around them, it’s the voice that makes us see that life is worth living.
So, I guess I do believe that God works today… but maybe not in the miraculous way, or maybe the fact that he speaks at all is miraculous. In short, it seems that the good that happens in this world is from God… when people do the right thing, when people stand up for what is right, when they listen and respond to that inner voice, then God is at work, and to the extent that we respond to that voice then we are partnering with God.
And I also still believe in scripture. The Bible has so many problems, so many issues (and if you think it easy to understand and has no problems, then forgive my frankness… but you haven’t spent enough time in it.) . . . YET in a very substantial and real way I believe it is true.
I also believe in ritual and mystery. I believe that in communion something tangible and real happens. This really is my biggest point of disagreement with Emerson and the Quakers. I do think that physical actions have worth. The reason I don’t believe that those things can or should be transcended is because I don’t believe in the divorce of body and spirit. I see the world in a more holistic way.
How all of this plays out I don’t know? I’m still trying to figure all of this out, but I do know that this journey is where I need to be. That’s enough to be said for now…