Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lesson from Sem 5: Ammo for the war

Contradiction is the end result of any stereotype. I mean, sooner or later you'll find a smart blond, or a black guy that likes to swim, or an old person who likes to drive fast. You might even find a Baptist who is reflective, but that's a stretch. My college sociology textbook said we use stereotypes because they are convenient, not because they are universal. I haven't yet found a reason to disagree with that.

This lesson from sem will be a bit of a contradiction of Lesson from Sem 3: Classmate disappointment. Don't get me wrong, that post was accurate, but tends toward a stereotypical view of all my classmates as stupid and lazy. Reality, of course, is more complicated.

When I went to seminary, I was hoping to be taught things I didn't know. At the same time, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the things I did know. When I learned things that didn't mesh with what I thought I knew, it was a signal that I should look more closely into what I was holding on to. During this journey, I let many things go. It was a scary and uneasy time of purgation. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Christian journey on the narrow way of salvation is one of fear and trembling. This realization, I believe, is the beginning of wisdom.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars is Scot McKnight. He runs a blog called "Jesus Creed" that I have linked on the left. He has jokingly referred to teaching at a seminary as "working at a 'Semitary'", but there are teeth behind the joke. A lot of students file into grad school with everything figured out. They know what they know, and no matter how many logical arguments, philosophical trends, or historical facts you throw at them, they will not be swayed. These kinds of students are like the living dead, petrified in their system of beliefs, unwilling and unable to take a fresh look at the Bible, or their church, or their theology.

I'm not entirely sure why people like this go to seminary, since they already have everything figured out, but I can tell you the result. Instead learning the importance of new ideas, these students learn how to defend against the new ideas. Seminary time becomes a place where battle skills are sharpened for the impending war with liberals, Roman Catholics, pagans, and atheists. Instead of learning the fascinating history behind sacramental theology (communion and baptism, to name a few), these students learn the history so that they can poke holes in it, dismantle it, and put their system in its place. Instead of exploring and being disturbed by the critique of postmodernism, these students build sturdy defenses around the holes and the gaps in their own system, they scour the Bible to gather scriptural support for their beliefs to defend against any attacks, and they develop preemptive rhetoric to belittle and stymie their opponents.

I can think of a couple of examples, most of which are too long to blog about, but in one of my classes, we were discussing what happened on the cross. Yes, Jesus died, but what did that accomplish? The Bible speaks of it in a couple of different ways, but probably the most dominant way the Bible speaks of it is the "penal substitutionary model". Essentially, the model means that some punishment was required for the sin of individuals and humanity as a whole, and that Jesus was our substitute for that punishment. Jesus took our place as God poured out the wrath He harbored for humanity. The penal substitutionary model was the primary one used by Luther and Calvin in the protestant reformation, which is probably the reason it is the only one most protestant Christians are familiar with. And, trust me when I tell you, there are lots of Christians that believe the penal substitutionary model is the ONLY valid way to think about the cross.

But the Bible has other models for Jesus' work on the cross. So, one of the students asked a very fair question: "Can a person be a true, Bible believing Christian and not use the penal substitutionary model as their primary way of thinking about the cross?" The reply from those who were dogmatic about penal substitution was disappointing, but predictable. "Sure, it is possible to read and believe the Bible, and then to contradict what it says." In essence, this preemptive statement shuts down the conversation in a pretty heinous way. We weren't just having a debate among Christians about the meaning of the cross, we were instead calling each other hypocrites and heretics.

The lesson I took from all this was that many Christian leaders don't go to seminary to learn about what they don't know. They don't go to gain wisdom and understanding that is rooted in knowledge. They go to gain ammo for the impending spiritual war, or "Battle for the Bible", or to defend against the "attack on the family".

I'm not saying those things are bad. On the contrary, I think both family and scripture are very important. But scripture indicates that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, and is characterized by peacefulness, reasonableness, and mercy, none of which are compatible with a petrified theology or war-like behavior.

With that in mind, I fear real wisdom in our Christian leaders will be in short supply.

What do you think? Do Christian leaders seem more war-like than they should? Does wisdom seem to be in short supply?


Eric said...

Yes and yes! You are sounding like a liberal now. However, God empowered people to kill entire villages indiscriminately.. Jerrico comes to mind first. And so, being a Christian seems to mean fight and kill whenever you think God might be suggesting it. Then there's Jesus, of course.

My question back to you regards your statement: And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Christian journey on the narrow way of salvation is one of fear and trembling. This realization, I believe, is the beginning of wisdom.

Why does it lead to fear and trembling? Of all the things the bible says, they usually start with "please, for the sake of children, stop being afraid!!!" (NEV (new eric's version))

Benjamin said...

Fear and Trembling? Hmmm. When I talk about fear and trembling, I mean a hundred things at once. To really explain, I would have to send you back to Kierkegaard, who has influenced my thinking greatly. Kierkegaard was an interesting man (eccentric?), and his writing is an acquired taste, so keep that in mind if you decide to read him.

I suppose when I talk about fear and trembling it might conjure up images of a person too afraid to do anything - of a person paralyzed with fright. A component of that exists in what I mean in "fear and trembling", but what I really intend is for that kind of fear and anxiety to be oriented and conditioned by the God who is love.

The theologian LeRon Shults, who has also greatly influenced my thinking, talks about it in reference to the Spirit. The Bible pretty clearly talks about the Holy Spirit as wild and blowing wind, which cannot be controlled, which blows where it pleases, and which comes upon us and does things that disturb us at our core. For Christians, the thought of a Spirit like this should invoke fear and trembling in us, because we can't draw a box around this sort of Spirit and convince ourselves that it will only do things within the box. This sort of fear and trembling prompts us to be attentive.

Let's use the example of a girlfriend, though it can apply to wives and kids as well. With a girl you really like, there is an element of anxiety. You are afraid she might think you are a dork, or not relationship material, or not funny enough, or good-looking enough, or whatever. This anxiety orients your behavior towards her. Ultimately, you have no control over her thoughts and actions towards you. She is a free agent you desperately want in your life. Here is where fear and trembling come in - you never know if, at any moment, she might decide to leave you, or chose to hurt you. You become vulnerable and naked in your intimacy towards her - you stand in fear and trembling before her power to crush you. You could do things to make her less scary and more controllable, but those sorts of things are usually called abuse. Yet, when she choses to turn her face towards you, and be vulnerable in response to you, and love you even with all the faults you fear she will hate, your anxiety is soothed, and you are freed to be more of yourself than you were before - in the ideal case it might even free you to be a better you than you were before.

But, as most couples psychologists agree, when the fear and trembling ceases, then the relationship is over. When you no longer care whether or not your actions will garner her love and attention, relationships crumble.

As much as I can boil it down to a blog comment, this is the image I try to invoke when I speak of fear and trembling. Since I think truth, God, and wisdom are not like something you "have", but something you pursue (like a woman?), then I believe the fear and trembling language applies.

My argument in this post is that some people think wisdom is the accumulation of "facts" they can use to dismantle someone else's "facts".

"Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."

That being said, I'm not sure I'm ready to get on board with the NEV. :-)

Tracy P. said...

"The lesson I took from all this was that many Christian leaders don't go to seminary to learn about what they don't know. They don't go to gain wisdom and understanding that is rooted in knowledge."

I definitely agree that there are many Christian leaders who seem more war-like than they should. I would say that in proportion, they probably reflect the general population. (Which, perhaps, is very sad.) Some people are just prone to be militant. I think this could even be said of people with a "peace" agenda. The most militant are the loudest, sound the angriest, and get the most press. I guess my question would be, what would it look like when someone with that type of God-given personality surrenders it to the control of the Holy Spirit? Which of God's purposes could best be accomplished through such an individual?

Yes, I have turned off some of my once-favorite radio programs for this very reason. And it is disappointing that there are many seeking Christian leadership positions who view seminary as just a necessary hoop to get them a job, rather than a preparation process to get them the maturity and foundation of knowledge they need to develop into true leaders.

Benjamin said...

I wonder, too, what would happen if a person with a war-like disposition surrendered to the control of the Spirit. Somehow I think of David - or maybe Paul. It seems to me (and I'm probably biased) that their response means that they aren't petrified in their beliefs. At the end of the day, that's what I'm most concerned about.

Even Luther and Calvin were HIGHLY militant in their beliefs, but seemed open to theological reimagining. Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda was their motto!

I was reading an article on Friday that reinforced some of my opinions of modern evangelicals - and even used some of the same language. You can read it here.

It is indeed sad to see people who view seminary as a hoop. It is even sadder to see people who fancy themselves Christian leaders and avoid seminary because they think it is a joke - that somehow intellectualism and spirituality don't mix. I haven't seen that many up north (maybe I've been looking in the wrong places), but they abound down south.

Mirabel said...

Good for people to know.