Friday, November 8, 2013

A Bigger and Messier Faith

The first time I realized that the Christian faith was was way bigger and messier than anything I'd experienced, encountered, or been exposed to up to that point in my life was when I read Roger Olson's The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity in an undergraduate systematic theology class.

In Mosaic Olson argues for a both-and theology, as opposed to an either-or theology, within what he calls the Great Tradition, while surveying 2,000 years of unity within diversity of Christian thought and practice in the Church.

I'm still recovering from and continue working out the implications of this profound insight of Olson's that hit me like a thunderbolt when I first encountered it:

"Too many Christians identify 'authentic' Christian belief with one narrow slice of Christian thought. Part of the process of Christian maturation is recognizing legitimate diversity and even disagreement within larger unity and agreement . . . Great Tradition Christianity holds both unity and diversity together. Christians can be and, at their best, are 'of one mind' about important matters related to God, but they also ccontribute richness to that single worldview with their various perspectives." (Olson, Mosaic, 12)
 And then this:

"What if instead [of either-or thinking] Christians began to focus on synthesis rather than analysis? Instead of focusing obsessively on differences as if they could never be reconciled, what if God's people looked long and hard for the truth in seemingly irreconcilable but equally biblically supported beliefs and doctrines?" (Olson, Mosaic, 23-24)
It was revolutionary for me. Raised as I was in a very narrow, conservative, fundamentalist-type background where one was taught our way is the only correct way and everyone else be damned, Olson's book opened up a whole new world for me.

(Wait. You mean Catholics or Presbyterians or Anglicans, or Orthodox folks or [insert any Christian denomination] just might be saved too?!?!?) I was definitely not in Kansas anymore!

Several years later I took a history of Christian thought class in graduate school that proved to be one of the most fascinating and informative classes in my theology program. Of course it may have helped that the primary textbook was written by two close friends and mentors of mine and taught by one of them. (Thanks Chad and Jim!)

But the actual content we covered and the conversations which ensued were downright captivating. It was especially engaging to discover the roots and original conversations and controversies which gave rise to certain theological themes and liturgical practices (or lack thereof) prevalent in the tradition and stream of Christian faith to which I belong and work and serve as a pastor-theologian.

As I continued thinking about these things -- reading, conversing, learning, and being challenged -- and then later began working as a budding pastor-theologian -- preaching, teaching, praying, listening, discipling, giving spiritual direction, and leading local churches in our complex, post-everything, 21st century world -- several things converged that propelled me toward a new, broader, more inclusive, and I dare say more loving perspective than I'd previously had before encountering Olson's Mosaic. It's a perspective that can perhaps best be described by the phrase a generous orthodoxy (with kudos to G.K. Chesterton, theologians Hans Frei and John Franke, and pastor-theologian Brian McLaren -- especially McLaren who wrote a book entitled A Generous Orthodoxy).

I'll write more about what a generous orthodoxy means in future posts. In this post I simply want to make an observation, already alluded to at the beginning, but which needs to be said:  

Christan faith is way bigger and messier than many of us realize or have been taught

And it always has been so. If you don't think so, read 1 and 2 Corinthians or Galatians or most any other New Testament epistle where problems, misunderstandings, conflict, and controversy are being addressed.

Some things never change! But then again, many other things do.

While it's certainly true that consensus emerged over time on some absolute non-negotiables (like the deity of Christ, for example -- indeed the most prominent controversies in the early church dealt with the nature of the person of Christ), there is a real sense in which theology always has been and will continue to be an ongoing conversation as people wrestle with Scripture informed by the Great Tradition, and in light of their cultural context, experiences, and new insights spawned by technology, science, and scholarship, among others.

There's a complex matrix of factors that we're probably not even fully cognizant of which informs why we believe what we believe and do what we do. There are things we believe and do today that weren't necessarily what they believed and did 1,500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, or even 50 years ago.

Some things haven't changed; or at least they haven't changed much. And other things will NEVER change -- like the fact that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and was then seen by many witnesses (see this distillation of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

But other things have changed dramatically. Indeed, by many accounts, we are even now in the midst of a massive RE-think where some older paradigms are being critiqued and nuanced and newer paradigms are emerging. It's nothing to fear. And in a real sense it's nothing new. It's what's been happening for 2,000 years of church history. And I suspect it will continue on until Christ finally returns and the kingdom is fully and finally consummated.

In short, Christian faith is paradoxically both ever-rooted in some core essential, unchanging truths and practices, and yet also ever-evolving as new generations encounter the Gospel, interpret Scripture and tradition, and make sense of the faith and live it out in their context. 

In my next post on this topic I'll discuss why knowing a bit about church history is important for this task.


D.C. Cramer said...

Well said, Sam. I used Mosaic when I taught Sys Theo at Bethel. I hope it had the same effect on students it had on you!

Sam Ochstein said...

Thanks, Dave. I hope so too! I think Olson's Mosaic and McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy ought to be required reading for all theology students.

D.C. Cramer said...

I like the former more than the latter; maybe Mosaic could be required and GO recommended!

Sam Ochstein said...

A good compromise. Without a doubt I would require Mosaic. But I'd highly recommend GO.