For some time now I have been using the metaphor of “clearing space at the table” to describe the nature of my discussion on the Untangling Christianity podcast.
Specifically, I have been likening the notion of presenting new approaches and understandings relative to Christianity to the phenomenon of coming to a full table and, before being able to add anything, needing to clear space.
During a recent exchange I was asked to justify my view that there is need for anything more at this table. After all, Christianity has the benefit of centuries of careful work on the part of a host of intelligent and dedicated individuals, people who have not only carefully considered the Christian faith but lived it out with conviction. What more is needed?
Quite a valid question.
Before answering it, however, I think that it’s best to note a few things that I am not doing. First, I am not clearing the entire table. This would be impossible (because I cannot remove or erase this history: it exists and impacts me whether I am aware of it or not) and counter-productive (no one has the resources to “start fresh” with a new construal or presentation of Christianity). Second, I am not trying to assert my perspective but to argue for it: to present not only my views but how I hold them and the reasons why I think these views are preferable to other, existing views.
In fact, I view the very process of “clearing space” as deeply respectful of other views. In other words—and to follow the metaphor—instead of merely piling my contents on top and ignoring whatever is already there, as if my views are the only ones that count, I engage with the existing views even where I believe that they are partial, problematic, or even harmful and erroneous. Hence the beginning of the tagline to our podcast: “Defusing destructive ideas, unsnarling confused ideas . . .”
So what makes me think that the table needs something new?
What about its current contents is problematic, and why?
My own experience of Christianity, or what I might call a “constellation” of experiences, is one indicator that something is wrong. John has a sufficiently similar constellation of experiences. And having spent 3 of the past 20 years living and studying at Swiss L’Abri (and over 10 other years in very close contact with the branch’s director) I have met and heard of hundreds of Christians whose patterns of experience seem similar.
But not just this.
The books that John and I began our podcast by evaluating—books read by thousands—were written to address just the sort of thing that would precede the movements away from Christianity that John, myself, and others have taken (John faded away from Christianity, I rejected it outright and utterly, etc.) indicating that many Christians experience their faith not being satisfying, not working out, or just plain “not making sense.”
And as if more proof were needed, there are dozens of cultural barometers gauging the vitality of the evangelical church in the Western world to be at an all-time low, despite a resurgent interest in “spirituality.” I think the issue is best summed up by an evangelical pastor who was recently invited to a gathering of atheists. When asked what they would see as their major “beef” with Christians, the atheists were incredulous: “We don’t have a problem with Christians. . . Christianity is simply irrelevant!”
Thus the issues that I see are twofold.
First, Christianity has indeed become largely irrelevant insofar as it has lost credibility with those outside for not having thoughtfully and intentionally engaged with the major issues of time.1 Second, Christianity is fragmenting internally precisely because it has substituted personal piety and maintenance of community boundaries for thoughtful, intentional engagement with our world.
And why has this happened?
To my mind it is the result of many factors, but a core reason is that many Christians understand Christianity in an unbalanced or partial manner. In general terms, the evangelical church typically preferences biblical truth over all things, even the idea of loving their neighbour by valuing his or her ideas as much as we value our own. Similarly, the liberal church (and more recently, elements of the evangelical church that are attempting to bridge the “credibility gap” with those outside of Christianity) preferences love over truth, honouring acceptance and listening to the exclusion of critique.
I believe that aspects of both are true, but neither are valid separately. In other words, the Christian church suffers from improperly formulating the relationship between truth and love, and thus incorrectly engaging with and embodying both. Hence the second part of the tagline to our podcast: “considering love and truth in Christianity.”2
There is still much more to be said on these subjects, both by way of defusing destructive ideologies / unsnarling confused ideas and, most valuably, by way of considering how love and truth are best understood within Christianity, then within human existence, and finally what the best interaction may be between the two.
- Namely, the relationship between faith and science (epitomized by the evolution / creation debate and recent work on neurology, sociobiology, etc.), the nature of human sexuality, the nature of hell, only to name a few. ↩
- I have argued for many parts of the above reasoning elsewhere, particularly in my blog. ↩