Truth-seeking & outsiders

 

I don’t believe Jesus came to save us from our sins.”

In a room full of Evangelicals, you could imagine the reaction!  How could the leader of a Christian study centre possibly say that?  What could his strange words mean?

“Strange” words can indicate that someone is an outsider—a stranger to our way of thinking and viewing the world.  For evangelical Christians, strangers come in two general types: those who have different belief sets (non-Christians) and those who call themselves Christians but who read (and understand) the Bible in very different ways from Evangelicals.

Recently I discussed how, in a small town, belief sets play a key role in defining group membership—they are more about facilitating bonding between people than getting ideas “right.”  By corollary, in these contexts conformity is prized over diversity and intellectual complacency (rather than critical investigation) is the norm.

In such a context divergent beliefs or openness to questioning status quo beliefs—being unwilling to “check your brain at the door”—creates discomfort and suspicion.  To be accepted in such churches one must either share a bounded set of common beliefs or be willing to acquire them.  Otherwise, one is different: an outsider.  And at best, outsiders don’t belong.

The irony, of course, is that welcoming strangers is a Biblical norm, and Jesus self-identifies with the stranger (Matt 25:40).

Now Evangelicals may object: surely they accommodate many who are different.

They accommodate physical differences, for example, by creating special access and seating for wheel chairs.  Likewise they accommodate intellectually differences (e.g., developmental challenges), perhaps by special classes and teaching.

However, for evangelical Christians to “accommodate” those who are ideologically different (non-Christians) or methodologically different (like liberal Christians, who read and understand the Bible differently from Evangelicals) would amount betraying their Christian beliefs, which Christians cannot do.

The error in such thinking is failing to see that accommodating a viewpoint need not mean accepting it.  For if Evangelicals agree with Augustine that “all truth is God’s truth” then they need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Last and most importantly, as those called to love their neighbour “as themselves,” this includes respecting (if not always adopting) her ideas and texts as much as our own.

So how does this work?

Just as Evangelicals have empathy for physical differences and compassion for intellectual differences, so they need openness for ideological or methodological differences.  So “accommodation” for such differences amounts to dialogue which, unlike dispute, does not seek for the weaknesses in what is said, but for its real strength.

True dialogue is thus truth-seeking, and the openness that it requires is self-awareness: understanding that I know in part, but not in full.  Thus dialogue requires both: an openness to listen, a willingness to critique.

If my assessment is accurate it’s easy to see why most Evangelicals have no real interaction with ideologically or methodologically outsiders.

For where churches prize acceptance there is no real dialogue, for dialogue on contentious issues promotes conflict.  The result is that when it comes to ideas the church is not a place of reciprocity and openness, but of receiving and conforming.

Rejecting dialogue causes two misfortunes.

First, it forces newcomers to divest themselves of their identity in order to acquire some supposed, uniform Christian identity (as though being “in Christ” [Gal 3] is about personality as opposed to being about character and relationship).  Second, it serves to reinforce the church’s insularity as a “tribe”—keeping existing tribesmen untainted and unthreatened by anything that from outside.

 

Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins.”

No, he didn’t.

Matt 3:2 and 4:17, Mk 1:14-15, and Lk 4:43 all prove it.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, which includes me (and my need to be delivered from the harmful patterns and negative consequences of so many of my orientations—my need to be in right relationship with God) but is neither mine nor primarily about me.  The difference is subtle, but the impact is crucial.  Thankfully for those that heard this comment, a healthy dialogue ensued.

2 thoughts on “Truth-seeking & outsiders

  1. ps – I don’t believe Jesus came to save us from our sins. That story never made any sense to me… I’ve tried to figure it out several times and seriously, how would that even work? How could Jesus dying on the cross somehow pardon us of our sins… for eternity… what? I don’t get it… and if I have missed something somewhere, and you were being facetious above, please let me know… otherwise, glad to have stumbled upon another “non-believer”! Ha!

    • Hi Mama,

      Yes, this is a tough one. On the one hand, there are many problems with the idea that the whole issue with humanity is “what we do wrong.”

      First, there is the philosophical read on the first few chapters of Genesis, where the most basic notion that strikes us with the conflict that arises between Adam, Eve, and God is that evil is already there. In other words, wrong is something that is both outside of (and before) and yet also comes within humanity and human action.

      Second, there is the primacy of love to the Christian God’s own nature. God is love. And here we come up against what I view as a false hierarchy that many Christians have created between viewing God as sovereign and viewing God as father (and parent). So where the emphasis is placed on God’s sovereignty (as it typically is with evangelicals), we find that God’s majesty, truth, and holiness become prioritized over God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. (Despite numerous examples to the contrary–see Jesus’ “Corban” discussion in Mark 7, for instance).

      So if God is mostly “about” right & wrong (i.e., about truth & what we do with it) then we can expect that God is primarily concerned about sin (i.e., that humans should avoid wrong & not ignore the truth about who they are and how they should act). But if God is mostly “about” love, then we can expect that God is primarily concerned about establishing and / or righting relationship with us. And this nicely coheres with “greatest” commandments–that those who follow Jesus are firstly concerned with loving God, themselves, and their neighbours (for we only love our neighbours “as ourselves”).

      Yet I am not, in my turn, trying to create a new hierarchy (or simply to reverse the typical, evangelical hierarchy) by rigidly setting love over truth. When we do so we arrive at a place not far from Greta Vosper in her With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. Instead, my deep belief, which is reaffirmed by my experience, is that in both human existence and divine character love and truth remain in a flexible, productive tension where each informs (and sometimes corrects) the other.

      So my orientation in trying to understand the notion of sin has been to maintain a productive tension between love and truth, best achieved by a twofold movement.

      First, it involves the reflexive project native to much of philosophy and epitomized by Socrates: that I must know myself. So I seek to be a good reader of myself, and a truthful “writer” of my own story–a story where I am the actor (living my life), the narrator (trying to weave together the various, disjointed aspects of my existence into a meaningful whole) and the audience (where in hearing myself recount my tale to others, and sometimes just to me, I make sense of what I’m doing and why).

      Second, it involves the interpretive project of allowing the biblical text to have “its due,” to try to understand it as best I can (with all the tools at my disposal). So despite how much I may innately disagree with what I find there, my goal is best to assess what these biblical notions truly are, and then to put these in dialogue with my other understandings (of self, world, other, and God).

      And for me the second one goes with the first because of the experiences of God I’ve had. In other words, it’s as a result of having had my life transformed by experiences of love and truth with God that I am willing to put the biblical text in this position of authority. Not authority above all other truth, but authority as truth. And as truth that has been contextualized by love. So where the text seems to paint a picture of God or Christianity that is all truth and no love (or the reverse), I’m suspicious. Because the God I encountered (and who encountered me) is both.

      So as far as the notion of sin goes, I am working through a number of resources related to the context in which sin is presented/ understood in the biblical text. These include resources related to the covenant, the atonement, God’s love, etc. And I bring to these my readings both of myself and of the Bible.

      Okay, much more could be said here, but I’ll save it for later–there’s a post (or more) in all of this!

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