Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Decline and Fall...

In his book, "The Great Divorce" C.S. Lewis tells the story of a group of 'ghosts' from a grey, paltry, dreary depiction of Hell on an excursion trip to the bright and overpowering reality of Heaven. They are met there by 'Spirits,' bright and real, former friends, relatives, and associates whose task it is to convince the ghosts to stay, although it will hurt at first (even the grass will not bend for the incorporeality of the ghosts' feet) and grow into the same blessed state that the spirits experience.

One of the conversations that occurs is that of two artists, one spirit and one ghost, that touches on there past lives as the avante garde of their time. Toward the end of their time together, the spirit shares with the ghost some information that obviously had not reached Hell yet, namely that the school of art their group had been up against (whatever it was) had won out in the popular arena and their own paintings were now not even selling in second hand stores. Shocked and angered, the ghost chooses to return to Hell to continue to build up the society of fellow art ideologues.

This story is well worth thinking about when it comes to present 'trends' in theological thinking. But first I need to take issue with the word 'trend' itself in this context. When a group describes their ideas as being part of a trend, what they're really doing is claiming something that is really beyond their grasp, namely that in future, their successors will build on their ideas and that their influence will continue past their deaths. It's something they really can't know. I realize that in taking issue with the use of this word I am being a bit obscure. I haven't actually heard anybody use it. But in formulating this blog post I realized that up till now, I have felt that I was part of a larger trend, but based on what follows, I am not so sure.

So what's this about anyway? Well it's this. We're going to lose. Those of us who desire to read the Bible intelligently, to be open to new ideas, (yes, even I want to be open to new ideas, though I my project is always to integrate them with what is already known), and to do the work of reasoning through what is now taken for granted so that the church and our faith will be based on consistent truth will all die out. We are not a movement that will continue into the future. We are a generation that will pass and be forgotten.

How can I say such a thing? First of all, the effort of theological thinking may feel like a calling but in reality it's a hobby shared by comparatively few. There are other interests, you know. Some people watch hockey games. So the truth is that there are roads in our minds that we have gone down completely alone and we have very few others who can understand or relate to what we can tell of those trips. So there's just not the critical mass out there for the church to forever change as a result of our ideas.

Secondly, based on the lack of intellectual interest (I'm not calling anyone dumb, you understand; just not interested in the same stuff) in the subject matter, nuanced thinking, nuanced reading of scripture, nuanced teaching about God, is very hard 1) to transmit and 2) (for the recipient) to remember. Take inerrancy for example. It's much easier to remember, store away, digest that the Bible never makes mistakes, than to have to come to each passage and process what it says on the basis of many varied inputs. But if you are not committed to that process, your choices are accept or reject the Bible on the whole. Like I said, it's much easier just to sign up under inerrancy. So if you have a teaching based on a nuanced reading of scripture, it's sure to die out with its nuances.

Thirdly, there's a population factor. Some years ago, as I understand, the Democrats in the U.S. were surprised and sort of outwitted by the fact that although they had all 'drank the Kool-Aid' of birth control, Republican supporters had not and suddenly (a generation later!) there were numerically more Republicans than Democrats -- simply based on biology. Similarly we have to face this. Christians with an intellectual bent do not reproduce (or evangelize, if you like) at the rate that non-Intellectuals do. Our focus is narrower and our apparent enthusiasm is less. We lose here too.

Fourthly, worst of all, I don't think God is on our side-- if there are sides. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the children and the childlike. Being acceptable to God comes from faith, not correct or well thought out doctrine. The champions in the church are not the theologians, but actually, or so I believe, the old ladies in prayer meetings, the Jesus people sorts who will sacrifice their lives to go to the ends of the earth, and the brand new Christians who, like John Wimber in his spiritual infancy, would lay their hands on their fridges to heal them when they broke down. These are just not the milieu that will naturally absorb or pass on our version of things, but they are the people God loves. If there was the revival some of us still pray for, there would be lots of them but hardly any more of 'us.' I used to help sometimes at a church service for the developmentally challenged and there was a girl that would pray every time in what seemed to me the strangest manner. It grated on me, to be honest. But then I had to accept that maybe, even likely, her prayers were more precious to God than mine. A conscious exercise in humility, maybe, but possibly even true.

Am I being pessimistic? Maybe. After homegroup this Thursday, when we decided to have a go at studying a favorite NT Wright book, (I think I have mentioned Surprised by Hope before) the thought struck me, "I wonder how old he is," and after that, "I wonder if we will still be talking about him after he dies." From there it was a short step to "I wonder whether anything I have said will last past the grave..."

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