According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Not Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater (A Message for Abused Ex-Fundamentalists)

Having decided to submit this article by Roger Olson I can't say that he and I didn't have similar fundamentalist backgrounds - with the exception that my brand of faith was less harsh, and more lenient, in many ways from his own (mainly because my family were not as closely connected to our Baptist church, which was not Pentecostal, by the way). But still, when growing up spiritually in the Lord as a young child, the Christian faith I was taught focused a lot on the "do's and don'ts", to actively participated in like-minded tribal associations of fellowship, and to go to conservative bible colleges not dissimilar with Roger's own experience. However, I was fortunate in that regard too, because the Christian college I eventually ended up at was beginning to "come around" and though we had regulations of dress and so forth, they were also hiring "intellectual" professors into our fundamentalist faith culture. Which made all the difference for me (and also explains the beginning of "evangelical creep" into the fundamentalist church movement as I was experiencing it.... not rules and regulations but "Jesus" and His "message"). I could also witness firsthand my teachers struggles and the administration's frets over lost of funding and purposeful dedication to yesteryear's standards. It allowed a person to "breathe" a little, and that was all that I needed, without the feeling of incrimination that could've grown up in its place.

Too, I was the first home-grown member to have graduated from seminary in my home church. It was an honor and I longed to do the work of ministry but very soon found that I wasn't "qualified" to be a worker without going through additional deprivations and church-based mentoring. After years of struggle (and many years of church-based ministry at my home church) I could not afford this last demand and so became isolated. My church was growing a lot during this time and had dozens of young men now willing to make this last effort (sometimes to the harm and peril of their family life). As such, the best I could expect was Sunday School ministries of some kind, and no longer the personal discipleship nor promotion of opportunity I had hoped from my pastor. Several years later another church requested my services (my wife's church) - from the Sunday School level - and offered to me grand opportunities for ministry from kids to senior adults. I choose college & career (which much later transitioned to older single adults) and the rest is history.

Those were wonderful years with the blessings of God in them. But again, curiously, this mega-church was focused on other recruitable volunteers and never once sought to present to me formal church staff ministry opportunity. Not that I had wanted it because, quite frankly, I was now married and forming my own family, and quite past the mindset of believing I could ever minister in a formal capacity again (I'm sure my shyness, or lack of confidence, had something to do with it). Rather, I was focused on God's present blessings and opportunities and was taking full advantage of them. Consequently, "formal" ministry (in the "paid" sense) never became my life path. Perhaps a past regret but now no longer a personal desire.... For I had determined that my approval comes from God and not from man. And have ceased to be concerned over the lack of purposeful recruiting by my brothers and sisters. I was in lay ministry and did not have time to think about seeking full time staff ministry. I was there to help and not self-promote. To serve and not to worry about personal recognition. These are foolish temptations better left to the devil and the world. From here, at the lay level, God has given the keys of the Kingdom, which if left to a church board or congregational vote may have been ripped out of my hands. I could therefore focus on spiritual ministry and not waste time or anxiety on lesser matters. And so, without realising it, God had blessed me by allowing ministry where ministry was thought not to exist. I had mine own pulpit of God made without earthly hands and it was enough.

Consequently, I find a great amount of sympathy for Roger in his article below. And applaud the determination he found to become the minister of God that was waiting for him. It took courage (and I imagine a bit of "growing up" in the "public-tack-and-personal-frustration" department). But God kept Roger to the course He had for him. And to that end Roger has been a great blessing to us as our favorite informal "resident" historical theologian on this blog.

In the same way, to you my readers, do not give up on God. However harsh, however incredulous, however idiotic fellow Christians and churches behave around you. Be mature and act maturely. Be wise. Be informed. Learn to speak your position better. More tactfully. Even bravely. In all things reach out in love and keep self-incriminating judgment at bay. This is God's department not ours. We judge of-a-kind but ultimately it is for God "to clean house." And, as has been said so many times through this year, "Be at peace." With yourself. With your circumstances. With God and society. We only seek to uplift God's name not our own. When that relationship is understood than all else will fall into place. Be at peace my brothers and sisters. For God reigns and will direct your life at every opportunity we give to Him for this to occur. Amen.

R.E. Slater
August 26, 2012

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On Not Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater (A Message for Abused Ex-Fundamentalists)
1 Thessalonians 5:19-20

A few years ago I must have said “We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” once too often because when I said it the whole class burst out laughing.

That’s okay; one thing I know about myself is I’m funniest when I’m not trying to be.

I confess it. I do like that rustic saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It very well describes a struggle I’ve been involved in for many years. In some ways, it defines my personal struggle with my religious heritage.

After teaching Christian theology to college and seminary students for 27 years I’m confident I’m not alone. Many students share my struggle in their own ways. The same is true for many of my colleagues and friends.

Some succeed in not throwing the baby out with the bathwater and some don’t. I’m not here to blame anyone but to share my struggle with you and hopefully encourage you if you find yourself involved in such a struggle.

That saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”—has an interesting history. I have heard one explanation of its origin that seems a little far-fetched. Allegedly, back in the Dark Ages, peasants bathed only once weekly. They would fill a half barrel with soapy water and the family members would take turns bathing in it. Of course, the father would go first. Then the oldest son. Then the mother and children. The baby would be bathed last and by then the water was so filthy it was easy to lose the baby in the bathwater—especially if you looked away for a minute and the baby sank down into the water. So, the tale goes, occasionally the baby would be thrown out with the bathwater.

Personally I always found that explanation unlikely. The urban myth debunking web site snopes.com agrees with me.

While nobody knows who first coined the saying, it seems to come from Germany and the first published appearance is in a 15th century book of German poems. Interestingly, Martin Luther used it in a 1526 letter. He wrote “Man soll das Kind nicht mit dem bad ausgiessen.” It’s first use in English was by British essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1849.

I suppose I probably first heard it from one of my grandmothers. They were always going around uttering quaint advice like “Watch your ‘p’s’ and q’s'”—whatever that means.

But this saying—”Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”—however quaint and odd seems to paraphrase Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians well. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 he instructs them (my translation): “Do not quench the Spirit or despise prophecies. Carefully examine all things and hold on to what is good.” In the next verse—21—he tells his readers to “reject whatever is harmful.”

Some English translations translate the Greek word δοκίμάζέτέ “prove” thus rendering the verse in English “prove all things.” That doesn’t make any sense in modern English, of course. In the past “prove” could mean “test,” but today it generally means something else. So a good, workable translation for today is “critically examine everything.”

Thayer says δοκίμάζέτέ means “to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see whether a thing be genuine or not)”, as in metal testing. It is used often in the New Testament and in the Septuagint almost always meaning critical examination of something to prove its validity.

The context of this verse is “prophecies.” Paul instructs the Thessalonian Christians not to despise them. Immediately he then instructs them to critically examine them which raises a lot of questions the foremost being “how?” Paul doesn’t answer here. And that’s beside the point for my purposes.

My only intention in choosing this passage as a “text that has shaped me” is to support and defend something much neglected in Christian communities—especially conservative ones. That something is critical thinking and testing of things within the church and Christian organizations.

But Paul then goes on to say that after they have tested prophecies (or whatever) they are to hold firmly to what is good. The implication, of course, is that they were to discard what is bad.

Don’t you wish Paul had finished his thoughts sometimes? I can just imagine the Thessalonian Christians listening to this letter being read to them and asking in consternation “How?” “By what criteria are we supposed to critically examine prophecies?” We can only wish with them that Paul had given specific instructions about that.

I’ll never forget when this text first hit home to me. You know that “Aha!” moment when experience and text come together and suddenly it means something very existentially compelling to you? That happened to me. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the place and the time frame. Then this text became a great comfort and challenge to me.

I grew up in a form of Christianity most of you can’t even imagine. Sometimes I’m even embarrassed to talk about it. Whenever I meet someone who also grew up in it I want to grab them and sit down and talk at length. I want to say “Hey, let’s form a support group!” Often I find they went one of two directions with it—either deeper in or farther away.

You see, the religious form of life I was raised in was almost cultic in its extreme legalism. I’ve come to refer to us as “urban Amish.” We lived in a city, but we regarded everything and everyone around us as bound for hell unless they repented and joined our group or something very much like it.

Television was held in great suspicion; it tended to come and go in our home. Our first television was a rented set so that I would have something to do when I was bed ridden for months with rheumatic fever when I was 10. A 10 year old can only read the Bible so much. And reading the Bible was strongly emphasized in our home and church. Anyone who had not read the Bible all the way though—including all the “begats”—by the time he or she was 12 was considered destined for hell. (I exaggerate only slightly!)

When I got well the television stayed for a while, but then it went back to the rental store and we didn’t have another one for years.

Movies were absolutely Verboten. “What if Jesus came back while you were sitting in a den of Hollywood iniquity where people have sex in the back seats?” Seriously. That’s what we were asked by Sunday School teachers. I didn’t darken the door of a movie theater until I was 20.

I think you get the picture. But more pertinent to my story than all the rules and regulations that governed almost every minute aspect of life was the one great unspoken but always enforced rule and I learned the consequences of breaking it much to my detriment.

That one great rule was “Don’t ask why.” Of course, it was okay to ask why IF you asked in the right spirit and with the right attitude—one of humble acceptance of whatever answer was offered. But if you asked why really challenging a rule or a belief or a custom you’d better watch out. Your eternal soul was in jeopardy. Here I do not exaggerate.

You see, our form of Christianity was not garden variety fundamentalism. It made fundamentalists look like liberals. We considered fundamentalist Baptists liberals because they didn’t believe in the supernatural gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues and healing.

My stepmother was the epitome of our spiritual way of life.

When we went on family vacation we had to find a church as close to ours in beliefs and practices as possible and attend it in Sunday morning—Sunday school and all.

I got punished for putting my school books on top of a Bible at home.

My brother and I weren’t allowed to wear cut off jeans, to say nothing of shorts, or to swim with girls—which meant no swimming in any public pool. Occasionally our church would rent a YMCA swimming pool for an afternoon or evening. But the boys sat out while the girls swam and vice versa.

My problem was that I pretty much kept all the rules and, in spite of them, had a marvelous, life-transforming experience of Jesus Christ in that context, but as I matured I couldn’t stop asking “Why?” Why this rule and that belief? And when the answers weren’t satisfying I kept asking.

When I was in sixth grade I must have asked too many questions in Sunday School because one Sunday the teacher stood up, threw down his Sunday School quarterly and said “Roger, you teach the class” and stomped out. I did teach the class. Needless to say, I got a spanking that afternoon.

If you grew up in our church there was really only one option for college—our denomination’s Bible college. Everyone went there. To not go there was to put a big question mark over your spirituality. It was a deal breaker—not to go there was to be shunned by family and friends. So I went there. And I suffered four years of hell.

We were not allowed to ask questions in class unless they were simply for clarification of a point. The whole curriculum and pedagogy was about indoctrination. And there was a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the school.

I simply couldn’t stop myself from asking the “Why?” question. “Why do we believe that?” “Where does that tradition come from?” “Why do we do that?” Most often the answers were less than satisfactory and I was labeled a trouble maker for persisting in my questioning.

At a particularly low point in my college career I came across this verse—”Examine all things”—and felt released from guilt and condemnation. I came to realize that I was being spiritually abused. That my elders had created idols out of highly questionable beliefs and practices and were using shame to manipulate and control students—especially those few of us who dared to question the idols.

One day the president of the college called me into his office and told me not to come back to school the next day unless I got my hair cut. My hair then came down a bit over my collar and about half way over my ears. Men were not allowed to have “long hair” or facial hair including side burns. (Not that I could ever grow side burns anyway!) I got my hair cut, but that was a turning point for me. I knew I was being singled out for special abuse because of my constant subjecting of things to critical examination.

During the second semester of my senior year the college’s board of regents discussed not allowing me to graduate in spite of my grade point average which was 3.5. They finally decided they probably couldn’t legally prevent me from graduating, but agreed among themselves to blackball me from finding a position in the denomination.

I was tempted to run as far as I possibly could from that form of Christianity. We called ourselves “conservative evangelicals.” Did I even want to be an evangelical Christian anymore? I wasn’t at all sure.

But I kept coming back to a few really amazing experiences of the reality of Jesus Christ in my life. They kept me anchored in my evangelical faith even as I slowly but surely shook off the extreme fundamentalism and legalism and anti-intellectualism of my home, church and denomination.

The last straw for my family and church and denomination was when I enrolled in seminary. I was the first person raised in that denomination ever to go to seminary. My people always called it “cemetery.” Enrolling in a Baptist seminary assured that I would never again be welcome among my own people.

At that seminary I found a very different flavor of evangelical Christianity—a warm-hearted but at the same time tough minded evangelicalism that was not at all threatened by my questions. And I drank deeply at the wells of open, progressive evangelical theology and it tasted so good.

As I progressed on into my doctoral studies I met many young men and women who had grown up in religious environments like my own and I noticed a pattern. It seemed they either were incapable of thinking for themselves or they rejected evangelical Christianity entirely. I determined to do what I didn’t see very many of those friends doing—keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.

It hasn’t always been easy. Where’s the line between legalism and righteousness? Between traditionalism and tradition? Between fanaticism and passion? Between authoritarianism and authority? Between gullibility and openness to the miraculous?

Over the years I’ve witnessed so many young Christians in university and seminary struggling out of abusive fundamentalism with its near idolatry of human ideas and traditions and its abuse of inquiring minds. And I’ve been dismayed by how often they do throw the baby of evangelical faith out with the bathwater of fundamentalism. But I can’t blame them because I came very close to doing it myself.

Now I’ve become a little more comfortable in my own skin and knowing the difference between the baby and the bathwater comes easier for me. I need to be patient with those who are still finding their way in that. I want to give them guidance if I can.

So let me tell you some of the things I think we should keep as we discard their counterfeits.

  • We should not throw the baby of tradition out with the bathwater of traditionalism. Historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale said that “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living while tradition is the living faith of the dead.”
  • We should not throw the baby of certitude out with the bathwater of certaintyKierkegaard coined the term “certitude” as the replacement for Enlightenment "certainty" which is a myth. We finite and fallen human beings can’t have certainty—especially about answers to life’s ultimate questions. But we can have certitude which means, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, “proper confidence.”
  • We should not throw the baby of confession out with the bathwater of creedalism. I no longer will sign someone else’s creed or confessional statement, but if asked I will gladly tell my confession of faith in classical Christian doctrine.
  • We should not throw the baby of faith out with the bathwater of anti-intellectualism or the baby of reason out with the bathwater of rationalism.
  • We should not throw the baby of truth out with the bathwater of totalizing absolutism.
  • We should not throw the baby of feeling out with the bathwater of emotionalism
  • We should not throw the baby of patriotism out with the bathwater of nationalism
  • We should not throw the baby of the God’s supernatural activity out with the bathwater of gullibility about miracles. 
  • We should not throw the baby of biblical authority out with the bathwater of wooden literalism and strict inerrancy
  • We should not throw the baby of accountability out with the bathwater of hierarchy.

And so I could go on. There are so many examples of ways in which disillusioned Christians throw the good out with the bad.

So how can we know which is the baby and which is the bathwater? Perhaps there’s no litmus test. I haven’t found one. It would be too simple just to say “Jesus.” But a Christ-centered consciousness is part of it.

But one thing I’m sure of. In our Christian communities, we should find ways to reward and not punish those courageous souls who dare to ask “Why?” because they do us a great service by making us ask about the difference between babies and bathwater.