theology from a joke?

Ravenel Bridge CharlestonA while ago the website Ship of Fools ran a competition to find the funniest religious joke. This was the winner, from comedian Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. 

I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.” 

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” 

He said, “Protestant.” 

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” 

He said, “Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” 

He said, “Northern Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” 

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” 

I said, “Me, too!” 

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” 

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In case you are experiencing deja vu, yes I have mentioned this before on the blog – here. I retold this joke recently to some friends in our church and it got a great response. But subsequent pondering made me wonder why it is that it is so funny. I think that there are several reasons. One is that it draws you in with the ever-deepening coincidence of shared experience. Another is that the shared experience seems to get more and more contrived. A third is the humour of the ridiculousness of how fractured and splintered the church has become – dividing over more and more issues. And then, just when we are wondering how many more coincidences there can be Emo Philips hits us with the unexpected punchline about heresy and his over the top response to it and our laughter reflex is triggered in an explosion of surprise and shock at the outcome and the jettisoning of all that was common.

There are, however, a couple of problems:

The first problem is that while this joke is funny for all those reasons (and many more), having dissected it as I just have may have killed the joke for you.

The second problem is that while this is a funny joke it is rooted in reality. As well as laughing at the joke we should take a good long hard look at ourselves through the lens of the joke. What things divide us from others? Do we spend more time focusing on those things and less focusing on what unites us?

By definition if I believe something to be true I must consider someone who holds a different view to be wrong. They are a heretic. Two contradictory things cannot be simultaneously right. The laws of physics and logic say that they can’t be. And this approach to theology has fractured and splintered churches throughout its history and caused immense hurt.

  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that women should not be in leadership of a church they also believe that those who believe that women should be in leadership are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that it is right to baptise infants they also believe that those who believe that only those who are believers should be baptised are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that all clergy should be celibate they also believe that those who believe that they do not need to be celibate are wrong*.

*These do not represent my theological understanding. They are being used to illustrate my point. You can interchange them for any issue on which Christians are divided – church structures, sexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and (sadly) much much more. Because we hold a particular view about issues (especially those we hold strongly) by definition we infer that those who hold opposing views must be wrong.

Now I have three more problems, which are probably aspects of one single problem – intolerance of tolerance and tolerance of intolerance.

One is that I don’t accept that because I believe something to be true and there are others who hold a different view it means that I have to brand those who think differently as heretics and get pushed off bridges. I hope I hold my beliefs through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection (for the most part – some may be because I have uncritically adopted someone else’s view because I liked the sound of it and I need to be aware of that). What sort of person am I if I decide that someone else who holds a different view reached through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection must be condemned and I can have nothing to do with them? I could be wrong: even if I don’t think I am I surely have to have sufficient humility to accept that I could be: I have changed my views on theological issues through my life – the ‘previous’ me would regard the ‘current’ me as a heretic!

The second is that I don’t accept that two contradictory positions mean that one must be wrong. Both could be wrong. But what if both are right? Can that be possible? The laws of physics and logic say that it is not. But what if those laws are the wrong ones to be applying here:

God is simultaneously comprehensible and logical (so we can understand him) and beyond human comprehension and understanding.

He has established the laws of physics and logic and all that makes our Universe how it is and at the same time he breaks those laws (we call them miracles).

Jesus was both fully human and fully God – simultaneously.

God is all powerful and yet he chooses to limit his power by giving us free will and the option to choose to go against his will.

If we try to apply physical laws to them something has to give, but with God they are not contradictions they are paradoxes. Somehow God is able to hold in creative tension things that we would see as contradictory. Can’t we seek the grace to do that too?

And that leads me to the third problem. Why do some Christians (who have experienced Grace and Love and seek to follow the most perfect Example of both, Jesus of Nazareth) feel it is necessary to exclude and condemn those who have a different interpretation of the Bible or a different theological view? At this point in discussion with others they often introduce the ‘slippery slope’ – if we say that we accept one thing, where will it end: it’s a slippery slope. So, to be facetious to make the point, if we say that Christians who sincerely hold the view that churches should have only pews when our church only has chairs genuinely are Christians then before we know it won’t we be on a slippery slope that leads towards us saying that all people who sincerely believe something, even those who sincerely hold the view that there is no God, are Christians?

Erm. No. I think that  if there is a genuine slippery slope we can define a point on the slope beyond which we will not slide. It’s very difficult to say that you are a Christian if you don’t believe in God. Ah, you say, but you said we could hold contradictory positions in creative tension.

True, but even God has his limits. He is absolute love, but he is not also absolute hate. (NB The thing the Bible says he hates above all is religious hypocrisy!)

There are limits. And for each of us those limits may be different. But does that mean that we should unleash venomous bile and condemnation on those who believe the limits are in a different place to us? Does that sound like Grace and Love? Perhaps it is easier if we accept that we all exist on slippery slopes and need the grace to accept those who are slipping and sliding around with us. 

I recognise that I could be accused of being inconsistent – I am being less tolerant of those who unleash bile and condemnation. That brings me back to what I have just been saying. There are limits. But surely those limits could be limited to the core of what we believe and surely we should be careful about making that core bigger than Jesus would.

What is the core? The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 

The WCC seeks to be a space “in which [Christians] can reflect, speak, act, worship and work together, challenge and support each other, share and debate with each other. As members of this fellowship, WCC member churches:

  • are called to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship;
  • promote their common witness in work for mission and evangelism;
  • engage in Christian service by serving human need, breaking down barriers between people, seeking justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation; and
  • foster renewal in unity, worship, mission and service.”

Sounds like a good place to start.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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