happy to be unsound

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I used to be theologically sound, but I don’t think I am anymore – and I am glad. When I was much, much younger I was ‘sound’ because I repeated what I had been told was ‘sound’ by others who told me about Jesus. I hadn’t really thought about it, I just accepted it. I accepted it because I respected those whose opinions, teaching and orthodoxy I was replicating. Nobody told me this is what I was supposed to be doing, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because things were usually presented to me as answers rather than questions.

When I started at theological college to train to be a Baptist Minister one of the things they did early on was make me question everything… if the answer to ‘why do you believe that?’ was ‘because [insert name here] told me’ I was encouraged to go deeper and work out my own answers. That may sound like a recipe for ‘anything goes’ but that’s not the case. By working things out for myself I was able to understand myself better and dig beneath the surface of my understanding of God – rather than wearing the veneer of ‘soundness’ I had adopted for myself. I started to look at questions about God and me, rather than adopt answers.

It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience, but wonderfully valuable and liberating at the same time. It was like taking down a prefabricated building someone else had put up in which I had been living and being helped to build somewhere I could call home that I had created. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still a building to live in. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still exploring who God is in the light of Jesus.

I regret now that in my earlier years of ministry I was not so good at helping people to go through the same experience I did. In fact I modelled the answer-giving approach much more than question-giving. Having reached my own ‘sound’ orthodoxy (evidenced by a theological degree and Ordination) I shared that perspective with people who wanted me to share it with them. It seemed to work.

But I have found that it only works for so long for some people. Some just want to be told the answers and find people who will give them questions instead to be irritating and frustrating. There have been courses run by churches for the last 3 decades that have offered exactly that – answers to life’s questions (albeit that they also define what questions you should be asking). I have gladly led such courses and seen people’s life and faith enlivened by them. I don’t have a problem with them, except that they don’t suit everyone.

Ironically, and I am disappointed in myself for not realising this sooner, when I became fully fledged as a Minister I used to work on a ‘one size fits all’ approach: if people wanted to ask questions, let me run a course for them and give them the answers. But what about those who have different questions? Or what about those who want to question the answers they are given? Where was the space for them in our churches? Slowly I realised that I had been perpetuating a model that hadn’t blessed me as much as I thought it did at the time.

Churches can squash questions. They may provide a diet of ready-meal answers and rather than enabling someone to flourish, develop and become the thinking person God has created them to be. They can create clones who will unthinkingly repeat what they have been told is sound rather than encourage diversity and questions.

Uniformity is not the same as unity.

Conformity is not the same as collaboration.

Dogma is not the same as faith.

The former in those statements feel like a tethered balloon – floating but not free. I want to be untethered.

In the last church I led we began to explore this in a group I called ‘Deep Thought’*. The idea was that each time we met we’d look at different questions the group wanted to consider, share our views, learn from one another and deepen our experience of God. No question was considered silly. Everyone’s view was accepted, although we all had freedom to ask questions about those views. I rather enjoyed it and I think those who came along did too. But then I moved on from that church and Deep Thought became a good memory.

Now I am back in a local church again I am minded to do something like Deep Thought again. But I also would like to think that we are a safe space in which we can ask open questions without me giving all the ‘right’ answers. I would like to think that I can help people to do the same for themselves. The church I serve seeks to be one where it’s okay not to be okay. It’s a church that includes and accepts everyone, even those who might disagree with the Minister. It’s a church where we encourage people to have different opinions and to share them. It’s even a church where it’s okay to have doubts and explore them.

There’s still lots that I believe that makes me conventional. I am still a follower of Jesus without hesitation, but I recognise he often answered questions with questions or stories rather than giving answers – I would like to do that more often. I still happily and wholeheartedly affirm the Baptist Union Declaration of Principle – because I am convinced of its truth rather than because I have to. And there’s so much more to experience of God beyond that…

And that is what makes me unsound.

And I am glad.

*Deep Thought is the name of the computer that is created in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) to answer the question of life, the universe and everything. It seemed an appropriate name bearing in mind that the only answer it gave was an enigmatic ’42’.

view from my pew 13

Dear Internet

Mr Grenville-Stubbs here again. Did you miss me? I have been busy trying to make a positive difference in cyberspace. I had an idea for a search engine that I have been trying to get off the ground with what is known as ‘crowd funding’ – where lots of people offer small amounts of money to help make something a reality.

My idea was to create a Christian internet search engine. I did think of calling it ‘Ask Mr Grenville-Stubbs’ but my friends suggested that this might be a bit of a long name for people to type in. They suggested something easier to remember, too. So I came up with ‘Goddle’.

searchGoddle works like any other search engine you can think of: you type in a question, a word or something that you want to find out about and click ‘pray’. (I think ‘pray’ is better than ‘search’ for a Christian search engine).

After you have clicked ‘pray’ the clever software will go to work and find a Bible verse that relates to that question / word / thing you want to find out about. So, if you wanted to search pray for information about ‘wrestling’, for example, Goddle would provide you with Psalm 13 verse 2: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

I put this idea on a website for crowd funding ideas and have been waiting for donations to flood in. I think there must be a bug in that website because even though my idea has been available for the past month so far nobody has offered anything.

I am sorry to have to say that my Minister, Revd Philip Inneck-Tucker was not much help at first, either. I mentioned the idea to him on a Sunday after church but he had one of his mysterious coughing fits and had to rush off to get a glass of water. I tried to talk to him several times later that day but he always seemed to rush away just as I got close to him. In the end I managed to talk to him by waiting outside the church until he had locked up and was unlocking his car in the dimly lit car park.

I came up behind him: “So what do you think of Goddle?” I asked.

He uttered something unintelligible (or it may have been ancient Hebrew) as he clutched his chest. “What are you doing sneaking around in the shadows? You almost gave me a coronary!”

I apologised for surprising him, but insisted he gave me his opinion.

“Why would anyone want to use Goddle?” he asked. “If I want to find a recipe for chili con carne I don’t want to be given some obscure verse from Leviticus about regulations for food preparation.”

“But the Bible has answers for everything,” I said.

He gave me one of his funny looks and that’s when he gave me a brilliant idea. He suggested that if that was my attitude to the Bible I could save myself a lot of time and money by making the answer to every question: “Jesus.”

Why didn’t I think of that?

Yours faithfully

Mr QR Grenville-Stubbs

 

the minimum age

We put age limits on a number of different activities and behaviours in order to protect children and in recognition of their relative immaturity to cope with what are essentially adult activities. There is a minimum age, for example, for smoking, drinking alcoholic drinks, sex and even voting. there will be questions about whether the ages are correct but I’ve not really heard many people suggesting that they should not be minimum ages for a range of different activities. I would like to add to that list a minimum age for children to be able to ask their parents any question beginning with the word, “why…”

Birthday Cake 2

Congratulations, you can now use the word ‘why’?

Eventually a child who persist in asking that question will end up with the following answer, “because it just is.” That is not a satisfactory answer but it is one that denotes the boundaries between the limits of parental tolerance and the beginnings of exasperation.

I’ve got a list of questions that I want to ask God. It’s a fairly long list and it is growing. A lot of the questions start with the word “why” and on the list are included:

Why aren’t there any easy answers to life’s tough questions?

Why do things go wrong?

Why did you let [insert terrible event here] happen?

Why do you make it so difficult for some people to encounter you?

Why haven’t you issued an upgrade to the Bible covering all of the contemporary issues that we face today which didn’t exist as issues in the day when the Bible was written?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there are answers to all of these questions. But some of them are very long and complex. Some of them take a lot of work to discover. And, if I’m completely honest, some of them are not completely satisfactory. some of them even seem to be the theological equivalent of, “because it just is…”

I firmly believe that God welcomes and indeed encourages us to question. He wants us to test the boundaries of our faith. He wants us to have a dialogue with him (in my experience often through the Bible) in which our understanding and experience of him is expanded. If we don’t ask questions and seek answers our understanding of God will be limited. It’s a frightening thought that some people’s understanding and knowledge of God is limited to what they hear through my sermons, for example. That is a poor substitute for the sort of dialogue that God wants us to have.

So what do we do with the questions that we have? Well for one thing I don’t think we should give up with them: if the answer is that we get is inadequate and incomplete then they there is more to come. I think we also need to recognise that sometimes our questioning is because of spiritual immaturity. We want to know answers that we are not ready to cope with. Sometimes our questioning is actually more an expression of pain and frustration than a desire for an answer that makes logical sense and we need to recognise that instead of an answer we want comfort and sympathy. Sometimes, and this is where we need to discern the difference between my first statement in this paragraph and this reality, our questioning is because we do not like the answer we have received.

Whatever questions we’ve got, God is big enough to take them. The reality is that sometimes we are not big enough to take the answers. Sometimes God has to give us answers that we can cope with and we need to recognise that later on he will give us more detailed answers, or we may have to wait to see him face-to-face and ask him. If you’re not sure about this, ask yourself how you would respond to a 2-year-old child who asks you why the sky is blue. Would you respond differently to a 16-year-old who asked you the same question?

Be blessed, be a blessing (and keep asking).