William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theological Educator

Tag: God

Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at HomebrewedChristianity.com, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

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Shane Hipps on Belief, "religious Christianity" and the Bible today

Selling-Water-ProductThis from Shane Hipps’ latest book Selling Water by the River:

Ironically religious Christianity is often the purveyor of the very beliefs and fears that get in the way of the water.

Beliefs are an important part of any religion.  What we believe matters, but not for the reasons we may assume.  Our beliefs (or lack of beliefs) do not qualify or disqualify us from the river.  Instead, they determine how clearly we will see the river, which is always running just beneath our noses.  Some beliefs clear the way and give us high visibility, while others create a thick fog.  The distance between the river and us never actually changes.  What changes is how well we can see and accept it.

The “water” reference in the above quote and throughout the whole book is a metaphor for many things — God, the “source,” “life,” healing, truth or the salvation we all seek — and the one that guides us there is Jesus, but religious Christianity often gets in the way.  Hipps is not playing the “gospel vs. religion” game though that’s so popular with neo-reformed folks; nor is he even siding with the “spiritual but not religious.”  He continues:

I am convinced that many of the barriers to the water created by religious Christianity share a common source – the ways we have been told to understand and interpret the Bible.

The Bible contains sixty-six books, in dozens of literary genres, written by nearly as many authors, in multiple languages, over several thousand years.  The Bible is not merely a book, but an extensive library capable of conveying wide and brilliant truths.  The Bible is like a piano with a vast range of notes and capable of playing an endless array of songs.

In the last few centuries, Christian institutions have narrowed the range of notes it plays, resulting in a simple song easily learned and repeated.  But through time, repetition, makes any song, no matter how beautiful, lose its edge and interest.

The fresh becomes familiar and what was once powerful become predictable.  Familiarity breeds predictability, and this leads to boredom.

Today, we are in danger of believing that nothing new can come from the pages of this ancient book.

But the notes that have been neglected are waiting to resound with songs that still surprise.  Strings long silent are now eager to sing . . . [A]n effort [is needed] to let sound these neglected notes, to strike the dust from those strings and let a new song rise.

A song big enough for a complex world.

A song that wakes the weary from their boredom and sleep.

I agree with Hipps here, and I believe this new song can and should be sounded.  With regard to the church-world relationship and better engagement with society, however, I also think that we need to mine for songs to sound in culture and in life that corroborate the Bible — not just that stem from it.  And I’m sure Hipps would only say the same thing.  We need to look outside the Bible simply because the Bible is no longer as widely revered as it used to be.  Unfortunate as this may be, it’s a reality with which Christians must do a better job dealing.  There’s no “going back” on this front.

As such, we have to ask, what are the “sacred texts” about “water” that God has given us to discover beyond the holy writ?  Where and what are the sacred places and practices outside of our sanctuaries?   Whether and how we answer these questions is likely to significantly influence the future of Christian churches in North America, for good or ill.

From Interventional to Enabling

Many of us maybe have maybe heard in church that we’re supposed to “put” God at the center of everything, consider God first, or something along those lines.  This probably works well when it comes to the evangelical notion of “spending time with God,” but I think it might betray something unworkable about how we often think of God’s relationship to the world. What I’ve noticed is that there seems to be, very generally speaking, at least two kinds of faith that are being practiced in the Christian context that reveal this.  My suggestion is that the second kind is far more livable than the first.

First, there’s the faith that takes this teaching quite literally and attempts to see God in everything with the best of intentions.  The consequence here though sometimes amounts to interventionist supernaturalism, in which God is understood to be playing a coercive orchestration game in all areas of life, and is thought of as related to us only externally.  In other words, God becomes the direct cause of everything good that happens to us, from outside and above, while the bad things are just seen as mysterious and sort of swept under the rug.

The other kind of faith – one that I’m trying to explore and practice more in my own life – might go something like what Henri Nouwen says here:

“While personal concern is sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, the deepest motivation [going into] the future is hope.  For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death. [The Christian life] therefore is not called “Christian” because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.” – from The Wounded Healer

I do not see this as the easy solution or as the only clear alternative necessarily, but I think the juxtaposition of these two approaches can be helpful – especially with respect to reducing anxiety and simplifying, at least conceptually, the path of discipleship that is already difficult enough to lead.  Why?  Because on the one hand, God is still being trusted and credited as the one who empowers and persuades – enables – where human striving has been exhausted, but on the other hand is not trusted or credited in such a way that distracts us with personalistic ideas of God’s will – a way of faith that sounds synonymous with Western cultural tendency of individualist exceptionalism.  We want so bad for our lives to matter and for there to be meaning or calling in our vocations.  And I believe that there is.  The problems comes when we cross the fine line that separates this genuine human desire from egoism and idolatry that waits on the other side.

I hope that this distinction makes sense, and I’m curious as to whether it resonates with others.

In case we think, however, that this is an excuse to wait around and hope for God in mere contemplative inaction, Nouwen elsewhere declares the following:

“You are Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in, so long as you emphasize the need of conversion both for yourself and for the world, so long as you in no way let yourself become established in the situation of the world, so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come. You are Christian only when you believe you have a role to play in the realization of the new kingdom, and when you urge everyone you meet with holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled. So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order, a new structure, a new life.”

This presents a challenge to those in the ministry for instance who make it their first priority to preserve and grow specific institutions or to please their constituencies.  It is likewise a charge against those who’d like to serve their own ends while giving only occasional credence to “what really matters.”  I’ve definitely been guilty of this one.  So rather, we must somehow strive to order our lives in such a way as to be at once full of hope for the coming of God and yet faithful to the everyday mission of reconciliation, with God as our enabler.

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