Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Doctrine Matters

            Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more curious about the fascination some Christians have with the minutiae of doctrine. Sometimes this doctrine is hoary ancient stuff from the sixteenth century or even earlier that defines the historic basis for denominations like the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Lately, however, the doctrines that fascinate tend to be about Jesus’ expected return from heaven to judge the living and the dead and all that.

            That any contemporary Christians care much about any but the most basic doctrines ought to surprise us. We live in an anti-intellectual popular culture where reading both widely and deeply has fallen out of favor. Shakespeare is someone we sample in college, not something many of us read or watch on stage anymore.

            When it comes to the Bible, things get worse. In one of his famous "man on the street" interviews, Jay Leno asks a college student, "What is one of the Ten Commandments?" "Freedom of speech," is the reply. Leno asks a girl when Jesus lived. She thought maybe about 30,000 years ago. Not a promising answer for someone who turns out to be an Art History student. The fact is, most people seem to think that everything related to religion—and especially its doctrines—is just stuffy and irrelevant. What does matter, if anything, are personal spiritual feelings and intuitions.

            And yet, some Christians continue to care deeply about doctrine—about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper (is he spiritually ubiquitous, thus always present, or is he really the bread and wine—transubstantiation?), for example. Or, will Jesus return to earth before, during, or after a literal seven-year period of persecution (the pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation camps among premillennialists)?

            Why? What is the drawing power of learning, holding, and fighting scorched earth battles for such doctrinal positions? Why do some people—people in the pews, people who never went a to seminary a day in their lives--nevertheless take the time to study, read, and argue about these doctrinal positions?

            As much as I wish that there might be a simple answer, there probably isn’t. People probably get engaged and excited about intellectually complicated doctrines for a whole host of reasons. It might be for the sheer intellectual delight of mastering difficult bodies of knowledge. Some people are indoctrinated to believe doctrinal change represents a slippery slope to perdition. Others teach in churches or colleges or seminaries where changing your mind—or even raising difficult questions—is not allowed if you want to keep your job.

            But there is one other possible answer. Christians sometimes concern themselves about historical doctrines, or esoteric, speculative interpretations of scripture about when Jesus will return as a way to avoid the heart of scripture. Such preoccupation is an unconscious avenue for not having to deal with other more serious matters of the law, and especially the heart of the law, love of God and neighbor. A focus on doctrine leaves little room for wrestling with practical questions posed by our wealth and others’ poverty, by our relationship to the environment, by war in the Middle East, or the ways gun culture or television violence poison Western culture. I’m reminded of how one of the Teachers of the Law, one who could even recite the greatest command, was judged by Jesus, in the end, to be “not far” from the kingdom of God while still apparently missing the point of the kingdom entirely.

            Which makes me think that whatever the point of holding to doctrines might be—and as I noted above, there are a few—the bigger issue is always going to be figuring out how holding them doesn’t get in the way of the main thing. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Good News of Great Joy: A Christmas Meditation

             One of the words the Bible uses to describe itself is the Greek word “euangelion.” Translated in English, this word means “good news,” as in the words of the angel, from in the gospel of Luke: “I bring you good news, of great joy.”

            Good news. It reminds me of the time many years ago, when Irene and I went to the hospital because the time had come for her to give birth to our first child. After a visit with the doctor, we were told, "not yet. Go for a long walk around the parking garage, and then come back." So we did. When we got back we were shown to the birthing room. Our doctor came in. I applied ice on Irene’s forehead, and counted, more ice and more counting. Finally, our son   William was born at 12:15 am. I returned home a few hours later, but couldn't sleep. So at three in the morning, I picked up the phone, and I called everyone I could think of--parents, grandparents, friends, siblings. I got them all out of bed, but it didn't matter.

            I had good news, and it wouldn't wait. The good news of the Christmas is like that—only more so.

            Years later, Irene and a friend of ours, Claudia, took their kids to a beach. Irene, William, and Claudia's son, David, were playing follow the leader a few yards from shore. Claudia watched from the beach. Irene would clap her hands and the two kids would clap their hands. Irene would jump and the kids would jump. The next thing Irene knew, Claudia was shouting at the top of her lungs and running as fast as she could through the knee-deep water roughly towards where Irene was standing. Terrified, Irene turned around and realized that William was nowhere to be seen. She frantically thrashed around in the water, but couldn't find him. Meanwhile, Claudia, who had seen everything from shore, reached a spot a few feet from Irene, reached down, and pulled William out from deep under the water, and rushed him to shore.

            William hacked and coughed and spit out a lot of water. He said, "Mom, it was dark, I couldn't find you. Where were you?" He had fallen into a lakebed pit that was over his head. Claudia saved his life. But once everyone was calm and sitting on shore again, Claudia said it all when she said to Irene, "You know, sometimes we receive our children twice."

And you can be sure that, with tears of joy and thanksgiving, we shared that good news, once more, with family, friends, and anyone who would listen. William was saved. The gospel is like that, joyful good news, except--more so. Because, as the angel said, this is not good news just for the few who know and love me or my son, but it is good news "for all the people."

            Good news. John the Baptist says, "The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And – in this child – all humankind will see God's salvation" (Luke 3:5,6). Good news. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, and to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Good news. Like the angels sang: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Not Sure Dedication & Acknowlgements

         Publishing a book is very exciting. The process is also complicated and busy. Sometimes stuff gets lost along the way. When Eerdmans published my book, Not Sure, somehow the Dedication and Acknowledgements were left out of the book. Eerdmans has promised to include them in future printings. For some reason it occurred to me today that I could at least post these items on my blog. I always find dedications and acknowledgements interesting, because they say something about the author's universe not directly addressed in the book. They are a peek at what Nick Wolterstorff once called "the world behind the work." So, here's a list of some people who matter in my life!

Dedication for Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt

For William Suk, David Suk, Mariya Meskienyar and Gillian Kupakuwana.


            I first thought I might write about how faith changed through history while I was editor-in-chief of The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. My time there was intellectually stimulating, but also very instructive for me as a writer. My friends at The Banner were great critics and encouraged me to keep on writing after I moved on. They were a delight to work with. I wonder what I would have done without Joyce Kane, Jena VanderPloeg, Malcolm McBryde, Gary Mulder, and Tim Postuma.
Since then many people offered their support, insight, and helpful criticism. A few people, however, stepped forward to help in ways that were especially gracious and wise. While completing my PhD at Wayne State University, I commuted from Grand Rapids, MI to Detroit, and often stayed overnight with Don and Elaine Postema. We talked a lot about my studies, about the church, and about the heart of faith, usually over a glass of good sherry. I miss those days. They were more than just friends, really; they were wise surrogate parents. Lou Smedes met with me several times during my tenure as editor. His gift was being able to read between the lines of my editorials. He recognized my struggles and reached out to me with empathy, which was wonderful--but also with understanding, which I did not expect. He was a wonderful guide to the world of both doubt and faith, and encouraged me to make my own journey part of the story. Mark and Lori Vermaire are great friends who were very hospitable to Irene and I when we were far from home and I was struggling with the issues raised in this book. Bernard Brock, my advisor at Wayne State University, became a good friend and confidant. I last met him, before he passed away, in Denver while Irene and I were on our trip around North America. Our discussions about Kenneth Burke's ideas about the rhetoric of religion were very formative for this book. While I was president of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, I sat in on a seminar on Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age that was taught by Ron Kuipers. I learned a lot that was helpful for this book.
            Several people read partial or complete drafts of this book and offered helpful advice. One of them, Sophie Vandenberg used to write me long letters at The Banner in which she always asked me how the Reformation was going in Grand Rapids. She read an early version of this manuscript and helped me clarify my thinking a lot. Richard Middleton also read a few early chapters. While he commented on quite a few matters that were helpful, he saved me from making mistakes related to Canaanite and Persian religion. The proof of that is that I took all that out!
Nick Overduin is my best friend and so the fact that he was not only willing to read my book, but offer honest advice was a great gift. But we have also talked about the issues in this book a lot over the past few years, and those conversations helped crystallize my thinking and get it down on paper. Nandy Heule read a late version of the manuscript from the perspective of a pew-sitter who loves the church, and she saved me from many infelicities.
            My mom, Jane Suk, taught me a lot about how to hang on to what is important while letting go of what hinders.
My sons William and David offered me encouragement the whole way through. Faith has played an important part of their lives, too. I credit their honesty with me about their faith journeys, and their continual willingness to talk about their doubts, as well, for the get up and go it took me to finish this book.
Finally, Irene Oudyk-Suk, my wife and the love of my life, listened to me read chapter and verse of this book at least twice. She offered many suggestions along the way, argued with what I wrote when it was the right thing to do, and has always put up with my wavering faith and wanderlust.
While all of these friends and family members helped me, each in their own way, to finish the book, none of them are responsible for any of its weaknesses or errors. Those are all mine.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Unitarian with Trinitarian Tendencies

           I’m getting used to being a pastor in the United Church of Canada. This denomination is clearly much more liberal than the Christian Reformed Church I spent most of my life in. My particular congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, sort of puts an exclamation mark behind the “more liberal,” by describing itself on its webpage as “united, unlimited, and unorthodox.”

            Being “un-,” has had a bit of traction for a while now—at least since 7 Up branded itself as the Uncola, I suppose. I’m reading a book, now, entitled, “Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging,” by Scott Stratton. Still, before I joined the United Church, it was a stretch for me to think of myself as unorthodox.

            Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked me about the Trinity. What did I think of the Trinity? How would I explain it? And—a bit to my surprise—I answered her, “Well, I’m not sure anymore. I guess I’m a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies!”

            I’m not sure where that came from. The person who asked me wasn’t having heart-to-heart conversation. We were playing at theology. But there it was. Very unorthodox. Maybe my church’s billboard fits!

            I don’t mean to be flippant in my comments about the Trinity, even though I do think that theology ought to have something of a playground feel to it. But usually, people take getting it right when it comes to theology much too seriously. Or they want to get it right for questionable motives. Take, for example, Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, on both counts. He convened one of the earliest worldwide councils to settle the question of the Trinity. Christians had been talking about the concept for three hundred years, and had not come to a consensus. The discussion got a bit heated and threatened to split the church into competing camps. Constantine, who became a Christian in large measure in order to unify his empire around religion, didn’t want to see a schism lay his plans waste. So, to keep the peace in his empire, he insisted on a single definition. Constantine then used his political power to force the answer he liked best and got the political result he wanted. Most of the church has held that answer sacrosanct ever since, even though the Empire for which the answer was crafted declined and fell sixteen hundred years ago!

            Anyway, as I was driving home after my friendly discussion about the Trinity, another related question occurred to me. Why, exactly, is it so critical that we get this concept right? The church got by just talking about it, rather than insisting on an answer, for more than 300 years. And what could it matter to God—especially a loving God, if we didn’t get it exactly right? To use an analogy (talk about God is mostly analogical, after all), if someone mistakes me for the father of a young man who is actually my nephew; or if I mistake someone I’ve just met at my Rotary club for another person altogether when I meet her on the street, what real harm is done? None. In both cases, having made a mistake about someone’s identity, we act like adults. We smile, correct each other, make small talk, and go our separate ways.

            What is more, we’re talking about God, here. Mistakes are expected. I learned early in seminary that even if the word isn’t very familiar to us, God is, in important respects “ineffable,” or unknowable. Considering that humans are a single species of life among as many as eight million other species on earth; given that the earth is a tiny speck of a planet on the edge of an unimaginably large cosmos; given that that cosmos is some ten or twelve billion years old and God has presumably been here and there the whole time; given that by most accounts God set all this in motion, and is eternal and omnipotent and omnipresent and on and on, how are we ever going to “get” God "right" anyway?

            So we speak about God using analogies we find in scripture or make up ourselves. He is like a rock, or a mother, or a shepherd, or a burning bush. Or we know something of God on account of the things that scripture tells us God has done.

            But let’s face it. Scripture doesn’t take a keen interest in helping us understand who God is in and of himself. We don’t get much by way of divine ontology. In philosophy, ontology is the study of “being.” It is a big deal. Ironically, most philosophers can’t agree with each other on human ontology. Makes trying to understand divine ontology seem like aiming high.

            Nevertheless, we insist that God is three persons, but only one God. Like a church is many persons but one church. That, at least, is the “social trinity” explanation. There are many others, most judged heretical: monarchianism, adoptionism, Arianism. Even a brief description of these views would involve saying much more about them than the Bible says about the Trinity in any one place (or altogether).

            The Bible, however, doesn’t spend much time on any of this. When it comes to whom he or she (both are anthropomorphic analogies, of course) is, God says, enigmatically, “I am who I am.” Or something like that—the Hebrew is hard to translate.

            So perhaps we ought to take a hint from the Bible on this. It isn’t that important that we get it right. If it was, God would have given us more than sporadic clues—God might have actually given us a book or two or at least several chapters that nailed the matter. But God didn’t.

            So, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the Trinity is exactly this or that. I’ve not given up on the Spirit or on Jesus or on God. But when I talk on how they are related to each other I’m going to give the dearth of scripture and its ambiguity on this topic a lot of respect; I’m going to take a hint from scripture’s lack of interest in the matter. And I’m going to go easy on strong assertions; I’m going to enjoy my conversations rather than pick a fight. I’m going to reread Boethius and Augustine for the fun of it. I’m going to smile at assertions, based on otherwise outmoded classical philosophy, that God consists of substance or essence. I’m going to wonder aloud rather than define terms.

            And when people ask me about it, I’ll say I’m playing at being an unorthodox Unitarian—that is, a Unitarian with Trinitarian tendencies.