Monday, March 07, 2005

Do we take error seriously enough?

One of my mentors when I was still in my twenties was Canon Max Warren, one of the great leaders of the Church Mission Society. At that time Canon Warren's son-in-law, since deceased, was serving in India. He spent a lot of time hanging round an ashram near a university dialoguing with intellectual leaders of Hinduism, attempting to get into the Hindu mind in order that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be brought meaningfully into this situation.

As a young man with clear and ferocious ideas I was respectful of this man's ministry, but a little dubious of its value. Now, more than thirty years later and with a few more miles behind me, I understand better what he was up to, because I have discovered that it is impossible to counter what one perceives to be error if you have no respect for the positions that you oppose. You aren't just trying to grasp what your opponent's position is just to make debating points, but in order to fully understand its strengths and weaknesses so that it can be measured against and tested by what one believes to be true.

There is always a risk associated with such an exercise, because a measure of openness suggests that you are putting yourself in a position where your own mind could possibly be changed, too. However, if we are followers of the One who is the Truth (John 14:6), then we should be men and women who are prepared to seek the truth across the whole array of learning, insight, discovery, and even mis-information! It also means that we should be prepared to allow the breadth of learning and human experience to sift our own perceptions, seeking to uncover what is less than true in them and then correct the situation.

However, wherever I look today there is a flabby and flaccid understand of what truth is. We live in a culture which irrationally states that all of us has a truth, even though those "truths" might be mutually exclusive of one another. This is sheer intellectual and spiritual chaos, and in ECUSA we live with the consequences of this bizarre, irrational, non-rational and unreflective mindset. Much of what passes for theology in the side lined denominations is deeply infected by the prevailing relativism of our age, as well as a less than robust capacity either to engage in debate or listen to views that challenge its underlying viewpoints.

On the other hand, there is the same reticence to engage with positions with they are at odds by many on the conservative/traditionalist side of the divide. Consrvatives tend to KNOW that they are right, and then they loudly shout their position at those with whom they disagree, without waiting for or listening to an answer. They also have the infuriating habit of boiling everything down to a soundbite or a bumper-sticker sized statement.

There is another infuriating element in the conservative mindset, too, and that is that they have a tendency to walk away from conflict and disagreement too readily. One of the things that puzzled me most when I came to the USA was the array of Christian ghettos that exist, and the timidity of American conservative Christians to engage the culture in which they live. I had grown up as a Christian believing that it was good for me to cut my intellectual teeth in a secular university and a liberal theology department.

There were no such things where I came from as Christian schools, Christian colleges, Christian Yellow Pages, but there were Christian mentors who were there to walk with us as we worked our way through the secular and "liberal" institutions where we received our education. Jesus was our example as one who engaged the world around him rather than ran away from it and circled the wagons, however uncomfortable it might be at times to function in such circumstances of competing theologies and ideologies.

I would accept that there are times and situations when it might be wisest to withdraw from engagement either for a season or permanently, but I see far too many conservatives walking before they have engaged, merely shouting their slogans over their shoulders as they depart. I suspect this reflects either an unwillingness to respect those with whom they disagree, an inability to disagree and enter debate, or a mixture of both (and more).

This immeasurably weakens their position and leads to an ever tighter circling of the wagons. I suspect that it reflects an incapacity to enter into spirited dialogue because of intellectual impoverishment. The result is that conservative convictions, especially in the realm of faith, are not tested on the ground and in the real world. As a result old saws get trotted out which have not been thought through, and very possibly they are not be true!

Recently I spent the evening with a young couple who had worshiped with us on several occasions, and were burned out from a large exuberant conservative church in this area. They didn't wish to cease being Christians, but they did want to affirm a faith that made logical and rational sense in the confusing world in which we live. Yet they had had modelled to them a way of believing that put the mind and rational process on the shelf. I would hazard there are many reflective younger people like this but conservative Christianity has not modelled this very well to them.

Contemporary conservative Christians are, quite honestly, in the same boat as "liberal" Christians in that there is truth-decay in our society, and they are witting or unwitting participants in it. John Seel and Os Guiness wrote some years ago, "Truth and theology are the royal road to knowing God. No one can love God and not be a theologian. No one can follow Christ and not be committed to taking truth seriously" ( No God But God page 19). Yet if truth were being taken seriously by both conservatives and liberals, either side would be engaging the other in significant debate, rather than the turning of their backs on one another that has taken place.

If we are understand the cycles of life in the church, then it is at times of ferocious disagreement and rampant error that the rich nature of the catholic faith is hammered out. It was the heresies of Montanus that convinced the church of its need to create a closed canon of Scripture, for example, and the Sixteenth Century was a period when all sorts of accretions needed to be peeled away from both the Catholic Church and the emerging churches of the Reformation. Also, we must expect debate and disagreement to go on in timespans measured by generations rather than months.

I would posit that today is another such period in the cycle of learnign the truth, when intellectual and moral chaos within the context of the decay of modernity into postmodernity, then into something else, is forcing us to examine what is given and true, and that does not come without debate, dialogue, disagreement, and gnawing deeply on difficult ideas, concepts, and realities. Today's church, whatever label you pin on it, has been intellectually, ethically, and spiritually subverted, and very few seem prepared to do the hard work necessary to redirecting it.

In the midst of all that is going on I am increasingly desperate to know the truth, and I see only flickers of it on either side of the canyon that has divided us. I don't see these flickers of truth cutting themselves against one another and lighting a fire that will warm me and lighten my way through the darkness. I see the impotency of war -- a war that is every bit as nasty in the spiritual and intellectual realm as the entrenched armies that snaked their way from the North Sea to the Alps from 1914-1918. Millions were lost in a quagmire. That is our state today.

I suspect there are some who have read this and are now shaking their heads that Kew is "going off" or has "lost the plot." I hope not, I hope that I am merely a man who is passionate to be true to the One who is the source of truth, and whose trueness begins with us at the foot of the Cross and our minds shaped by the richness of the Word.

Folks, Christians, what is God trying to teach us about taking error seriously?

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