Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Schenck Innoculation

One dinner when I was doing my graduate studies in England, I sat down with an acquaintance of mine. The college was "evangelical Anglican" in its base, so I thought Will might be a Christian. Without any evangelistic purpose in mind, I asked him, "So are you a Christian, Will?"

The response was scolding, "No"--in that drawn out, pretentious sounding high English accent. "I'm an atheist--the thinking kind."

Well! He sure put me in my place :>)

Now I came to be pretty good friends with Will over the next three years, so I want you to know that I like Will. Intellectually, I don't have any problem with his position. On the other hand, I recognize this answer--it's the typical answer of an ignorant atheist. This is the type of person who has no idea just how deep some Christians think.

Now mind you, I'm not thinking of myself when I refer to deep thinking Christians. I'm talking about the people who astound me when I hear them or try to follow their thoughts. Read some Alvin Plantinga when he's at his deepest, or Richard Swinburne. I don't always agree with these guys, but it sure takes me several rereads even to understand what they're saying. I remember hearing Thomas Oden give his testimony once--I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. It was so far above my puny seminarian mind (mixed of course with a good dose of unnecessary pretention on his part, I might add--if I understand his personality rightly).

In the moment that Will made this comment I felt pretty sure that he really didn't know many "thinking" Christians. I'll be up front with you--I went through immense crises of faith in seminary and doctoral days. I basically came to the conclusion that the incarnation and the resurrection are the rock bottom core items of Christian faith. Everything else is icing on the cake.

I long ago concluded that if I ever abandoned either of these, then I would no longer be a "literal" Christian (of course I'm presuming the literal existence of God as well in all this, as well as other things like God's involvement in the universe, etc...). If I concluded these weren't true, I might call myself a Christian but I would have become a "metaphorical" Christian. Maybe you could call yourself a "Christian sentimentalist" or a "Christ-fearer" after you've left this building.

But make no mistake about it. The church owns the building, and the church believes in these things. If you decide you don't believe these things any more on intellectual grounds, that's fair enough. I deeply respect that. But you don't own the building, and you can't take it with you. Resign from your office as bishop or district superintendent.

John Dominic Crossan left the priesthood--I respect that (although I think he more left to get married). On the other hand, Sprague and Spong somehow think it's their task to make the church believe like them. I respect their intellectual positions (well, maybe Sprague's. Spong's a pseudo-intellectual who doesn't know what he's talking about). But they've forfeited their positions of authority in the Methodist and Episcopal churches. They can feel free to start their own metaphorical Christian church. I'll respect them for that.

By the way, I'm not talking about doubts here either. I could live with Crossan, Sprague, and Spong if they had genuine intellectual doubts but continued to live under the auspice of their offices.

Like I said, the incarnation and resurrection are the cake for me--everything else is icing. And there is a lot of icing to be sure. These aren't the only important things we believe, but they're the heart of what we believe.

I generally hesitate to share the full brunt of my own faith struggles because I know how much we like icing in our communities. I'd love you to believe much more than just the cake. But when you've found something that makes you think your faith world is collapsing around you, remember me.

There are some serious questions you'll come across if you pursue things long enough. Have you ever noticed that Mark says Jesus will appear to the disciples in Galilee, Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, John tells us first of him appearing to Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, Luke only tells of appearances in Jerusalem. It's genuinely hard to fit the resurrection stories together if you've tried to do it on a historical basis. It can be done, if this is important to your faith.

But ultimately, my faith stands whether they can be fit together or not. "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." This I believe. And while I believe in the "icing" of the truthfulness of Scripture--it's icing. My faith in the resurrection would stand even if you could show me a thousand errors in the Bible. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand."

"God doesn't speak to me like He did to Moses." Sorry, who are you? You're not Moses, that's for sure. The truth doesn't care about anyone or anything. It just is. Get over it.

I'm not trying to take away any of the icing. I hope most of you will just think I'm odd or (worse) "liberal." But if one day you find yourself on the throes of a faith crisis, remember me. I concluded in my doctoral days that the reason my faith struggled so much was because no one ever clued me in on where the real stakes were. I grew up with an all or nothing kind of approach--"either every word of the Bible is true or none of it is true." I'm quite willing to believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, but its not where Christian faith ultimately collapses or stands. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand."

So you're having questions about God? I'm genuinely sorry, and I'd love to talk. You're not having questions? Great! But I'd love you to keep me in mind if you ever do. I want you to know that there are plenty others who've had questions and have continued to believe. I want you to realize that there is no doubt you will ever have that someone else who believes hasn't had before you.

It was unfortunately not until I was in my twenties that something dawned on me. It suddenly occurred to me that my parents had already lived those same twenty years--about forty years earlier. Here so often I had thought I was teaching them something. Because it was the first time I was thinking something, I thought it must be the first time for them too. This is the arrogance of youth and of ignorance. There's not a thought any of us will ever have that a million others haven't had countless times in some similar form, even if our modern circumstances put new clothing on it.

It's the arrogant atheist that I find irritating. This is the person who acts like they've suddenly had some earthshaking thought no Christian has ever had before.

Ho hum. Been there, done that. Grow up. You having doubts about God? I respect that. And I respect the person who on intellectual grounds does not believe in God.

But don't pretend for one moment that you're any smarter than the countless Christian thinkers out there who had those same thoughts about forty years ago. No wait, try a thousand years ago for most of those doubts.


Kevin K. Wright said...

I immensely enjoyed this post. I resonated with the recounting of some of your faith struggles. I sometimes wonder if any Christian can actually begin to unpack the Biblical text or seriously study theology without having a few questions blossom in his or her mind. Perhaps this is the true beauty of faith, being so confident in something that ostensibly has not earned the right nor privledge to be held in such high regard and yet mysteriously beckons to be believed. There is something within me that longs to believe in the Gospel metanarrative. Perhaps this will be the anchor that keeps me bound to Christ as my "solid rock." In a way, I look forward to continually realizing what is "cake" and what is "icing." I think that in a way it helps people like me become less dogmatic about the things that are of ultimately small significance while at the same time emboldening us to defend with tenacity these things we hold as truth.

Ken Schenck said...

My favorite line in your thoughts is "mysteriously beckons to be believed"! Is that, when all is said in done, the ticket indeed?

Aaron said...

At a conference on Theodicy and Religion in relation to the Problem of Pain, I encountered some of the very things about which you are. In the back row, there was a man who seemed to be . . . against God at best. Whenever someone who was a Christian or even a Theist would bring up a question, he would snicker and shake his head. I could almost hear him saying, "Stupid Christians, never think anything through." Then from the stage, I saw three much respected scholars in the philosophical domain (William Rowe, and Paul Draper namely). Both Draper and Rowe made statements I will never forget.

Draper said "I'll never say that Christianity or any Theistic position is that way because they are too weak or too stupid, it is only because I think God is just literally too good to be true."

Rowe made a more powerful statement. "I was in seminary when I lost my faith. . .and I will say that I lost it quite reluctantly. I was grasping for something and even tried (other versions of Theism) but I finally found them, in my mind, lacking. But as a friendly Atheist I don't find the Theist position that which is intellectually irreconcilable, just more difficult that Atheism."

I was looking around wondering if my buddy in the back row had heard that. On the other hand, did it even matter? I guess my point is, I too hate it when some try to make it as if Christians cannot be scholars or have great minds, because no great mind could be a Christian if they really thought it through . . . there’s circular reasoning for ya.

Sniper said...

It is people like you, (not professors like you), that keep me coming back for more and have helped me through one of the roughest years of my "thinking life" as I like to call it. You are a true scholar, not many can doubt that here or anywhere that has seen your work. But it is not your scholarship that impresses me. It is your humility. Your understanding of the struggles of Christian thought have helped me to continue struggling but to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Dr. Bence and yourself are two people who exemplify the "humble scholar" motif, both of you probably reluctant to even be hailed as "scholar" at all. Thank you

Ken Schenck said...

Not everyone can be as humble as I am, I confess. It takes years of self-belittlement and humiliation by superiors :>)

Thank you for kind words and forgive me when I disappoint you.

Josh said...

Thanks for your thoughts Ken. I appreciated your perspective as being a little different (and shorter) than Keith's.

Being in the meltdown, I have appreciated reading guys like Spong who are helping me work through issues related to Christendom (whether we hold to the same ideas or not). Then I read your comment: "Spong's a pseudo-intellectual who doesn't know what he's talking about."

Grrrrr...don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to defend Spong - BUT it's these kind of off the cuff statements that always held me back from REALLY exploring issues and reading guys that were outside of evangelicalism. People that have really helped me since!! All I heard in my IWU days was how horrible Spong and Crossan and Borg were...

I don't know...I just wish we could give these guys more credit and really wrestle through their thinking - instead of just writing them off so quickly (especially in front of students). Besides, making such a dogmatic statement about Spong only makes you look like an "irritating ignorant." :)

Thanks for the great post...
Trying to find the cake, Josh

Ken Schenck said...

Hey Josh! Did I hear you were moving into the area now?

I agree with you that some of the voices out there are more weighty than we sometimes make them out to be. For example, I read Honest to God while I was in England and really identified with the picture of someone at seminary who had people all around him having these incredible prayer experiences while he felt nothing.

I also respect Borg quite a bit and read his Jesus: A New Vision also while I was in England. I felt like he was someone who really sensed something special about Jesus but couldn't conclude intellectually that Jesus was divine.

My comments on Spong are more indirect. N. T. Wright talks about Spong's Born of a Woman in Wright's book Who Was Jesus? If Wright is at all accurate about what Spong teaches, then I have to view him as a hack, a scholar pretender. How, for example, would anyone present anywhere near sufficient evidence to show that Mary was raped? or that the wedding of Cana was Jesus' own wedding? These are conjectures that are possible given the evidence, but there is not enough evidence to say they are likely.

This is why I never see Spong in any of the scholarly journals--he couldn't get such unsubstantiable hypotheses like these published in the scholarly forum. Crossan has had more success and is more weighty than Spong, although I personally think scholarship will look back at him as overrated.

If someone questioned the virgin birth because the gospels have very different presentations of it, I understand that. But that's really old news--Spong wasn't anywhere near the first to notice that. There are real tensions between the birth and resurrection stories.

But I think what happens is that because our circles pretend like there aren't such tensions, once a person looks at them their faith falls apart. The reasoning is something like this--wow, it's really hard to say where Jesus first appeared to someone or wow, it really isn't clear whether Joseph came from Nazareth to Bethlehem or whether he had always lived in Bethlehem before Jesus was born.

But once someone like Spong has pointed out obvious things like these, once he has your faith on a roll, then he points out things he can't prove--like that Mary was really raped or that there really weren't any bona fide resurrection appearances.

The problem as I see it is that once your faith is on a roll, it's hard to stop. I really wrestle with how to teach. If we could identify people who were going to have a crisis eventually, then we could be a little more up front about these kinds of issues--"innoculate" you, so to speak.

But as it is we don't want to be the cause of faith crisis and we have an "all or nothing" approach that maybe turns out to be unrealistic. Then some of our thinkers go out there and hear things we never really talked about up front.

Let me just ask one thing. If you're going to read Spong and Borg, be sure to read N. T. Wright as well. I personally suggest his Who Was Jesus?. Another book is James Dunn's The Evidence for Jesus. They are pretty honest with the evidence I think.

My two cents...

Josh said...

Great thoughts Ken!! I here you!!

And, yes, I am reading Wright alongside of everyone else. I have appreciated his approach...although (from everything I've read) he is less accepting of his counterparts than the "other side" is of him.

There is always another side isn't there? It's easy to lose sight of this.


Ken Schenck said...

For some reason your post didn't appear on my screens until today--weird.

I agree that Wright sometimes makes things "clearer" than they are. I shouldn't throw too many stones because I do it too in my weaker--but funnier--moments.

But in Who Was Jesus, I felt like his criticisms of the four authors (Thiering, Spong, Wilson, and I forget the other) were pretty accurate. For example, I haven't heard of Thiering since her whacky Qumran stuff in the early 90s.

I'm sure you and the Spirit will figure it out (or find a peace about not having figured it out :) ... not that I have it all figured out myself.

Just . Jay said...

for clarity's sake, and so my honest question is asked without pretense or false wisdom i want to strip away all the extra language used to sound impressive, theologically superior, or at its core... smart...

how do or did you reconcille all of the information from fiffering points of view? what i mean is, if you like Rob Bell (the it boy for the emergent thing now) and feel moved by his words... but you can't seem to get away from the apostle's creed, (as un emergent as it gets)... then you read something by Drury, or Yancey, or Lewis, take your pick...

how can i identify with so many people with different takes? and what do i do with that?

none of it really changes what i believe, at least not the meat of it, or the cake.

i am just wading in a sea of icing and getting quite sick to my stomach.

Ken Schenck said...

My path--and I'm not sure if it would fly for anyone else--was to go scientist about it. Late in my seminary time I decided I would go with the evidence and be honest about what was likely and what wasn't. [insert all the usual provisos about no one being objective]

I felt like I had some brilliant professors who were just a little too brilliant to admit that they were ingenious cop out artists. This led me to look at the Bible with the question, "What is the most likely conclusion of the data, whether it fits with my environment or not?" That led to a lot of unraveling, but I personally found good reason to believe in the resurrection and found nothing that contradicts the content of the apostle's creed.

To be sure, it led to a certain suspicion of conservative scholarship as often so much cop out artistry. But the liberal equivalent is no less skewed, I would say (Jesus Seminar types, Gospel of Thomas enthusiasts, etc...).

But I agree with Drury that most people who lose their faith lose it because of relationships or, more likely, the lack thereof. Good, solid Christian friends who show the work of God in their lives is of inestimable value in maintaining faith, I think.

Well, some thoughts. Sorry you're feeling sick to your stomach!