When people get a taste of God for the first time they use words like “saved,” “loved,” “found,” and “born again” to describe it. For some, it is quite an experience.
But these words have unintended consequences. They imply that we have come to the end of the rainbow with no need for anything further. Now that I’m all square with God, the only thing left to do is to wait around to die and go to heaven.
A much better way to think of our first encounter with God is the discovery of a new path. It is a joyful discovery and worth celebrating. But a long journey lies ahead, one that will be filled with even greater discoveries—along with trials and difficulties.
My own first taste of God was followed by some gut-wrenching lows. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Where was God? How could I feel so “lost” if I had been “found.” Had Jesus fumbled me? Maybe I had never really been “found” at all. Whatever the case, I didn’t feel like I was at the end of the rainbow anymore. I was lost in space.
God is faithful. But a life of faith doesn’t end the day we hear the voice of God and take our first step down the path. Discovering the path is only the beginning. With each new insight comes a deepening awareness of how much we do not know. In our early excitement at making a connection with God we are like a student who thinks she knows chemistry because she has memorized the periodic table. The next day she steps into the lab and blows it up. Zowie! This is more complex—and dangerous—than she thought! Maybe she doesn’t have God all figured out after all.
Wise people know a lot. But there is something else they know: They know they don’t know a lot. Real understanding always comes with the awareness of how much you don’t understand. The more you know, the more you know we don’t know. Humans are finite beings in an infinite universe. How could it be any other way?
When life goes beyond our ability to explain, we turn to religion. We want someone to tell us what’s going on, what God is doing and how it all fits together. I felt this in the pleading look people gave me when they encountered problems in their life. I saw it in the faces of students when I showed them something that blew one of their neat theological boxes to smithereens.
Most of all, I felt it myself. As my life unfolded, my trail took turns I did not expect. It turns out that God is very difficult to train and doesn’t take my directions very well. There are things I was sure were true and would have fought over if you said otherwise. I was dead wrong. No only this, but I followed formulas that were supposed to be ironclad. “If I did “A,” God would do “B.” Well, I did “A.” God did “Z.”
John Newton’s words nicely express my first experience of God.
“I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see”
But since that first day many times it has been the other way around.
“I once was found but now am lost.
Could see, but now am blind.”
This is exactly as it should be. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want a God I can explain. I don’t want a God I can train or give instructions to. I’m glad to be learning and growing but I do not trust my learning and growth. I trust God. After all, Jesus never asked me to dissect and explain God. He asked me to trust Him.
There is an example of this in an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees. If ever there was a group that had God all figured out, it was they. They knew who God was and what He wanted. They made up formulas for keeping God happy and tacked on formulas to the formulas. They figured if they were good enough, God would step in and restore their nation to the glory days. Jesus ignored all this and broke their rules. They hated him for it.
A typical showdown occurs in John 9, a story about a man born blind. This is more than an example of Jesus showing compassion to an injured person. It is a sign, a demonstration of Christ’s power to open peoples’ eyes, to transfer them out of darkness and into light. The climax is full of irony. In total exasperation, the Pharisees ask, “We are not blind too are we?” Jesus replies,
“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
People who say they can see are blind. Those who realize they are blind can see. I will never forget the day I was reading this passage and it hit me that I am the man born blind. That day, my idea of what Jesus wanted from me changed. Christ wasn’t preparing me for a theology exam. He was taking me by the hand and leading me. My job was simply to trust Him.
The problem with dogma is that it stops growth. It brings the journey to a halt. Dogma is the attempt to reduce the mysterious to a set of “givens.” An infinite God and an infinite universe are collapsed into a human paradigm. It makes us feel safe and secure. So does prison. We trade endless adventure and discovery for the safety of four concrete walls.
I wound up where I am because I discovered that many of the ”givens” of my faith were debatable. Over the summer, I will share twelve of these with you. This may be unsettling. If you think you have a solid grip on God and like it that way, this would be a great time to tune out. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re living in a cramped religious box that doesn’t match up with reality, you may find it like stepping outside. That’s what I’m hoping for.
I will not be addressing minor issues like how the furniture should be arranged in church or what kind of music we should sing or how we should dress. I’ll be diving into topics like the creation of the world, the return of Christ, the meaning of “gospel,” Heaven and Hell, and the nature of the cross. Consider yourself warned.
I’m not proposing that we discard twenty centuries of discovery or ignore all those who have gone before. As I write this, my ears are filled the music of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. My appreciation for the wonders of God has been magnified by theologians like Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas. My soul has thrilled to the passionate love of Christ in people like Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. My own Baptist tradition has taught me the beauty of Scripture. Most of all, my family has demonstrated to me firsthand that Christ is alive and well.
All of these inspire me, not because they toe some line, but because they are on a pursuit. Everyone should be on a pursuit. I’m not proposing that we replace one dogma (“theirs”) with another (“mine”). This would be the height of both foolishness and arrogance. I’m suggesting we dispense with dogma altogether and approach our Christian lives as a journey.
I’m saying we must quit trying to stomp out people who don’t see things like we do and start cheering for them instead. After all, when I look back at some of the crazy things I used to believe, I shudder. If 19-year-old Maury walked into 53-year-old Maury’s church, 53-year-old Maury would brand him a heretic and run him out on a rail. 83-year-old Maury will no doubt look back and scoff at 53-year-old Maury. Maury doesn’t need to be branded or run out on a rail or scoffed at. He needs to be loved and accepted and encouraged to follow Jesus with all his heart. So do you.
This is not to say truth does not matter or is unattainable. Wrong ideas have painful consequences. Truth sets us free. We can most definitely grab onto truths. But the attainment of truth is not something we achieve at some point and never have to bother with again. The growth of understanding is a lifelong process. One of the hardest parts is letting go of wrong ideas. They may be wrong. They may even be dangerous. But they are comfortable. They feel safe. We are leaning on them.
Being a Christian should be like sinking a shaft into the earth in search of precious stones. There are inexhaustible riches down there. Dogma closes the mine, lists the evacuated contents, and posts a “DANGER” sign at the entrance. I’m proposing that we open up the shaft and keep digging.
It’s scary. Can I trust you? You might wander off the path and pursue some whacky nonsense. I fear myself too. Without the safe guardrails of dogma, who will keep me on the straight and narrow? We are terrified of a living faith. We’ll take nice safe dogma any day. If we never move, there is no danger that we will wander off.
But Jesus didn’t leave us with a statement of faith and an institution to defend it. He certainly didn’t tell us to sit still. Jesus left a his Spirit to be our Guide and his promise to be with us on the journey. We are as safe as Christ is faithful.
Will there be some kooks along the way? Certainly! Am I one of them? Sometimes. Is this dangerous? Not ultimately. We do not live in a world of our own making. Reality always forces us back in line. Living in conflict with reality brings pain. And pain is a very good teacher.
I’m not nearly as worried about people straying across lines as I am with people who draw them. Soon the lines they draw become battle lines. Battle lines destroy a free pursuit of God and lure us in bitter and petty conflict. The infinite collapses into the institutional. Rather than a vast, unexplored universe, filled with unimaginable glory, we get God in a box. In place of a living faith we get lifeless forms. A wineskin with no wine.
My goal is not to reexamine a few doctrines, tidy them up, and put them back in place. I want to reopen the mine and leave it open. I want to invite explorers to go down there and start digging. To do this, we must walk past the “DANGER” signs the dogmatists have posted. We may have to modify beliefs we thought were settled. It will require a living God who sends His Spirit to lead and His Son to walk by our side. It requires that we define ourselves in terms of a central pursuit, not a perimeter of static beliefs. It means we must remain open to all people at all stages of their journey and refuse to label anyone a heretic because they aren’t at the same place in their journey that we are.
Each week we will consider a major doctrine of the church and do two things: 1) show that it fails as a dogma. This will be the easy part. Any idiot can poke holes in things. 2)
People were created to be free. It is a violation of our humanity to corral us and tell us what to think and how to behave. What we need is for someone to kick down the fence and shout “Giddy-up!” The invitation is not “Come believe this list and behave like us.” The invitation is the one found on the lips of the children at in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle: “Further up! Further in!”
These twelve topics are central to the life of faith. I hope you will find it enriching to think carefully about them. But more important than the topics, I pray they will ignite a free and joyful pursuit of Christ.