Archive for August 2010

Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast

This is Part Two in the Psychology of Religion series. Check out part one here.
In today’s installment we are examining the concept of religious orientation, with an emphasis on C. Daniel Batson’s “Quest” orientation and the ways in which this concept can be misused by Christians.

Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Charles H. Hackney, Ph.D.

Research in the psychology of religion tends to move from the primitive to the complex, and the movement often follows a certain pattern. When psychologists investigate how religion is involved with some psychological or social phenomenon (volunteerism, for example), the first question tends to be “Does it make a difference if the person is religious?”, and we see studies in which the researcher is doing something like comparing self-identified churchgoers versus non-churchgoers in relation to the psychological phenomenon (so, to continue the example, a study might compare the average volunteerism rates for churchgoers versus non-churchgoers to see if being religious is associated with more volunteering). If the researcher wants to get more sophisticated, the next question tends to be “Does it make a difference how religious the person is?”, and then we get things like correlations calculated between scores on religiosity measures and the number of hours spent volunteering. The next level of sophistication often involves the question “Does it makes a difference in what way the person is religious?”

The primary approach to this question comes to us from one of the key figures in the psychology of religion, Gordon Allport. Allport proposed a fundamental distinction between what he called “immature” and “mature” religion. This was later rephrased as “Extrinsic” and “Intrinsic” religious orientations. According to this approach, two people can be equally “religious” (defined in terms of things like going to worship services and attending Bible studies and bringing homemade pumpkin cake to a church potluck), but be religious for very different reasons. The Extrinsically-oriented “use” their religion as a means to some other end, such as community networking, emotional comfort, or the opportunity to meet nice girls. The Intrinsically-oriented “live” their religion as an end in itself. Worship through song, for example, is not valued because it feels uplifting, it is valued because it is worship and God is worthy of praise.

C. Daniel Batson proposed a third orientation, called “Quest,” in which religion is seen as an ongoing journey in which we grapple with the difficult questions of existence in a lifelong process of learning and growing. Batson and Shoenrade’s Quest scale assesses three aspects of Quest-oriented religion: 1) “readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity,” 2) “self-criticism and perceptions of religious doubts as positive,” 3) “openness to change.” In connection to one of the best movies ever made, I will refer to people with kind of orientation as “Questarians.”

The idea of being a Questarian works on a number of levels. Theologically, it is vital to recognize the tentativeness of our ideas about God and the Christian life, and to be willing to change our minds if we encounter a better theology than the one we currently embrace. Stanley Grenz, for example, states that “all theological assertions are historically conditioned” (p. 6) and that “no theological system encompasses reality in its fullness. The topics the theologian studies—God, the human person, and the world as a whole—lie ultimately beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp fully. Therefore, every theological system will have limitations.” (p. 10). Stephen Moroney, in his examination of how sin influences our ability to reason, points out that the mind of a Christian is not instantly, or fully, purged of the distorting effects of sin. So an acknowledgement that our best attempts to answer important questions will always fall short of perfect truth is a correctly-humble attitude to take. The idea of life as a journey has scriptural support (Philippians 3:12-14), and fits with the work of a number of Christian scholars who take a “narrative” approach to understanding the Christian life. There are also philosophers and psychologists who have focused on understanding a human life in terms of “narrative” and “quest.”

The psychological research on Quest orientation has generally been favorable toward this approach to living one’s faith. The data seem to indicate that Questarians are more helpful, less prejudiced, more morally-principled, less willing to simply accept what others tell them to believe, just in general more way-cool types than non-Questarians. So should all us Christians be balls-to-the-wall Questarians? It works theologically, philosophically, psychologically… to quote another great film, “How is this a bad plan?”

Not so fast, Jacopo. Like most things, there’s a right way and wrong way to go about this. Quest can go wrong when it stops being a “quest” so much as an “aimless wandering.” There seems to be some overlap between the ideas expressed by the concept of “Quest” and less desirable concepts such as “struggling with doubt” and “sophomorically rejecting orthodoxy.” So it’s important to distinguish between them.

Doubt can be a good thing, though seldom a fun thing. Gordon Allport argues that the “mature religious sentiment” is “fashioned in the workshop of doubt.” Similarly, Dostoevsky says, “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Like the physical exertion necessary to build muscles, and the mental exertion necessary to cultivate the intellect, Quest religion is a struggle that can result in greater spiritual strength. But doubt can also cripple and poison one’s faith life. I found Philip Yancey’s advice for doubters helpful. In his book, he gives eight tips for turning unhealthy doubt into healthy doubt. I have found the first tip to be the most valuable: “Question your doubts as much as your faith.” Not all doubts are reasonable. We have been told (correctly) that our faith must be strong enough and our beliefs well-supported enough to withstand questioning. What happens if we turn that spotlight on the nagging doubts? Which of those are powerful enough to withstand questioning?

The second issue is the reason for the title of this post. Healthy questing is not the same thing as a blanket rejection of anything touched by words like “tradition” or “orthodoxy.” In 1902, William James complained about the “one-sided absolutizing” that kept getting in the way of having intelligent discussions about religion. It’s been a hundred and eight years; things haven’t improved. We still tend to polarize issues, push them to extremes, and demonize anyone who doesn’t line up 100% with our way of thinking. Talk to some Christians, and you might get the impression that you must either be a full-bore fundamentalist or a radical liberal, with nothing in between. The moment you start questioning why we believe what we believe, someone will accuse you of stepping on the slippery slope to relativism. Say anything suggesting that maybe your parents’ generation did something right, and someone will accuse you of being a roadblock on the path of progress. Quest religion is especially vulnerable to this second extreme, as questions and the individual journey are given priority over the acceptance of institutional forms and received teachings. This makes it easy for people to toss around perfectly good concepts (like Quest) as lame excuses for developing a self-centered approach to the Christian life. If there is something that I do not like in the church, saying that I’m on a quest is a perfect excuse for walking away. (I will refer to these individuals as “PseudoQuestarians”)

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for the individual taking a stand against the group, and this is not to devalue individuals wrestling through tough issues and coming to conclusions that might differ from others’ conclusions. What I am talking about is the temptation to dress up moral and intellectual laziness with smart-sounding words. Like rebellious teenagers who talk big about thinking for themselves, and end up rebelling in precisely the same way that their friends rebel, a PseudoQuestarian’s “personally-developed” theology is likely to precisely mirror whatever positions are currently popular, rejecting “traditional” Christian ideas at exactly the points where “traditional” Christianity diverges from the current zeitgeist. This is why a PseudoQuestarian is a spineless wimpy lily-livered milquetoast, projecting a façade of rugged intellectual individualism over unthinking conformity.

While a Quest approach will encourage us to acknowledge our ignorance, it does not require us to abandon the concept of truth. PseudoQuestarians may talk about orthodoxy being “limiting,” or their approach as “transcending boundaries,” in the name of “inclusiveness,” but without limitations and boundaries, a quest becomes aimless wandering. Let’s look at three illustrations.

I play World of Warcraft (“The first Step is admitting that you have a problem.”). For those of you who have never played, a central feature of the game is the completion of quests. A non-player character will offer you an assignment, with a reward promised when you complete it.

This structure is inherently limiting. If I want the reward, then I must do what the quest-giver wants, and if I make an individual choice not to do what the quest-giver wants, I will not get the reward. If the quest is to slay twelve Murlocs, with a high-quality dagger as the reward, and I choose instead to slay fifteen Furbolgs, then I’ve chosen not to receive that dagger. There certainly is freedom and choice involved if I want the dagger (if I so desire, I could kill the Murlocs on the north end of the coastline instead of the south end, or I could choose to kill six Murlocs, then get in some fishing, then kill the other six), but it is a contextualized and bounded freedom.

Second example (one of my favorites): The Hobbit. JRR Tolkien’s story is a classic example of a quest. “Far over the Misty Mountains cold, To dungeons deep and caverns old, We must away, ere break of day, To seek our pale enchanted gold.” This, too, is a set of limitations on the actions of Bilbo and the dwarves. Stay on the path. Do not deviate from it. Avoid getting eaten. Slay the dragon (somehow). This is also an example of the roles of both ignorance and knowledge in a quest. At the beginning of the journey, Bilbo had no idea how to kill a dragon, had no idea how tremendously useful a magic ring could be, and had no idea of his own potential as a friend and a fighter and a burglar. This does not mean that Bilbo abandoned all forms of knowledge about the quest. He knew about the gold and the dragon. He knew that Gandalf was a source of trustworthy knowledge. He knew that there would be dangers (though he did not know exactly what they would be).

Third example: Pilgrim’s Progress. In this allegory, the main character (“Christian”) is on a quest to get to the Celestial City. This story is loaded with all the things that a Questarian would appreciate. Christian never once claims to have all the answers, in fact it seems that half the time he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Christian is willing to go against the advice of his family, his community, the people of Vanity Fair, and characters such as Timorous and Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Christian’s path is filled with doubt and struggle, including having to slog through the Slough of Despond, to escape from Doubting Castle, and to avoid Legalism, Formalism, and Hypocrisy. However, Christian is by no means free to pick and choose what he believes, but submits to instruction from those who know the path better than he does. Every time Christian turns away from the path, he ends up in trouble, and the path can only be legitimately accessed by the Wicket Gate. In fact, one of the characters (Mr. By-Ends) prides himself on his freedom to live by the spirit of the times and go with the flow when it comes to religion. When Christian says that questing toward the Celestial City means “you must go against wind and tide… you must also own Religion in his rags, as well as in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause,” By-Ends accuses him of “imposing” and “lording it over” By-Ends’ faith (sound familiar to anyone?).

There is a difference between being on a quest and doing whatever you want. A quest is defined by its goal, and the methods that lead the Questarian toward that goal are not infinite. Progress in the Quest means sticking to the path.

Up next in this series, Terror Management Theory and the book of Ecclesiastes.

Motivational Monday

Sunday Meditation

“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”
(Revelation 5:11–14 NIV)

“In worship God gathers his people to himself as center: “The Lord reigns” (Psalm 93:1). Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. We worship so that we live in response to and from this center, the living God. Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren. Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives. We move in either frightened panic or deluded lethargy as we are, in turn, alarmed by spectres and soothed by placebos. If there is no center, there is no cicumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose.”
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (1998), pg 60.

Random Blog Posts and Stuff

Come join the conversation over at Scatterings, as Eric ponders “Artistic Participation in the Death of Christ”:

…But I can’t help wondering if there’s more. Without denying the “cease from sin” interpretation or drawing false dichotomies, the death of Christ, while centrally concerned with substitutionary punitive expiation and atonement for my sins, surely isn’t limited to that, right? God the Son is taking the whole human predicament on himself and redeeming it. The curse of the covenants – which itself echoes the curse on the man, woman, and all creation in Genesis 3 – is being realized to the fullest possible extent on Christ’s head. And his resurrection is as the “firstfruits” from the dead – which has various connotations (both as head of a group and as the first of a new harvest). So perhaps our participation in the death of Christ means that all these various dimensions of the meaning of his death touch our lives as we are baptized into it? That, in some infinitesimally smaller way, we are drowned in the abyss, under that creation-wide curse, too? Luther said that when someone first comes into Christ, God damns him: God makes the person feel the full weight of their condemnation before the law. Then grace hits them.

Mark Roberts is doing a series on Church conflict. Check out: How NOT To Solve Conflicts Part 1 and Part 2.

J.R. Daniel Kirk summarizes the latest Christian war that is brewing, this time between Albert Mohler and Biologos. He concludes by asking: Is it possible that diversity is inherently good? Can we, should we not, celebrate that there are people to both our left and our right in any circumstance, and that these will be able to truly draw people to the true God even though they (like ourselves) do not have the truth completely worked out.

Chaplain Mike has a helpful reminder of what the Ancient-Future Faith IS and IS Not:

But I’m afraid people may have the wrong conception of what I’m talking about when I refer to the Ancient-Future path. I understand some of the confusion, because those who talk about it (including me) make regular reference to such things as historic churches, liturgical worship, and other traditional practices. It’s important, however, to realize that there is no single uniform way of walking the Ancient-Future path…

Great video: Is the Bible about you and what you must do? Or is it about what Jesus has done. (HT: Evangel)

On the geek front, Joss Whedon talks about the new Avengers movie; and rumour has it that Marvel is gearing up to make an Iron Fist movie.

Another Great Theologian

Just found out that Donald Bloesch passed away this week. From The Scriptorium‘s article:

…But even when it comes to the influence of Barth, Bloesch’s main contribution was to mediate to evangelical readers the determined Christocentric impulse. From first to last, Bloesch was focused on Christ as the main thing. He brought this from his own evangelical background, cultivated and elaborated it in dialogue with Barth, and channeled it to evangelicals for decades.
Refusing to choose between liberalism and fundamentalism, he nevertheless expressed his preference for a kind of Christianity that preserved the doctrinal deposit of orthodoxy: “In liberalism truth is dissolved so that only an amorphous experience remains. In rigid orthodoxy truth is frozen into a formula or credo. But there is hope that it can be brought back to life.”

Red Letters, Black Letters

I’ve been wrestling with a dichotomy that I’m seeing in the use and understanding of Scripture.

On the one hand, there are the red-letter fans, who hold the words of Jesus far above the rest of Scripture, and even suggest that if Jesus didn’t say it, then it’s not important.
On the other hand, there are those who shy away from all things Jesus, turning instead to the Epistles that describe the church after Jesus.

Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed says it this way:

On one side are Christians who think and believe like Jesus, and they take the Gospels as their primary (and sometimes only) source. On the other side are Christians who think and believe like Paul, and they take Romans (especially) as their primary (and sometimes only) source.

And then, what the heck do we do with the Old Testament? Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology says that Christians don’t hold the Old Testament to be authoritative, but that it is “crucial to understanding the human predicament, the nature of God, the role of Jesus, and the mission of the church in salvation history.”

Robert Webber, in Ancient-Future Worship, makes this observation:

Why do people have such trouble grasping the theology of ancient worship? I think one reason is because we tend to be New Testament Christians rather than Bible Christians. We disregard OT worship instructions because we regard the OT to be fulfilled in Jesus. Therefore, we don’t read the Bible as God’s whole story. We don’t connect the creation liturgy with God’s purposes for the world, so we don’t pay attention to how God is working in history to redeem and rescue the whole world and fulfill his creation vision. This was the problem with the Gnostic heresy in the ancient church — they rejected the entire OT. We have not rejected the OT, but we have, at the very least, ignored the creation story of God’s vision and overlooked how God’s purposes were being worked out in Israel. (pg 67-68).

Would finding authority in both the black and red letters help bring liberal and conservative Christians together, rather than them being pitted against each other, each side screaming that they are right and the other side is wrong?

Have we have used Scripture verses (red or black) as sound-bites for our own agendas? Have we become Marcionites in how we approach Scripture?
Can we truly understand the Gospels apart from the Old Testament? Can we understand the Epistles apart from the Gospels?

Is the “Good News” confined to just the Red Letters?

Barth Reading Group

When we moved to Caronport in January, one of the first things I got plugged into was the Karl Barth Reading Group. This rag-tag group of professors, pastors, students and community residents would meet Friday mornings at 7 am (yikes!) and pour over 8-10 pages of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Before joining the group I had never read Barth. And there were mornings, especially the ones where it was -35 degrees, and we were wrestling through Barth’s equivalent of a footnote (which would stretch for pages, in teeny-tiny print), when I thought “are these people nuts?”

Well, yes they are. But turns out so am I. I loved it. Once I got into the rhythm, I looked forward to more wrestling. (I liked it so much that Santa is getting me the Church Dogmatics from CBD for Christmas — yay for a one time sale!)

It has helped that I have spent the summer reading Barth for Armchair Theologians. Now I feel like I have a better sense of context.

The Barth Group is gearing up again this fall. So if you live in the Caronport/Southern Saskatchewan area and want to come join us, it will be a blast.

There is an introductory meeting on September 13th to hash out time and location. Check out David Guretzki’s post for more information.

Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry About the Neuropsychology of Religion

Who’s Afraid of the Temporal Lobe?
Why Christians Shouldn’t Worry About the Neuropsychology of Religion
Charles H. Hackney, Ph.D.

This is the first in a series of posts on the psychology of religion. I have been invited to contribute these posts for number of reasons. First, because the psychology of religion is one of my research areas. Second, because I’ll be teaching a freshly-launched Psychology of Religion course this Fall. Third, because I’m so cool.

As I mentioned, the school where I work (Briercrest College and Seminary) is launching a new Psychology of Religion course. I love teaching this topic, not only because I find it a fascinating area of research, but also because the possible applications are tremendous for Christians who want to learn about the many ways that our religion can go very right, and can go very wrong, in people’s lives.

One topic that makes some of my Christian students uncomfortable, though, is the research of people like Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene D’Aquili on connections between religion and the brain. What makes my students uncomfortable is the possibility that examining brain structures and processes in connection to spiritual phenomena like prayer or speaking in tongues will “explain away” these things as “nothing but” mere neural activity.

From one perspective, these fears are entirely valid. There are researchers who try to take this reductionist approach. One example in the neuropsychology of religion is Michael Persinger at Laurentian University. Persinger is most well-known for his invention of the “God Helmet,” a device that artificially stimulates the user’s temporal lobes, sometimes producing a feeling of a powerful invisible being in the room with the user. Persinger hypothesized that spiritual experiences were the results of “microseizures” in the temporal lobes of the brain, making great spiritual figures such as Paul and Teresa of Avila “nothing but” epileptics.

Another line of research has featured the use of SPECT imaging to examine brain activity during spiritual and religious activity. Most of this research has been conducted by Newberg, D’Aquili, and their colleagues. Their research has shown that religious belief, prayer, spiritual experiences, and speaking in tongues are all associated with activity in specific areas of the brain.

I have a greater appreciation for the interpretation that D’Aquili and Newberg tend to put on their research. Rather than arguing that neuropsychological research has “proved” that God only exists as meaningless brain activity, they argue that neuropsychological research can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence (see the Q&A section of Newberg’s website for an example). After all, our brains mediate everything that we experience. If I smell a freshly-baked cookie, that experience involves the olfactory bulb of my brain. If a researcher were to artificially stimulate the olfactory bulb of my brain, I might have the experience of the scent of nonexistent cookies. The neurological activity itself would be the same, whether the cookie exists or not. This kind of humility is what you find among the better researchers in the psychology of religion, going all the way back to William James in 1902. D’Aquili being a Roman Catholic, while Newberg is non-Christian, might also have played a role in this display of proper scientific humility.

So how should Christians respond to this kind of research? As I see it, it makes perfect sense to me that God, who wants us to glorify him and enjoy him forever, would “hardwire” our brains for religious and spiritual activity. So the more we learn about the specifics of the neurological aspects of religion, the better we can appreciate this aspect of God’s creation. However, in the same way that this research does not prove God to be “nothing but” meaningless brain activity, being hardwired for religion also does not prove that God exists.

So, the next time you see a news article claiming that researchers have found the “God chemical” or “God in the brain” or the “God lobe” or the “God gene,” remember that journalists are not terribly interested in scientific humility.

Coming up in the next installment of the Psychology of Religion series: Reflections on C. Daniel Batson’s “Quest” orientation.

Not Feeling It

“Amanda, you really need to check out this song, it’s great!”
“Oh, yeah?”
“Yup. It’s about going deeper with Jesus.”

So, I checked it out, and ugh. All I can say is ugh. I told my friend that my response to hearing the song was “ugh”, and she just didn’t understand why.

The chorus of the song:
More like falling in love
Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance
Caught up, called out
Come take a look at me now
It’s like I’m falling, oh
It’s like I’m falling in love

The friend spent the next half hour telling me that if someone isn’t “feeling” Jesus then there is probably a problem in that person’s walk, or worse, she may not even be a Christian.

Great! Just like that my salvation was being called into question.

It used to be, in our modern understanding, that reason was a faculty free from sin. Reason could be used to find God and know God. Today, the pendulum is swinging the other way. Feelings are the basis for all right decisions. My gut tells me this is the right thing, or the wrong thing. And if we don’t feel Jesus then obviously something is wrong. (We are very much hedonists, “it feels so good, so I must do it.”)

But do I really want to be (still) falling in love with Jesus? When I first became a Christian, it was amazing. I prayed all the time, heard God speak, and felt Jesus move in my entire being. It was the ultimate spiritual high. Now, here I am 15 years later and my faith isn’t like that anymore. I think that’s a good thing.

Take Chuck and I as an example. In our early dating days we couldn’t get enough of each other. We ate dinner together every night (it helped that he lived in the apartment building right next door). We did everything together. And then we got married and had the honeymoon experience for the first year of our marriage. It was exhilarating, but also stressful. I was constantly worrying, “what if he doesn’t like me?” “What if he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake?” “I’ve got to do everything I can to keep this passion going, because once the passion is gone, he’ll leave.”

Now here we are, nearly five years married, and I like this stage of our relationship much better. There is much less worry. Sure the emotional high isn’t there, but the love is deeper, it is comfortable, it is powerful. I don’t want to go back to “falling in love” with Chuck, because the falling was dangerous and stressful and emotionally exhausting.

We do best just hanging out with each other. We don’t even have to be doing anything specific, just being in the same room while doing different projects, or vegging out on the couch is our favourite way of spending quality time. There is contentment. We’ve done the “falling in love” thing and now we’re at a new stage…a better stage. He is my husband. I am his wife. Feelings don’t change that reality.

So what about my relationship with God? I’ve done the “falling in love” thing. Now what? Do I get butterflies every time I approach Him? Do I worry that He’s not going to like me? Or that He’ll find out what I’m really like and then leave? Do I worry that God is going to come and say, “listen I’ve made a terrible mistake?” I think where I am with God is so much better than the “falling in love stage.”

So what if I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy right at this moment? Feelings are fleeting. They are flawed and affected by sin and worry and by what the world defines as good or bad feelings.

Maybe that’s why I find myself drawn more and more to the ancient creeds of the Church. As I recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, they may not talk about feelings, but they talk about who Jesus is. He’s not going anywhere. I am His. I recite the Creeds and I know with my whole being that He is there, even if I can’t feel him. Through the creeds, I enter into something bigger than my little feelings. I enter into 2,000 years of Christians walking with Jesus.

It is so much more than falling in love. It is about giving my allegiance. In giving my allegiance, I give myself, wholly, to the Risen Lamb of God. It is something I believe in, with all that I am and all that I have.

WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.


Open Theism — Opening My Eyes

Roger Olson has a great post on the hoopla over Open Theism. Check it out here.
He writes:

But there are many stories yet to be told about it. I believe much of the controversy over open theism among evangelicals was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery. In many places and at many times open theism and open theists did not receive a fair hearing. And I know of cases in which evangelical critics knowingly misrepresented open theism in order to create fear of it among the untutored…

When I was in college, Open Theism was the controversy-du-jour. For Integrative Theology, our professor decided to lay aside the normal material (yay!), and we spent a semester reading about Open Theism. We read Clark Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover” and Bruce Ware’s “God’s Lesser Glory.” We even had Clark Pinnock come for one class to dialogue about his book.

It was because of the Open Theism debate that a group of us got interested in the Evangelical Theological Society. That year the annual meeting was held in Toronto, so we went to listen to the various presentations. The following year, a group of us braved the long drive to Atlanta to once again participate in the ETS. It was fantastic.

As I watched and listened and read, I learned a valuable lesson: Just because the person is an academic, with a PhD and has written a book, does not mean that they are objective, nor are they always fair to their opponent’s argument or even Scripture. I learned very quickly that presuppositions and “I must be right” are very often at the heart of theological arguments.

In his post, Roger Olson talks about blatant misrepresentations, name-calling, and even the twisting of Scripture. I saw all of that while being an observer in the Open Theism controversy. And the majority of those offenses came not from Open Theists but by their opponents.

Take, for example, the following scenario I observed at conference:

One scholar stood up and presented an argument that I have since heard time and time again. God does not repent/relent/regret/change his mind. Scripture says so. See, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” (1 Sam 15:29). There, you have it. Proof.

A well-respected OT scholar stood up in response and called the presenter out on his “proof.”

In 1 Sam 15 there are three statements:
God says, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Sam 15:11)
Samuel the prophet says, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” (1 Sam 15:29)
The narrator says, “And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam 15:35).

The OT scholar then called the presenter out on Hermeneutics 101: Who is to be trusted most, God? The narrator? A character in the narrative? (Answer: God and the narrator are always right. Characters can and do lie).
And then he pointed out, that Samuel’s “God does not change his mind/lie” is in reference to Saul’s pleading. God has changed his mind about Saul being king, but he won’t change it back.

The presenter hemmed and hawed and blustered. The entire room knew that the OT scholar was right. In a later context the presenter would accuse the OT scholar of being an Open Theist sympathizer! (Gasp! The Horror!)

And there I sat, an innocent theology student, shocked and stunned. How could the presenter not know this? How could the presenter talk about the integrity of Scripture and yet blatantly proof-text? This is a person with a Ph.D.! This is a professor!

I learned from that incident to recite in over and over “just because they’ve written a book, and have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean that they are virtuous, rational or immune to being a bone-head.” I have recited that over the years, and now being married to a PhD, I’ve learned to recite it to Chuck: “Just because you’ve written a book and have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you are virtuous, rational or immune to being a bone-head.” (And hopefully one day he’ll be able to recite it to me).

To this day, I still get friends asking, “so are you an Open Theist?” Nope. But, I sympathize with their position, and in many cases they are being more faithful to Scripture than their opponents. If any thing, the Open Theism decade helped me wrestle through my doctrine of God and my approach to theology in general. It was because of Open Theism that I made a choice (hee hee) to be an Arminian and not a Calvinist. That’s not to say that there is not good things to learn from Calvinism, I just find Arminianism to be a good balance between the two extremes of Calvinism and Open Theism.

Roger Olson concludes his post with this:
Debate over open theism is fine; I have no objection to it–so long as it is informed and civil. But far too much of the debate over open theism in evangelical circles has been neither.

This is very true. And sadly, it is not limited to Open Theism. Replace “Open Theism” with “Inerrancy”, “Women in Ministry” or a host of other hot topics and Olson’s conclusion still stands.