Today’s post is by one of my oldest and best friends, Whit Wilson. He is currently in his first year in a master’s in counseling program at Biblical Seminary, just outside Philadelphia. I hope you get to hear more from him as he continues his education.
In the first year of my current program, three classes are required relating to the use of the Scriptures in counseling. Class 1 focuses on an overall interpretational approach to Scripture, class 2 is on the Old Testament, and class 3 is on the New Testament.
This semester my cohort and I are in the New Testament class with an eccentric and somewhat unorthodox professor who enjoys challenging various long-held theological assumptions and beliefs with the goal of helping us freshly think through these issues (everything from gender roles to homosexuality to the afterlife). I can’t say that I agree with him on everything (or most things for that matter), but I have enjoyed his fresh approach and the way he encourages us to think critically about how we use and interpret the Bible.
Anyway, this past week featured an online discussion board in which our professor encouraged us to consider various views relating to hell and eternal punishment, including universalist perspectives. As most folks in the class (including myself) have roots in the reformed evangelical tradition, suffice it to say the online dialogue was quite lively. Last night’s in-person class discussion even more so.
Let me say upfront that I have absolutely no problem with engaging vigorously on these topics, even and especially when we disagree. This is, after all, part of what is supposed to happen in an academic setting–challenging each other’s views and sharpening our own.
That said, this past week’s discussions, both online and in class, bothered me tremendously as they often became tense, heated, and even hostile. As some students challenged the professor and each other, many comments were made sarcastically, derisively, and with a general tone of disrespect–and even anger–towards those who held differing views.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave with a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth. The entire experience left me wondering what causes such frequent tension and hostility in these kinds of conversations. Reflecting on that experience today with a friend, I saw more clearly what may be going on in these discussions.
As Christians, we are persistently tempted to place our faith in something other than God himself. For students of theology, I think this temptation often comes in the form of basing our belief and faith in God on our particular intellectual understanding of Him, rather than putting our faith solely in Jesus himself.
Having all of the answers to our theological questions and confusions doesn’t require faith; not having them does. Thus, we find it much easier (and safer, we think) to bank our faith in God on various “proofs” of His existence as well as our own particular brand of theology. This is, I think, one of the main struggles for more intellectually-oriented Christians.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting our beliefs and theology don’t matter. What I am suggesting is that at the end of the day, as the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthian church, we now see dimly on many of these issues. There will surely be disagreement and varying perspectives on even important theological matters.
Practically, we should recognize that orthodox Christianity has room for all kinds of divergent viewpoints on a number of difficult questions.
Ultimately, the defensiveness and hostility that all too often characterizes these discussions arises because people sense threats to the philosophical and/or theological formulations that make God and Christianity more palatable to them. This seems to be why so many Christians refuse to even engage these difficult discussions, and those that do are often unable to do so without strong negative emotions.
So what’s the solution? I think it begins with understanding how prone we are to put our faith in theological systems and our particular intellectual understanding of God.
This means realizing that our faith should be in Christ and Christ alone as we learn to live more by faith than by (intellectual) sight. Salvation after all is found not in our theological system, but in the risen Jesus himself.
[image credit: Hieronymus Bosch, “Christ Carrying the Cross”]