Every two years, the Baptist-run Vose Seminary in Perth hosts an academic conference. The theme of the 15-16 August 2011 conference was ‘Beyond Four Walls’, with a focus on church and mission. The keynote speaker was prolific US New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, a self-identified Anabaptist.
In his opening talk, Scot claimed most Christians have reduced the gospel to either justice or justification. Christians on the left have mistakenly thought the good news can be reduced to social justice. Christians on the right have mistakenly thought the good news can be reduced to personal salvation in the form of justification. Scot called us to remember the gospel is found primarily not in Paul but in the first four books of the New Testament, all of them the one gospel, not four, but told by four different writers. The gospel cannot be reduced to Jesus’ death; it is the whole story of Jesus and it is Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom.
Scot began so many of his sentences with ‘As an Anabaptist’ that one of the first questions thrown at him from the audience was, ‘Why are you an Anabaptist?’. He responded, ‘Because I read my Bible.’ After the laughter subsided he explained that he thought the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship and the centrality of Jesus was the right way to approach Christianity. He mentioned the strong influence Anabaptist theologian Ron Sider had had on him in his formative years. In a conversation I had with him, McKnight said that he saw himself as somewhere between Sider and John Howard Yoder. He finished off his answer to the question from the audience by saying, ‘And that’s why I go to a very Anabaptist church called Willow Creek.’ Willow Creek, a megachurch which invented ‘seeker-sensitive services’, is about as far from Anabaptist ecclesiology as I can imagine, although it has focused more on discipleship in recent years. The joke may have been lost on much of the audience, but he was acknowledging a dilemma which faces many Anabaptists in Australia and New Zealand – finding a church which fits our beliefs.
If Scot’s first talk offended many on the right, his final talk offended some on the left. He spoke of the increasing focus on ‘justice’ amongst his students and their belief that working with NGOs and politics to achieve social justice was ‘kingdom work’. Scot insisted that this was not kingdom work but social work. He called for unglamorous, quiet church-based justice: looking after the aged, the widowed, the poor within the church community, and constantly reaching beyond the boundaries to bring more people into the church. There were controversial words, but ones worth contemplating for those of us who tend to see social justice as kingdom work. Scot says his forthcoming book, The King Jesus Gospel, will explain his position better. It does need better explaining, and I think his words may have given comfort to people in the ‘do-nothing’ camp. But in part, he means what Yoder means in Body Politics, and that is that the church needs to embody justice to the world.
I was just reading some comments by 18 year olds on facebook about religion. A young woman, H, wrote passionately that the the Bible was written by God and religion – or at least Christianity – was good for the world. She was in a tussle with a young man, T, who sounded like a seasoned atheist, asking how the Bible could have been written by God when it was riddled with ‘contradictions’ and ‘errors’? I assumed T’d been brought up an atheist, but then a third person commented that until a few months ago T had believed the Bible was written by God too. Perhaps T is a young man turned off Christianity by his first year of uni.
Evangelicalism sets its young adults up to lose their faith. Too many of them are given a stark, unthinking choice: either God wrote the Bible and thus it is perfect OR God does not exist and religion is a harmful delusion. It’s not that evangelicals actually put the choice directly like this to their young adults. Instead, it’s that a perfect Bible is put up as the centrepiece of faith and other expressions of Christian faith are dismissed.
Instead of this, young people should be shown the wide, diverse riches of Christianity, its many expressions, its wide river and many branching streams. Warned perhaps that some parts of the river are stagnant and stinking or dried up or lead to places you don’t want to go. But at least made aware that the perfect Bible is one particular tradition, a response to problems of the 19th and 20th centuries. Few of them are even shown the riches and diversity within the evangelical tradition, let alone the other streams. Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water should be required reading.
I don’t know about conferences. Not easy for the introverted. Not necessarily natural for the bookish.
To read someone’s book at length and then respond in writing feels right. But what about if you’re in an audience of a hundred – or a thousand – and asking a question (usually making a comment) is more like contesting a mark in football?
Please bear with me, as I articulate an initial question, a challenge to Christianity (and theism) I’m sure has been raised before but that I’m only just getting my head around.
It is common to talk of a crisis in faith within Western Christianity starting in the late 19th century, particularly post-Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin’s theory that humans were descended from other animals is often depicted as causing widespread doubt and apostasy among believers, who up until this point had been the clear majority within Western countries. (Not sure of the situation in France.) Perhaps one could paint the picture in the years afterward as a gradual shift away from faith for the majority of people in Western countries to the point where today, for example, only a small minority of Australians have a positive faith in Christianity.
It would be ludicrous to put this decline solely or even largely at the hands of a Darwinian account of human origins, although young earth creationists frequently do. Yet from most quarters it would be acknowledged that the theory of evolution certainly did not encourage belief in God or Christianity, and did much to discourage it.
So how does evolutionary theism – and for someone like me both young and old earth creationism are untenable [I believe God created the world, but that Genesis does not give us scientific information about this] – account for the crisis in faith that evolution (at least partially) caused?
If all truth is God’s truth, why would the uncovering of truth lead people away from God rather than closer to God?
1. Creationism: touche – evolution is a deception and this is why it caused a crisis of faith.
2. The theory of evolution provided an excuse for [some in] society to move away from God. Or it at least gave rise to a hubris which felt it could reject God/Christianity in the name of science, which could provide a new, firm basis for the nature of existence and the future of humankind. Thus: the problem is the project of modernism. Intertwined with truth – insight, for example, into human origins – was idolatry of science, as if it could replace faith in God.
3. The reaction of conservatives and fundamentalists against evolution in the name of Jesus discredited Christianity in the minds of many people.
4. The role of belief in evolution in leading people away from God is either an exaggeration or a delusion (perhaps used by individuals as an excuse).
5. Atheism/ Agnosticism: evolutionary theism is an attempt to salvage religious faith from the ashes. The theory of evolution caused a crisis of faith because it points toward a reality of a world without God.