I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.
Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.
I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.
A week or so ago I saw on a blog where someone asked Brian McLaren what church or denomination he would recommend. (Yes, that Brian McLaren, whom our fundamentalist and hard-core Calvinist friends consider the Anti-Christ). Brian responded with a list of 5 issues important to him in choosing a church. I think this is one fantastic list. I wish I had written it myself. I am copying it from his blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/brianmclaren/2014/01/qr-which-denomination/
A List for Choosing a Church/Denomination:
1. Hand/Mission: Is this denomination more oriented toward maintenance, self-benefit, or the common good of the world? In what ways is this denomination practically expressing its commitment to join God in bringing blessing to the world? Is the denomination more dominated by tradition/the past than by mission/the present and future.
2. Heart/Spirituality: Does this denomination promote personal and communal encounter with God, the neighbor, and the other and enemy, or is it preoccupied with correctness, numbers, politics, and institutional maintenance or aggrandizement?
3. Head/Theology: Does this denomination create space for vibrant theological reflection, imagination, and investigation? Or does it suppress theological curiosity in order to unquestioningly support a predetermined set of conclusions? Does it expect the Spirit to continue to guide us into truth?
4. Backbone/Structure: What kind of support and accountability does this denomination provide to support its staff and members in mission? How nimble and flexible is the structure?
5. Open arms/Ecumenism: Does this denomination wall itself off from other Christian communities, and other faith communities – or does it use its structure as a bridge to facilitate collaborative relationships? And is this denomination interested in welcoming me?
Etic, rather than simply emic views, can help us understand reality. I wrote about etic and emic perspectives here: https://toddrisser.com/2014/01/22/etic-not-just-emic/
Here’s a simple example concerning etic and emic approaches. Someone approaches a pastor and says “What does the Christian faith believe about ________?” An emic answer would be a pastor who says “Christians believe _______,” and answers purely and only from his church’s tradition/ his denomination’s theology. He doesn’t act as if this is one faithful Christian answer among many, he simply states his tradition’s stance as if it is the one and only genuine Christian answer. No caveats, no addendums.
An etic response would be for the pastor to say, “That question has been answered several ways by Christians of various branches of the Christian family tree down through the centuries. Our tradition believes the correct answer is _____ and here’s why. Our Catholic friends believe______. Our Presbyterian friends believe ________. The Mennonites figured ________. So this has been an area with a variety of faithful Christians trying to be faithful to Jesus in understanding what the Scriptures convey. But like I said, here’s our view, and here’s why…”
Answering this way helps avoid turning people into sheeple, is honest, and values the thoughts of Christians throughout history and across the family tree, not just my tribe. I also think it avoids future situations where someone feels like the pastor was less than forthcoming in their answer. It avoids the “If you don’t think what we think, then your answer isn’t even a Christian one” lunacy. It avoids assuming people are not smart enough to sort things out. It helps avoid leader-worship. Perhaps pastors stick with emic answers because they believe that a person will only get to heaven with perfect theology, or because they are insecure that someone may choose another church? I’ve noticed people like being treated like adults rather than children. They like full disclosure, even more than “the party line.” I believe people can be respected enough to tell them the big picture, not just our slice. Truth is truth.