The Big Story and the Irreducible Core
Having just lived through the relatively tumultuous storm of Hellgate during which the Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell asked some very awkward questions.
The more vocal wing of the evangelical church in the USA responded with the sort of outrage usually reserved for lefty liberals rather than one of their own.
In what seemed to resemble a Monty Python scene, the calvanistic big guns exclaimed 'He's not an evangelical, he's a very naughty boy!'
The speed and manner with which they disowned him suggests they were already waiting for a moment to issue divorce papers.
What saddens me most about the whole issue is that it became almost impossible to have a sensible conversation about the subject without the feeling that you too were being both labelled and dismissed in the process.
In a world that loves labels it is quite difficult to continue a dialogue without looking for suitable terms to describe the position you occupy.
Whether you use Evangelical, Calvinist, Arminian, Liberal, Emergent, or other it must be seen that belief exists as more of a spectrum than distinct groupings.
People like Brian Mclaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell have attempted to provide a vocabulary for those who are exploring what is perceived as a more progressive theology.
Other voices have worked hard to limit the effect of what appeared to be a growing movement away from the centre of a traditional evangelical position. Of course even this is more of a spectrum than a definitive ecclesiological standpoint.
There have been others, in particular Jim Belcher in his book Deep Church, who have tried to navigate a middle ground in the hope of presenting a third way.
I enjoyed Jim's book but again felt that another title didn't fully reflect the spectrum of belief described.
I understand that we do need titles and descriptions in order to locate various beliefs in a framework that allows us to address the issues concerned in a meaningful and productive way.
A further problem encountered when trying to navigate these waters is that the UK scene is significantly different to the US. In this regard some of the language and reference points offered need to interpreted for a different context.
Having studied this subject for some time (even before I heard the phrase emergent) I want to offer some thoughts on my own way of navigation.
I have chosen the two motifs of Rootedness and Openness to best describe my approach. I have long felt that the best way of finding location on the theological and ecclesiological landscape is to occupy a place of tension between two ideas.
In doing so one is free from the fear of both stagnation and excess.
Jim Belcher offers something of this but probably falls victim to an urge to affirm a prescribed tradition. I don't mean this in a critical way but just as an observation.
My suggestion of rooted-openness attempts to offer both the acknowledgement of the need for defined reference points and the understanding that there will always be a spectrum of belief.
For my own context I have attempted to describe an irreducible core of belief that is rooted in both the biblical narratives and the testimony of the historic church.
In one sense, because this is a highly personal process and by nature has to be contexualised, it should not matter to anyone else what prescription I have given to this.
In practice however, and because our faith is intended to be of a corporate nature, we will always need to offer explanation so that others can learn from our journey and we can learn from them.
For me the central component of this irreducible core is the person, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would locate this centrality in a Trinitarian understanding of the story.
There are, of course, other elements to this core but this is not important for what I am attempting to describe here at this moment.
What matters here most is that we begin a journey to discover our own irreducible core in which we might become rooted.
It seems to me that churches that develop a core that is too wide at this point risk including ideas that limit the possibility of discussion both within the group and with other churches.
I would include here ideas such as eschatology and ecclesiology that are often held with an unhealthy reverence.
Either way I would encourage you to discover an irreducible core within which you can put down roots.
It seems all too easy for us to close our minds too quickly to conflicting voices. I feel this has happened recently in response to Rob Bell. I am not sure that on every point I fully agree with Rob but I do eagerly welcome his input. He has provided a vocabulary for many within the church who have struggled with certain presumptions made of scripture.
It is my assessment that all Rob really said was that it is possible to both uphold the bible and see things in a different way to that traditionally delivered within evangelicalism.
He gives room for ideas often ignored by much of the evangelical church. He has often been accused of being vague on some issues but that is the point; some of the ideas we have counted as definitive are up for discussion. Why are we so frightened of such dialogue?
I would like to suggest that we develop an openness to the possibility of a bigger story. Brian Mclaren suggests such when he offers the idea that God could have been communicating with the native American indians long before Europeans brought the stories of Jesus.
What perhaps saddens me most is that many of those who offer a criticism to the likes of McLaren, Bell, and Pagitt fail to offer a view on such ideas, preferring to speak against the very idea of raising questions about perceived evangelical belief.
Further than this such critics often fail to address the questions raised prefering to simple accuse others of questioning God when they are in fact questioning a theology.
Whatever theological position we hold we must always agree that our beliefs will never fully explain God; otherwise our beliefs themselves would become an idol.
In this regard it is perhaps not the question or questioner who should be exposed but our inability to conceive that others might hold valid opposing views when seeking to find an explanation for God, life, and the universe.
Openness leaves room for an understanding of God in ways outside of both our experience and theological construct. Holding this in tension with a Rootedness in an irreducible core centred on the person of Jesus Christ brings a check to how far my openness might take me.
You may well see the above as an attempt to decry existing theological and ecclesiological labels only to replace them with alternatives. This is a constant danger in such an exercise as this.
I believe however that introducing the idea of a spectrum of belief held in tension between two seemingly opposite locations allows for a broader discussion than the mere acceptance of a single label. Hopefully this understanding of spectrum might act as an antedote to much of the tribal theological turf wars we continue to see.
In truth I believe that behind all labels is the kind of spectrum of which I write. My goal is to encourage us to develop a new conversation as we admit this to be true.
If we enquire of the term evangelical for example we will soon discover that it has the possibility of revealing a variety of spectrums behind this seemingly definitive label.
One can be an Evangelical Charismatic or an Evangelical calvinist. In actuality these may or may not be mutually exclusive, however the fact of their existence reveals the probability of a spectrum of belief.
Where to now?
I believe this to be a highly personal journey that is best done in community, through the influence biblical narrative, the teachings of the church, the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Some of my findings may well cause others to cry 'He's not an evangelical, he's a very naughty boy!' but that is a risk I am willing to take.
I will endeavour to discover what it means to be rooted in the historic Christian faith whilst being open to the enormity of God's salvation story for all of his creation.
I hope to find others on a similar path with whom I can travel.