Why ‘Undogmatics’?

Why choose the blog name ‘undogmatics’?

Well for one thing I thought it sounded quite cool. You can judge me if you like.

But also it had to do with the concept of dogma as certainty, of having worked out exactly what this life and god and faith are all about. And that any deviation from this is evil, or at least a slippery slope…

I do not claim to have things worked out. Actually I am not sure that it is possible or even a desirable goal. If we can put life in a box, we can put God in a box; and if we can put God in a box then he is just a god of our own making. (As someone said, God made made in his own image, and Man returned the compliment.)

I spent 20 years in the evangelical church, and another 30 in the charismatic movement. Both wonderful and terrifying, I would not swap these years for anything. But shape me they did…

So don’t come here expecting answers. But if you have questions I hope this is a place for you.

Please join in the conversation, here or on twitter, or by email at undogmatics@gmail.com.

  

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 2 The Bible

It is my conviction that to treat the Bible as inerrant and infallible is un-Christian in that it is both dishonest, and dishonouring to the the Bible itself and to the God Christians believe inspired it.

Image of a fragment of a dead sea scroll, from the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab
From the Dead Sea Scrolls; a portion of the second discovered copy of the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls)

As an evangelical I was taught that the Bible is inerrant (contains no mistakes about anything) and infallible (absolutely trustworthy). Some evangelicals temper this with ‘as originally written’. The second statement is a matter of faith, since no original manuscripts exist. But for practical purposes it makes no difference, since it is the Bible we have which is used as the basis for faith and life.

The reason inerrancy and infallibility matter so much for evangelicals is their understanding of inspiration. Since ‘All scripture is inspired [literally ‘breathed out’] by God’ (1 Timothy 3.16), the argument goes that it must be inerrant and infallible, since God does not make mistakes and always tells the truth. Any suggestion that there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the Bible must be strongly refuted, for two reasons. Firstly it would be blasphemous to suggest God would make mistakes, and secondly, to accept an error in the Bible would be undermine and negate its entirety, and the whole of Christianity into the bargain.  

Many make the case against against Christianity based on the Bible: ‘it can be proved there are errors in the Bible therefore the whole of Christianity is false’. Ironically evangelicals adhere to the same belief, that Christianity stands or falls on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Historically both views are extremely modern. Inerrancy and infallibility simply were not an issue for Christians before the enlightenment. It was a given that the Bible was written by ancient writers and reflected their varying understanding, worldviews, particular agendas and reasons for writing.

By way of three questions let me provide examples that illustrate why this view of the Bible is dishonest.

  • In the creation accounts, in what order were animals and man were created? (see Genesis chapters 1 and 2)
  • Who incited King David to take a census of Israel – God or the Satan? (see 1 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1)
  • When did Jesus carry out the ‘cleansing of the temple’ – near the start or the end of his ministry? (see Matthew 21.12 and John 2.13)

These are just three of literally hundreds of ways the Bible shows us it is not one book with one overriding message. It was written by dozens of authors over many centuries. It reflects the particular agenda, understanding and worldview of its authors. In many places it attempts to correct or revise earlier instances of history or theology, and in other places flat contradicts itself. (The writers of Chronicles seem especially keen to ‘correct’ or ‘revise’ the accounts of Samuel and Kings.) Just consider for a minute that some words attributed to God are outright contradicted in other places, again supposedly by God.  Attempting to iron out and resolve these differences into one ‘flat’ narrative is simply not possible and insisting on this has let many people to reject the faith altogether. In my view is misses the point about what the Bible actually is.

One further example: why do we have four gospels, not one? If historical and theological consistency is the aim, then one definitive gospel would be far preferable. However the church fathers rejected early attempts to consolidate the gospels into one definitive account, regarding retaining the differing accounts as preferable.

Let us be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not. Let’s be honest about what ‘inspiration’ actually means. To do so is not ‘liberal’ or a sign of weak faith. To be really honest about the Bible honours it for what it is: a collection of different genres of writing, written over many hundreds of years for many different reasons. I would go further: the Biblical writers obviously thought it was legitimate to challenge, re-interpret and re-purpose earlier writings and to be faithful to the Bible one must be free to engage in this today.

If you are interesting in exploring this subject further a good place to start is Peter Enns’ blog and podcasts at https://peteenns.com/blog/ and https://peteenns.com/podcast/.

You Are Not Alone

I have had some mixed responses to my last post.

Thankfully most have been positive. Those of you that write will know how incredibly vulnerable it can feel to write honestly about something that has been painful to you, and then to hit the ‘Publish’ button. So it is gratifying when people can say positive things about a post even when they don’t agree with everything in it.

A few responses have been less positive. Some have spoken of alarm bells (presumably about some ‘dangerous’ opinion), others have questioned whether it is helpful or necessary to write about such things. It is this second point want to address today.

My response it that it is not only necessary, it is essential. That is, essential for me to say it, and essential for others to hear it.

When one has been through a significant experience it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened. Speaking things out, writing them down, listening to others, discussing with others; these are all ways of processing life experiences and are all the more important when these have involved a measure of pain. These have been an essential in dealing with my life journey over the last decade. Very few people would begrudge me doing these things. But the question is (and it is a good question): ‘why do you need to publish this stuff online?’ Behind the question is the implication that it is uncharitable to some people and unhelpful to others.

I readily concede that it is difficult to write about experiences of church without being seen criticise others, especially church leaders. I have struggled with this and one reason I have not written about these things sooner is that I have needed to be sure in myself that I am not writing out of hurt or resentment. For the record, I did not leave my former church because of some disagreement or falling out with anyone. The church is a good church and the people are good people, many of whom I still count as friends. My posts are not directed at individuals but at a belief system and culture, which was my home for many decades and helped me in many ways, but ultimately become something I could not stay in any longer.

So why say these things publicly? Why publish them in a blog and then promote them on Facebook and Twitter. Why not quietly and privately grieve the passing of one season of life, and then move onto a new chapter without hurting anyone’s feelings or challenging their comfortable beliefs? The answer is: I know I am not alone. There are many people who are right now going through the same unsettling, bewildering, questioning of faith, of what they have been taught, of God. This might even be you. And because of the culture of your church, you find it impossible to express these thoughts without disapproval, condemnation, or worse, pity. You do not need to have verses quoted at you, exhortations to have more faith, to pray more. You do not need treating like a sick person, whose contagious disease could fatally infect others. You need to know that it is okay to think, to question, to grow. You need to know it is okay to not have all the answers, to challenge certainties, to embrace mystery. You need to know it is okay to be disturbed, to be angry, or just plain tired of struggling with it all. You need to hear this stuff, and hear it from me.

And that is why a write this stuff. It is not for the certain, the faithful, the sure. It is not for the confident, the zealous, the radical. It is for the nervous, the shaken, the bewildered. It is for the hurting, the wounded, the reeling. It is for the doubters, the unstable, the exhausted. You are not alone.

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 1 Leaving

It has been 18 months since I left the evangelical church. I should probably define what I mean by ‘evangelical’ but that would take a whole article at least. So I’ll simply say that I’m talking about the kind of church where being ‘evangelical’ is important.

If you are reading this you probably either wish you could leave the evangelical church, or think I am crazy or heretical.  This article is aimed mainly at those of you in the first group. I want to reassure you that although you may feel a bit crazy at times, you are in fact completely normal, and almost certainly not heretical (whatever that means…).

Can I leave?

Yes of course you can. It will be hard. You will feel guilty. You will lose friends – but not all your friends. And you will probably be maligned and slandered – but not very often. But you are not alone. Many have left before you, and many will leave after you. You have permission to leave. It is not a mortal sin.

Why do I want to leave?

Of course only you can answer this. But perhaps I can articulate some reasons. Perhaps there are negative factors pushing you away:

  • You are upset about the exclusive ‘them and us’ theology you hear every week.
  • You are angry about a sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic culture.
  • You cringe when you hear about creationism and hostility towards science.
  • You understand that insisting the Bible is inerrant and infallible is untenable, and can be a cause of many toxic thought patterns and behaviours.
  • You are becoming scared of a culture in which agreement and submission are a condition of belonging.
  • You are distressed by the god who needs to be placated by a bloody sacrifice.
  • You are disturbed that this religion condemns 99.99% of humanity to eternal conscious torment.

You may simply have a growing feeling of uneasiness or alienation, but can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

Perhaps your reasons are more positive:

  • You have a seen a more inclusive, expansive gospel that unites rather than divides.
  • You are beginning to see the image of God in every person which is changing the way you view people following different faiths and lifestyles to your own.
  • You are believe that a life of faith does not mean being anti-scientific or anti-academic study.
  • You are becoming convinced that if the gospel is good news for anyone then it must be good news for everyone.

Or perhaps you’re just not sure any more. Not sure that everything you have been told is true. Not sure whether God exists. Not sure what any of this means.

Are these people wrong?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. In my 50+ years in the evangelical church I have rarely met people who were wilfully manipulative or self-seeking. Almost all were people of integrity, well-meaning and sincere. Maybe Spirit is just leading you along a different path.

What should I do?

One thing is sure – once you have seen a glimpse of something different, you cannot un-see it. You may supress it or try to ignore it but ultimately it will not go away. I am not an authority but these suggestions might be helpful.

  • Know that you are not alone. There are many other good, faithful, sane Christians who have gone through and are going through the same as you.
  • Confront the reasons you are uneasy with the evangelical church. It is more comfortable to ignore the niggling doubts, but in the long run this will almost certainly be unhelpful.
  • If you are seeing something new, acknowledge it, and acknowledge it is good. There is a more beautiful gospel. Once you have seen you cannot un-see.
  • Talk about it. If you have friends who are open to talk about your concerns, then great. But if not, find someone to who is. If you don’t know anyone contact me. I would consider it a privilege and an honour to give you a safe and confidential space to talk things through.
  • Realise you may go through a period of months or even years where faith is very hard or impossible for you. This is a normal and positive part of the journey.
  • Be open to different expressions of faith. This evangelical now venerates icons and is the better for it.
  • Follow your instincts. He who is in you will lead you into all truth.

What do you think?

In my faith journey I have had to work through a number of issues. I plan to write about some of these in future. But please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to address in future articles. I would welcome your feedback in the comments below. Or you can use Twitter to message me directly.

 

Why I chose ‘John’ as my Chrismation name

When a convert joins the Orthodox Church it is customary to receive a ‘new name’, usually the name of one of the Saints. Generally this is the name of a Saint with whom the person feels a special affinity. An exception is when your birth name is already a ‘Christian’ name, and since my first name is Andrew it was naturally assumed I would not adopt a different name at Chrismation. After all, Saint Andrew the First-Called was one of the twelve apostles, a martyr, and exemplary example of the Christian life, and I strongly suspect it was with him in mind that my parents named me. However there is different Saint who has been very formative in my ‘faith journey’ the last few years: the Apostle and Evangelist, John the Theologian, also sometimes known as the John the Beloved.

icon of st john the theologian
St John the Theologian “in Silence” (Village of Vladimir, 18th Century) Source: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/john-the-apostle-the-theologian-in-silence/

Several years ago while still in the charismatic-evangelical church, I turned again to read the gospel of St John. This was not unusual as over the years I have read all four gospels many times. What was unusual was that I ended up reading John’s gospel over and over again. Every time I reached the end I was compelled to turn to the beginning and read it all over again. I tried reading different scriptures but nothing but St John would do. As the months followed I found my view of almost everything changing. Long-held views on the person of Jesus, on the love of the Father, on redemption, on salvation, on what it is to be human and what it means to be ‘saved’, were challenged and transformed. But more than just changing beliefs, I felt a change in myself. I became more aware of the presence of God in everything around me, more aware of of my need for Him, and at the same time more aware of my acceptance and inclusion in Him.

As lovely as this sounds it was also unsettling. I am deeply grateful for the years my family and I spent in the charismatic church; for the many people who loved and cared for us, who stood by us, prayed for us, ministered to us, and by their example pointed us to Jesus. But I became increasingly dissatisfied with the culture and message I had been committed to for so long. I became convicted that I needed to change, rather than expect others to do so. I knew God was calling me to another place. And so began my journey to the Orthodox Church.

icon of st john the theologian
Christ and Saint John – Source: http://www.ukcopticicons.com/order-an-icon.html

I therefore regard John the Beloved with a special reverence. He had a special intimacy with our Lord, being the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, and reclining with his head upon the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper. He was present on the mountain of transfiguration and at the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the only disciple present at the crucifixion, and one of the the first witnesses to the resurrection. And he was the one charged to by Jesus to regard the mother of our Lord as his own mother. But beside these universal truths, it is the gospel of Saint John that has formed and shaped me the most these last few years, and led me to the Orthodox Church.

Therefore when I became a member of the Orthodox Church through the sacrament of Chrismation, I adopted the name of John in honour of Saint John the Evangelist.

In the Orthodox Church, the eight day of May is the feast day in honour of the holy apostle John and therefore my own Name Day.

O beloved Apostle of Christ our God,
Come quickly to deliver your helpless people.
He on whose breast you leaned, will accept you as intercessor.
Entreat Him, O Theologian, to disperse the clouds of darkness,
Granting us peace and great mercy

Troparion to St John the Theologian (2nd tone)

Why I Joined the Orthodox Church

Why does a 50 year old protestant, a deeply committed member of the evangelical-charismatic church for 30 years, suddenly go and join the Orthodox Church?

In future I hope to say more about the first part of the story, the leaving part, but I’m going to skip this for now. Suffice to say that I’d been dissatisfied with my church for some years, and slowly came to realise that it wasn’t just ‘my’ church but the charismatic church in general that had become alien to me on many levels. In this post I want to focus on the positive reasons for becoming Orthodox, rather than my dissatisfaction with my former church.

 

The short answer

holy apostlesOne of my children became Orthodox last year. I initially attended one or two services with him, including his joining service (‘chrismation’). While finding the services strange and some of the beliefs challenging, I was drawn back again and again. Over several months my questions and doubts dissolved and my heart was drawn to worship God as part of this faith community.

 

The slightly longer answer

While the explanation above may satisfy some, there is obviously more to this tale. A lot more in fact than can fit in 800 words. However I’d like to highlight here three key aspects: theology, prayer and worship. Forgive me if my treatment of these is superficial and inaccurate. My understanding is limited; moreover this is a personal reflection and space is limited.

The theology of the Orthodox Church emphasises the unity of God and the triumph of God’s love. The Holy Trinity are united in their nature and in all they do. In this framework, Jesus perfectly reveals the Father in every way, and corrects false notions of God evident in the Old Testament scriptures. Redemption is not seen as a legal transaction, where Jesus satisfies an arbitrary notion of divine justice; rather it is a rescue mission where the whole of the Trinity deals decisively with the issue of death-caused-by-sin once and for all. And although not being church dogma, this includes at least the possibility that the work of redemption will somehow be effective for all people. The Orthodox Church permits me to hope that the work of Christ is at least as powerful as the error of Adam. 1

The practices of prayer is central to the Orthodox Christian. This is obviously true for all Christians, however the Orthodox Church provides a great deal more help in making this a reality. There are set prayers to be said when rising from sleep, at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, 6 pm, evening and before sleep (personally I aim for morning and evening!). Orthodox services are crammed full of prayers. And the prayers are crammed full of scripture and very much centred on God (not me and my needs). 2 Obviously there is room for spontaneous and personal prayer. But the essence of prayer is that done ‘in the name of Jesus’ that is, in accordance with scripture and God’s will. I have found that praying in this way is liberating, freeing me from the whim of personal feelings and distracting thoughts, and it seems to be slowly transforming my mind, bringing my thoughts and feelings in line with scripture. Some may argue that this is possible without set prayers, and that somehow praying prayers penned by others in somehow inauthentic and mere ‘religion’. I have come to believe that to neglect a practice found to be beneficial by generations of Christians over two millennia, and replacing it with whatever I feel I right on the spur of the moment, is both foolish and a little arrogant.

paschaOrthodox worship is where I have experienced the sharpest contrast with the charismatic church. Gone are the amplified music, the projected words, and ‘contemporary’ songs. Gone too are the spontaneous ‘contribution’ where songs and even sermons may be interrupted by a prophetic word or tongue. Orthodox worship is liturgical, with set services for every day. Rituals, processions, incense and icons all play a part. On every Sunday, and on other feast days, the focus is on encountering Christ in the Eucharistic meal. Superficially this looks a world apart from charismatic worship. It is hard to explain how I have transitioned to this world and reconciled the differences, and space does not permit me to try. However my experience has been that Orthodox worship is deeply infused with the presence of God, and the set form of service focuses attention on God in a way that a meeting manipulated by a worship leader seldom achieves. 3 If you want to know more you will have to try it for yourself.

 

If you want to know more, try these links.

  1. Permit me to hope, (Brad Jersak): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/permit-me-to-hope/
  2. Orthodox daily prayers: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-synekdemos-daily-prayers-for-orthodox-christians
  3. The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: https://youtu.be/OYg5D6gpe98. This recording is in different form and slightly more polished rendering (!) than at my church. It is in two parts, the liturgy of the Word, climaxing in the gospel reading (at about 24 minutes), and the liturgy of the faithful, climaxing in the Eucharist.

Faith Shift


faith-shift-663x1024When once faithful followers begin disturbing the status quo, instead of honouring their spiritual evolution they are often labelled as rebellious, divisive, and even heretical. We attend church less often or leave church altogether. Sometimes we’re asked to leave. The anger and guilt can lead us to disconnect from God. Lost and without a map, many of us end up on the fringes of all we once knew – alone, disorientated, and disillusioned.

Faith Shift – Kathy Escobar

Many Christians encounter what is often described as a crisis of faith. Some supress it and just carry on. Others leave the church and faith entirely. Escobar describes this as a faith shift. In this book (also entitled Faith Shift) she offers a description of the journey many find themselves in and offers hope that this might be a good thing.

She describes the early stages of the Christian life as Fusing. We begin with belief, add to this learning, we work hard for God, and find security in belonging to our tribe. There is security in affiliation, conformity and certainty. Many stay at this stage for all their lives.

But for many this stage is followed by Shifting.  When the foundation of faith begins to crack there are often common ingredients. Disengagement with the worship, the sermon, the church and others. Uncertainty with what seemed so sure. Longing for a more authentic faith, a faith that is bigger than the rules, regulations and certainty of our infancy. A faith that is more about redemption than judgement, more about restoration than condemnation. A faith that is more about this world than the next. At this point do we turn back to safety or push on into uncertainty?

There are many reasons for turning back: we may be concerned about the effect on our family our children, we may miss the inspiration we used to receive, we want to avoid the pain and turmoil of moving forward, we miss the certainty of our old faith. Escobar is clear: it’s OK to go back, and it’s OK to go forward.

For many going back is not an option. The forward path leads to Unravelling. Each unravelling is different. But negative feelings are commonplace, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, and shame. Escobar offers soul care for the unravelling: expect the unexpected; come to terms with negative emotions; consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk; accept that some relationships will fall away; make time for safe, life-giving friends; try experiencing God in new ways; be selective in what you read and what events you attend; resist the temptation to compare yourself to others; avoid big triggers if possible.

Fortunately there is hope. Unravelling is just a stage in the journey. You can move on to Rebuilding. What seems like an ending can become a beginning.   Drawing on her own personal story and that of dozens of others, Escobar offers compassion, hope and tangible practices for rebuilding a new and authentic faith.

kescobarKathy Escobar co-pastors the Refuge, a Christian community in North Denver. You can learn more about her work and writing at www.kathyescobar.com. Faith Shift is published by Convergent Books.