Monday, August 04, 2008

Heretics and Idolators

As previously mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Shack" by William Young. This book has a lot of theology in it. Most of which, I have no real opinion on it's accuracy. Basically because the primary message of the book isn't the finer details of theology. The central message is that God wants a relationship with me. He craves it. He has and will do whatever it takes to get me to freely participate in this relationship.

But I did a foolish thing. I started looking for other people's opinions of this book. And I found them. I found a lot of effusive praise for the book, and a lot of criticism of the theology. I am bothered by the criticism. Not because I want them to agree. I have no leg to stand on to say that disagreement is bad.

Instead, I really think that much of the criticism is missing the point. And the criticism reminds me a lot of other criticism that I've seen bandied about within the church. Specifically, if you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible then you're a heretic.

Well then let me get this out of the way: I am almost certainly a heretic. But I'm in pretty good company. I would suggest that anyone who attempts to ever describe God will always advance some heresy.

I may misunderstand the technical definition of heresy. But from how I see it used, it seems like heresy is any inaccurate representation of God. So when someone decries the author of The Shack as preaching heresy when he presents a picture of the trinity, they're making this claim because that author's picture is inaccurate.

So, it would appear that the only way to avoid being a heretic is to always portray an accurate picture/representation/story of God. But none of us can do that. None of us have an accurate picture/representation/story of God. God tells us that all of our attempts to understand Him will come up short. If that's true, than any attempt to describe him at all, will always come up short. We *always* describe God incompletely. As a result, we always describe Him inaccurately.

Now, to be certain, there is a difference between someone who is taking their best shot at describing God and is inaccurate, from someone who is actively attempting to lie about God. But I certainly don't think that any of the authors that I've read,who've had the "heretic" epithet tossed at them fall into the latter category (e.g. William Young, Rob Bell, Donald Miller). So, based on behavior, it appears that being a heretic does not simply mean lying about God. You can be a heretic by attempting to describe Him, but failing to do so accurately.

Again, we always describe God inaccurately. Hence, I'm a heretic.

But that's where the beauty of this book comes in. The central message that it's trying to get across is that God wants a relationship with me. And I don't have to have my heresy fixed before that happens. He knows I'll never fully understand him. Being able to have a perfectly accurate picture of God is not the point. Being in that relationship so that He can point out where I'm not understanding Him is the point. He's not a map. He's a navigator. He wants to travel the road with me, giving me thoughts and tips along the way, avoiding the hazards as they come up.

That is the message I got from this book. Do I think that the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who's hard to see, or that the Father is an jolly African American woman? Of course not! But they are useful images to help me grasp how God wants a relationship with me. Focusing on the inaccuracies of those particular tools is, in my opinion, entirely missing the point.

Now, of course, this creates a pretty big tension. God is also pretty clear in the Bible that we are not to worship idols. Put another way, we should make sure that the thing we have a relationship with is really Him. So there is value in understanding God as accurately as we possibly can. But as soon as we remember that none of us, not even those who dedicate their lives to the study of Theology, will ever have a complete and clear picture of God, that ought to introduce in our minds a bit of humility about the discussion.

When I hear people throw "heretic" around, it seems really really arrogant to me. As if to say, "I have a better understanding of God than you, and yours is wrong." Maybe that's true, but isn't there a better way to approach it? Wouldn't it be a better alternative to engage the differences and see what can be learned? Instead of immediately assuming that your own understanding is infallible?

Yes, there are people who have dedicated their lives to trying to understand what God looks like. And then there's the rest of us who have to use significant abbreviations from the theologian's understanding. But *ALL* of us (including professional theologians) are immensely far from the true understanding of what God looks like. Somehow, I don't think it really matters to God that we get a complete and accurate picture of Him. It seems to me that He has spent more time and energy trying to be in a relationship with us than in trying to paint a picture of himself.

Given that, can we please try to approach other opinions of what God looks like with humility? Can we please stop labeling as heresy thoughtful attempts to understand. Can we instead engage the thoughts and see if there's anything that can be learned? If, for a given topic, the theologians have already done that and settled it, then can we focus on explaining the outcome in terms that a non-theologian can understand? My assumption is this: if it requires theological training to understand, then it's probably not the primary way that God wants to engage us. If that's true, then maybe we can approach the declarations of heresy with a bit more humility?




John said...

totally agree....
I think the fork in the road on THE SHACK (even though I haven't read it yet) is that some people approach it as a theology book which isn't the author's intent.

Anonymous said...

As I read your blog, I thought of the distinguishing criteria is the difference between incomplete and contradictory.

We'll always be incomplete when we try to describe God; but when we're trying to describe some subset, we should not be contradictory to what is already well established.

Here are some well established characteristics of God:

* Holy
* Perfect
* Loving
* Just
* Eternal
* Supreme

All that said, a book of fiction should be treated as such. That's where poetic license comes in.

I look forward to reading The Shack. I have two more books to read before I pick it up.

mjh said...

I think the distinction between incomplete and contradictory is a good distinction. However, since I am not a professional theologian, it strikes me that I'm likely to stumble upon issues that are settled w/in theological circles. And I would predict a greater than 0% chance that I'll take a stand that opposes what's settled.

My point is this: there ought to be grace for that sort of thing. We ought to allow for those who are not actively trying to lie about God. We should be *extremely* careful about quickly calling them heretics. Especially, if the only way to understand the settled theology is to be a professional theologian. If that's the case, then I suspect that what's been settled really doesn't matter that much.

But in all cases we should remember that God Himself tells us that we can't fully grasp him. Even the best efforts of theologians are potentially wrong. So let's have some humility when we proclaim that someone else has made an error.

But even more important than that. The rightness/wrongness isn't the point. It's the relationship that's the point. If God himself is all about a relationship with us, then why are we not also about engaging people we disagree with in relationship? Why are we more focused on the label?

Jimazing said...

Inspiring dialog! I too have yet to read it. Now that I heard that Oprah is reading it, it's too late. If I read it now, I'll be accused of being an Oprah groupie :)

As I wrestle with what are the real fundamentals of the faith, I keep coming back to Jesus' answer when asked what the greatest commandment was. He said to love God and love people (my paraphrase). I believe that grace towards one another is a crucial element in truly loving other people. Keep reading, wrestling and writing.

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