The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.
The video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.
But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.
The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.
The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:
What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?
What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?
I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.
There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.
When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?
How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.
There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.
Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.
“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.
Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.
Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.
43 Replies to “living the questions :: an incoherent odyssey”
Not much to say except that I agree with you. In this day and age in America, questions have eaten the answers. The journey has eaten the destination. It is refreshing to read some Eastern Orthodox theology – they are capable of expressing the sense of journey in a much deeper (and I would say truer) way. Anyway, I have read a bit of Borg and was deeply disappointed. His commitment to religious pluralism leaves him unable to give any meaningful reason for being a Christian other than that is what he grew up with and it “feels like home” or something like that.
Thanks for this Eric. It’s good to be reminded that human beings need more (much more!) than questions and it is irresponsible and unloving to pretend otherwise (especially when it is done by those people depend upon for guidance).
Thank you for stopping by Tim and Ryan.
I’m afraid that this post turned into a bit of a rant. It does seem that in our mode of thinking, yesterdays convictions and commitments are up for grabs today—especially if they look more awkward or difficult today than they did yesterday. I wonder if one couldn’t make the case that Spong, Borg, et al. are trying to work through religion with a scientific mode of reasoning. In other words, we go through life, we pray, attend church, have conversations, sing the hymns, and (of course) live the questions. After some time of this, we take a few steps back to examine our lives as “evidence” and see what “conclusions” we can come to. Clearly, all “conclusions” are only provisional and subject to revision after further evidence is gathered.
Thus after a time, if it doesn’t “seem” like Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, or if confessing that resurrection seems like a great metaphor rather than a crude affirmation of supernaturalism in history—then who can argue with scientific reasoning?
Well… I might. I couldn’t help but think of early (and contemporary) martyrs while watching this video. I wonder if anyone would go to the lions for the sake of their journey? I don’t want to invoke martyrdom as a sort of drum-beating to rally the faithful, it just struck me that these two sorts of “faith” are really incommensurate.
At any rate, I’ve got nothing against pluralism, per se. But it doesn’t belong in the church’s confession.
Hi Eric, Just got back from LA where I lived (worked) right down in the middle of the tallest buildings you can see for about 5 days. Fun intersting for a while, very different from where we live. Glad to be home.
So…sounds like you’re on a journey with a few others at church. Should be an interesting ride. Looking forward to further posts. I’m sure the Lord will use you (and others)to keep perspective. For some it’s not a bad idea to explore their faith journey but not at the expense of Christian doctrine and of course well established creed, which at times can become twisted. Stay well, and give my love to CB, she’s probably gone totally under this weekend. Willy
Hello there Willy,
Thanks for stopping by. Good to hear from you as always. I’m glad to hear that you made it out of LA—I agree, those places are fun and interesting to inhabit for a while… and then it’s good to be home.
I’m not at all opposed to the notion of a spiritual journey, the metaphor has been used fruitfully by many Christians far wiser than I am. I have the feeling that the fellows offering their perspective on this video are speaking about a journey with no particular endpoint or goal in mind. To me, that sounds more like aimless wandering—which is a less fruitful spiritual metaphor.
We’ll see, the next installment is tomorrow morning. I hope to be pleasantly surprised.
This evening I attended the first session of Living the Questions at my church. I guess I hadn’t really researched the curriculum, and was just looking for a small group to join this fall. I came home feeling troubled by what I heard just in the first session and thinking that if this line of thinking were pursued, the Church might work itself out of a job! Thank you for your comments which helped to put words to my thoughts! Now the dilemma is, do I go back or not?!
If you were troubled by the first video, you’ll find more to be troubled over in subsequent episodes. Some are better than others (and some are worse…).
My advice is this—keep going back! The fellows on the video (for the most part) aren’t totally out to lunch, you’ve just got to remember that you are only hearing one-half of a conversation. If you are around while the videos are going on, you can ask the critical questions and help to guide the discussion so that Spong, et. al. don’t have the final word!
Thank you for this post. My wife and I attended two sessions of a class at the Methodist church we have been visiting. The post helps explain our feeling of being shut out of the conversation since we both believe in the value of scripture, as a motivating force for both piety and justice. Justice session 9 was the topic and in the group we were visiting it seemed there was no place for a personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ only a make it up as you go approach.
I cannot say I agree with you. This is not to say you are wrong, however. I believe that, temperamentally, we are geared toward certain modes or expressions of how (and maybe what)we believe. I came from a very strong evangelical background as a young man raised in an evangelical Christian home, but have found that I need and utterly enjoy the “journey” of faith. In the Progressive Evangelical/Progressive Christian and Emergent Church movements, I have found a home. I was being stifled in the Traditional Church, and found myself enjoying (and believing) it less and less. For some of us, we live for the mystery of God, and have no problem not having all the answers. I am, for the first time in my life, enjoying my relationship with God, and look forward to serving him/her for the rest of my life.
I’m quite glad that you have found a place where your faith is enriched and strengthened within a community. I’m also glad that practicing your faith is such a deep, even necessary, part of your life.
On some level, we can say, any tradition that stifles is not trading in the truth that sets folks free. At the same time, however, we also need to recognize that the journey that Jesus asked his disciples to follow him on, led to the cross, and not to a therapeutic moment of self-discovery.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I instinctively distrust those who do. But is reinventing the wheel every ten years a “liberating” enterprise? Or, another way, do traditions always stifle?
I suppose, “living the questions” smells like a bourgeois enterprise—our existential questions can keep us from living out the gospel “politically,” working for the concrete interests of people who have less time for “the questions” than most of us do. But, consider me as guilty as the next guy on that count.
Thanks for stopping by.
My own impression, after seeing three segments of “Living the JOurney”, and being involved in the discussion, and reading one of Spong’s books, is this: The title is misleading, if not outright deceptive. It leads us to believe that we are all journeying together, looking for answers. But guess what? The progressives have already found their answers, even though they fault the fundamentalists, and the Orthodox believers for already having answers! Anyone who says “There was no star! “There was no virgin birth!” “There was no resurrection!” “There was no ascension!” IS giving us answers, while faulting us for having our own. And Spong does say these things, and more, in a very dogmatic way in his books. Folks in my church also said some of these things in our first session. Oh, and this one: “God is not all-powerful!”
That is not a question!!!!! It’s an answer!!
Do progressives actually think that their audience is so misinformed that we don’t know the difference between a question and an answer??
Our group engaged in a good bit of bashing of fundamentalists , even though no one bothered to define “fundamentalist” and relied upon the stereotypes. How “progressive” is it to stereotype fundamentalists????
A correction to my comment: The three segments I saw were of the series called “Living the Questions” not “Living the JOurney”
The class i’ve been attending has just made it though the first DVD and we’ll start the second soon. I can only agree with Linda with the fact that the people in this series are definitely pedaling their own answers and not simply presenting “questions” for us to think about.
However, i do admit it has given me new insights into my faith even though i don’t agree with the majority of their scriptural interpretations and conclusions.
Unfortunately, this short review of Eric’s seems to be the only one on the web that takes a real critical look at this series. I was hoping to find a strong critique of the topics found on the DVDs so i could have some additional study material and a second opinion to bring to my class.
Just for the jest.. Did you take the Class called, “Saving Jesus” prior to taking the “Living the Questions” class?
I did, and the two companion pieces are compelling and inspiring.
This series cannot ask all the questions, nor can it give the answers.
The questions are broad based to encourage you to find your answers, or perhaps deepen your own questions. This is an appetizer to the entree yet to come for you life, or mine, or anyone’s life.
If you over analyze their motives and quest, do you not then find a purpose that was never there?
From your writings, you it is clear that you consider yourself a deep thinker and logical mind with correct analysis.
Perhaps your answers to this class are correct for you and will lead you to a truth that is palatable for your sense of logic.
However, for me, I have taken the “Saving Jesus” and the “Living the Questions” as just a taste of what is out there, what can ‘be’, and best yet, I have found myself on a further question to understand St. Paul and to know the truth of the Word of God and the Voice of Jesus.
By the way, the guy on the rock? That is Tex Sample. He is a sociologist of relgion and a great story teller in the literature sense of the title of ‘story teller’. He has thoughts and experiences that challenge us off our seated understandings and give us the seed to grow more.
Try reading “Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior” It is a paperback book, easily gotten, easily priced, by David Hawkins.
You might understand your need for Power and the Purpose of Force.
by David R. Hawkins (
Thank you for your articulate critique of “Living the Questions.” My experience is bit more painful than intellectual.
I used to attend a schizophrenic Methodist Church. I came back to Christ and the Church through Alpha. My ministers briefly participated in that course, which is quite evangelical. We talked about sin, confession, salvation, miracles, speaking in tongues, and the truth of Christ’s resurrection. I was blown away and have never been the same since. The retreat was incredibly powerful and life-changing in the depth and power of its spirituality, grounded firmly in traditional Christian beliefs. Then I find out the same pastor is leading–in the wee morning hours–a select group of “progressives” through the “Questions” series. I caught most of the sessions. Talk about a headache. In one moment, my faith is ignited and flares so brightly it drives the shadows to the far corners of my existence. In the next moment my pastor is exhibiting the paganistic Spong who says we need to recreate God in our own image (or Spong’s, I suppose is his preference), Jesus was not holy, there is no such thing as sexual sin, and so on.
Only recently did I learn Questions was designed specifically as a “liberal alternative” to Alpha.
I found the Questions series a dry, arid, empty place (to turn a phrase back upon Borg). Unfortunately, it greatly influences my senior pastor. We are losing dozens of people who do not come to church after a trying week of attempting to live like a Christian to be invited to wonder aloud whether Jesus is just as good a way to God as any other religious genius (a little process theology, courtesy of John Cobb, who also appears in the series). He also diminished the authority of Scripture in a sermon Spong could have help write.
I have left my church in anguish. I am dropping in on nondenominational, Baptist, Nazarene, Full Gospel and Confessing Movement Methodist services. I need a church home badly and hope I soon find my place. Our entire evangelical team, and the three couples who brought people to Christ by leading Alpha have also departed. I have friends who are also quietly worshiping elsewhere and only going through the motions of singing in choir, attending church council, etc. They grew up in this church but no longer recognize it. One thing I’ve definitely learned from the Questions series: it’s a good way to reduce church membership and suffocate the flame that should burn brightly into the world through stained-glass windows.
If this long post contains typos, forgiveness is requested.
My hubbie and I attended a session of “Living the Questions” at the Methodist church where our membership is. My impression was that it was very deceptive. John Shelby Spong, and others in the “Progressive Movement” are not living any questions. They have found their own answers, and are trying to tell us that we should trade our answers in, for theirs! Spong has a number of books out. Full of answers! No, thanks.
It was nice to see so much wisdom and discernment in the analysis of “questions”. I too sat through much of the series, missing some of the first ones. I was appalled that a Methodist church(which I do not regularly attend) was embracing this series. I tried not to be too judgmental but to rather encourage more fundamentalist ideas. Thr really good news is that starting September in September many of the same people that watched the Questions are going to go through “the Truth Project” which if you have not experienced it is absolutely amazing. It will be interesting to see the reactions of the same people when they are presented a systematic Christian world view, with a goal of being transformed by “gazing upon the face of God” after being subject to lies innuendos and half truths. If you have not seen it The Truth Project is amazing.
Abundant Blessings. Jeff
Wow, alot of food for thought on here. I was raised in a bible believing church and knew the scriptures as the inerrent word of God. In my late teens and early 20’s I had to accept the terrible truth that I had a strong attaction to other men. I was terrified! I had elders place oil on me and pray. I read the bible and prayed deeply. I wept. The one thing I knew was this was not a choice. I felt defeated and abandoned. If God wrote the bible (god breathed) then the problem was with me. After years of torment I finally kinda gave up. If I was going to hell then so be it. I could no longer take the verbal assault from the pulpits anymore, telling me what an abomination I was. I could not change.
Then slowly another possiblity came to me. Maybe the problem was not with God or me. Maybe God made me this way and the problem was with religon. All I know for sure is that for the first time in a long time I’m talking with God. I have hope again. Alot of what men/women like Spong say I find terrifing, but he has me asking questions and if that is the goal of the progressive movement they have succeded in me.
Hope this wasn’t to long. Thx for reading. Felt good putting feelings to print.
Ron, Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment—and for opening your story in this context. The basic outline of your life (though not the specific details) is all too common, and I (for one) am very glad that you are finding space in your life to pray.
It’s my conviction that you belong in church with the rest of us sinners. That’s a theological conviction that runs pretty deep. Unfortunately, I’m also aware of the fact that there might not be churches around your neck of the woods in which you could find yourself at home (as well as challenged, encouraged, supported, and goaded on to greater faithfulness).
Further, if it takes a character like Spong to get you asking serious questions about God, then I’ll thank God again. For all my disagreements with the fellow (and some of his friends), disagreements that aren’t going away any time soon, I recognize that there are people for whom his voice is a breath of fresh air. Keep asking questions!
Thanks again for stopping by.
This summer our UCC church presented the latest manifestation of the LTQ series called “First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God”. It attracted people from beyond our church from nearby Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches, as well as some unchurched.
Some of these folks were Spong-Crossan-Borg groupies and were enthralled with the course. Most of the class tried to have a positive response to it. I seemed to be the only one with a negative attitude: it felt like being in a theological Carnival House of Mirrors! Everything was there, but distorted. Jesus was stripped of divinity, his death was an accidental non-event and the gospel was reduced to subverting the American Empire by acts of “collaborative eschaton” – redistributive justice and compassion.
After the course, I searched the internet and found your blog. I also found a great critique of the Jesus Seminar and their book, The Five Gospels, entitled “Five Gospels but No Gospel” by Bishop Tom Wright. Wright’s article made me feel that the Seminar must be the godfather to the LTQ courses.
Does anyone know of any scholarly criticism directly aimed at the LTQ courses? I have heard the Christian Century had an article on it, but alas, I don’t have access to their archives. It frustrates me not to be able to defend my beliefs.
The LTQ series is clear from the outset that it represents the views of what is called “progressive” Christianity. The creators, participants, and producers make no pretense otherwise. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to read about shock and surprise from people who are taking the course. I haven’t read all the posts here, but certainly most of them express a range of emotions from sadness to outrage at the theological views in these DVDs.
True, the progressive viewpoint is non-traditional –but that is its entire point. This series, like the books mentioned throughout, is not for people who can live comfortably within the traditional framework. This is for those of us who can’t.
There is a great body of Christians, most of them outside the church these days, for whom that comfort you treasure is not a possibility. I am one of them. I grew up a faithful, observing daughter of a mainline Protestant minister, active in the church and with a master’s degree in pastoral ministry. I cannot imagine living outside my Christian faith–but it no longer looks like the faith of my childhood, or that of those of you posting unhappily here.
For a lifetime of reasons, I can no longer accept most of the ideas that you believe constitute Christianity–that Jesus is the biological son of a quasi-humanoid God; that God intended him as a blood-sacrificed ransom for sin; nor, for that matter, any of the fourth-century Christological details that fill the creeds.
You don’t need or want the details of my faith life; but suffice it to say that I am living a far more robust Christianity and a far deeper faith now than when I was drowning in unanswerable doubts and outright disbelief about the traditional views.
You do not need to defend your views to me, nor try to persuade me back. I hear them every Sunday in the very traditional worship that is the only option in my community. There is no need for me to agree with them in order to be faithful to God.
It has been Borg-Spong-Crossan and others who have made it possible for me to remain within the arms of the church I love, however much it may seem to you that my position now, like that of LTQ and these progressive clergy, is not even Christian. Still, it is Jesus we follow and his God that we love and worship, and for whose sake I can sign this,
Yours in Christ.
I think we need to form a “There-must-be-a-thoughtful-alternative-to-LtQ” support group, y’all. i am leading this study at my church, but heart is SO much not in it. This is the progressive gospel that undergired my seminary experience.
What are people looking for, that this course has attracted 14 seekers to a church basement to study together until well after 8 PM on a Wednesday night? I wish for them – good people, all – an experience of the living God in Christ, but on my own I can’t supply that (only pray for it).
The Spong-Borg-Crossan nexus is not a good thing for the Church, to say the least. If it opens up windows in peoples’ souls, I guess that’s a good thing, but like the person whose soul was “swept clean” after a demon left, but the demon, upon returning, found nothing else within the soul, and brought along seven more demons like himself. There is a vacuum in people’s souls that this stuff may be filling.
I am NOT suggesting that LtQ is ‘of the devil.” I’m saying that we need to get our people to learn the traditions of the church and to expose them to the Good News in Jesus Christ (which they may actually have never heard, although they’ve been attending services for 60 years).
As Dorothy Parker said about Oakland, ‘there is no there, there.”
As you can see, both Alpha and Living the Questions helps those who need a community of believers who are like-minded.
I was an Evangelical Missionary and studied theology. But the more I read early church beliefs, the more I realised that the modern Evangelical church is nowhere near the beliefs of Jesus or the original disciples.
The main thing you realise is that all forms of Christianity are just an opinion. Personally, I now believe that the Eastern Orthodox Church is probably the closest to what original Christianity was. After all, they were the writers of the Nicene Creed, and the selectors of the books of the Bible. (Which the Protestant church later edited).
But at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit will guide you to wherever you need to be, whether it’s a Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical or Progressive community.
I am a former Seventh-Day Adventist who believed strongly in the authority of the Bible, in a quite literalistic way for years. But after very sincere and serious questioning, but also living as Christian life as possible in Christ, such a high view of the Bible can be sustained only at the expense of honesty and much knowledge which we have today about Biblical times, church fathers, development of Christian doctrine, and similar. I am still a Christ-follower and God-believer, but Living the Questions sounds far more healthy and realistic Christianity for today than anything else I heard (I am not so enthusiastic about Spong though, I think he is outside the definition of Christianity, unlike Borg who is, in my view, “still inside” 🙂 ). God bless all in Christ! Gorazd
Before all else, thank you, Eric, for moderating this discussion. After your original post, it seems to me that you took a step back and opened the door to a range of perspectives.
In my mind, that is what LTQ is all about. My impression was that the creators were not providing answers, but allowing the questions to be asked, which is what they advertise in the first lines of the LTQ website:
“What is needed is a safe environment where people have permission to ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic.”
Our United Church of Christ / First Congregational Church has organized 3-4 small groups to use the LTQ series as a starting point for an open dialogue to consider the alignment of our beliefs, traditions and actions. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the series, but I don’t agree with everything I heard from the pulpit over the last 40 years of my life, and that’s okay. I do appreciate the opportunity LTQ provides for opening a dialogue on questions that are essential for me to define my faith. These are the questions that stand out in my mind…
Can individuals interpret the Bible from a literal or metaphorical position and still be included in the fold of Christianity?
If Jesus did question the traditions of his time, opening us to the idea that the love of God is open to all people, from all walks of life, is it necessary for us to question our traditions and look closely at the alignment of our beliefs and our actions?
The only answer I have come up with is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and we must love our neighbors as ourselves.
Why is that so hard to do?
Thanks for leaving a comment. You are right that I’ve stepped back a bit from this post and let a range of people speak. I’m glad that folks from all across the range of theological perspectives/commitments feel comfortable enough to pitch in their thoughts here. As you say, that’s what “Living the Questions” purports to be all about!
I’m still convinced that the perspective represented by the various contributors to the video series really only represents a narrow slice of even “progressive” Christianity (after all, there are a lot of different directions where progress might go!), not to mention the solid academic thinking behind some more traditional positions. And genuinely thinking through those traditional positions requires a great deal of questioning, so it’s a bit disingenuous to present the alternatives (as the video seems to do, to my memory) between “enlightened seeker, untethered to dogmatic formulism” and “automoton satisfied by the rote answers mouldering in the church pantry.”
At any rate, one could hardly do better than to hold to the two great commandments—in thought, in inquiry, in practice, in relationships, in all of life. But as you know, it’s not easy.
And for what it’s worth, IMO, Jesus did challenge much that was “closed” in his day (but not always along the same axis as the challenges that we’d like to move forward), and a coherent reading of Scripture *always* involves *both* metaphorical and (so-called) literal readings.
Thanks again for your comment, and to the unrequited others who’ve left their thoughts as well.
You wrote…”it’s a bit disingenuous to present the alternatives (as the video seems to do, to my memory) between “enlightened seeker, untethered to dogmatic formulism” and “automoton satisfied by the rote answers mouldering in the church pantry.”
This cracked me up…although I sadly seem to encounter it a bit too frequently. Somehow there is a profound disconnect in the discourse, as if “questioning” and rigorous thought that is open to external critique are somehow antagonistic to each other.
Thank you Eric, for the reply. To clarify, I am the Tim you replied to. It seems a different Tim replied to your reply (the posting from Feb 15 at 10 AM).
I do see your point that some people who claim to have freed themselves from dogma can be rather dogmatic in their belief that the rest of us are still tied down by dogma.
Yes, there are some contributors on LTQ who clearly fit your “narrow slice” concern, but there are other contributers who I do not believe fit into that definition.
I don’t claim to know the works of any of these contributors, but I sense that if I sat down with the four contributors below, I I would walk away with a stronger sense of faith, tradition, and the divinity of Christ.
Helen Prejean – the Catholic nun who advocates for the abolition of the death penalty; Winnie Varghese – The Episcopal Chaplain at Columbia University; John Dominic Crossan – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at De Paul University. Tex Sample, the man in the desert who starts each session with a story of faith.
At one point you discussed the etymology of tradition, which was helpful in reminding me of the wisdom in found in those who came before me. But I also appreciate that the etymology of disciple is discipulus: “pupil, student, follower,” from a lost compound *discipere “to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly.” For me, the lesson Jesus taught is that to be a disciple, I must begin with myself, carefully considering and questioning my own actions. When those actions fall short of WJWD (which they so often do) my salvation comes in knowing Christ forgives me, which allows Him into my life so that I may be born again. In order for this process to occur, I have to question my actions and seek answers from others, which may rearrange my pillars without knocking them down.
Yesterday our church LTQ group watched the video session on Paul. John Dominic Crossan suggested the theory that Paul may not have written all of the letters himself – that the quite different message in the letters to Timothy were written by somebody who may have been taken the position of saying, if Paul was here, this is what he would say. This caught my attention because given my name, I had read Timothy in my teens, looking for answers to questions, and got through the letters feeling more confused. It seemed to me that Paul moved away from his earlier position that we are all equal under God. Crossan’s point (at least what I got our of it) was that whoever wrote Timothy, from a historical, social perspective, the writer was trying to help the reader address the challenge of the times. Paul and many others in history have been inspired by Christ, but as humans, their message has the potential to be flawed. The reality is that answering the call to Christ is hard becasue of the complication and realities of the human condition. As you said, a coherent reading of Scripture *always* involves *both* metaphorical and (so-called) literal readings. No that I am older, I am better at being able to do that, so perhaps it is time for me to go back and read all of Paul’s letters.
The video ended with the metaphor of a potter who for a long time had concentrated on symetry and perfection in his pots…and always found his work well short of that perfection. When he first took the risk of exploring the option of pots that did not have symetry, he failed. But with time and effort he learned how to manage the lack of symetry, which opened the door to new creation.
So…I almost deleted the last two paragraphs because it was starting to feel like I was preaching. I do respect your position that some of the contributors to LTQ presume to have answers which have the danger of moving too far from tradition and core beliefs of Christianity. Although there are aspects of my faith that I hold onto and I don’t agree with everything that is said by the contributors to LTQ, the series has lead me to question the alignment of my faith, feelings, beliefs and actions. I see this as a good thing, helping me move closer to the person Christ calls me to be.
Footnote to the last meassage…I just finished a bit of Google research on John Dominic Crossan. I would have to agree that he may fit with your concern about the dangers of providing answers under the guise of asking questions. I would still appreciate the opportunity to sit down and talk with him, trusting he would respect my own beliefs and my right to come to my own conclusions.
Thanks for your extended thoughts. I can wholeheartedly agree that good “tradition” (handing on) absolutely requires an active, careful , critical disciple who tests and discerns everything that is “handed on” for merits and shortcomings. And I don’t think that many churches do a very good job of encouraging this sort of critical thought—which requires real dialogue, disagreement, real questions, real doubts.
The one thing, however, that I most want to clarify is that I don’t have any qualms about the positions that most of the presenters in the video hold, even where I disagree with them. It would be misreading the post if someone understood me to be arguing, “These people are terrible and shouldn’t be saying such terrible things.”
Quite to the contrary, the voices in LTQ are important thinkers and public figures who do good work and have a lot to teach us. My trouble is with the presentation of the videos as a “dialogue” or as, in itself, a critical inquiry of sorts. Given the relative homogeneity in the viewpoints of the presenters and the occasional dismissiveness to the intellectual integrity of some more traditional positions, framing the video series as a dialogue seems disingenuous.
By “narrow slice,” I simply mean that the presenters largely represent (and appeal to) North American well-educated, bourgeois, white, Liberal Protestants. There are progressive Christianities that never appear, which would significantly disrupt the agenda of the videos (which I think would be a good thing!). The Black theology of James Cone, the Catholic anarchy of some within the Catholic Worker movement, the thought of figures like Jacques Ellul or Wendell Berry—-all of these and more could have broadened the “progressive conversation” taking place on the screen.
All that to say. I’m not categorically opposed to LTQ. I just think it’s pushing an agenda much narrower than is ever acknowledged (and—my fear—ever recognized).
Our group has now finished the first seven sections of the LTQ series and has decided to continue. Sharing your perspective with my group has helped raised the level of our dialogue after each viewing. Mny of us are also taking on NPR’s “This I Believe” writing project as a means to encourage a broader dialogue for our church as a whole.
I’ve read Wendel Berry and a bit of James Cone, but thanks for reminding me that I should go back and read them again. Jacques Ellul is a new name, so I have enough to keep me busy for awhile. I’ll stop in again to see what you’ve been up to. Best, TDI
I just took a moment to read your “About Me” section. Have your read “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer? The book offers an interesting perspective on the evolution and functional chemistry of the human brain, suggesting that there are similiarities to and differences from the brains of animals. Lohrer suggests that the demands of modern life require a different kind of decision making than the demands placed on our brains as we evolved. Thus, information overload has lead to a loss of situational awareness. This may (or may not) connect with your disertation – an interesting topic, to be sure. Rgrds, TDI
I’m a Unitarian/Christian. The writers and speakers of the LtQ seriers helped to bring me to a life with God. Especially Borg and Spong. I’m very thankful to these two. I can’t do Christianity any way but progressive. This series has been a life saver to me. I just don’t understand how so many of you speak poorly of this series. Well, I have no investment in fundamentalism.
Good for you Dawna. There are many many of us like you out here. And what it basically comes down to as far as living life, is that I don’t really care what a person’s religion is or is not, all that really matters is how that person shows the love of God toward all others. If they do that well, I will respect their religion, or lack thereof, whatever it is. I firmly believe that is all that God is concerned about also. God is not religious and Jesus never meant to start another religion. Jesus had one purpose here and one purpose only, to deliver the “Good News” that God is love and wishes for us learn how to love God and all others well. All the rest – religions, religious writings, creeds, dogmas, traditions, etc.- are just imperfect things made by imperfect men in trying to explain and describe an indescribable God while too often also trying to maintain or further their own interests and prejudices. Whenever lost or adrift, always return to the Love. Don’t believe the church propaganda, formulated to capture and control, that we are all sinners. Believe Jesus – most of us are all saints that slip once in a while. Do you think a good parent would eternally punish their child who slipped and did something wrong now and then? Of course not. Do you believe a good parent would eternally punish a child that was taken away at birth and never knew the parent? Of course not. Believe me, God loves us a whole lot more than the best parent ever could, more than we can imagine. There is nothing wrong with most of those Church traditions, myths, and stories. They are nice, they help some people get closer to God, they feel good and comfortable to some, and they are useful crutches to others. But they should never be idolized, used to exclude or look down on others, or take precedence over loving all others. And remember true good love is a voluntary choice and is not just a feeling or words. It is action, doing something good and refraining from doing something wrong. Peace
Thank you for this Eric; it is good to not feel alone. I like others left the Living the Questions session deeply troubled and confused by what was being taught at my church. Sharla’s and Linda’s posts above are especially on point to how I felt. The only “discussion” that seemed accptable was that eagerly supporting the points made in the video. There were no real questions — the LtQ materials already had the answers. A shame, since we all have questions and an open forum fostering true discussion without attacking deeply held beliefs would be very worthwhile.
Having used LTQ for almost two years, I have three suggestions for those who are deeply troubled by the material:
1) Recognize that the purpose of LTQ is not to bolster traditional interpretations of Christianity but to express different ways in which people are understanding and living their Christian faith. The dialogue, which is among people who hold different versions of this non-traditional approach, is intended for people who want to hear about an alternative to the familiar doctrine/dogma.. Despite the difficulty traditionalists are having in believing this, the speakers are all devoted, active, participating Christians.
2) A church group’s convener/s should make this perspective crystal clear before even showing “The Journey” dvd, People need to know before they arrive that this series presents voices from Progressive Christianity (or one view of Progressive Christianity, if you want to split hairs).
This can be explained either by a written introduction or by preliminary introduction and discussion. It would make a fantastic way of approaching the Pew Report data about why some people are leaving traditional churches. Try looking at this from the other way around: If you were a person whose faith is like that of these presenters, what would it feel like to have only traditional worship to attend? Who could speak to your spirit?
3) Our group found that discussion flourished more freely when we did not use the prepared materials but simply let people respond to the content of each session.Alternatively, ask your own questions, like: How is faith as a journey different from the way most churches have presented it? For many people, thinking of faith as a journey feels liberating, whereas other people feel insecure; where on that spectrum are you?
The key is not to allow the session to turn into either tradition-bashing or calling the presenters non-Christian. Better yet, if someone says that about the presentation, use it as the springboard to discuss how people decide what is and is not Christian. All of these presenters and their enthusiastic audiences who agree with them say they are active Christians. Who’s right? Can they all be right? Christianity has endured divisiveness from the very beginning (see Paul). Who decides? How has Christianity handled differences of opinion over time? What do we think of those ways? Hmmm.
In the spirit of Christ.
Christians do not just seek to emulate the life of Christ; they believe that He is the Word made flesh—-God the Son. I wish that those who do not believe this would quit seeking to subvert and convert those who do within the Church, but would form their own groups of those seeking to live the kind of “good” life they believe Jesus lived. Leave the Church to those who believe in the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross for our salvation—for abundant life here and eternal life with Him.
Fortunately, there is no Inquisition requiring me to subscribe to your definition of Christianity. After growing up with many questions and alternative feelings about things like Creation and “the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross for our salvation”, it was wonderfully refreshing to find voices for my beliefs – and others in my church family with similar beliefs – through the LTQ course. If you have all the answers, this course isn’t for you; but, you need not feel threatened by it, nor by those of us who don’t agree with your worldview.
Many of the commenters on this long-term thread would agree with Frances Owen. What they do not seem to understand is that for those of us who cannot in honesty accept substitutionary atonement and other “get us off the hook” interpretations and dogma, it is LTQ which IS our community of Christian faith. And yes, we are Christian and faithful. We are not pushing conversion; we are sharing our convictions, just as traditional Bible groups do. Those who have no interest need pay no attention. For the rest of us, thank God for Borg, Crossan, Bruggemann, Spong, Levine, Kung, Sample, et al. Peace.
Amen. Thank you, Nan.
I thank you, too, Mariane. Good to have companions on this amazing Way!
Thank you Nan and Mark. There are many many of us like you out here. And what it basically comes down to as far as living life, is that I don’t really care what a person’s religion is or is not, all that really matters is how that person shows the love of God toward all others. If they do that well, I will respect their religion, or lack thereof, whatever it is. I firmly believe that is all that God is concerned about also. God is not religious and Jesus never meant to start another religion. Jesus had one purpose here and one purpose only, to deliver the “Good News” that God is love and wishes for us learn how to love God and all others well. All the rest – religions, religious writings, creeds, dogmas, traditions, etc.- are just imperfect things made by imperfect men and women in trying to explain and describe an indescribable God while too often also trying to maintain or further their own interests and prejudices. Whenever lost or adrift, always return to the Love. Don’t believe the church propaganda, formulated to capture and control, that we are all sinners. Believe Jesus – most of us are all saints that slip once in a while, made in the image of God (i.e., with the capacity for, and the free will to choose, limitless Love). Do you think a good parent would eternally punish their child who slipped and did something wrong now and then? Of course not. Do you believe a good parent would eternally punish a child that was taken away at birth , never knew the parent, and therefore could never love the parent? Of course not. Believe me, God loves us all a whole lot more than the best parent ever could, more than we can imagine. There is nothing wrong with most of those Church/Religious traditions, myths, and stories. They are nice, they help some people get closer to God, they feel good and comfortable to some, and they are useful crutches to others. But they should never be idolized, used to exclude or look down on others, or take precedence over loving all others. And remember true good Love is a voluntary choice and is not just a feeling or words. It is action, doing something good and refraining from doing something wrong. By the way, I don’t mean to infer that any of you don’t already know these things. I’m just expressing where I am on my own journey. Peace 🙂
In what way is the substitutionary atonement of Christ a “get us off the hook” interpretation or dogma? In deep thanksgiving for that atonement this believer and her family work with “illegal” immigrant families (meals, transportation, legalization efforts, doctor visits, etc.), host homeless families for weeks at a time in our church, sponsor children in Uganda, Ghana, Colombia , and the Dominican Republic among other ministries.