Having grown up in the Reformed tradition (I grew up and now pastor in the Reformed Church of America) I have never really wrestled with Reformed theology. Reformed thinking is like your favorite pair of jeans – even if it doesn’t fit perfect, man, is it comfortable! While questioning faith, Christianity, and even Jesus in high school and college, I never really balked at Reformed thinking. It was part and parcel with Christianity.
Now I’m wrestling.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying I am experiencing a crises of faith, I’m simply questioning more. Maybe in my old age I am becoming more gracious towards other traditions and beliefs. Or maybe I’ve been swimming in the shallow waters of Reformed theology and it is time to venture into deeper waters. Or maybe Christianity wasn’t ever meant to be systematized, and our modern, Enlightenment-orientated minds have removed mystery from the infinite. And removing mystery has removed beauty. Removing beauty has removed wonder. Without wonder we are losing interest; so to gain interest we fall back on pragmatism and “bettering our life”, thus reducing Christianity, church, and worship to a pitiful imitation of an Oprah show with some Bible references sprinkled in for posterity.
But I digress….
For too long I thought I knew the answers. Even if I didn’t know the answers I could easily fake it. The Reformed tradition gave me enough Bible and theology that I could cover over what I didn’t know with what I did. If that sounds arrogant it’s because there was some arrogance in it. I think this has been one of the major pitfalls of the Reformed tradition. Arrogance creeps in under the auspice of getting something special. Beyond that, there’s this air within certain Reformed circles that, by being Reformed, we are defending the last bastion of Biblical Christianity. But I wonder, in our zeal to defend have we lost the ability to be humble and embrace mystery? Is it possible we don’t get it? Might it even be possible we are wrong?
These are questions for all of us. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself Reformed and abhor Reformed theology, you have to ask these questions. Pride, especially religious pride, is quick to take up residence in the human soul. It is so hard to not be affected by it because it feels so good. Admit it! It feels good to be right doesn’t it? So we let it in and begin to see the world differently.
Us and them.
Our way is better than their way.
Our tribe, their tribe, and then those sub-tribes
Insiders and outsiders
We get it; they don’t.
And that’s just how we approach other Christians!
But what if we embraced mystery more? Wouldn’t it be difficult to fall into the trap of religious pride if our starting place was that much of God is a mystery? Of course, there are certain things that are not mystery. I suppose it is there that the disagreements would begin. Councils, conferences, Twitter discussions, and blog series would gather to determine what is mystery and what isn’t. That isn’t bad. In fact, if the discussion is civil it can be quite constructive. I think many of the reasons it fails in that regard is because we fail to acknowledge the most foundational reason for our differing perspectives – hermeneutics. More simply put, the way in which we read the Bible. Everyone reads the Bible through a particular lens. A liberal/conservative lens, a complementation/egalitarian lens, or a Reformed/Arminian lens, etc. Sadly, these lens reinforce an already held belief. Rather than approaching the Bible to encounter and be transformed by the Word, we approach the Word as evidence of our rightness. Our lenses allow us to state with an air of certainty that what we see is right. What should be mystery is now a battlefield to be conquered in order to expand our sides territory.
I’m not advocating agnosticism. God has revealed himself such that we can know things about the divine with certainty. We know God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. In order to know what God is like one needs to look no farther than Jesus. In fact, what we can know with certainty is explained in the Apostles Creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Almost as important as what is in the creed, is what is not in the creed. No mention of predestination, baptism, communion, ecclesiology, or end times. While the Bible speaks about these things, it is not clear about these things. Not definitively. Not in a way that removes mystery. By revealing himself in Jesus, God made himself knowable so we can be confident of God’s redemptive work in the cross. But he has not revealed himself in a way that removes the need for faith. And any time faith is needed, mystery exists. In other words, we can’t know everything.
I wonder if we could ever read through the lens of mystery?
Certainty has become a badge of honor in our modern era. The more certain you are and the louder you defend, the more people trust you. After all, you would have to be right to be that certain, right? Often times we cement ourselves in certainty because we are uncomfortable with the anxiety doubt produces. Because, what if I am wrong? What if my beliefs are challenged? What if God is different than my moral sensibilities?
What if my kid asks a question and I don’t know the answer?
But we’re talking about the infinite here! How can we ever expect to be absolutely sure about that which we cannot comprehend? How arrogant! For the moment we begin to comprehend something and it loses its mystery, we begin to dominate it. Yes, we can use our new found understanding and domination to benefit our lives. Science does this for us so we can fight cancer and predict weather. That’s a good thing. But its a bad thing when we begin to remove the mystery from God so we can dominate and use God. No one would ever admit to doing that, but how many authors have promised getting the results you want if you pray a particular way? How many preachers have convinced us that if we follow the formula they discovered in the Bible our desires will be granted? Pragmatism and methodology have replaced mystery and we are left with a vain faith in a god subservient to our desires.
No we need mystery. Certainty may just be the thing killing us.
So the next time you, the next time I am absolutely certain I have the truth about a particular tenant of Christianity…well, it’s probably time to pause and remember mystery.