A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Look at All the Wonderful Things We Get to Believe!

Over twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student at Duke Divinity School, I remember my thesis advisor, Stanley Hauerwas comparing the reductionism of liberal Protestantism to the robust account of Catholic dogmatic reflection. The former asked the question cynically, "How much of this stuff do I have to believe and still be a Christian?" The latter stated in a tone of wonder, "Look at all this stuff that we Christians get to believe!"

This is not a post on how Protestants should uncritically accept the Catholic belief in the immaculate conception of Mary. Critical thinking and reflections are necessary and should not be neglected. On the other hand, I have just read retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong's essay, "Easter: In Need of Reinterpretation." His unfortunately poor argument is the motivation for my comments. Spong is a smart and thoughtful man to be sure; but if he is right in his reductionist account of Christianity with no bodily raised Jesus, nor a God who does anything miraculous, we Christians ought to give it up and go home. Although he would reject my critique, it is clear to me that his God is a creator who has no power; his God is a redeemer who had no ability to do the unimaginable. His God works within the confines of a woefully limited human imagination. His God is bound to the powers of death, not the God who brings the unimaginable to those who refuse to believe what is only right before their eyes.

C.S. Lewis argued that one of the greatest obstacles to contemporary accounts of Christian theology was the lack of imagination, the lack of faith that God could do something new and unexpected. The bane of modern theology is reductionism, the belief in an impotent God who must conform to our understanding of the way the universe works, the way the world must operate. The problem with the good Bishop Spong's account of Christianity is not that it is unintelligent, but that it lacks imagination.... imagination that the God who created out of nothing can bring life, but is unwilling or unable to bring that very same life back from the dead. It lacks imagination to believe that God works above and beyond what we human beings think is impossible. Bishop Spong's problem is not that his God is too big, but rather that his deity is far too small. Spong has bound the God of the Universe in a box of his own belief and then pleads for us to believe in a God without much power to change the world.

Several years ago when I was in Cuba engaged in teaching mission, we were nearing the end of a worship service one evening. The pastor called individuals to come forward for healing. One woman came to the front of the sanctuary. She had been sick for over a month. The doctors did not know what was wrong with her, but she had a rather high fever. The pastor of the church called me forward and asked me if I would pray for her. I placed my hands on her shoulders. As I began to pray, the heat from her body got warmer on my hands. In the next few moments it got so hot, I could hardly keep my hands on her shoulders. It felt like I was trying to hold on to a radiator. I finished my prayer. My hands were warm and sore. She sat down in her seat in the sanctuary. A few days later as we were preparing to leave for home, one of the church members found me where we were staying. The woman I prayed for woke up that morning-- her fever was gone for the first time in a month. She felt better than she had in weeks.

What happened to her? I am not sure, but I know this. Bishop Spong has no idea how to explain this because his God is too small. He can chalk it up to the psyche of the human mind and its ability to influence the body, but there is no room in a reductionist theology for a truly miraculous act of God. My God is one who literally raises the dead and heals the dying. I cannot explain it, but I know it is true.


Anonymous said...

Really great post, Allan. Thank you for sharing it.

Clay Knick said...

Yes, yes, & amen!

Country Parson said...


Sharp said...

Reminds me of Paul: If there's no resurrection then your faith is useless. Go home. Eat, drink, and be merry. Don't waste your time on anymore of this Christianity because all it has to offer is a virgin-born, miracle-performing, resurrected God-become-man. Take all that away and it's not Christianity. Just a non-profit with with a steeple.

Mirche Tanchev said...

AMEN, AMEN »The old Puritans strongly insisted upon personal holiness, and the first Methodists upon the new birth; but these doctrines seem to grow out of date. The Gospel is cast into another mould. People, it seems, may now be “in Christ,” without being “new creatures,” and “new creatures” without casting “old things” away. They may be God’s children without God’s image; and “born of the Spirit” without “the fruits of the Spirit.” If our unregenerate hearers get orthodox ideas about the way of salvation in their heads, evangelic phrases concerning Jesus’ love in their mouths, and a warm zeal for our party and favourite forms in their hearts; without any more ado, we help them to rank themselves among the children of God. But, alas! This self adoption into the family of Christ will no more pass in heaven than self imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The work of the Spirit will stand there, and that alone.« J.Fletcher

John said...

C.S. Lewis argued that one of the greatest obstacles to contemporary accounts of Christian theology was the lack of imagination, the lack of faith that God could do something new and unexpected.

I think that this is as much a problem on the Right as it is on the Left.

I no longer pray, read the Bible, or engage in any other spiritual disciplines. That's because I now consider these to be unreliable means of finding God. How many times did I convince myself that some warm fuzzy feeling inside of me was really God, when it turned out that it wasn't? Lots. These practices were more about self-indoctrination than they were about finding God.

So I don't know anymore if Christianity is true, but I'm willing to let God showly up loudly in a way that would distinguish his true presence from intentional self-delusion. Sort of like Gideon.

Some more conservative Christians in my life really don't like this because they think that God won't (or more likely, can't) show up unless I engage in these disciplines which prepare my mind to read any passing fancy as the presence of God.

What they're doing is worshipping a very small God who doesn't have the power to be God. It's a perspective not that much different from Spong.

Bruce said...

Thank you for sharing a story of God's healing. Why are we so afraid to speak of the activity of God? We all know there are fakers and money rakers out there, but they should not stop us from sharing the signs and wonders of God. We have educated ourselves into imbecility on issues like this. God can and does act in our lives through prayer, scripture and the Body of Christ. God's actions and ways may not conform to the scientific method and the extreme sceptics of today, but science and scepticism are far to small to hold any image of God greater than themselves. In truth, they worship themselves.
To the previous writer, the disciplines you disparage have worked throughout the ages for many. If they do not work for you find disciplines that do. Do not throw away God and good disciplines because you struggle. All of us struggle.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Allan. Good thoughts.

John, Those are properly called "means of grace", though they are more. Scripture is called "a light for our path." (Psalm 119) Through God's word and acts he gives us faith. So we do well to dwell on them.

John said...


They are means of grace if true, and indoctrination if not.

Let's say that a Scientologist admits to doubts, and is told that he should immediately read Dianetics with more intensity, hook up his e-meter for an extra hour a day, and mediate on removing his body thetans. If he experiences feelings of greater clarity as a result, isn't it because he prepared his mind to anticipate such a feeling?

Allan R. Bevere said...


Indoctrination is an overused term. Most of the time it is used only by people to refer to others whose views they don't agree with.

As far as the miniaturization of God, you are certainly correct that there are multiple ways in which to do this and evangelicals have their own ways as well-- one of them being questioning God's presence and help because things don't turn out for those who pray and read the Bible. God is much larger than what we want and what we hope for. The Bible is chock-full of people whose lives didn't go the way they planned and yet they struggled to be faithful at the same time because they knew that something was afoot that was much larger than themselves. they were part of God's plans and purposes, but they knew that God's plans did not exhaustively revolve around them.

Mark Finn said...


I'm an evangelical who feels like he's on the path that our John here has gone down. I can produce Biblical evidence to support most doctrines, but I don't "feel" God's presence in any substantial way. The objective has always been good enough for me, but lately the lack of the subjective has started to bother me.

Anyway, thanks for the post. I found it because I was looking for a rebuttal of Spong's article. A liberal Christian friend presented it as evidence against Jesus' physical resurrection. I wonder, though, (going back to my objective mode) if you have biblical references to back up your general feeling of dissatisfaction with the lack of imagination showed by his position.

Thanks again.


Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi, Mark:

Let me say first that I think in our modern western world we believe feeling is the primary way we experience, if you will, God. I do not believe this. Some people are more intellectually oriented. That experience of God is just as valid as the emotional.

As far as lack of imagination, I am referring to the reductionist approach to understanding God and the world. No one needs much imagination to take Spong's approach. Instead of understanding the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not considered to be real possibility because it cannot be imagined in the reductionist worldview of Spong's modernist sensibilities.

As far as Scripture and imagination, it is the belief in the God of the Universe that frees the imagination which is replete in Scripture as the psalmists wonder at creation and as Paul in Romans breaks out into doxology at the wonderful work of God in Jesus Christ.

Thanks for your comments.