I teach at a theological college. This morning I was on campus checking my mail box when a theological discussion erupted around me. The students were discussing the question of pre-millennial eschatology, specifically whether the Temple needs to be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the levitical priesthood restored before Christ’s Pre-millennial return. I am not a Pre-millennialist and hence agreed to some extent with what the students were saying, however, I found the arguments they gave to be very superficial, it was of the “this view is true because it pleases certain oppressed peoples and makes God look nice” variety. Next, however, I heard a statement that really got my back up.
“Oh I don’t care about any of that, I know Jesus comes back and that’s all that matters, who or under what circumstances, who cares”
At this point, I joined in the conversation pointing out that a Mosque currently stands where the temple would need to be rebuilt. I suggested that demolishing an Islamic holy site and building a Temple there could in fact lead to war and the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I also noted that how one approaches brokering peace in this part of the world could depend on a correct answer to this question, hence, it had some important practical significance. This point, however, rolled of my interlocutress’s back.
“Oh well, as long as Christ comes back, I don’t care about what the correct theology is.”
The fervour of my response shocked even me, I asked a direct question.
“Why are you here?”
The student looked puzzled.
“Why are you at a theological college if you don’t care what the scriptures teach? If what is the truth of the matter means nothing to you as long as you attain salvation? Why come to college and study the scriptures if ultimately you have no desire to learn what they say? Go home and stop wasting everyone’s time.”
The student said to me,
“I am not required to be able to answer those questions.”
“Yes you are, you are a Theology student that’s an important vocation. You should be informed about the questions and debates that occur in Eschatology and you should be attempting to understand what the truth is, that’s why you are here.”
The student informed me that I was rude and she did not want to discuss the matter further. I went home thinking, was I out of line here?
One thing that immediately sprang to mind was the fact that this student apparently refuses to listen to messages she finds rude. While presentation is important, shouldn’t the real question be whether what I said was true? Sometimes the truth is offensive and unpleasant.
But that still leaves the question was I out of line? am I out of line in my attitude here?
I do not think I am although admittedly I may have been too blunt; I am not always as sensitive as I should be. Years of being abused and derided as an ignorant fundamentalist moron tends to toughen ones skin and harden you a bit. It also customises you to debate that is less than tactful and polite and it is hard to re-contextualise this debate style in nicer, politer company.
My manner of presentation aside, I think I am right to be concerned. One of the biggest problems of contemporary evangelicalism is the lazy, superficial attitude that I heard expressed in this discussion. God gave us minds, he revealed us truth through the scriptures and he commands us to grow in an understanding of him. Evangelicals actually believe in truth. Understanding God and his ways is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe and the answers matter deeply, they relate to the deepest existential questions we all face.
The attitude that suggests that as long as “I am saved” then wrestling with these answers, caring about what is true and developing our understanding of the whole counsel of God is unimportant reflects a self-centred mindset for which I find it hard to have any thing but contempt. As a Theologian I believe it is my duty to try and understand these issues and to offer credible answers to life’s questions. Of course I am aware that I could be wrong and need to be open to that possibility. I am also aware that on some issues I do not know the answer, either because I find the debate inconclusive or I lack knowledge of certain issues necessary for resolving the issue. However, I do not think that agnosticism or humility concerning the answers to such questions should be grounded in an “I don’t know the facts, I do not understand the issue and I do not want to because I do not care” attitude.
Working at a theological college often depresses me because I am frequently exposed to this mind numbing, anti-intellectual superficiality and a culture of people who think that such mediocrity is “spiritual”. It is like they really believe that God is impressed with bumper stickers saying “Jesus loves you” or “eternity smoking or non-smoking?” and see this as an effective ambassadorship of his message.
Evangelicals need to wake up to the fact that we are a joke in contemporary NZ society. I have worked in secular universities for several years and watched as mind numbing, clichéd responses to serious questions is cheered on as effective by glorified youth groups. At the same time the surrounding culture gets a clear message that Christians are dingbats who are simply clueless. Stereotypes that enlightenment thinking has drummed into a generation about faith being irrational are simply reinforced.
Sadly I have also found that some times these same hostile sceptics often are very interested in the questions evangelicals address. They will talk and listen for hours to a sensible theologically informed answer and are genuinely interested in truth and issues to do with God and Morality. The problem is that frequently it is us who are not. We have reduced the gospel not to truth but to a pragmatic “it works and enhances my life” message. Evangelism looks uncannily like those tedious Chuck Norris infomercials telling us to “buy a total gym and we too can get a trim body” or the raving Anthony Robbins ads “I bought his tapes and now I am successful; it can work for you too!” The problem is that in a corrupt world falsehood sometimes works and as martyrs world wide can attest, truth can get you tortured and killed.
Augustine of Hippo coined a famous motto which became a guide to later Christian scholasticism, this was the motto of “Faith seeking understanding.” He held that we should accept the message of the gospel by faith, but that one should utilise reason to understand this Gospel, to explore its implications, to answer objections and to develop an informed application of its message to various issues.
For centuries Theologians followed this method, to read Augustine or Aquinas, Calvin, Ockham, Grotius or the Puritans or even contemporary writers like Alvin Plantinga is to catch a vision of God and his world that is richly profound and both existentially and intellectually satisfying. One finds oneself drawn into the conversation in an attempt to wrestle with them, critically engaging ones mind in the contemplation of the greatest being of all, God. One gains ownership of one’s faith and is driven to a hunger to learn more of God out of devotion to him.
I was forced to read writers like this when I was faced with challenges to my faith that my Church could not answer and the experience was transforming but I have never been able to fit into the New Zealand evangelical church ever since. Exposure to the real thing inevitably makes the mind numbing dosage of clichés, slogans, pithy pat wit, the “Jesus loves me, he works, ignore the rest” view of mature spirituality difficult to tolerate. I find this view to be one of the biggest barriers to the Gospel and subsequent social transformation in New Zealand today. Consequently, I find myself adopting an almost zero tolerance attitude towards it. God is not impressed by lazy minds who run from a challenge and hide in the comfort of mutually affirming pot luck dinners while the rest of the world goes to hell. And its time the evangelical world stopped thinking this was acceptable.
I recently spoke to a respected Christian leader who speaks in numerous theological colleges in NZ and he informed me that he has had to dumb his message down in order to survive. That speaks volumes; normally academics get promoted for intellectual rigor and depth but it is a sad state of affairs when excellence in understanding God is a liability and superficially an asset. If this is the way we promote and educate Christian leaders then may God help New Zealand Society.