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God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

by on May 22, 2013

2010072613332273499A dad at soccer training tonight figured out that I’m a pastor. He immediately told me a story he was frustrated about. He is a practising catholic but from a liberal tradition – but he has an adult son, who has joined a pentecostal church. Soccer dad recently tried recently to engage his pentecostal son in a discussion about Christian faith. He asked him, ‘What do we really know about Jesus? Who is he? Son of God? Is that literally true, or is it a metaphor for something?’

Son replied, ‘We don’t have to ask that question. The bible tells us Jesus is God’s Son, so we know he is.’ – at least that’s how Soccer D heard the reply. Pretty annoyed he was about it too. ‘Don’t tell me what the bible says!’ he replied angrily.

He was disappointed too, I think. He felt his son effectively shut down the conversation. There was no way to talk about it any further.

It struck me afterwards this whole story is a metaphor for something. For the divide between evangelical Christians and the rest of the world.

Think of the irony of the story. The skeptic wants badly to discuss Jesus. The orthodox believer is unable to, because his use of the bible leaves him feeling there is nothing to discuss. Skeptic cannot get access to help from evangelical, and feels shut out.

In my time in Canterbury, I’ve discovered that many, many people want to talk about Jesus. About God. About the Church (whatever that is!). Many of them have not been able to talk about these things for years, but they want to. When I give them half a chance, they go for it. I’ve never had so many conversations about Jesus before. All started by neighbours.

Funny thing is, I never before thought of ‘ordinary people’ in this way – that they were bursting to talk about faith. Why don’t they do it more often?

My feeling is that there’s no one for them to talk to. Most people know nothing helpful. And the evangelicals are not accessible. Why not? Partly there aren’t many around, and they tend to keep to themselves. But it seems to me it’s also this thing about how we use the Bible.

Think about this son’s response. He goes straight to the fact of the bible, claims its authority, and thus short-circuits the question. Bible-authority is the only ground on which he is willing to play. It’s the entry point into faith discussion. But his father is not willing to accept this authority. So he can’t even get into the discussion. They are left with no common ground, no shared language in which to talk. All they can do is miss each other, and feel frustrated.

The son is using the Bible to provide what is called epistemological foundations. I.e., he’s wanting to start by finding a solid basis of knowledge. How can we know anything about religious stuff? How can we arrive at definitive answers to faith questions? The Bible is the authority. Let’s look there.

These sort of epistemological questions have loomed large in the western mindset for about the past 200 years. Before that, people didn’t use to talk so much about how we know things. They just talked about the things. Christians didn’t use to discuss ‘the Bible’ that much – they talked about the things in the bible, about Christian faith.

Nowadays we feel we have to justify our beliefs carefully, and ‘the Bible says it’ is the standard approach. We’ve brought epistemology right to the front in how we talk about the faith. This has helped us feel ok about holding beliefs that our society doesn’t respect any more. By putting our commitment to Scripture’s authority at first base, we evangelicals have given ourselves a strong shared language in which to discuss our beliefs, a level playing field on which to debate faith issues in relative safety. But it’s come at considerable cost.

The cost is mission-failure. That’s what happened with Soccer Dad. Other people, like him, don’t share our commitment to the authority of Scripture. Of course they don’t. They’re outside those epistemological gates. But all the dialogue goes on inside the gates. They’re not going to buy into our view of Scripture straight away. But until they do, it’s difficult for the outside world to communicate with us. We lack a shared language, a piece of common ground on which to have the conversation.

It goes like this. Some of our beliefs seem fair enough to outsiders: God the creator and so on. But others seem pretty odd: Noah’s ark, resurrection from the dead, Trinity. If people are interested, they might try to investigate, and they’ll probably do it by questioning. How can God be one and three? Do you really believe that? Why do you believe that?

We tend to interpret this questioning as an attack on our faith, we feel under threat, and so retreat to our safe position: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Probably it’s the only answer in our manual.

That works ok for us. But not for them. Either the discussion breaks down at that point, as it did for SD, or else it degenerates into yet another debate about epistemology: ‘Why do you trust that old book?’ ‘Wasn’t it all written down hundreds of years later anyhow?’  ‘How do we know stuff anyway?’

Either way, the questioner doesn’t get help with their questions. We either bar them or else sidetrack the discussion. What we don’t do is talk to them helpfully about Jesus.

This epistemological paygate effectively creates a great barrier to faith-dialogue, with evangelicals on one side and the rest of the world on the other. If people want to discuss real faith content with us, rather than just discussing the preliminary question ‘how do we know stuff?’ we require them to come through the gates, over to our side first.

Most people won’t do that. So no gospel conversation is possible. There’s no way forward for them to explore Christian faith. At least not with us.

What’s the alternative? It takes a bit of courage, but I think there’s another way. A way to remove the paygates. Without compromising our view of Scripture. I think this because we’re doing it all the time here in Canterbury, every time someone asks us about Christian stuff.

From → General

  1. These are good points. I find myself curious about the practicing but liberal catholic.When he asks Who Jesus is, and What being the Son of God means, and Whether this is a metaphor for something, the evangelical in us has to be leaping up and down with a dozen different answers. My guess is that this father son relationship may be getting in the way, rather than it being simply a weakness in the way we reach for answers when we feel under threat. (I bet I’m not the only one to have problems talking to their father about my faith) But leave that aside – I agree with what you say about the dangers of closing down discussions by talking too much about how we know and not enough about what (or who) we know.

    • That’s a perceptive comment, Edward. No one makes us feel insecure quite like our fathers!

  2. Charlie Ellis permalink

    I’m waiting to hear your answer Jono. How do you guys approach this issue at Canterbury?

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