Without Fear And Trembling

One of the recent conservative commenters on my blog decided to write to my pastor to make sure that he is aware of the sorts of views I have. He is (he regularly attends my Sunday school class, as well as being someone I’ve talked to often in other less formal settings). This occurrence got me thinking about the more conservative Christian contexts in which such an intervention might lead to questions, accusations, suspicions, discipline, expulsion, conflict, and who knows what else.

I’ve been thinking that a good slogan for my Sunday school class might be “Come work out your salvation without fear and trembling.” This isn’t yet another example of me being “unbiblical“. I do think that there is a genuine and appropriate fear and trembling involved in exploring life’s most important questions. But that is fear before God and personal acknowledgement of the seriousness of the matter. But too often, one’s fear and trembling when “working out their salvation” is fear of recrimination, fear of ostracization, fear of other people and their opinion.

Such concerns often lead doubts to be denied publicly, perhaps even denied to ourselves. In such circumstances, being a Christian often becomes a matter of appearance, of pretending to be more certain than one really is, or simply refusing to ask certain kinds of questions. I often think that, if I had had to work out my salvation while pretending in this way lest I find myself in conflict with those around me, it might well have led to hypocrisy and, in the end, to a loss of faith. For I am persuaded that intellectual and spiritual dishonesty is much more toxic to faith than honest questioning, historical criticism, academic investigation, or anything else that fundamentalists find threatening and at odds with a genuine Christian faith.

We discussed this subject today in my Sunday school class, and I think it was helpful to others present both to be able to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers, and to learn that psychologists like James Fowler have suggested that our being in different places in our spiritual walks or “faith development” is not only inevitable but natural and healthy.

A conservative blog recently described me as “dangerous”, and I realized that I should take that as a compliment. Acknowledging the possibility of being a Christian while at the same time engaging in open discussion of ideas, tolerating uncertainty, and anticipating that you might have something to learn from those with whom you disagree, is dangerous to fundamentalism – but not to Christian faith per se. What is dangerous to Christian faith is viewing it as though it were something static, as though the understanding of it one has as a child should remain static throughout life, or that Christianity itself could or should remain static throughout history. But perhaps more dangerous still is the conviction that our own understanding is God’s very truth -that cannot but lead to a spiritual pride and arrogance that is incompatible with the Christian faith in general, and with the fallibility of the greatest heroes of the faith as depicted in the Bible in particular.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09539170598198122642 Chris

    James,Your comments here are beautifully stated, especially at the end of the second and third paragraphs.They thought Jesus was dangerous, too, you know!-Chris

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16623045145691355028 Blake

    um… I have always went to conservative churches and we discuss our doubts. When does a doubt become unbelief? Where does intellectual honesty come in? Where do we realize that we have rejected most of the content of a belief, and should just walk away? My question to you is: Exactly what IS a Christian? There must be a definition. If you cannot define it then you do not know what it is, and if that is the case you should just stop talking about it.I learned from a logic text book once that definitions are made up of Genus and Species. Could you please give me a proper definition of what exactly Xtianity is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Blake, would you care to propose a definition for discussion? Presumably your conviction that there is such a definition means you have one in mind?

  • http://goulablogger.wordpress.com/ goulablogger

    “Dangerous”? On the right blog that could lead to a serious increase in your own blog’s readership.Maybe you should thank the conservative.Anyone want to call me dangerous? Anyone?”Dangerous” is living with your head stuck in the sand, I think.Chuck Grantham

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17303885427565816487 Josh

    “Acknowledging the possibility of being a Christian while at the same time engaging in open discussion of ideas, tolerating uncertainty, and anticipating that you might have something to learn from those with whom you disagree, is dangerous to fundamentalism – but not to Christian faith per se.”Agreed. Keep up the good work James. I am glad you do not shy away from the difficult questions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05484259391366235795 John Anderson

    James:Thank you for this post. I have already commented on Hevel.org, but I will copy and paste my comments here as well. I have been a regular reader of your blog, and I am hopeful you will find these comments thoughtful (and that you will check out my blog, if you have not yet – click my name!). Ok, shameless plug over . . . =======Very interesting, and disturbing, post. Perhaps it is good that I have been on my “best blogging behavior” thus far, and not revealed too much of what I really think!I have mentioned in the past, and I will do so again here, a certain colleague of mine doing Ph.D. work in theology. He is a brilliant, brilliant man, and I value my conversations with him greatly; he does make me think about things I often take for granted (for instance, why am I just so darn religiously liberal . . . ). But there are points where we are clearly unable to dialogue. For instance, I will claim–and I believe this to be the case–that Jesus is not in the Hebrew Bible. Now, a quick bit of clarification, before anyone pens a letter. A Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible (OT) is legitimate, fair, and good. But, I would challenge any claim that sees this hermeneutic as preferential or primary. From the perspective of the NT looking backwards, sure, there is evidence of early Jewish-Christian communities attempting to make sense of Jesus’ (unexpected) death, and combing their Scriptures for clues. But, from the perspective of the OT looking forward, I cannot see it. It is arrogance, to me, to assume that Isaiah had Jesus in mind when he spoke of Immanuel, or the servant (who is clearly Israel, people . . . the text says so! Read Isa 40 and 42 . . . and quit assuming a discontinuity between the various ’sources’—ok, soapbox over). So, to return to the story, this past week my theologian friend and I were talking, and I made a comment, to which he said something to the effect of Jesus being the answer. I said that isn’t the answer, to which he responded–loudly–that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” How silly of me to have missed that.This is the same friend myself and another OT Ph.D. candidate ‘accused’ (politely, of course) of prooftexting. That is a whole other debate. Good times.I must admit, there is a certain ‘hazard’ to those of us who opt for the academic study of religion. Admittedly, I do often become too critical while sitting in church. I do also become angry sometimes. But I also find myself moved at moments. It’s a mixed bag. But for me . . . questions and all . . . I see it as an act of fidelity. By asking questions and not just ‘giving up,’ I feel I am taking God seriously. Agnostic? Maybe. Syncretist? Yeah, that’s probably me. But, I would argue, I am at least wrestling with the questions—and that, to me (and to Elie Wiesel), is an act of faith.All the best!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06199378581080658092 Mike K

    First, thanks James for adding me to your “blogs I read” roll. Since no one offered their definition of Christianity, let me offer mine (based on Dunn’s “Unity and Diversity in the NT”): the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Lord who is one with God. This seems rooted in the earliest Christ creeds/confessions (1 Cor 15:3-5, 16:22, Rom 10:9, Acts 2:36) and is inclusive of conservatives and liberals. But I wonder what some of the conservative bloggers really hope to accomplish here. In my experience I am often wrong, but if I feel someone has not treated me with respect, I will usually not listen to them no matter how right they may be. So my question to these conservative folks would be: shouldn’t ministry be conducted with more love and humility and recognizing that both sides may be honest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I’ve got Hesed we ‘Emet and Hevel.org in my reader, but I hadn’t added them to the blogroll yet. Sorry – I’ve rectified that!Jim West has also chimed in on this topic.

  • http://powerscourt.blogspot.com Sue

    Jim,I think you have inheritied this commenter from me. He used to track down every comment I made and copy and post it into a thread somewhere else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17169016780168243136 TheoPoet

    Interesting post. I’ve been labeled dangerous too because of my stand on homosexuality within the framework of liberty of conscious and church/state separation. I too would like to know why one must assume that there’s a coherent definition of Christianity with checklists that we can check off to decide who is and isn’t in the club. If Christianity is about following Christ—shouldn’t that be what determines one’s working definition of Christianity not manmade checklists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Christianity is whatever definition ‘fits” for you…as it really doesn’t matter, as “tradition” is a matter of personal cultural understanding, which in our modern, free, scientific, and individualized culture, could be anything…as many scholars have defined Jesus in many different ways…denominations also defined sacraments differently, and even the Church Fathers disagreed as to what was of importance…Every tradition has their “understandings”.As to approaching the subject of tradition, tradition “calls” for judgment, by its very definition…as it is understood culturally, historically, and personally…therefore, I would rather do without that type of cultural “climate”…it really doesn’t benefit me or others. And I don’t think that separating myself from those who are “challenged” by my existence is wrong, as it is pursuing peace. Those who want to believe what they believe, and are not hurting others by holding their beliefs, have a right to do so. It is only when these intrude into other’s rights that I am not just a little irritated!(So, you can imagine my dismay over your “corrective intervention” by this conservative)…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    I just realized that what I just said, was saying in effect, that belief is irrelavant, but behavior is not…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05484259391366235795 John Anderson

    Latent in much of this discussion is what I would call the Americanization (read: personalization) of religion. Not a bad thing . . . I’m actually kind of on board with that. The question ultimately becomes what boundaries are traversable, and which are not. What items are negotiable? When does one stop being a Christian, and start being something else? And, by whose definition?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00798753206614838161 John Shuck

    Congratulations! You have been reported! Good show. I brag about you here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Question, if the nation-state is no longer separated from christianity, as the public and private sectors have “collapsed” and behavior is really about what constitutes character, then what is the real “problem” about being a “non-Christian”, if one is doing and being in the world appropriately?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13128282430404746717 N T Wrong

    Nice post, James. Your fellow gadfly, etc

  • http://awakening.typepad.com Mike DeVries

    James,I feel for you as I was the center of a firestorm with regards to my blog at a church I was on staff at. Ultimately it became an all church issue where I was branded a heretic and a liberal. There were calls for my resignation. I saw and experienced some of the most vicious and hateful things said to me and about me in public. It was truly unbelievable. [Obviously, I resigned].In any event, things like this happen [and are allowed to happen] all too often. It’s terribly sad when those who claim to follow Jesus act very little like him.Blessings.

  • http://hebrewandgreekreader.wordpress.com/ hebrewandgreekreader

    May we ask, what was the big deal? Evolution/creation? Homosexuality?

  • Anonymous

    Been reading and enjoying this blog for a while, but haven’t commented before.As far as a definition of a Christian goes, since reading Dave Andrew’s book Christi-Anarchy some years ago, I have tended to think of Christianity as a “direction” one is going in or facing, rather than as a “box” with definite rules to define the boundary. To me, a Christian is someone who is approaching God (however they conceive him/her/it) through the life and example of Jesus Christ (at least in part).Sandra

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09995045712732537550 Kim Wilkens

    Thanks for being "dangerous". I discovered mr deity video on your site & used in SS yesterday. What a great discussion you can have when you are given permission to have questions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    If you can’t ask questions of your pastors or teachers then my opinion is that the organizations that they are associated with are not worth attending. Moreover, their opinions are probably not worth listening to if they won’t accept questioning or discussion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    It wasn’t evolution/creation (which I’ve talked about in church on more than one occasion), although when Blake asked for the definition, I was tempted to comment that his point about genus and species, in the biological realm, would have to be related to the fact that these categories express relationships between evolving organisms. But I thought at the time it would be better to keep the focus on a single issue.It was my recent Easter-related posts in particular, although a lot of the discussion ended up being in the comment section on a Quote of the Day post. You can also go to a blog called Triablogue to see their discussions of my posts in both blog entries and comments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12334188123201041182 scott gray

    james–you continue to play a civil game of water polo with these fellows. you are a better person than i. at this point, when i’m in the pool with this lot, my desire is not to play polo with them, but rather to hold their heads underwater as long as i can get away with.you are truly a gentleman, and a scholar.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Scott, I think you’re thinking of a different “sport”, called waterboarding

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12334188123201041182 scott gray

    james, your engagement with them is, well, very christian.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    The letter itself had to do with Dr McGrath’s views on the authority of the Bible, which we were discussing rather nicely, I thought, though apparently Dr McGrath doesn’t think so, as he has abandoned the conversation, and also his denial of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. If I had realised how unreceptive Dr McGrath’s pastor would be to the obvious – that Dr McGrath is no Christian and as such certainly does not belong as a frakking Sunday School teacher – I would have gone for the bigger gun and pointed out his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. There’s not really any meaningful definition one could use under which Dr McGrath could be reasonably labeled a Christian. I’m not saying that to rip you, Dr McGrath, but it’s just that it’s really important to demarcate belief systems, for the sake of clarity. I’m sad that such a church as Crooked Creek has become the way it is now, and I’m yet gladder that I don’t attend.Peace,Rhology

  • Anonymous

    I used to believe Christian propositions. Did that make me a Christian? Am I no longer a Christian if I now believe that a lot of what passes for “facts” in the Bible can’t be defended as literal? Will I avoid hell “as by fire” because one cannot “lose” one’s salvation?Beyond all this is that too many of the “Christians” I have encountered in my life speak and act like Rhology. Incapable of thoughtful discussion, perpetually trying to divide a line beteeen people, desperate to confirm their own rightness in some ridiculous sense. And if that is what Christianity makes of people, and it does to too many, I would rather not be one, because it is ugly.pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12334188123201041182 scott gray

    oh, rhology, you’re just not paying attention. you don’t have any ‘big guns.’ in fact, you don’t have any guns at all.you’re like the poker player who is dealt an eight-three off suit, and three jacks come up on the flop, and a four of hearts comes up on the turn. you’re drawing dead, but you think you can bluff your way to winning the hand by going all in. dude, you’ve lost.for some reason, you think theology is like poker or water polo—a zero sum game. the sooner you see that the game of ‘faith seeking understanding’ is not filled with winners and losers and definitions of who’s in and who’s out, the sooner you’ll make a useful eudemonic contribution to christendom and society in general.peace–scott

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Anonymous,Did you even read the thread where I interacted at length with Dr. McGrath? What about my comments were not “thoughtful discussion”? Just curious.Scott,OK.

  • Anonymous

    James, thank you for your post. Though I am more concerned about the cyberstalking that is apparent here. Debate is all well and good on blogs, but when it spills over into places like jobs and churches its is definitely out of bounds. Many blogs have gone “private” available to a select few and no longer open to the larger readership for precisely this reason. In some ways you have the luxury of establishment both professionally and personally. For the untenured or the painful story of the young church member above such is not case.I would remind rhyology of one thing. Matthew 25 tells us at the end of time there will be a final exam. Interestingly enough there’s not one question about authority of scripture, substitutionary atonement or physical resurrection. Instead Jesus says its about whether you fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick. Based on that, not theology the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. My judgment is that by JESUS definition of Christian James certainly qualifies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    For anyone who cares, I’ve replied, since I was the tattle-tale.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Anon,You conveniently leave out the whole rest of the NT’s teaching on sin and how one is saved from it. Besides, using Dr McGrath’s own yardstick, how do you know that part is even part of the Bible? Or is not in error?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00798753206614838161 John Shuck

    Rhology,Nope. Nobody cares.Anonymous wrote:**I am more concerned about the cyberstalking that is apparent here. Debate is all well and good on blogs, but when it spills over into places like jobs and churches its is definitely out of bounds.**Exactly. Fighting on blogs is all good fun, but when it spills into one’s personal life, career, etc. then, well, it gets personal.Busybodies have taken it upon themselves to “report” me to my Executive Presbyter. It never amounts to anything of course, but it could. I take it all as an occupational hazard. It is the small price we pay for speaking out.However, I have a rule on my blog. Anyone can comment, but once someone “reports” me, s/he doesn’t get to comment anymore.It is a tough penalty, I know. There is weeping and gnashing and teeth by the banned busybodies who can no longer troll and spew, but that’s the price you pay for crossing the boundary.It is good to have an open blog, but I think there should be consequences for crossing personal boundaries. This type of behavior, in my view, should not be rewarded by allowing these people to continue to comment.I am glad you made this post and named what happened. We bloggers need to stand together to face this violation of personal space.The way we do it is to say “You report us, you report my friends, you are banned from commenting.”For what it is worth, James.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395422809298131385 Levi

    I’m sorry you have to deal with someone like that. My desire to not post blogs on biblical studies has been strengthened by reading this. For what it’s worth, I enjoy your discussions and your/our nerdy infatuation with LOST.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16698562143972216357 Jim

    just one observation on mr rhology- here’s his alexa rating:3 month avg 19,482,666666… now that says rather a lot!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15987417614968710718 Bryan

    The interesting thing to me about the “being reported to your pastor” angle is that if James were worried about that in the least he would not post under his real name. He has nothing to hide, and is in fact to be commended for being so open about his theological framework for interpreting the Bible. Too many seminary-educated leaders in the Church pretend that they don’t know as much as they do about this stuff, evidently in order to “protect” the church or their own status in it.The conventions of scholarship require that people take responsibility for their words and arguments, and be open to correction and revision from knowledgeable readers. This commenter is free to engage in this process, though of course all we know about him is that his name is Alan and he lives somewhere between NY and LA. If he believes so much in members of the public pronouncing judgment on a person’s church or role in it, he would stop hiding behind a screen name.

  • Anonymous

    Rhology, in deference to James and to keep his site clean I won’t say what I really think.But you are a pathetic loser, incapable of understanding what you read. There is all sorts of stuff in the Bible that contradicts what you think you believe. Some of us enjoy wrestling with the contradictions. Others, like you, just like to wrestle with your own tiny p…., uh, points of view. Lurking beyond your certainty is enormous insecurity, otherwise why would you give a fig what some college professor in some distant state thinks?pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    Rhology -Wow. Just wow. When I was pursuing my second masters I had the pleasure of taking two of Dr. McGrath’s classes. While he certainly encourages all of his students (religious or otherwise) to think I never ONCE saw him tell his students HOW they should think, or WHAT they should (or should not) believe. He’s very supportive of devout Christians and actually caused many in class to think about why they believe what they believe–something that many churches STILL fail to do. Contrast this to the 20 years I spent in the Lutheran Church. One example of many: In my parochial school days I was once made to copy out of the Bible for questioning the rationale behind God sending Native Americans to hell. The only lesson I learned is that asking the types of questions that McGrath encourages people to explore apparently gets you punished. I know if I had children I’d want them to attend a Sunday school that encouraged questioning rather than punish it!In fact McGrath often disagrees with several of my notions and I’m now a nonbeliever. So, following your rationale, perhaps I should write the various “secular” organizations out there and warn them of the evil that is Dr. McGrath?I think not. -Brad-B

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14245825667079220242 Rhology

    Bryan,It is not my concern that Dr McGrath be “concerned” about me tattling on him. I had no illusion that he was. It is irrelevant.BSM,You took his classes AT UNIVERSITY. Did I ever once mention anything about his job? No.And it’s no surprise to me that you do the same as he does, putting yourself in judgment over the Bible. I am unsure what point you’re trying to make here. Why would anyone warn them of the evil that is Dr McGrath to some secular organisation? How is that possibly analogous? I can only conclude you are either ignorant of or uncaring of the biblical doctrine of the church. And given that, it’s no surprise you take issue with my actions.Peace,Rhology

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07562402977211994270 Andrew T.

    James,I think it’s my fault that Rhology found your blog, so I doubly apologize for linking to you repeatedly from the den of heathens we have over at EC.Keep up the good work!-Andrew

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16478151742674353783 Mariano

    Fascinating post and just vague enough to be meaningless.Using a blog as “My Dear Diary” is not exactly endearing.But at least you got to express your intolerance.

  • steph

    WTF Mariano – how vague is your remark? Rhology and his barking elves are bonkers and remarkably ‘un Christian’.

  • http://sunestauromai.wordpress.com Brian

    Sadly, there are instances where blogs have cost people relationships in the church, sadly. I think it has more to do with levels of personal security and indenity in the Lord and in the larger Christian community than anything else and with regards to pastors, the strength of his or her pastoral idenity. In the circles of which I travel, our group does have certain sacred cows and “doctrinal disctinctives” that are more or less untouchable -if you address them – do so in an irenic tone or it could cost you big. Sad, I know, but it is a problem.

  • steph

    The sad thing would be if bloggers started protecting themselves by being dishonest and not discussing what they really believe. And Jesus was always honest despite what his opponents thought. James is the same, thank God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Steph, I agree that honesty is the best policy. But, when it comes to a sacred text, one is taking their life in thier hands to even question it, or say anything about usng one’s reason in addressing it. Then, it becomes a personal judgment call.Does one “be honest” with the discrepecies etc. with the text, and threaten those who do not want to hear anything but what affirms their opinion? Or does one “be dishones” and “protect” those who don’t want to hear anything about reality?I am glad to hear about “reality” as otherwise, one lives disconnected from reality, which limits them from encountering “the world” and addressing it. Scripture can be used addictively. This is why I think it is imperative for thsoe like James to be honest. There is no credibility with anyone when there is dishonesty.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04605470284153454825 phil_style

    Am I permitted to note that some of the ‘conversatins’ here over the past few days have made for great humour. Thanks for the all the laughs peeps!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07600312868663460988 J. K. Gayle

    “but it’s just that it’s really important to demarcate belief systems, for the sake of clarity,” says Rhology. Or was that Aristotle?Wow – I was at Hebrew and Greek Reader (wondering why we blog) and made it just in time to hear from the now-blogless N.T. Wrong also. And if that wasn’t worth the trip, there’s water all over the floor from the splashing that the clever scott gray was making no effort to clean up. At all. very christian, indeed. And dangerous. I’d love to blog (and teach Sunday School) like you, Dr. McGrath. thanks for your genuine humility, and for surviving something else (so demarcated) altogether different.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06087588494600746854 WES ELLIS

    I can’t believe that guy e-mailed your pastor. I pray my ego never gets big enough to do such a thing.

  • steph

    Angie… eh?

  • http://ulen.wordpress.com/ ulen

    James,This is the risk when interacting with small minded and insecure little people. And they never seem to contemplate the possibility that they might be wrong! I know, I was there once! How narrow minded was I?!! I know now why you are so graceful to them! Multa pace la toti!

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