On Not Having All the Answers (“Coffeehouse Theology” in a postmodern world)

On Not Having All the Answers (“Coffeehouse Theology” in a postmodern world) June 24, 2013

Today’s post is an interview with Ed Cyzewski (MDiv, Biblical Theological Seminary), author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life (NavPress). This book is an introduction to contextual theology, i.e., to “help the reader understand, shape, and live out practical Christian theology in the postmodern context” (from the book’s webpage), rather than seeing honest questions as a threat and quick answers as a necessity.

Cyzewski works as a freelance writer in Ohio. He blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com, has authored several other books, and is currently working on three new books: A Christian Survival Guide; The Good News of Revelation (with Larry Helyer); and Unfollowers: The Doubters, Detractors, and Dropouts Who Didn’t Follow Jesus (with Derek Cooper).

The pink elephant in the room is his unpronounceable last name, which I think is of Klingon derivation. Try “Cy-zes-ki.” (Of course, the “w” is silent. What could be more obvious. Sheesh.)

1. I can see how coffee and theology often go together, but what exactly is the message of your book Coffeehouse Theology?

I used to be a defensive (and hence offensive) jerk who played theology cop. I was out to defend what I believed because I feared being wrong. After calling out a friend for “heresy” when he merely misspoke at a Bible study, I realized that I wasn’t helping anyone with my quest for certainty about the Bible and defensive approach.

As I sought a more conversational approach to how I defined my beliefs, I realized that the conversations weren’t just taking place over coffee tables with my friends. They were taking place around the world (through the internet) and throughout the history of the church. Coffeehouse Theology helps readers visualize and practice this kind of theology that is based on conversations about scripture that also includes dialogue with our history and our global traditions.

I wrote Coffeehouse Theology while many were asking about postmodernism and trying to figure out what they believed. For some, postmodernism felt like a breath of fresh air after struggling with the pat answers of evangelicalism, but in the eyes of others, it was a potential threat to any biblical beliefs or standards.  I suggest that knowing our context and comparing it to the perspectives of historic and global Christians will go a long way to helping us gain clarity when interpreting the Bible.

2. How have your own doubts driven your writing about theology?

I went to seminary looking for the answers—all of them. The deeper I dug into theology, the more I found parts of the Bible that left me disturbed or confused. I reached a low point when I felt like I’d spent all of my time learning about salvation but never experiencing it, much like a car mechanic who endlessly tinkers on an engine and argues about how it works without ever taking the car for a drive.

Certainty and complete answers are elusive and highly overrated. The more I stepped into the mystery of God and sought the love and acceptance of God, the easier it became to dig into my beliefs.  I’ve had to table some topics that I simply couldn’t figure out. I’ll return to them later and give them another go. In the meantime, my faith does not rise and fall on having all of the answers but on having God’s presence in my life.

In part, I wanted the readers of Coffeehouse Theology to find freedom to know God without necessarily knowing everything about God. As I hosted events for the book, people often approached me with their toughest questions and doubts about Christianity. It was good to know I wasn’t alone.

3. What were the most common doubts and struggles that readers of your book shared with you?

So many people who attended my events had been hurt by church leaders who used the Bible as a club, a manual, or a law book. The issues were all different: women in ministry, predestination, hell, evolution, homosexuality, etc. However, the same pattern emerged: the Bible wasn’t used to convey good news. The Bible had been used to manipulate, control, and divide. By the time they showed up at my book events, they didn’t even know where to begin with the Bible even if they were still committed to Jesus.

In fact, most of the problems they had with Christianity and the Bible stemmed from struggles with literal interpretations of the Bible. They didn’t know how to let the Bible speak into their lives without it becoming a tool used for control.

4. How did you respond to them?

People who had potentially faith-ending struggles with aspects of Christianity were really tired of simple answers or promises of certainty. While I sometimes shared my own story and even some of my own conclusions, I avoided being the guy with the answers. However, just because I avoided giving pat replies, that didn’t mean I had reasonable answers and options to offer. This shift in my thinking was hard to pull off and extremely important for my interactions.

Perhaps the most helpful thing I’ve done for myself and for others is pointing to a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit. N. T. Wright speaks of the Bible as the first four acts of a five-act play, and we use the first four acts to improvise the final act. As I’ve combined that line of thinking with a greater openness to the Holy Spirit, I’ve found a constructive way forward.

To anyone doubting or struggling, I would suggest focusing on the love and acceptance of Jesus. If Jesus called his disciples to spend three years with him before they had any clue about who he was, then he surely will accept us as we stumble forward in our faith. I would also suggest learning to sit quietly, just letting God move in whatever way he sees fit and sometimes meditating on a short passage of scripture. Something may happen or it may not. Either way, I have found this kind of prayer a helpful practice when I’m burned out on reading the Bible for “answers” or struggling with what I believe.

Over time I also started collecting the questions and problems my friends and people I met had with Christianity. I shared many of their struggles and started to look at the options Christianity presents for each one: how does prayer work, is hell real, what role does God play in the violent stories of scripture, how do we stop sinning, etc. I wrote a series of blog posts called a “Christian Survival Guide.” I aimed to present options and suggestions rather than absolute answers, and I received a lot of positive feedback. I have revised that series for a book project, and it is currently under contract with Kregel for release in 2014.

If we can have discussions centered on possible answers rather than absolutes, people can have more room for their faith to grow in the midst of doubts and concerns.

5. Tell me a bit more about this Christian Survival Guide you’re working on. Do you see it as a book for new Christians, struggling Christians, apologists, or someone else?

I’ve seen so many of my Christian friends struggle in their faith. Whether they don’t see themselves growing or “progressing” in their faith or they have real struggles and hang ups with the Bible or the Christian community, there are a lot of Christians who love Jesus but aren’t sure how to make their faith work. Many of them fear particular issues, worrying that they could lose their faith if they really faced that issue head on.

I wanted to avoid being the “easy answer” guy who always has a chapter and verse for every question, but I also wanted my Christian friends to know there are options out there for many of our toughest issues. Most people don’t want bulletproof answers. They just want to be given some options to consider.

Perhaps the most motivating moment for this Survival Guide came when a close relative, who grew up hearing about six-day creationism being the only option, left the faith because evolution made more sense to her. The all or nothing approach to six-day creationism forced her to leave the faith when she couldn’t make sense of it. I would hope that even the most staunch six-day creationist would agree that believing in theistic evolution is far better than leaving the faith altogether.

6. What has been the biggest threat to your “survival” as a Christian?

This may be an unusual one for some folks, but I married into a charismatic family, and understanding the role of the Holy Spirit was really tough for me. I specifically began to worry that my lack of charismatic experiences meant there was something wrong with either myself or with God. My wife’s family was never pushy about charismatic experiences and they accepted me just as I was. My struggles were all in my head.

I had very little training in how the Holy Spirit worked, and over the years they helped guide me through some of my insecurities. As I’ve stepped into a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, I’ve come to appreciate that we truly are a body with different parts, and many of us have different roles and experiences of God. The Spirit has been teaching me to believe that God loves me as I am and that he can handle things from there.

The more I talk about my own insecurities as a Christian, the more I find Christians who either share the same insecurities or have other problems that were never on my radar. It’s my hope that my Christian Survival Guide book project will spark more conversations about the issues that trouble us as Christians and give us some options to consider as we move deeper into the love and acceptance of God.

I’ll be sending previews of the Christian Survival Guide and book updates each month to subscribers of my e-newsletter.



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  • The number of people today who can still use the word ‘heresy’ with a straight face blows my mind. Every facet of Christian theology was at one point in time considered heterodoxy or heresy. And given the 33000+ denominations extant, it’s more than likely the theology expressed here is heretical to scores of other Christians.

    The labels aren’t helpful. The only thing one can do is appeal to the conception of God that one chooses to believe in, and to understand that there are other conceptions of God just as equally tenable from a Biblical standpoint as your own.

    • When I read Mark Knoll and David Bebbington’s history of evangelicalism, I was consistently surprised by how many groups broke off to form a “Christian” denomination that was just “faithful to the Bible. If we look at our history and at the global Christian heritage, I think we can narrow down a far more helpful understanding of orthodoxy as opposed to simply going on what one reactionary group landed on as they left another group that was, at one time, most likely reactionary to something else.

    • IMHO, ‘heresy’ should be used to describe doctrines which necessitate forcing people to sacrifice against their wills. Likewise, it should be used to describe doctrines which do not sufficiently ask people to take up their cross and follow Christ. There should also be a category for actions taken that do these things. Forcing people to sacrifice is something that Satan does. He says “take”. Jesus says “Take from God alone and then give to people.”

      Evil should still be called ‘evil’. I do think we should have an empirical basis for calling things ‘evil’, though. It’s too easy to mold words into whatever form we want. Perhaps this is just me thinking that every command God gave had a basis in natural law, though.

    • Rory Tyer

      I’m not sure that this is very helpful. First, I don’t think it’s true that “every facet of Christian theology was at one point in time considered heterodoxy or heresy.” I can think of several counter-examples off the top of my head (such as the doctrine of creation). Second, equally as important is the question of who’s doing the “considering” – which doctrine was considered heresy, and by whom, and when, and by what process, and what was the result, and what was that debate’s subsequent life in the history of Christian thought, and what is its relationship to our time?

      It is true that there are many scores of denominations, but that is very different from taking a historical point of view on what constitutes “heresy” and what does not. Many denominations would not question the salvation of those in different denominations; they just think they’re not entirely correct. Which is perhaps what we should expect given the inherently partial nature of all human formulations of theological truth?

      Finally, I think the path to follow is a bit less bleak than simply “appeal to the conception of God that one chooses to believe in” – I’m sure some people do this but I would hope that an ideal model for theological reflection involves some amount of conversation with historical theology, with biblical revelation (and questions about how to read, synthesize, & apply biblical texts), with philosophy and history, and with global theological contributions. I think the net result of something like that is the suspicion that there are many conceptions of God that are less tenable, from a biblical standpoint, than others. The more tenable conceptions don’t have to be held with dogmatic certainty or arrogance; but there has to be some sort of third way between stifling arrogance on the one hand and the throwing-up-of-hands that seems to be your perspective here.

  • James

    Apart from direct divine-human interface (it happens, of course), we humans seem destined to use method (usually a combination of methods) in our approach to God through Scripture. I think of method in terms of computer software. Coffee house dialogue is one kind. We could add historical-critical, canonical, exegetical, even evangelical literalist, liberal existential, medieval spiritual, I better quit. So which methodological software shall we plug into the computer of our lives in order to know God better through his Word? If we’ve been accustomed to an evangelical, literalist methodology at home and are injected with liberal, critical software at university, our computer may crash because the operating system can’t handle such a huge paradigm shift. That is where a good coffee house program may help repair the damage and get the computer up and running again. Bravo!