by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Back during my first year of seminary, I sat in the back row most classes. This should not, of course, be surprising, as I have been found seated at the back of most classrooms for most of my life. As an introvert, this was a great place from which to take everything in before deciding whether or not to speak.
By everything, I don’t simply mean the professor’s brilliant lecture. This bird’s eye view also afforded me the opportunity to observe the ways in which people responded to the professor, the material, and with each another.
Throughout that first year at Wycliffe College, I sat predominantly at the back of the classroom, and in most classes next to the same student. He was studying to become a priest. I had no idea why I was there. Divine will? Exploration? Youthful rebellion?
Over the weeks and months we spent together in that room, my neighbour became increasingly more agitated. He would mutter under his breath, and then lean over to tell me why this latest quip from the professor was heretical. We’d end up whispering back and forth heatedly until one day we were shushed (shushed!) by the young woman in front of us.
Theology is a contact sport. You can’t take it lying down (or sitting silently) as was proven by our constant back-and-forth.
Wycliffe College doesn’t exactly push the bounds of the liberal extreme. And yet, it appeared to be too much for my neighbour to bear. It was painfully obvious that his time in that space was causing no small amount of distress. What manifested as anger – towards me, the professors and other students – was, I believe, rooted in deep and profound fear.
Even as the anger grew, I remember thinking that one day this theological house of cards was going to fall. But who would be there to pick up the pieces?
This takes me back to Tim Keller’s words – words that started off this whole stream of posts two short weeks ago:
You’re going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible, completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You’re basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their faith out the door.’”
As we explored in previous posts (A Lifetime of Habits and Idolatry & The Crisis of Being), this particular statement is indicative of a larger challenge. Keller’s statement triggers a question about the way we believe, and our potential array of responses when our understanding of and response to scripture is challenged.
My neighbour was caught up in a difficult situation. His way of reading the Bible was rubbing up against other ways of reading the same scripture. To say that there was friction would be an understatement. Looking back on it now, I have this strong sense that the anger was a defensive mechanism protecting his carefully constructed faith from the assault he was experiencing.
If your only option is to kick your faith out the door, and if you fear that such a response condemns you to an eternity in hell, you ought to be worried. This is serious stuff. There are legitimate reasons for the fear to creep in.
To this day, fear and worry still surface from time to time when my faith, understanding, belief and actions no longer line up with the way I once read scripture. I have this lingering suspicion and latent fear that something is horribly wrong. A fear that I might be throwing my life away, that my evolving faith will invoke God’s wrath. I pray it won’t. Most days, I believe it won’t. But then there are the days where I find myself a little more on edge.
Yet on those days, there is comfort that greets me in the form of my Christian community. There is the comfort that comes from knowing that we’re all struggling to serve the resurrected Christ in our own pathetic, miserable ways. That some days we do well, and other days, we don’t. To know that we have one another, and that we have received the gifts of the spirit. And to know that these gifts include the gift of faith.
There is comfort that comes in knowing that faith is a gift of God’s spirit much more valuable, much more robust than the constructions of certainty and dogma, and the hubris of having God all figured out.
There is comfort in uncertainty because there are others on this same journey. Fellow travellers with similar stories, and fellow travellers with different stories to tell. Their stories, like mine, reveal the faithfulness of God through shadowed valleys and beside still waters alike. And these stories, and my fellow travellers teach me, call me, invite me into God’s greatest gift – the gift of love.