Friday, May 02, 2008

The Canoe

I became a Christian in my early twenties as the result of an encounter with God (see My Story). Since then, I have never doubted the existence of God. The question for me, since that event, has always been "What does it mean?", or, to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, "How should I then live?"

Immediately upon conversion, I entered into the Evangelical world and adopted the doctrinal framework I was presented with. These were years of addition, as I filled in the blanks of my theology using the paint-by-number colors given me by pastors, teachers, radio ministers and televangelists.

At some point, 18 or so years in, an internal shift occurred which I barely noticed. Like climbing to the crest of a hill and transitioning to the downward side, I entered into (and remain in) a time of subtraction. Pieces of Evangelicalism have been falling off ever since, yet my belief and trust in God and Christ has never wavered. In fact, it seems the lighter my load gets, the more aware I am of the Presence of God all around.

One of the first things to go was the eschatology I had been taught. The only "end-times" viewpoint I had ever heard was Dispensationalism (ala "Late, Great Planet Earth" and "Left Behind"). Eschatology never really captivated me as it does some (who chart out the progression of events and speculate about political alliances, red heifers, a rebuilt temple and the identity of the Anti-Christ), so I was surprised a few years back when the Holy Spirit clearly urged me to begin studying the Book of Revelation. I ended up spending a couple of years digging deeply into Revelation and eschatology in general and finally emerged a Preterist (and a nearly Full Preterist at that!). Oftentimes eschatology is viewed as a discrete component of one's theology, but in reality one's eschatology has a profound effect on one's perception of everything. Eschatology asks, "Where is this all heading?", and so casts it's hue upon all one sees.

Other tectonic shifts occurred. I learned (thanks to the likes of Gordon Fee, Douglas Stuart, Winn Griffin and N.T. Wright) to read the Bible using a Historical-Grammatical hermeneutic. This changed the Bible from a flat book of equally weighted literal pronouncements into a living, colorful library filled with nuance and depth. No longer can I resolve a theological question by simplistically saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."

Other shifts followed, many of which have been chronicled on this blog. My understanding of what "church" means was completely deconstructed, as were my views on leadership. Recently a friend emailed me asking what my views on women in ministry are. I replied that I don't believe women should be limited within the church in any way, shape or form--a women should be able to do anything a man does. My gentle amusement at such a silly question quickly turned into gentle embarrassment as I remembered that it hasn't been that long since I was earnestly wrestling with this same question.

Probably the most profound shift though has been the dawning realization of the steady, encompassing, unending and invincible power of God's love; which reduces all our dogmatic frameworks to the scale of popsicle stick structures made by children.

A pastor friend and I were talking once (over Guinness) about the softening and blurring of the hard lines in our theologies that occur as we mature in Christ. He likened it to a journey in a canoe. At first, one is riding their canoe through a narrow ditch where one can easily reach out and touch the earthen banks with one's hands. One is certain about everything. Gradually, the ditch widens into a stream, but one can still touch the edges with the tips of the oars. The stream becomes a river; ever widening. There is gradually less certainty and more trust. The solid assurance of the edges begin to fade into the distance and be obscured by the mist. Eventually one finds oneself at sea, with only occasional glimpses of land. Yet one is at peace; having learned to trust the canoe. The canoe is Jesus.

This metaphor came back to my remembrance the other night when I read remarkably similar words written by Hannah Whithall Smith in a letter to a close friend:

I hold all sorts of heresies, and feel myself to have got out into a limitless ocean of the love of God that overflows all things. My theology is complete; if you but grant me an omnipotent and just Creator I need nothing more. All the tempests in the various religious teapots around me do seem so far off, so young, so green, so petty! I know I was there once, it must have been ages ago, and it seems impossible. "God is love," comprises my whole system of ethics. And, as thou says, it seems to take in all. There is certainly a very grave defect in any doctrine that universally makes its holders narrow and uncharitable, and this is always the case with strict so-called orthodoxy. Whereas, as soon as Christian love comes in, the bounds widen infinitely. I find that every soul that has traveled on this highway of holiness for any length of time, has invariably cut loose from its old moorings. I bring out my heresies to such, expecting reproof, when lo! I find sympathy. We are "out on the ocean sailing," that is certain. And if it is the ocean of God's love, as I believe, it is grand.


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