Honest Questions, Honest Answers

Several posts ago I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the need to celebrate the mystery of our faith and not become too attached to our theological systems.  One of the things “celebrating the mystery” does for us as parents is that it enables us to pour into our children a faith that is living, authentic, and inquiring.  Much has been made recently in both the Christian and secular press about the alarming trend of young people leaving the faith.  The level of concern varies greatly from authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us, “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate” to Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark who writes, “young people have always been less likely to attend church than are older people” and often return when they marry and start a family.

I believe the life-stage argument for calm is not as strong as in previous generations due to recent upheavals in cultural expectations and family structures.  But I also believe we do not need to wring our hands and wait for the sky to fall in on the North American church.  What we need is a balanced approach to investigate the problem and constructive answers to how we encourage our young people to “keep the faith.”

One way we can address the issue of young people leaving the faith is to give our children a healthy perspective on the mystery that is the Christian faith.  When I use the word mystery am I implying we can’t know anything for sure about what we believe?  No, not at all.  The beauty of Christianity is that there is so much we can know because God has revealed it to us and we can be sure it is true.  What I mean by mystery might better be labeled humility.  Theological humility to be exact.  Theological humility is answering our young doubters with clear parameters of what we know and what we can know.  It is encouraging inquiry, rather than shutting down the conversation.  It is answering their doubts with love, humility, and grace instead of taking a judgmental, defensive position.

Author Drew Dyck interviewed scores of “young leavers” for his book Generation Ex-Christian:  Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back.  He writes, “Another unsettling pattern emerged during my interviews.  Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts.  Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking ‘insolent questions.’  Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.”

We need to be confident of the truth of Scripture.  We need to fully embrace the truth of the gospel message and all that comes with it.  But we do our young people a great disservice when our approach lacks humility and grace.  When our confidence becomes cockiness, when our confidence becomes judgmental, when our confidence becomes legalism, when our confidence becomes trite answers, when our confidence sweeps doubt under the rug, we might as well be ushering our young inquirers to the exit.

Over the next several posts we will take on the big questions that our young people are facing as they leave the somewhat concrete world of Bible stories and enter the more abstract world of faith, science, philosophy, and the harsh reality of a “world that lies in the grip of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19).  We will explore how we tackle the big questions with humility and grace.  And we will follow the answers wherever they lead.

Theological Systems

I am a big fan of systematic theology.  God’s story of redemption is epic in its sweep and fitting His words and works into that epic is both intellectually satisfying as well as pertinent to how we live.  Proper theology casts a long shadow in our lives, especially as we understand all that came to us through Christ in the new covenant.  But I am not a fan of theological systems.

Our work, as theologians, is to prayerfully investigate the mysteries of God and explain such in an accessible format to our readers.  Accessible does not mean diminishing the grandeur.  It is more like being a bridge.  Just as many pastors are a bridge on Sunday morning taking the Word of God, recorded primarily in Greek, and making it accessible to an English-speaking audience while preserving its original meaning, intent, and nuance.

My concern is that in our zeal for understanding and accessibility, it is easy to cross the line and remove the mystery altogether.  At the risk of alienating half the audience, take the biblical concepts of election, grace, depravity, and atonement, for example.  These concepts are clearly contained in Scripture and referred to and explained in many passages.  But is it possible that the adjectives we add to these terms are not contained in Scripture but only exist to help us fit it all into a neat system that we can get our human minds around?  This isn’t an answer, just a question.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up the mystery well in this advent reading.  “No priest, no theologian stood at the manger of Bethlehem.  And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of wonders:  that God became human.  Holy theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable.”

“Without the holy night, there is no theology.  ‘God is revealed in flesh,’ the God-human Jesus Christ – that is the holy mystery that theology came into being to protect and preserve.  How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason!  Its sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend, and glorify God’s mystery precisely as mystery.”

Celebrate the mystery!