Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Embracing the Tension



Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth.

-G.K. Chesterton, "The Paradoxes of Christianity," Orthodoxy

I'm reading Chesterton's classic for the first time, and it's giving me an intellectual run for my money. Chesterton argues that Christianity is, perhaps, more black-and-white than grey, yet paradoxically embraces both its blackness and whiteness all at once without mixing the two. It made me think of all the different contradictions and opposites we find in our faith (Chesterton has his own; these are off the top of my head):
  • Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human
  • God's perfect justice and perfect mercy, His wrath and grace
  • The Trinity
  • Human's free will and God's sovereignty
  • Human beings as inherently good (imago dei) and inherently bad (total depravity)
  • Jesus as both King and Servant
  • Human suffering and God's goodness
  • Evangelism vs. social justice
  • Intellectualism vs. emotionalism
  • Losing one's life in order to gain it
  • Pastoral leadership as a humble servant
  • Using one's own talents and strengths while also being gifted and led by the Spirit
And so on. You can probably come up with a dozen more. Chesterton points out that Christianity is a faith of balances, a spirituality comfortable with opposing tensions. The problem is that it is rather easy to fall into one extreme over another, to swing the pendulum away from something seemingly wrong only to find oneself embracing another idealism just as flawed as the first. It's quite difficult to live in the tension of the middle; both sides claim you're uncommitted at best and a heretic at worst. Living in a third way isn't about moderation or apathy. It's about a paradigm that embraces the tension of those subtle and elusive truths.

A recent example: Rob Bell's recent Love Wins fully unearthed the polarized reality of the evangelical community, the extremes of the theologically conservative and liberal. Some blew off Rob Bell as a complete heretic and universalist, writing up long polemics about how wrong he was. Others wondered what the big fuss was about, as Bell was only asking great questions about heaven and hell; they were even excited about the route evangelicalism was headed, and frustrated with the naysayers. Scot McKnight called it a spiritual tribalism:
Tribalism produces imbalanced and fuzzy thinking. I was (probably not) surprised by how few noticed it was an eternity of further chances that really separated Bell from the thinking of others in the history of the Church, and I was also surprised by how few really know what universalism means or what Rob Bell’s commitment to “libertarian free will” means for universalism.
I found myself somewhere in between, tribeless. I agreed with many points on both sides, yet found that my opinion didn't fully belong to either. This isn't to say that my opinion and thought-process was fully developed or somehow more inspired than all others. I'm certainly in process and haven't arrived yet. Yet it appears that it is much easier to espouse spiritual groupthink than to live in the middling tension of extremes.

Chesterton writes, "It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own." I'm trying to keep my head, to embrace the tension of following Jesus. Maybe that's what's important--the following, the movement in a direction, sometimes stumbling towards the left or the right, but always journeying towards Christ.

As a pastor and leader and parent, am I fostering disciples who are learning how to think for themselves, to embrace the tensions of Christianity, creating a tribe of critical spiritual thinkers?

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