A Both/And Path to Truth
Why the narrow way to faith is also expansive.
(In the August issue of Christianity Today, posted online 8/15/2011)
My friend John Blase is a writer who chooses his words with utmost care. So when I noticed he refers to his wife as his "girlfriend" in his blogs, I knew the quirk was intentional. It turns out the habit goes back to the time when John was asked whether the lovely lady next to him was his wife or his girlfriend. He gave the only answer that made sense: "Yes."
I've been thinking about John and his girlfriend/wife a lot lately, especially when I read my Bible. Is it faith or works? I demand of the text, and the answer seems to be: "Yes." Is God a God of revelation or of mystery? Is he as close as a whisper or beyond all things? Yes. Yes. Is the kingdom of heaven now or not yet? Should I be wise as a serpent or innocent as a dove? Should I fall headlong into grace or work out my salvation with fear and trembling? Yes. Yes. Yes.
A lifetime of evangelical thinking has primed me for either/or questions,breeding a deep distrust of both/and propositions. After all, one of the distinguishing features of Christianity is its insistence that there is one way to God. A wariness of pluralistic worldviews is completely warranted. But if I'm not careful, that insistence can mutate into creating artificial schisms that fly in the face of a God who desires to make us whole in radical ways.
When we fall for false dualities, we end up arguing over whether the gospel is concerned with ministering to the poor or proclaiming the Word. We believe our theology must emphasize either a free gift of grace or a call to holy living. In a myriad of areas, we polarize, dichotomize, and greatly minimize the life God has for us.
In his book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, Richard J. Foster argues for a larger, less-fragmented view of life in Christ by exploring six great traditions that have ebbed and flowed throughout Christian history. My husband and I once used these six "streams" as curriculum for adults at a family camp. It was fascinating to observe the ways that personality and denominational background influenced affinities and aversions to the various traditions.
Our introverts extolled the Contemplative Tradition, with its focus on prayer and meditation. The activists among us couldn't wait to cover the Social Justice Tradition. Our Pentecostals wondered why we were taking so long to get to the Charismatic Tradition's exploration of the Spirit-filled life, while the Baptists felt we should begin and end with the Evangelical Tradition and its insistence upon the centrality of Scripture. Most of us were intrigued by the Incarnational Tradition's assertion that all aspects of life should be lived sacramentally; almost none of us had a natural attraction to the Holiness Tradition, because an emphasis on virtuous living had been so frequently divorced from grace in our past experience.
Foster's careful analysis showed us how these traditions have informed, provoked, and corrected each other over time. Even in our little camp group, we saw how our various inclinations could help us balance each other; it took all of us to make up the body of Christ. And we could concede that, while we'd always be naturally stronger in some areas than others, there was no excuse for completely ignoring (let alone disparaging) whole planes of life in God's kingdom.
This insight is easier to write about than live. Efficient people and organizations are lauded for decisive and focused thinking; they find a singular mandate and stick to it. The paradox that so typified Jesus' teaching is expansive, complex, and nuanced. It requires mulling and wrestling; it forces huge shifts in paradigm and, eventually, practice. When we are asked to hold two seemingly opposite truths in tension, we experience confusion (which can be painful) before we get to any sort of cohesion. So, we often bail and settle for one pole or the other, congratulating ourselves for taking a stand, but losing at least half of what God has for us in the process.
Most of us would like our faith to reduce tension. But, according to Jesus (who told us to be anxious for nothing but always alert, to be last in order to be first, to be weak to be strong, and to lose our lives to find them), tension is required.
When my producer friend Roy Salmond noticed that his church included a desire for "vibrant faith" in its mission statement, his musical mind instantly linked vibrancy with vibration. A vibrant faith, he warned his fellow congregants, may necessitate oscillation and tension. In the absence of motion, there's no music.
I too desire a vibrant faith. So I am trying to remember that the Way is narrow, but the life we're called to is wide and deep. Still, I can't help asking: Is following Jesus an act of simple trust, or an adventure of unimaginable complexity?
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