Offering/risking an alternative


In the mid 1980’s and late 1980’s I undertook my theological studies. The more academic Masters of Theological Studies and the more profession-related Masters of Divinity afforded me the opportunity to dig deeper in my faith, ask questions and ponder deeper possibilities, ask myself what kind of a God I imagined, what kind of faith I wanted to live into and what kind of discipleship I wanted to embody.

In that period of time seminary professors from two different institutions challenged me to take what I thought I knew and question it, deconstruct my basic faith and understanding of God and ask myself why I believed such things. What was underneath my assumptions, what was I holding on to as central that in fact was nostalgia or a construct of my privilege, what beliefs did I subscribe to that exposed to the light of reason and criticism would stand firm? Did I have more than a sentimental and well-meaning faith, could I defend what I believed without turning off my brain?

The dominant thinking at that time in our mainline seminaries was Liberation Theology and thus in all of my courses texts from parts of the world where the church was working for justice against the forces of greed, patriarchy and institutional self-interest were prescribed. Our professors were trying to instill a way of thinking in us would-be clergy that as we preached, offered pastoral care and encouraged our churches to move into the community as a witness or peace and justice. They knew the default position of the institutional church could/would resemble a kindly social club, with a bias to the dominant culture. I recall one professor asking us over and over “would Jesus recognize this church we’ve become?”

What has remained in my praying, thinking, doing, as an ordained minister all these years later is that basic question, “what is it be really believe, why do we believe this and why does it matter?” These questions, skeptical of the status quo and “deconstructing” the assumptions, helped unearth some very good conclusions. I would like to think this way of being church, of prophetic servanthood, has been of benefit to the churches I have served. For this I thank those professors who have left a deep impression on my thinking.

But if I have any critique of offer of this approach it is its lack of appreciation for experimentation, the risk of offering something that embodies life-giving justice, in short the move from deconstruction to construction. When I am with colleagues I can hear the excellent questions, the probing of the assumptions, the hard challenges to the status quo and the unyielding call to demand justice. But as for some alternative, the first draft of a solution, using the meager assets and resources of the local church, that is either seen to be too local, too small or dissected so critically as to make the creative process feel like a waste of time. In short we seem better at poking holes in whatever or whoever tries to fix a broken church than we are in the creative process of making something new or at least mending the tears and holes and building something stronger.

We live in anxious times, we are aware of our collective short-comings as a society and as a church and we want to make sure we ask the hard questions previous generations of church may not has asked. But we are fooling ourselves if we think the hard questions, the critical analysis, the dissecting of the status quo, is enough to “bring justice”. Surely we must try something new, or something old, but try. In a room of people looking for God’s justice we will always need those who see what is missing, what is mistaken, what is misconceived, but we will also need those who see what is not yet imagined and give that voice, give that shape, give that a possibility. It need not be perfect, the first draft of anything is always full of mistakes. But try we must, otherwise we risk becoming a generation of anxious doubters and naysayers who stop many bad ideas from becoming reality but also never give fertile soil to the life-giving Spirit that can grow something just and loving.