On Not Throwing the Theological Baby Out with the Bathwater

I’ve been reflecting recently on my faith journey, in particular on the “stuff I believe” side of things. I think that journey could be summed up this way: continually sifting through it all, sorting out the essentials, casting off the non-essentials.

Throw out baby with bathwater 2I suspect many Christians go through that kind of process as they get older, whether consciously or not. But I think that’s especially true of those who grew up as I did within a more conservative stream of Christianity.

Very early in my thinking on things theological I determined one thing: this process of “essentializing” my faith would have to be done carefully. I was in my early 20s, and I distinctly recall thinking that it would be all too easy to look around at the sinking boat of my own faith tradition and jump ship to another, only to find that it was in an even worse state.

To quote an old saying, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Or another: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My faith journey has by and large been about draining bathwater and saving babies.

I don’t have any illusions that I’ve done that flawlessly, and I’m still very much on the journey. But I find it disheartening to see other Christians either so unthinkingly clinging to their faith tradition exactly as they have inherited it, or so carelessly casting off their faith tradition and jumping to a sinking ship worse off than the first.

There’s an awful lot of dirty theological bathwater still being bathed in, and there are an awful lot of good theological babies being thrown out.

Both sides of the problem trouble me, but lately I’ve been more concerned about the latter. For some reason it seems to me like progressives should know better. But all too often they don’t, and perfectly good theological babies get thrown out with all that dirty bathwater.

Scripture’s inspiration and authority get thrown out along with the naïve, uncritical readings of Scripture we grew up with—instead of developing a more nuanced, sophisticated view of what Scripture is and how its authority works for Christian faith and life.

Jesus’ uniqueness gets thrown out along with the negative, fear-based views of other religions we were taught—instead of exploring ways in which Jesus can still be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” without denying the reality and truth of others’ religious experiences and claims.

The reality of sin and its devastating consequences gets thrown out along with the legalism and judgmentalism and harmful views of human nature that were modeled for us—instead of crafting healthy and helpful ways of thinking about the harms we commit against one another and our world.

And on and on it goes—babies thrown out with the bathwater.

But how do we stop that from happening? How do we discern the good theological babies when we’re trying ourselves to emerge from all that bad theological bathwater?

I’m sure there are many helpful answers that could be given. Here are two that I’ve found especially useful along the way.

First, don’t assume that the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical way of reading the Bible or thinking about Christianity is in fact the “original” or “authentic” or even “biblical” way.

Many people make this assumption—both conservatives and progressives. No, the Bible’s “divine inspiration” doesn’t mean that the Bible’s every narrative is a historical record or every depiction of nature is a scientific assertion, or that the Bible speaks to every imaginable issue, or speaks with a single, clear voice—so you can believe in biblical inspiration without holding to those rather modern ideas. No, “salvation” in the Bible doesn’t mean “getting to go to heaven when I die”—so you can speak of salvation but understand that in the more biblical terms of restoration, reconciliation, flourishing life, societal justice, and more.

Examples of such false assumptions could be multiplied many times over. Don’t give in to those assumptions, but instead do the hard work of careful biblical interpretation and wide-ranging theological reading and reflection yourself before you reject those long-held Christian beliefs. You might be surprised to discover that the traditional ideas mean something other, or something more, than what you were first taught—and they have real traction within our twenty-first century human experience.

And that leads to a second suggestion: in discerning essentials from non-essentials, let three theologies—biblical, historical, and global—be your guides.

By biblical theology I don’t mean “the teaching of the Bible,” but rather the teachings of the Bible—plural—the Bible’s many theologies, in all their complex diversity-in-unity. Read the writings of Scripture carefully and in context, seeing both what makes them different and what holds them together. Do historical and global theology the same way: explore Christian thinking across time and space, through history and around the world, listening carefully for both dissonance and harmony. The harmony of Scripture and Church speaks to essentials, the dissonance to the ways in which God’s people have worked through the challenge of living out their faith in different times and places.

I know of no better antidote to either the narrowness of fundamentalism or the indulgence of hyper-progressivism than a good dose of biblical, historical, and global theology. Read widely across Scripture and through history, listen to diverse Christian voices from around the world, and allow your vision of Christian faith to expand as your list of essentials shrinks and your confidence in those few essentials grows.

Yes, there’s a lot of dirty water to be chucked in current versions of conservative Christianity.

But please, for the love of God, check the water for babies.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.