Monday, September 11, 2006

Out Of The Mystery...And Right Back In

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
The basic burden of Leonard Sweet’s book, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery: Getting Lost In The Godlife Relationship, is to express the absolute centrality of relationship with God. For Sweet, knowing God is far more than just knowing the right kinds of things about God, but is about living a life of deep and meaningful relationship with God. Each section focuses on different forms of our relationships: with God, God’s story, other believers, those of other faiths, and so forth.

At times this book has a lot to offer. There are moments when Sweet expresses the interaction between “head knowledge” and relationship well, and, I argue, rightly. The opening sentence of the chapter “The Truth in Text” says, “The gift of life is to know the truth, and not just intellectually, but to experience its power and impact.” (98) In several other places he simply makes the point that following Jesus the way he wants to be followed is not just about doctrine but faith; not just about creed but trust.

Overall, I would say the second half of the book is more helpful than the first. The fundamental problem, however, is that Sweet sets up his argument and builds his foundation in the first half. The arguments and foundation are, for the most part, pretty thin and unconvincing. Sweet makes a move over and over in the first 100 pages of the book that I originally labeled as false dichotomies, but the more I read and discussed it with friends, I turned to labeling them “unhelpful and unnecessary distinctions.” There are literally dozens of these kinds of statements, but a brief taste will suffice:

“Belief is Plato; faith is Jesus.” (10)
“Is it better to believe, or to follow?” (13-chapter subtitle)
“The Christian church was created, not to preach doctrine, but to preach Jesus.” (24)
“Biblical faith is not about living a moral life.” (59)
“Truth is not certainty, nor is it doubt—both of which reject Christ.” (69)
“The Christian message is not a timeless tablet of moral principals or a code of metaphysics.” (74)

Each of these statements are intended to put across the necessity of relationship and faith, but they do so in a way that can actually lead the reader in the direction of seeking faith instead of knowledge, which is, ultimately, an absurd position to hold.

Take for instance the statement “The Christian church was created, not to preach doctrine, but to preach Jesus.” Sweet’s intent is to argue that many churches may ignore the person of Jesus and teach only catechetic dogma. But that is not what he says and what he says doesn’t make much sense if we unpack it just a little bit. Let us say I want to preach Jesus, so near Christmas I preach he was born of the virgin Mary. But then I need to back up because the virgin birth is a doctrinal affirmation. Now jump to Easter when I want to preach on our future hope based on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But then I need to change my approach because the resurrection is doctrine.

The position, as actually stated, is silly. I literally cannot preach Jesus without making some kind of doctrinal statement. If I try to preach Jesus without doctrine, I do not preach the Jesus of the Bible and we are suddenly on a completely different playing field. Doctrine, right doctrine, about Jesus is essential to preaching the person of Jesus Christ.

In addition to this category of affirmation in the book, Sweet falls into the trap of believing that truth as we know it now (correspondence to reality/objectivity) is a recent creation, and that the early church and early philosophers had no conception of objective truth. He says, “Until a few centuries ago, ‘truth’ had no independent status outside of relationships with and obligations to God and to others.” (67) There seems to be a consistent lacuna in the theological view he represents—there is no knowledge of the philosophy of Aristotle, Socrates or Plato. To Sweet, and others with similar views, the notion of Truth was novel to Descartes and other Modernists. They seem to not know what the three ancient Greek giants taught about objective truth.

Did the early church teach doctrine as “truth” or were they simply a community of relationships? “The first Christians didn’t proclaim a creed or a statement of faith; they didn’t demand assent to a list of facts; they proclaimed the Cross; they proclaimed the Resurrection; they proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of Christ.” (9) As an initial observation, Sweet says the early church didn’t have doctrines except for the ones on his list. Secondly, we know that the earliest NT documents contain creedal formats that were not a creation of the author, but a reflection of what the Church already taught. Additionally, during the first 200-300 years of the Church the process of catechism was rigorous to say the least. It might be legitimately argued that catechism was more prevalent in the early church than it is now.

Ultimately, it is silly to think I can have a serious relationship with someone I am not required to have specific knowledge about. Can I relate with my wife without knowing important and personalized details about her? Can she essentially be just any woman? Can I express my relationship with her (analogously: declare the Gospel of Christ) without knowing those details (analogously: without basic doctrine)?

Why am I being this critical of the book and the way it presents its case? I have a friend who grew up Christian and has since turned her back on the church in favor of a more personalized spirituality that is more drawn to Buddhism than to Christ. Her journey has lead her to reading and appreciating the writings of Emergent and liberal Catholic authors. The reason she reads them is that they give her the space she needs spiritually to reject the claims of Christ on her life in favor of a Christ that is not about doctrine or theology. As a result, she may still hold a personal claim on Christ as presented by authors like Sweet, without believing in her need to cling to Christ only.

One may rejoin that any reader of any book can take out of it what they want, and that might be true. But when a Christian author makes it this easy for me to reject the doctrine of Christ in favor of a personalized Christ who makes no particular claim upon me, then I believe the primary error is with the author.

When we come to a point where we think we can have a meaningful relationship with a person we are not required to actually know, we have strayed too far from the biblical witness of the person Christ. For that reason, I cannot recommend this book as a useful tool in building that relationship.

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