Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa's Dark Night

A new book chronicling the correspondence and interior life of Mother Teresa, Come by My Light, has spurred an article in Time magazine in which her doubts about the faith are highlighted. I did not expect it, but the article does a pretty good job of at least surveying the opinions of those who realize her doubts are an inevitable part of growth in the Christian faith. As soon as Christians began commenting on their walks with God, they openly and faithfully described those seasons in life in which God felt distant. Commonly referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” it is a universal experience among those who seek a deeper and stronger personal walk with Christ.

What may not be explicitly stated in the article is that more often than not, the faithful pilgrim comes out of the dark night into a deeper and almost inexpressible relationship with God. Instead of being some kind of deep realization that God does not exist, it is a passage into an intimacy with the Creator that many have a hard time describing once they get there.

The Christian reading about Mother Teresa’s doubts should not be discouraged—far from it. They should be encouraged that another follower of Christ went through their own season of doubt and questioning. We are not alone when we struggle and question, and the way to the other side—a deeper relationship with Christ—is through the issues we face, not around them.

In addition, Christians should take comfort in the fact that there is a great cloud of witnesses about us who testify to this reality of faith, and of God’s existence, grace, and love.

Predictably, however, is the quote from one of our village atheists, Christopher Hitchens. His position is that her doubts are proof that religion is a fabricated illusion. Time notes:

Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great: "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."

In his gift for impaling himself on his own arguments, Hitchens seems to posit that doubts about a belief belie their falsehood. I wonder how he would handle the actual change of position for Anthony Flew, the rigorous and philosophically respectable former standard bearer for atheism? His doubts about the coherence of atheism in the face of the argument for Intelligent Design lead him to openly move away from his former position to a form of theism. The professing atheist can only write more and more books professing their faith and deepening the pit they have dug for themselves (to paraphrase a bit).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Assembly of God/Evangelicalism: Identity?

Some of you might know that there is change brewing in the Assemblies of God, and that there are a lot of people, especially younger ministers, who are wrestling with what it means to be part of this denomination. One blog in particular, FutureAG, is acting as a clearinghouse for discussion and comment as well as prayer. I am very appreciative for this effort, and applaud its demeanor as being part of the AG and part of the effort to lead the denomination into further health in the future.

Many of the issues faced by the AG right now are also of larger concern to evangelicals. One post in particular, Identity Crisis, strikes one of those chords. As evangelicalism sways like a tree in cultural winds, what defines our roots? What keeps us in place and keeps us united in common cause? In addition to the thoughts in that post, I would like to throw some of my thoughts on the table as well.

One of the primary concerns for the AG is what is known as its “doctrinal distinctive”: speaking in tongues. From time to time this doctrine has been emphasized to the detriment and maybe even the exclusion of the other, more universally orthodox, doctrines. Paul notes:

“The truth is that the key to the Pentecostal movement was never tongues but a passionate pursuit of God for an empowering work of the Spirit to carry forth the Great Commission of Jesus.

Meanwhile, as we held tightly to our distinctive doctrine, we gave up many of the things that really made early Pentecostalism special. Our distinctive doctrine became all that defined us and the real character, contribution, and impact of the movement was lost.”

I think it is true that an overemphasis on a single doctrine has hindered us by narrowing our vision too much. What would, in my opinion, broaden our vision is a much deeper emphasis on the core doctrines and theological development available to Pentecostals. Theological work, when done correctly, broadens the vision of a denomination or a movement and sinks roots that stand the test of time. Documents like the Westminster Confession and the Nicene Creed have acted as solid foundations for millions of believers over nearly, well, thousands of years. And as cultures come and go, those theological works have proved up to the task of handling any one of them. I am not sure we have that kind of body of work behind the AG just yet.

In my view, the primary mistake in the trajectory of the AG has been in trying to rekindle feeling and emotions as a foundation for our present and future growth and in identifying our denomination too closely with that particular kind of spirituality. We may have, from time to time, mistaken the sovereign move of the Holy Spirit in the form of revival with emotionalism. Emotionalism is a poor foundation for anything, and hoping to control the Holy Spirit or recapture “what was” just doesn’t work.

Paul also notes:

“If the AG is going to continue to grow in the future, we need a paradigm that can better reflect the unique qualities of our past -- qualities that could better fit a post-modern paradigm than a modern one.”

I am not sure exactly what that would entail—qualities that fit better in a postmodern paradigm than a modern one. But I would add the caveat that we need to think critically and thoroughly about the philosophy of postmodernism before we dine with that devil.

Paul finishes his thoughtful post with a string of questions:

“What do you think? What is it that truly defines us? Why are we in this fellowship with each other?”

The very fact that these questions should be taken seriously betrays our need as a movement to strengthen the foundations upon which we call ourselves a fellowship.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Where Have The Young Pastors Gone?

Where have the young ministers gone? More and more I read statistics that show the pastorate is graying across most evangelical denominations. And in my personal experience, more and more young ministers do not want to make their tie to a denomination too firm, or they just avoid it altogether. One seminary professor I spoke with recently remarked that we were not facing a demographical problem in the near future; we are smack in the middle of one. In his words, in ten years there will not be enough pastors to head up the churches we have now.

Why is this happening? I would love to hear from some who either know pastors in this category, or are in it themselves.

Some thoughts on what I think is going on.

Often as denominations grow they become overly bureaucratic and entrenched in their ways. Young ministers sometimes find themselves in the unenviable position of accepting their grandfather’s culture and fitting into a top-heavy system, or bucking the trend and fighting tension along the way.

Often an “old guard” confuses theological and doctrinal integrity with cultural norms they are comfortable with. Instead of discerning the things that just simply change with time apart from doctrinal cornerstones, they may confuse the two causing more tension and frustration in younger ministers trying to reach younger generations.

There may be far too much individualism built into a younger generation of pastors. Where previous generations may have been more amenable to accepting the “way things are” and working with the system, the last two or so generations have been raised on cultural flux and change for the sake of it. They are used to change to a degree that they may grow to dislike stability, which is far from a good thing.

The calling of pastor is a pathetic shadow of what it should be. The last several decades have seen the degrading of the biblical calling of spiritual shepherd to a specialized and under trained form of marketing guru. I am convinced that most evangelical pastors, if asked to describe their role as pastor, would sound more like business executives and therapists than spiritual shepherds. If being a pastor now means you could do a similar job across the street for three times the pay, then why exactly should one become a pastor?