A Compassionate Theology: God's People
When I was a child, I thought
In the past 50 year or so, the western world has been shifting worldviews from modern to post-modern. As the modern (industrial/scientific) worldview developed and strengthened from the 1700’s until the mid-1900’s its adherents learned that truth was provable. The scientific method was born and — as much as conservative Christians twist, turn, squish and squirm trying to deny it — in most areas of life, we understand the world (think/believe) using this worldview. I say we because I, born and raised as a Seventh-day Adventist was convinced there was a battle to be fought against the many evils of higher learning. Over the past decade, I have increasingly realised this is a battle against a worldview rather than science, liberal Christianity, archaeology, history, or atheistic thought. I was encouraged to stay strong and fight against any field of study which argues with (our interpretation of) Scripture. As the world graduates through post-modernity from the modern worldview to something new, we are to remain steadfast as champions of the faith. That’s the theory of unwavering faith, anyway!
What is Truth?
In the Modern worldview, truth is provable. From the fires of modernistic reasoning a new and compelling foundational process of thought was forged - the scientific method. The scientific method tells us: when we receive new information we are to create a theory, test it, retest it forming proof, show our proof (and entire working process) to demonstrate that what we are teaching is truth because it is verifiable and reproducible. It is interesting to note that most fundamental Christian groups (mine included) formed in the USA during the heyday of the modern worldview. These groups give proof and lecture-style learning (where the expert informs the masses) an almost sacred status. The preacher, expounding the truth, is revered as a beacon of knowledge and faith. And the Truth they teach, based on sources deemed holy by the leaders of these groups, is deified. To control thought, all new ideas (coming from inside or outside the group) are required first to be filtered through their agreed present truth.
The post-modern worldview is so named because, largely, it is a reaction to the excesses of the modern worldview. Science as truth led to some amazing discoveries (vaccines, air travel, global communication) but it also deposited a post-apocalyptic wasteland in its wake because “proof=truth” needs no conscience or compassion. Right is right. Right? Not for post-moderns. Your right may be provable and reproducible but it may be destructive, devastating and very wrong indeed. While it is easy to demonstrate what the post-modern mindset stands against, it is difficult to articulate it as a worldview that stands on its own. For the post-modern: Truth, to be believed, must be experienced.
In the Beginning, God
The Bible was written to a world and within a worldview completely different from anything around today. To understand the Bible it is immeasurably helpful to understand the world and worldview of that day. In a nutshell the ancient Biblical worldview was that all reality (truth included) is brought forth from God and then God commissions His creation to bring forth more of its kind. I call it the God-begat worldview.
God begat Wisdom (Proverbs 8:22, Col 1:15, John 1:1) then God’s Wisdom/Word begat Creation (Genesis 1:1, Col 1:16, John 1:3). Creation (earth/ground) begat flora (Genesis 1:11,2:9) and fauna (Genesis 1:24, 2:19); Likewise, mankind was begat from the ground (Genesis 2:7); Adam and Eve begat children; They begat children until Abraham begat Jacob (Israel); And, the children of Israel begat the Messiah—Jesus the only begotten Son of God. See how it works?
Humanity, created by God in the Image of God, has the special task to begat children not just physically but spiritually—shaping them in the image of God. That’s why the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) is at the core of Biblical parenting, discipleship and leadership - it is a begatting paradigm. Likewise, scripture teaches us, our nature continues forming after we leave our place of nurture. God proposes a life-long relationship with us. He commissioned your parents to begat you, then to shape you as you went in and out of their house. Now He wants you to join with Him in community so that His glory might be made complete in you and begat in the world through you.
So, that’s the God-begat worldview. It’s a bit earthy, a bit love-story but primarily it’s about family; begatting and becoming. It’s almost modern or post-modern… but, it’s not. And, in reality, it’s not a worldview as much as a framework – a foundational framework on which other worldviews, at other times in history, can be built. It’s like a picture frame within which other worldviews can be canvassed and coloured. It is not either God’s way or ours. It’s God’s way then ours. Build on Him. Build in Him.
Some Christians believe, to have an accurate worldview today and still be a Christian you need to ignore, rewrite or change things in the Bible. To avoid offending their particular worldview, they go through the Bible squeezing, chopping, sanitizing, fluffing and cherry-picking verses to try to make them fit today’s reality. This is a misunderstanding and misuse of the Bible. The Bible should be treated the same way another 3000 year-old work of art would be – as a priceless work of antiquity and beauty to study, enjoy and share in its entirety. Seeing the Bible in this way can open doors, windows, hearts and minds to the ever present and powerful reality of God and His Kingdom.
Hidden in God, who created all things
While altering our worldview can be hard, it can be even more difficult for us Christians to adjust our Wordview - the way we see the Bible. To make this Wordview adjustment is not to change the Bible, but to change our approach to the Bible. We fundamentalists have been sold a version of Bible study which requires us to read the Bible as if it were written in and for a modern worldview. In this mode of thinking, you read the Bible scientifically/factually (modern worldview) thus believing Biblical times (2000 - 4000 years ago) are still the way things are, or should be, today. This causes believers to treat social mores, laws and customs written hundreds of generations ago as timeless truths. This is not necessary and in fact it is crippling for Christian youth and results in many leaving the church, believing it out of touch with reality. It also forces readers to ignore verses they can’t justify (like knocking down houses with mold in them, not braiding hair, killing people who pick up sticks on Sabbath, etc) and to enforce verses with “the Bible says!” that they can make sensibly fit into life today. In short, in makes a mockery of being “Bible believing” because it makes you look inconsistent and kooky.
If God is the God of the past, present and future, His Word should be timely and useful in every generation. Scripture demonstrates repeatedly (ultimately in the life of Jesus) that God meets His people where they are. So, a Wordview useful today should speak into the worldview of today — as it has in past generations. And for those of us baptised into antiquity, this shift in thinking can be soul-shattering. Take comfort in knowing, as the change in thinking becomes you, it will make your Christian beliefs, experience and influence more beautiful, meaningful and useful to the world around you.
No other Gods before me
For those who have been deeply saturated in a view of the Bible which requires this modern Wordview, moving into today requires letting go. And holding on. It’s easier to hold on to everything, or let go of everything. Finding a place of equilibrium in the middle takes courage and commitment. To allow the Bible to speak in this generation and to this generation, requires shifts in thinking on a number of levels.
First, it requires us to allow thinking from the current worldview to be credible. Retraining yourself to stop poo-pooing every scientific, historical, genetic (etc) explanation and to, instead, embrace them as “the best we can do for now” is not easy and can be maddening. For those of us indoctrinated to doubt every wiseman on today’s earth; allowing them the credibility they deserve — as created in God’s Image, intelligent and beautifully made — can take years of personal boot-to-the-heads and regular doses of humility.
Second, it requires allowing the Bible to be what it is — a collection of history, poetry, letters, parables and prophecies that tell the story of God’s earliest people. This does not demean the Bible’s purpose, integrity or holiness but rather allows us to see the constant progress of God’s activity in and through His chosen people from the time of Abraham to the church of today in all its diversity of expression. God is active in the lives of His people — calling, forgiving, saving, leading — always. The Bible’s core message of redemption can be seen in its many storied incidents and its overarching narrative.
Third, it requires allowing the Bible to be studied honestly. Christian denominations which emerged during the modern era locked the Bible down to literalistic interpretation as required by their worldview. Today, in the face of strong and consistent evidence to the contrary, leadership in these churches require their followers to believe the Bible as their primary scientific source. Instead of allowing and encouraging their members to explore and explain the Bible as they do other ancient sources, they rebrand the Bible from a holy (set-apart) book to a Divine book, thus creating an idol of it.
Christian scholarship, outside of fundamentalist groups, has been studying the Bible as a collection of historical documents for centuries. They have been applying various cultures, worldviews, wisdom, technology and combined fields of scholarship to the study of the Bible. The results are interesting, challenging, frustrating and enlightening. Some are easily grasped, others are intricate and complex. Many of them ring true, others lack lustre. This is true scholarship, and seeing it applied to the Bible is exciting and invigorating. Biblical research and results from worldwide Christian scholarship have been made all the more accessible with the explosion of the written word in the world – through the expansion of the Internet and, prior to that, mass-printing presses. Today, students of the Bible can find resources at the tap of a screen.
A new Heaven and a new Earth
We are on the transitional cusp of a new era - a new global worldview. Post-modern is the label social scientists have given this transitional period. Most of us are still modern thinkers. Others of us are not comfortable being moderns and desire something truly new. We are becoming a global village and that village thinks different – it reaches wider: embraces more, rejects less — because each villager is unique, beautiful and worth loving. It is fast becoming, in a very tangible sense, a place where Heaven meets Earth. But our village is yet unnamed. Perhaps it will be called “justice” or “mercy” or “humility” … or maybe it will be called “Earth”. That would indeed be a fitting name for a global village living the Micah 6:8 call of God for His people to live His way; and a great way to come full circle back to our ancient beginning when God created the Heavens and the Earth.
As is true at the beginning of every culture-wide worldview shift, things are changing at home. Many scholars, pastors and lay-people in fundamentalist Christian groups have changed their approach to the Bible, allowing it to speak for itself, in its rich and robust ancient context. Through study and prayer, they have changed their approach to both understanding and teaching. They advocate a more generous and inclusive mindset. They have joined with the rest of Christianity in teaching their people to be Earth’s people - to live justly, show mercy and walk humbly with their God. And those people, now seeing vast tracts of common ground with other denominations and even other faiths in this global village, are expanding their borders, bringing to life God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.