2012-04-17

Surfboards or Swimming Pools?



I'm a know it all, and I know it. I've had opinions as long as I can remember, and they are always the right opinions. Ask me why, and I will tell you. Whether by genetic predisposition, social nurture, demonic deception, or divine gift, I have been given the gift and/or curse of loving knowledge (and teaching others what I know). When I was a non-Christian, I knew why I did not believe in God, and I thought I knew why Christians used God as a "crutch". And I would argue with anyone who tried to tell me different.

When God "helped" me become humble enough to realize that God was God and I was not, I realized that I could, in fact, be wrong. At least once. So, I decided to follow Jesus and became a Christian. And as a Christian, I felt it was my responsibility to find out as much as I could about why I believed in Christ so that I could "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks me to give the reason for the hope that I have" (cf. 1Peter 3.15).

So, I started studying apologetics. Books and books of apologetics. Which led me to take Greek, so I could understand the New Testament in the original language. Because, as everyone knows, people who know Greek NEVER disagree over the "real" meaning of the Scriptures (a little sarcasm there). And when I learned Greek and found out that there were still theological issues unresolved by Biblical interpretation, I started reading Systematic Theology. Books and books of Evangelical theology, and Charismatic theology, and Mainline theology, and Catholic theology, and Ancient theology, and Modern theology. And yes, I did actually work professionally as a Social Worker and then a Youth Pastor, so I did try to wed "book knowledge" with "practical knowledge".

But why my insatiable drive to "book knowledge"? Why all the striving for hyper-correct doctrine and impregnable philosophical foundations? Because I had to be right. Remember: I'm a know it all. I need to be able to fit the whole system inside my head, with no lapses, no gaps, and no cracks. I must be able to justify my beliefs before a holy God who demands perfection, as well as refute false teaching. At least that's what I told myself. But the real fact of the matter is that knowing all the right answers was a security blanket for me. If it all fits in my head, my world is safe and secure. If there are questions and blind spots and even doubts (gasp!), then suddenly I feel out of control.

And while I am a semi-extreme example, I don't think I'm all that different from lots of different Christians from lots of different traditions. Many of us- whether Protestant or Catholic, Charismatic or Evangelical, Conservative or Liberal- seem to get the message that Christianity is primarily about believing in the right things, instead of being in right relationships with God and each other. "Believe these five fundamentals to be a Biblical Christian!" "Follow these seven steps to enter into the abundant life!" "Adhere to this doctrinal statement to be orthodox!" "Use these three principles for effective prayer!"

But the God we experience embodied in Jesus Christ cannot be imprisoned inside any little system we develop to domesticate him. The Spirit that overflows from Jesus is a raging rapid of living water (cf. John 7:38). God is an Ocean of Love, stretching further than our imaginations from horizon to horizon. Yet, we spend a great deal of our time making doctrinal swimming pools to contain this Divine Ocean.

Once we build our swimming pool, we look up at God and say "Look how much of you we have contained!" And then we try to fit the whole Church, the whole Bible, indeed the whole Creation into that swimming pool. And the ocean of God keeps bursting the seams of our pool. We get the Holy Spirit contained, only to have the Spirit leak out in a new way we never imagined. We define the atonement of Christ as meaning exactly "this", and only received on "that" condition. Then Jesus reaches beyond the bounds of our pool and drags some undesirables into our swim party. We get predestination all sealed up, then free will bursts open the other side! We get free will patched, and then Divine Sovereignty breaks the filtering system! We decide exactly how true Christians should "swim", and then we find out our best friend from high school is gay, our daughter got pregnant, the incredibly nice person in the next cubicle is Hindu, all while our trusted pastor is caught in a scandal and asking for forgiveness. And this does not even count the huge splashes that science, politics, and economics make in our little pools.

Pretty soon, our glorious swimming pool is reduced to a heap of rubble as the water inside flows back out into the ocean of the Triune God from which it came.

I know all of this makes it sound like doctrine and worldview account for nothing in following Christ. But that's not what I'm saying. Because I love belief systems. Remember: I'm a know it all, and folks like me LIVE on this kind of stuff. Belief systems are important, but important in a completely different way than trying to build "swimming pools" to contain God within.

But, perhaps doctrine is a lot more like building a surf board than building a swimming pool. And to illustrate this, I would like to call as witnesses three people as diverse as Rick Warren (pastor of the "purpose driven" Saddleback Church), Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and Philosopher Peter Kreeft. In the introductory chapter of "Purpose Driven Church", Warren talks about the task of the pastor as learning how to ride the waves of culture. In his 1968 book "Introduction to Christianity", Ratzinger says that the situation of the modern believer is like someone cast into a raging ocean of uncertainty, while clinging to the wooden cross of Christ to stay afloat on the stormy seas. And in several of his books, Kreeft talks about the Ocean of God's love, and he develops his passion for surfing into a philosophy of how we can live fully into God's presence.

These metaphors point me to the fact that while our belief systems can never CONTAIN the Ocean of God (like a swimming pool), they do enable us to effectively MOVE with God, through Christ, by the power of the Spirit. In short, our beliefs enable us to build something like surfboards, by which we are able to move, and ride, and carve, with the waves of culture and providence, that ebb and flow in the ocean of God's Love. Our beliefs form a platform for us to stand on, but not to stand "firmly" as if the ground will never move beneath us. Rather, when our doctrines are held rightly, they enable us to stand "nimbly" and "gracefully", as we respond and sway with the Spirit who leads us. And as we surf the Ocean of God's Love, we might just learn some techniques from other surfers who ride Catholic boards and Protestant boards and Ancient boards and Modern boards (and even some of those folks on those crazy Postmodern boards!).

So, I leave the metaphor with you. Do with it what you will. In your beliefs and doctrines, are you trying to build a surfboard or a swimming pool?
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.