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In Medias Res: Small, Rudderless Life Rafts

In Medias Res: Small, Rudderless Life Rafts

I ended Part 1 conceding that certain questions I have are quite difficult to answer. They are questions for those of us clinging to small, rudderless life rafts. Are we who drift the seas of tradition permitted safe but temporary harbor on divergent shores? Are we permitted to voyage and explore with no desire to land? Are we safe in Christ? Or without anchors and passports are we doomed to remain adrift on the sea? I think these questions are better suited on the personal levels of introspection and prayer, rather than asked generally. These are questions I am asking myself, and I’m prepared for the fact that I may never grasp an answer that is comprehensive or satisfying.

The grace of God is enough oil, honey and wine, however, for us to circumnavigate answers without having to slurp down the vinegar of self-condemnation. I believe[1] we are free to hunt the answer down with harpoons like Captain Ahab. I also believe we are free to lay back and adjust our monocular at the heavens until an answer comes into focus.

I, for one, am laying back. This is my spyglass. I will lie out my weariness and confusion for you all.

The church, broadly, seems like a gnarled tree badly shaped by its growth around a wire fence. I see the trunk split in two, and from one of those heaving limbs sprouts a contrary mess of young branches. And this tangle is lopsided, confused, and so unruly. The tree itself is full of fruit, yet it sits in a morass of fly infested fructose and decomposing fruit flesh, seasons after season. It is at first an unappealing sight, yet in the light of the harvest moon it becomes magnificent.

Its golden leaves are heavy with life and death in sacramental austerity. It is a tree of eastern desert fasting, and of a sucking-of-life from the squirming depths of wet, black Narnian soil. It stands as a looming silhouette affronting the patterned stars. It is suddenly grave and formidable. Its weakest tendrils are limp, yet they fail to wither on account of their indirect connection to its ancient roots. These roots, like a fist of a god, grip a mountain of subterranean stone that anchors all to the earth with an unutterable, gravitational command. It is a verdant sepulcher that strikes with the aroma of death; yet one may catch a whiff of sickly marzipan, which is not the aroma of death but the signal of rot.

In Part 1, I disclosed my journey from fundamentalist Baptist, to Lutheran, to wherever or whatever I am now. In the first two-thirds of that time I studied furiously and began preparing for seminary. I wanted to become a pastor. This desire (not calling) stayed with me as I wafted from place to place. It died a sudden death in the Lutheran church for reasons not particularly noble or far reaching.  There were personal factors that came to bear which have no place for discussion in this essay.

Throughout those years and up to this moment, I came to mistrust some of the most basic and “inherited” dogmas of Protestantism. Mistrust led to rejection. Rejection came easy as I observed that beyond most of conservative evangelicalism, various traditions have preserved despite them. It has been undoubtedly a liberating experience. However, it could easily be perceived as my undoing. That is not my perception of it, necessarily, but I can see how my conservative Protestant friends may see it as such.

The more serious of these rejections has been Sola Scriptura, Biblical inerrancy, and the post-enlightenment disposition towards the Scriptures (particularly, as you may have guessed, literalist hermeneutics). I’ll throw hell on the pyre as well. I’m hesitant about the doctrine of total depravity, interested in differing views of original sin, and perplexed by the assortment of atonement theories. It probably goes without saying that I utterly reject young earth creationism, and any attempt to stuff the universe into a six or seven thousand-year-old box. I believe that rapture theology and all nuances of premillennialism elicit and magnify the philosophical buffoonery already present in much of contemporary evangelicalism. Literalism is a wax nose, and Sola Scriptura has digressed into Sola Mea Sententia[2].

In fact, I would suggest that the term entrepreneurial is entirely accurate as a starting point in describing Protestantism. I cannot help but envision the American frontier as ground zero, and the subsequent generations up to that of the baby boomers as the Bible Salesmen’s Wild West.

There are plenty of other issues that I’m questioning, but I do not want this article to turn into an axe-grinding session. I would prefer to let the edge dull, and leave it lodged in the stump out back. I enjoy the transparency this platform has given me, but I am resisting letting it slide into an evangelism of negation.

I am utterly conflicted about truth with a capital “T”. I am postmodern, yet paradoxically I find myself in a continuous state of hunger for a monolithic, sensory, and historically grounded Christian tradition.  There is much in the Roman Catholic Church that seems fit these predilections. Eastern Orthodoxy as well. Perhaps even Anglicanism. “The best way to be post-modern is to be ancient”, writes James K.A. Smith; this, coming from a Reformed-leaning Protestant. I’m afraid that going down the so-called “Radical Orthodoxy” road might land me to worshipping in a borrowed space in the basement of an Episcopalian church, or worse, a coffee shop, every second Saturday night.

I don’t know if you can have a tradition without a few hardline truth claims or not. It would seem counterintuitive. Truth claims cost something. They cost us decisions that, once made, take deep withdraws from the accounts of our placid comfort. Truth claims may exclude us from the sidelines of apathy, drawing us into a tradition’s catacombs. Ambivalence generally seems to have little currency in religion. Perhaps more specifically, ambivalence has no place in Christianity. Christ was, if anything, a man who was unequivocal about at least few things. He was a Martyr, and was followed by a host of martyrs.

In Part 1, I used the phrases “Vaguely Christian” and “Contentedly Bewildered” to describe my state. Given the trajectory of this article, my self-identification has put me somewhat outside of religion. As I write that, I can almost hear the cries of the well intending folk with their platitudinous “it’s a relationship, not a religion” sloganeering. Without digressing too far, I would simply address that by answering: if Christianity is not a religion, then it isn’t anything. When you have a blood sacrifice, dogma, converts, sacraments, an ecclesiastical order (or, at least, disorder), liturgy, and sacred space – what you have is – you guessed it – a religion.

Having now identified Christianity as a religion, and loosely defined religion, I have left myself religionless in a sense. If I have jumped out of the tree, how do I know I’m okay? How do I know I am not rotting fruit? What assurance do I have that this is okee dokee with the triune God of the universe (if he even cares – I’d rather assume he was busy). On what grounds can I say that I am relatively unafraid? If God is God, should I not fear Him in some way?

I suppose I do in an abstract sense. But in ways that I can really sink my teeth and claws into, I am holding to His ontological goodness. If God is God, and no supreme good exists outside of God, then in what sense should I fear questioning the religion that surrounds him? It is a religion made up of people who He, in His goodness, has given life and autonomy to. I cannot think of any reason. I am banking on His mercy – which brings me to the sacrament of baptism.

Conversion without baptism, in hindsight, seems like a game.  At a particular church, my “getting saved” was an emotional response to an existential crisis. This response was spoon-fed by a reciprocating set of needs that I was informed I had (salvation, new life, etc.), and began affirming. Baptism was, at best, merely a symbol. I was blindly going forward by swallowing counter-affirmations whole, while becoming familiar with their language and behaviors. Before long I had become Christianized; the product of a culture. I underwent the expected character changes. In the inflated and existential guilt I had caught, I gravitated to an indulgent lifestyle of fundamentalism and its throbbing legalism. There was nothing particularly extra nos about any of it. It was as though Jesus of Nazareth was merely a local celebrity who we were to emulate under fear of hell. He was venerated, and vicariously observed through the authority structures, historical fabrications, and bizarre Bible-teaching of the fundamentalist Baptists. Oh, and there was a lot of yelling.

What was missing from that was the beautiful thing I had encountered when I abandoned the theory of “believer’s baptism”. In reading of Scripture, and tradition beyond the Reformation, baptism was not a mere symbol. It was an event concerned with Christ’s own baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection, with implications for every human being to be brought under His laver. It was the agent of faith, without which it is impossible to please Him. Philosophically, it was the one thing outside of me which brought me (and large majority of all other Christians throughout history) into the Christian religion. I was baptized in that Baptist church, and despite my lunatic ravings at the time (and theirs), it is the one thing I look back on that had nothing to do with my internal changes, real or contrived.

Baptism didn’t make me a better person. In fact, I simply became more aware over time of my own evil, my own weaknesses, and my own sins. It did, however, put me squarely in the merciful bosom of God by its simple, incarnate, external means. If I take away anything from Scripture, it is that. Giving up the questions of who chose what, how my will stands in light of election, the chronological timing of my baptism and my first expressions of faith in Christ, and other mysteries, I’m free to see it as what it is: a salvific act of God for me, initiating a life of being saved. It is a life that I can abandon or follow (I already sense the furrowing of a Calvinist’s brow).

Beyond theology, there is another factor that weighs upon the discussion of the sufficiency of my status as a Christian (post-evangelical?). This factor demands an eye and an imagination towards history. Imagine the hundreds of years after the crucifixion as the church began. Imagine the scattered converts, the dying disciples, and the persecution under Roman rule. Imagine the insanity, the death, and martyrdom. Imagine the shifting Roman politics, and the prevalent Judaism that continued to deny the Christ. Imagine the complete lack of theological development and tradition, and the total absence of a canon of Scripture. Imagine the multiculturalism, language barriers, translating, and even illiteracy.

There was baptism. There was the Eucharist. There were hymns, prayers, and teaching. There were shared sermons and epistles. There began to emerge ecclesiastic organization; and from that, institutionalization. If God can preserve even those Christians who stared death in the face with likely hundreds of unanswered questions, will He do so today? If martyrdom is not redemptively meritorious, and all men die, then can I not face my own death with an innumerable host of other Christians, with an innumerable number of doubts and questions? I believe that the earliest Christians were given the same, unchanging quality of God’s grace that we are today. It is in God’s goodness, the assurance granted me through baptism, and the wide-angle lens through which I view the history of His people, that I have no real fear in my small, rudderless life raft.

To be continued…

[1] “I believe” – do I have the right to choose what I am free to do in matters of faith and practice? Does this not contradict the essence of my criticism of Protestantism? This criticism, which I briefly decry later in this essay, is that Sola Scriptura inevitably results in shaping proof-texted preferences into dogma. So by glibly stating “I believe…” and then unfolding what, essentially, my feelings have led me to believe, I am guilty of the very thing I am criticizing. As the admirable Admiral Ackbar would warn, “It’s a trap!” Perhaps I am tightening the vice on this too much. Nevertheless, I am an autonomous nautical humanoid, created with free will in the image of God. So there.

[2] In my opinion alone


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