Monday, March 05, 2007


Here’s an expanded version of a talk I gave to our small group. It’s a meandering chat, I haven’t put much order into it, and it’s a summary of just one of six pages of notes…

People – including Yours Truly – do not change their minds simply because a Compelling New Idea comes floating by. To summarize four years of a Masters’ degree in social psychology: given that the new idea has to make sense, it also has to win in the ‘reward/punishment’ stakes. Punishment? Yes, if the group to which you belong and/or whose approval you need despises or even expels you for espousing the new idea, you’ll think twice about embracing it.

Also, one asks the ‘source credibility’ question: can I trust the purveyor of the new idea. Are they ‘opinion leaders’ in this field?

Then there’s the ‘cognitive dissonance’ issue: can the new idea fit into the schema of ideas already registered in my brain? And the ‘personality/ persuasibility’ question: some of us are suckers for any novelty at all, including new ideas.

Many people belong to groups which not only abhor new ideas, they ensure that their members don’t connect with any (‘monopoly propaganda’). And finally, the incorporation of a new idea is reinforced if the welcomer-of-the-idea has to role-play with it in front of others (which is why cults/sects and many other groups get their devotees to give ‘testimonies’).

OK, so much for psychology. As I’m mainly talking about Christian ideas, there’s the question of authority, and Christians have four broad approaches: the Bible, the Church and its tradition/s, reason (together with contemporary secular disciplines), and experience – past and present, one’s own and others’.

People embrace new ideas in different ways. Will Rogers said there are three kinds of men (ie. males): those who learn by reading; the few who learn by observation; and the rest who have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves… Most of my mind-shifts have resulted from reading.

I grew up in the ‘Open [Plymouth] Brethren’, and they would have approved of this quote: ‘[I hope] they would not find me changed from him they knew/ Only more sure of what he thought was true’.

I’m now a bit wary of such a maxim. One of my greatest fears is to come across a new idea and reject it, through stubbornness and/or fear. Or, OTOH, how pathetic to go to your grave believing something that is not true, or resisting a good idea which might be inconvenient. However I am a ‘work in progress’. I’m only 70 years young, and have many ideas to reject/modify/embrace before I die. And I have a way to go yet on the road to wholeness/holiness.

We begin our quest-for-certainty by believing and observing the Big People. Children, says Lyle Schaller, are ‘in church taking notes’. Huston Smith, a theologically liberal retired professor of comparative religion, says (in The Soul of Christianity – brilliant book) that his formative experiences religiously comprised his Methodist missionary-father’s walking 30 miles in the bitter cold of a Chinese winter after helping someone; and also the family prayers they had every morning…

I remember Uncle John Clark, a very godly man who cried when he talked about Jesus dying on the cross to save him. And Mr. Harold Messer, a fairly prominent government official, who walked many miles to church each Sunday, morning and night, in fine weather and in the rain. Or Mr. Alf Clines, who would travel to the other side of Sydney to deliver a ‘message’ (in other churches they ‘preach sermons’) which he’d spent twenty hours preparing. At my mother’s funeral a few years back, I overheard some of those Brethren men discussing alternative interpretations of passages from Ezekiel and Daniel which might influence their view of the ‘End Times’. They were – and are – passionate about ‘Bible study’, and that at least has, in principle, rubbed off on to me.

Until I was an older teenager I sometimes heard the terrible words: ‘Don’t ask questions, just believe!’ Fortunately, I made a serious commitment as a teenager to believing whatever I thought was reasonable irrespective of others’ stupidity or ignorance. IOW, even if these Brethren held some belief or other - and I have since rejected many Brethren doctrines - I would still believe something if there were good reasons to. I am saddened to meet many whose philosophy of life is constructed in reaction to/against authority-figures they’ve despised or rejected or even been abused by. The question for the honest questioner is not ‘Who says what?’ but ‘Is it true, irrespective of who else believes it?’

So I would ask questions of our venerable Brethren teachers, like Mr. Tom Carson: ‘What did the great missionary Hudson Taylor miss because his doctrine was imperfect and he wasn’t one of us?’ Response: ‘Ah, Rowland, just think how much more fruitful he might have been if he did believe the Whole Truth’. And when I eventually gravitated to the Baptists, I was told – quite seriously - that ‘God never leads contrary to His Word.’

The Brethren Jesus was docetic: much more divine than human. Their ‘gospel’ began with ‘the fact of sin’. Their main theological quest was to find certainty and avoid ambiguity: they sought answers for everything. Their Bible was inerrant.

In all these areas I’ve changed my mind. Jesus was divine, yes, but fully human, and, for me, is primarily a prophet. (I never heard any preaching on the pervasive biblical idea of social justice in the first 20 years of my life). The Good News doesn’t begin with bad news (sorry, Augustine), but with Jesus Christ saying first ‘I do not condemn you’; the prodigal’s father exclaiming with joy ‘I welcome you!’ (Reading Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing helped here). I now strongly believe that living with ambiguity is essential for an authentic faith. And I reckon it’s silly to hold a view about the Bible which the Bible doesn’t posit for itself.

However, I’m not anti-fundamentalist as such. Fundamentalists are trying to answer the questions ‘What is truth? Where is certainty?’ Progressives/liberals are primarily addressing other concerns: ‘Where is authentic love?’ ‘What does a contemporary rational belief-system look like?’ Fundamentalists tend to absolutize relatives. Liberals tend to be nice, and better-educated, but don’t know much about the ‘lostness’ of people outside the Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught. And often liberals are just too ‘with it’ in terms of the latest fancy theological theory, forgetting that in the past these were often proved to be nonsense a generation later…

So fundamentalists (like me) believe in ‘hell’. Why? Because the Gospels have Jesus asserting its reality. But liberals (like me) do not believe God will allow precious humans to be tortured forever. I’ve read C S Lewis’s ‘The Problem of Pain’ and its chapters on hell about five times. To his question: ‘What are you asking God to do? Take them into heaven without their will?’ my present response is: ‘Jack, that’s too clever-by-half. You did not parent children when you wrote that. Would I prevent my 3-year-old grand-daughter from running on to the road and getting hurt against her will? You bet!’ But, my conservative friends ask, how do you resolve the ‘cognitive dissonance’ in all that? Look up the keyword ‘universalism’ on our website if you’re serious (but don’t label me a ‘universalist’ - though I wouldn’t be surprised if God is).

Another ‘hero’ for me during my young adult years was John Stott. I still regard him as one of the greatest Christian men I’ve been privileged to know (a little) and read (a lot). But I now think his ‘rational evangelicalism’ is too cut and dried; and his view of the atonement is too forensic (he’s a bachelor too). I’ve recently read the 1,000 page biography of Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and hope to write a review of those two volumes soon.

An author somewhere close to where I am on most things is Brian McLaren (eg. his book A Generous Orthodoxy). (He also, incidentally, was raised in a Plymouth Brethren church, where he was ‘unfathomably bored and turned off by their hypocrisy’). About the Bible he writes wisely: ‘When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value for us. …’ And… ‘It’s a book that calls together and helps create a community, a community that is a catalyst for God’s work in the world.’

The most divisive issue on which conservatives and liberals (religious and secular) differ these days is homosexuality. This topic will eventually be added to the list of major paradigm shifts in the history of the Church (like the Protestant Reformation, slavery, and women’s issues). I’m moving towards the left on this broad question, but as the jury is still out on a number of issues, I’m open to more ‘light and truth’.

The jury is also out on ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’. I’m closest to N T Wright at the moment, but am reading and enjoying Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and other liberal scholars. As I said before, I relate best to Jesus-as-prophet.

Regarding corporate worship: I have a greater yearning these days to be ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ - not so much in a charismatic sense, but more in terms of Rudolf Otto’s ‘Idea of the Holy/mysterium tremendum’. A lot of what happens ‘in church’ is fairly wooden/pedestrian really.

Back to those godly Brethren elders. I believe now that there are very holy people in most branches of the Christian church – and indeed in other faiths. And also evil people. I believe each branch of the Church is asking different questions: and we should be patient with each others’ differing stages along the journey. I’m strongly committed to affirming diversity in our Christian churches. At Blackburn Baptist Church we had seven pastors: they ranged theologically right across the Baptist theological spectrum, from liberal to quite conservative. We got along well for eight years, and loved each other. Why not?

On a couple of issues I have a minority opinion amongst my Baptist pastoral colleagues, and as time goes on I’ve been disinclined to change my thinking. I am skeptical about the value of seminaries-as-(primarily) academies, even though I teach in several (until recently, for example, hardly any of them taught future pastoral leaders how to pray); and I believe we clergy are ‘the (clericalist) cork in the bottle’ in terms of the non-empowering of our sisters and brothers for their ministries.

Churches generally? I’m with the ‘emerging church’ people broadly. If we are supposed to be equipping/encouraging people to be ‘passionate about Jesus’ (as Tom Bandy suggests is our primary aim), we in the mainline churches are not doing a brilliant job of it.

At this point I want to mention the greatest regret of my life: during those heady years when ‘BBC’ saw over 1,000 people attending each Sunday – probably the first time for a Baptist church in Australia - our two eldest children felt they did not have their father’s attention sufficiently. After a day’s interactions with people, this introvert came home needing head-space. But our two teenage children needed my presence. In 1978 a cathartic experience in Korea brought it up from the depths to the surface, and I cried penitentially about all this for many hours. In terms of changing my mind about something, I would have done pastoring-and-fathering differently if I had my time over again. Husbanding? Yes, that too, though my beautiful pastor-wife is 100% with me in this great calling.

How will I continue to change? I have pages on this, scribbled at a Men’s Retreat with Richard Rohr in Arizona in 2005. Two primary issues: As I’ve been inoculated with a ‘pedagogical serum’ I have to learn that every opportunity to make others wise doesn’t have to be taken. (I’m listening to Will Rogers: ‘Never miss a good chance to shut up!’). And I want to be a more Jesus-like person, constructively angry about injustice, and also practicing ‘acceptance before repentance’ in terms of relating to others.

To conclude: which of the four ‘authorities’ is valid for me these days? If I have to put one first, it’s the Bible, interpreted through the ‘prism’ of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. However I want to use my reason to understand the Bible, but still be ‘under the Word’ rather than simply its critic (and anyway, the ‘Word’ is not essentially the Bible, it’s the living Christ: the fundamentalists’ tendency towards bibliolatry doesn’t give them a good handle on that). Experience? Yes, I’m interested not simply believing in Christ ‘because he lives within my heart’ (indigestion can create problems there) but I’m impressed when I see Christ’s aliveness in an authentically holy person (like Dom Helder Camara). Church/traditions? Because they often don’t stack up with integrity (or even usefulness) against the other three canons-of-authority, I’d put that one at the bottom of the heap. I have a continuing antipathy towards dogma and legalism; I don’t much like straight-jacketing truth into man-made creeds; and will continue to set cats loose among these pigeons when I encounter them.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam : ‘For the greater glory of God’.

Rowland Croucher
March 2007



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