Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Heretics Here, Heretics There, Heretics Everywhere

I just had another conversation with one of my heretical college students. At least he thinks he's a heretic. I'm not so sure. In fact, I would definitely say that what he is is a thinking person who looks at some of the most outrageous claims of Christianity with more than a bit of skepticism. In other words, he's a young man who is realizing that he is allowed to think about religion, not just accept it.

In this particular case, the issue was the divinity of Jesus. Right now, his working ideas are that there was nothing more divine about Jesus than the rest of us, but Jesus lived it more perfectly than we do. If you applied Occam's Razor to the question of Jesus' divinity, this is probably the answer you should get. Or maybe that the story has been written leaving out the parts that show Jesus was just another schmo. After all, how many people do you know who have trouble with the idea that Jesus pooped?

I pointed out to him that the problem with a statement like "fully God and fully human" is that anything that follows it will almost inevitably err by emphasizing one over the other. Before that, though, I asked about his understanding of the Trinity, since, without a divine Christ, that scheme rather falls apart.

It was a great conversation that took detours through the creeds, the Holy Spirit and ended up in the power of story telling (It all made sense. You had to be there.), which included a discussion of sacraments as essentially story telling events. If we had had time, I would have suggested that Christianity is essentially a life story that Christians are called to align their own stories with. There are, in fact, other life stories (e.g., other religious traditions, the American story, etc.) that people do the same thing with. What makes us Christians is that we believe Christ's story is one we should align our lives with. And obviously, other people have some thoughts about this too.

It was one of those wonderful conversations that inspire people to become college chaplains. So why am I pissed off?

Well, largely it has to do with the fact that this bright, clever student who is working with issues I never began to think about when I was his age is having to fight against everything he has been raised with just to say these things. And he was brought up in the Episcopal Church no less, a church that prides itself on offering space to explore what you believe. So instead of learning that it is perfectly okay to wrestle with these questions--that this is a part of developing a mature faith--he has learned that he has to declare himself a heretic to think these things. And instead of spending our time together with me helping him to look at his beliefs, I had to spend half the time giving him permission to believe these things.

I don't know what this student will end up believing about Christ's divinity. If I were forced to bet on it, I'd guess he will be fairly orthodox in his beliefs before it is all over. But that's not really all that important. The Christian faith can only be faith if we are allowed to hold it, mold it, question it, turn it inside out, and even spit on it now and then as we continually try to grasp it (which is, in itself, an impossible task). But we're too afraid to let that happen. So instead, we make the creeds into the door keepers of theology rather than the open doors that take us a whole myriad of places. And we scare our kids against exploration of anything that might mean they occasionally step off the narrow path.

Except the narrow path thus defined is actually reduced to the dividing line on a super highway. And it you step off the line, you will get hit by a speed demon ready to destroy your life. Sorry, but there should be a lot more wiggle room out there than that.

Why am I so angry about this? Because this is not the only student I have who thinks he's a heretic. And I have one who is afraid to read the Bible because of the problems she has with the things other people have told her it says.

What they are all saying is that they want a place where they can explore what they believe without getting beat up for believing the wrong things. Where I come from, that is what a church is supposed to be. But, oops, these folks all come out of churches and are seeing that they have to leave, at least for awhile, if they want the chance to explore.

These should be the leaders of my ministry. But only one of them is even coming. They will talk to me, but they have been too burned to be able to take leadership in a church where they think they are only recognized as believing or unbelieving. And that is just too sad for words.

Sad too is the fact the the above named 'heretic' is simultaneously wrestling with whether or not he is called to ordination. Talk about a straitjacket! How can he even begin to approach that issue when he is still looking to be accepted as is, questions and all? And, yes, for the record, I realize that some of the roadblocks might be self imposed as his unrecognized way of avoiding the call to ordination. Except he's not the only one, just the one I had lunch with today.

So why do so many young people leave the Church during college? We think it has to do with churches not knowing how to provide activities for them. But I think it is much deeper than that. We lose them because, at this time when they are questioning, there is no theological place for them. We can stop worrying about the young singles events; make space for a little heterodoxical thought. You know, it might just challenge the way we think too. But that's what we are really afraid of, isn't it?

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