Theological discourse: tiptoeing through minefields or gallivanting across expansive prairies?

It’s hard to be an “in process” person when the stakes can be so high. Raw, unfiltered thoughts risk ostracizing you from the community you know and love or risk compromising credibility—both to potential opponents and present friends who have stricter boundaries. Sometimes, I feel like the more I learn, the less I can say publicly. There’s always the potential for a concerned citizen or a policing “bulldog” to latch on to something I’ve said or posted on a blog in the past and effectively minimize or jeopardizes everything else I am about.

We all have our “heresies.” If you are having trouble recognizing yours, I’m fairly confident that within about 15 minutes, I could help you become aware of some majorly inconsistent core belief you have which is likely rooted in a cultural idea or a church tradition over a neglected Scriptural principle…or where you deny equally prominent church traditions simply because they don’t fit what you want to believe. (And that’s probably okay.)

Every community has their litmus tests—conservative evangelicals and liberals alike—buzzwords that carry deep meanings and ideas that help differentiate “who’s in and who’s out.” In my own life that set of boundaries has shifted in almost every place I’ve lived: from my own home to the very fundamentalist missionary boarding school I attended, to Wheaton College, to a “multi-denominational” church affiliated with the Mennonites, to African-American Baptist churches I’ve worked in, to the Evangelical Free Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, with my mentor getting his PhD at Catholic University, to conservative Presbyterian Westminster Theological Seminary, to our Anglican church in secular Paris, and now finally to Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology whose constituency ranges from more conservative African Inland Mission churches to more charismatic Pentecostal denominations and even more emergent Nairobi chapel-types. Those are just the specific institutions of which I’ve been part.  Mix in personal relationships that range from atheists and agnostics to Pentecostal mystics or zealous Truly Reformed fundamentalists, and you have entered the theological minefield that is my life.

For over forty years now, I’ve managed to negotiate this constantly shifting minefield. Now, I’m sure I’ve raised eyebrows in every community I’ve been a part of, but I’ve always felt appreciated and welcome in almost all of them; at least I’ve never been asked to leave.  At the same time, I have to admit that I’ve survived (or thrived) by simply not talking about certain things.  (I also should confess that in my earlier years, I was the policing Pharisee who forced many others into diversionary tactics.)

Like most third culture kids who have grown up in multi-cultural environments, I’ve learned to accept the reality that different communities and cultures have different rules and norms (most of which they are blind to) that make it difficult to accept significant differences. And so we go from place to place shifting our outward appearances ever so slightly like a chameleon. Is this a fearful cover-up for my own fears and insecurities, or is this a wise and healthy coping method for the realities of my worlds?

The stakes seem even higher and more volatile in the environment of biblical studies and theology or worldview thinking. Here, I’ve resorted to small groups of friends who know me well and don’t doubt the presence of the Spirit in my life despite some of my wackier ideas. These friends have allowed me to safely process and test some of our more unrefined thoughts without fear of getting blown up. They don’t hold back from telling me where I’m out to lunch or where my ideas really are dangerous. But I have never felt like I would jeopardize our relationship or everything else we are about. They’ve provided a safe sandbox within the minefield within which I play and push the boundaries of my thinking without risking an explosion of any kind. They’ve been able to handle and appreciate the truth of who I am, including all my foibles and faults. For all these friends, I’m eternally grateful. (I think you all know who you are.)

I recognize that this may reflect more of my own insecurities than my diverse faith communities, but I do wish that instead feeling like I was negotiating minefields of theological litmus tests, I felt more like I was exploring beautiful meadows, gorgeous forests, new mountain vistas, and vast ocean shores. Real dangers do lurk in all these environments, but the overall ethos is the difference between night and day, joyful delight and paralyzing fear, expressive wonder and cagy bewilderment, loving acceptance and skeptical scrutiny, open exploration and defensive retrenchment…I wish we were more energized about the amazing places God could take us than terrified of the messes that we are likely to make in the process.

1 John 4:18

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6 thoughts on “Theological discourse: tiptoeing through minefields or gallivanting across expansive prairies?

  1. Tony Siew says:

    Dear Ben, thanks for sharing this. I can relate (though I come from different multi-cultural contexts) with most that you wrote. I always feel that now in my mid-forties, it’s no longer time to remain silent but to speak out what I think is the truth according to Scripture. One needs to pay the price on occasions for outspokenness (though often people actually respect you for it), but that’s the way it is because the Lord Jesus, the apostles and the prophets have all done the same in their day.

  2. Phyllis Masso says:

    Ben,

    You are telling it like it is all right. Sadly true for us, too. You begin to feel like few people really know you. We have enjoyed a neighborhood Bible study where we have felt free to express some truth about what we really believe and who we really are.

    Mom

  3. Simon says:

    For me, things got a lot better once I started working. Programs intrinsically force us to not be public about “heretical” stances. ie: i used to work at a summer camp that forbid of-age drinking of alcohol during the off days when there were no campers. They should have encouraged it; we needed the relaxation. But now that those programs ended: (seminary, internships, etc) I was able to choose an explorative context where I could just “be”.

    There is something to be said about working to help myopic Christians. But maybe if people feel oppressed by their Christian context, it might be the Spirit moving them towards a new context? It was for me.

  4. Ben says:

    Tony, I appreciate your comment. I try to speak out whenever I can but sometimes the sheep need to be brought along gently and sometimes it would be a distraction to the greater good and other times the wrong people are likely to get a hold of it and make like unnecessarily difficult for everyone, so we have to be wise.

    Simon, I’m happy for you, and I’m pretty happy in this contexts, I just wistful a bit for how it could be even better. There are a few things in your context that would drive me nuts too ;-).

  5. Lauren says:

    “the sheep need to be brought along gently” — but by whom?

    “I, myself, will tend my sheep and have them lie down.” (Isaiah somewhere, I’m too tired to BibleGateway…)

  6. patrick Nabwera says:

    Dear Lauren,

    You are right that the Lord himself tends his sheep and i guess that is why he appoints some people he calls shepherds in the church. Although, he still expects the rest of us to be take care of each other.

    Patrick

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