Rachel Held Evans is a young author, a talented writer, with a story of common experience to tell. Rachel’s book, Evolving in Monkey Town, is the memoir of a young Christian wrestling with the meaning and implications of Christian faith. Playing off the history of the Scopes trial, the theme of Rachel’s memoir is the evolution of faith – not the evolution of Christianity, as though we are moving from an inferior past to a more highly developed form for the future, but the evolution of faith required in each of us as we seek to live as Christians for the future.
Life isn’t fair. People live, people dream, people struggle, people suffer, people die. All around the globe. For millenia. Billions of them. Real living, breathing, thinking, people. And then? And then if they were not among the elect, or lucky enough to hear and assent to the gospel, they suffer eternal conscious torment… this is God’s higher way?
Rachel describes the things that troubled her the most as she wrestles with the Christian faith of her upbringing. Science and evolution are on the list, but only peripherally. Of more immediate significance the issues of hell, wrath, and the justice of God, raised deep conflict and doubt. Judgment per se is not a problem. But judgment based on Original Sin with salvation based on assent to propositions about Jesus when most have never had the opportunity to hear? This is a problem. A serious problem.
In the middle of her book Rachel describes a turning point – and the turning point is best classified as a return to the fundamentals of Christian faith. The deepest irony of 20th and 21st century evangelicalism is that focus on the fundamentals entailed a loss of focus on the fundamental of our faith. Rachel does not put it in quite these words – this is my my observation and interpretation.
What is the biggest problem for faith? What causes the most significant doubts?
What puts the doubts in perspective?
So what is the fundamental? The fundamental, plain and simple, is a focus on the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, God’s Messiah. The incarnation is the fundamental … our response is not assent to facts about Jesus, but commitment to follow Jesus.
The final and most startling thing I noticed as I grew more acquainted with the Gospels was that Jesus had a very different view of faith than the one to which I was accustomed. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in my late teens or early twenties, it was as if Jesus packed his bags and moved from my heart into my head. He became an idea, a sort of theological mechanism by which salvation was attained. I described him in terms of atonement, logos, the object of my faith, and absolute truth. He was something I agreed to, not someone I followed. … Checking off the right things on the list meant the difference between salvation and damnation. (p. 105)
Reading the Gospels, being immersed in the Gospels, and then reading Acts and the epistles in this context brings us back to the fundamental. The fundamental is not assent to proposition, but, as Jesus required of his disciples, obedience. Christians follow a person. This does not mean earning favor with God or participating in salvation. God saves. But it does mean that our focus as Christians is not on “head believing”, our focus is on following – “life believing”.
Beyond Jesus, the fundamental is, Rachel suggests, love. This comes from Isaiah, from the Gospels, from the epistles of Paul, from James and John. It permeates the New Testament. God is love, God abundantly pardons, Jesus gives as the greatest commandments the call to love God and love neighbor, we are called to forgive, to be of right mind toward each other and toward God.
Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people. The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all – the studied and ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious. (p. 209)
The journey and discovery Rachel relates in her memoir is not unique. It mirrors, I expect, the experience of many. It mirrors my experience as a Christian and a scientist, although science played and plays a much larger role for a variety of reasons. The Christian faith does not require, as John Polkinghorne puts it, “gritting your teeth and believing six impossible things before breakfast.” It involves following a person, with total commitment. This provides the context for evaluating the claims of the faith we have received and for moving forward. Some of the things we’ve been taught are wrong, and that is only to be expected. we can get rid of the baggage and keep the faith.
I asked above about the doubts and perspective. Let me put this a little more concretely.
What are the “six impossible things before breakfast” that have caused you to doubt?
How do you move forward?
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