Reflections on Questions, and How to Live Them
By Erwin (Val) Warkentin, July 1, 2018
During the first half of 2018, Val and I were privileged to lead a Monday evening Bible study series at Bethel. Entitled Living the Questions, the course provided a basic overview of what the authors and presenters labelled “Progressive Christianity.” When we started planning for the course, we anticipated that maybe 15 people might show up. And that fit nicely into an optimum size for group discussions. We were astonished at the first session that 45 people showed up! And although we knew that not everyone who started the course would be able to finish it, we were very pleased that some 30 – 35 people stayed to the end. To work through every session is the most effective way of dealing with the course material, and for a number of people who were unable to attend every session, the preparatory materials and corresponding videos were available to catch up. But the real value of the sessions was in the group discussions – these were honest, direct, loving, and informative.
The course is divided into 21 sessions (three segments of seven sessions each), and the preparatory materials comprise a 8 – 10 page commentary and a 20 – 25 minute video for each session. The written materials were handed out to class participants at the outset of each of the three segments, and each class started with the video for that session. The class then divided into three groups for discussion, each group having its own discussion leader. The discussion lasted some 50 minutes, and then the class gathered for a short debriefing before dismissal. The topics for the sessions have been listed elsewhere; suffice it to say that the content reflects the insights and perspectives of well-known and lesser-known theologians, pastors, and lay leaders from a wide range of denominations. Some of the ideas presented seemed questionable or even heretical, but the basic thrust was always to think about what the scriptures say, not just to repeat the words of the Bible without comprehending them. In other words, I found the emphasis was on worshiping the God who is revealed in the Bible, not the Bible itself. And the skepticism and slightly mocking tone levelled by some of the video presenters at literalists, fundamentalists and even evangelical Christians was not entirely out of place, since there was also some self-deprecatory commentary and a sense of humility in admitting that “we do not know everything.”
But the group discussions were the highlight of the classes. Not only was the course material discussed, class members added materials of which they were aware, either to bolster the course materials or to challenge them. And as class members shared of their own personal experiences and faith journeys, it became clear that some of these new perspectives and insights were sorely lacking in the religious education that many of us had received. Personal sharing and continued discussions about the course continued during the week for many class participants. As with most human enterprises, the class members who got the most out of the classes were those who put effort into preparing for them. Not everyone accepted everything that was presented – but that was the point of the class, that we do not have the answers to all the questions that our thinking may lead to. We need to understand how to ask the right questions and, ultimately, how to live our faith through those questions.
LIVING THE QUESTIONS
In a way it has been a long 23 weeks since we started the study, but it has been well worth it. I believe I only missed one lesson due to another responsibility. Thank-you immensely, Wark, for leading us in this challenging and rewarding adventure. For me it confirmed a lot of insights I had been gleaning in my spiritual pilgrimage over the years. One example is the emphasis many of our churches put on John 3, “be born again”, a one-time event. For me it had become a process, a continuum, a becoming. To now hear that this was a translation problem, that the original word was actually “born from above”, has much better meaning and to me confirms my experience. Living the questions also opened up new mysteries needing further exploring. God’s Word is a living Word where our creator continues speaking, continues creating with more new mysteries. A quote from page 65 “If God ever spoke, [God] is still speaking… [God] is the Great I Am, not a Great I Was…” Another aspect of the Divine’s mystery is his revelation in community. This to me was also exemplified here at Bethel. It was encouraging to see the number of people joining the class and continuing to the end, and the insights we experienced from our sharing together. God is alive and continuing his work. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion and growing in the process. Shalom!
Evelyn and Jan Leferink
Participating in this series has been good for both of us. Its subjects were revealing, insightful and at times sobering; confronting realities of what and how to believe. This has widened our understanding of Biblical interpretation, and increased our understanding of God.
Jim and Judy Wiens
The sessions have led to many interesting discussions and prompted us to reframe our thinking and past teaching.
In her last week of life, my mother’s greatest concern was to be sure her four children were saved. Knowing that to her the requirement for being saved was to have prayed the sinner’s prayer, I reminded her that we four siblings had each done that when we were young, and although some of us may have “slid back” at times, that particular prayer was supposed to give us eternal security.
This literal system of thought and belief in the inerrancy of the Bible had always been quite confusing to me, but my parents considered it sinful to question or doubt. At the same time, the facts of science were more and more at odds with the Bible.
I went through life vacillating between what I thought were my only two choices: 1) commit a certain intellectual suicide in order to be a good Christian, or 2) when feeling unable to sustain that, go through periods of feeling guilt for my sinful doubt and “not being good enough”. I acted out the latter in negative ways. In this dualistic system, if you couldn’t believe and be good, then you must be bad. I went through depression, confusion and anxiety, unable to flourish in either world. I felt fake being this kind of Christian, but fearful that if I wasn’t, I would go straight to hell (whatever that is).
Threats of being left behind at the rapture had me screaming in the middle of our garden at age five when I came home from school and couldn’t find my mom – who had simply been visiting next door. We kids suffered beatings from a father who wouldn’t spare the rod (to the point my mom called the police to stop him); we sisters knew we were second class citizens because our gender had brought evil into the world (so when I was sexually abused at age 11, it was thought I must have invited it). I felt deep shame, I felt unable to trust my own mind or to believe I could ever really be good enough. And loving myself would not have been humble. As a result I had more than one breakdown in my adulthood.
These past weeks at the “Living the Questions” series has validated many things I had been secretly suspecting along my journey, but now I can embrace them without having to throw out Christianity. Learning to understand the Bible metaphorically opens up meanings that can go deeper than literal interpretations allow. A great illustration of the powerful truth of a metaphor was given in this series: there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln holding an axe in the air ready to sever the chains of an African slave who is holding the chain between his shackled wrists over a rock. Did this literally take place? No. Did Lincoln free the slaves? Yes, and in that sense this metaphor is powerfully true! As an artist, I am particularly pleased with this thinking because the arts embrace mystery and defy any single interpretation. But growing up I was warned that art was useless, impractical, and even dangerous – a remnant of the Mennonite fear of creating graven images. Growing up in my era, being a confused Mennonite female artist was not a good thing to be! Nothing about me was quite right.
The series has started to set me free in many ways while at the same time it has set me adrift. But being adrift in this way is good – developing comfort with ambiguity and metaphor, wonder at the mystery of the divine, and putting love (even for myself) and justice at the centre instead of dogma – sounds good to me!
The vice of certainty was how my parents coped with life, but it made them very judgmental. I can forgive that because I know they did their best with what they knew and I have compassion for them being trapped in that system. We learned that clergy have thought metaphorically for 100 years but have said nothing. If they had, it might have saved me a lifetime of heartache and damage! I am grateful that they are speaking now and I am clinging to a particular quote from Spong: “Live life to its fullest, love wastefully, and be all you can be”. I have a long journey ahead. Thank you Val and Wark for all your hard work facilitating “Living the Questions”.