“What’s the worst thing about this college?”.
This was a question I asked at each of the three theological colleges which I was considering for my three years of study prior to being ordained in the Church of England. One particular college, the third of the three, was the one I would almost certainly attend. This wasn’t because it was my natural favourite (it wasn’t), but because it would enable me to be near my fiancée and her family as we prepared for marriage, whilst supporting her mother who was suffering from what proved to be terminal cancer. Everyone I met on the day I spent there was lovely. Especially the students. Most of them. Some of them were a tad on the over-zealous side. They were loudly talking up the benefits of the college whilst we played table-tennis. After the game concluded, I found myself in a group of (all men – not a surprise, all the would be priests here were men), continuing the conversation. As we talked, needlessly loudly given we were within a few feet of each other, I realised I was being quite literally backed into a physical corner; this probably wasn’t deliberate on the part of the students, but it felt like an apt representation of the hard-sell I received. As I found myself with nowhere left to go, I asked that question – I had a very good idea by now what the college’s perceived strong points were. I wanted to know what was wrong with it. A moment of silence: “I suppose it can be a bit intense occasionally.”, came the reply. No kidding.
I ended up studying there, mainly for the practical reasons I mentioned. I made some good friends, enjoyed some of the study because I like study and reading, and harbour a few (very few) good memories; but yes, it was intense. Theologically most of what was promoted – by many staff and the most vocal students – was of one particular system. The system was Calvinism, most specifically what’s known as 5-point Calvinism. Now theology has exercised some of humanity’s greatest minds over the last 2,000 or so years, so it’s impossible to do justice to such an intellectually complex system as Calvinism in a few sentences. Suffice to say it covers issues like the free-will of humans to respond to God’s (irresistable) grace, and suggests (depending on quite where on a spectrum you sit), that God has chosen before time who will be saved and who won’t be. When I expressed to someone at college that I didn’t agree with these ideas I was, told that to believe otherwise was “sub-Christian”. Not everyone went that far, of course, but the message was clear; there was only one theological system to which we should adhere.
That all came back to my mind when I was reading Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed“. I don’t know much about the author, but the book stood out from the crowd as conservative reformed (in this case meaning Calvinist) theology has become a louder, richer and well-publicised force in some more westernised countries. It’s a short book – 136 pages – so I wasn’t expecting much heavy theology. I was expecting a narrative reflection on the author’s experience. I did get the latter, but it surprised me how much of the former I also got, given the book’s brevity. The author describes his own experience of growing up and being trained in Calvinist/Reformed theology, and then his gradual departing from it towards something rather different. He uses logic, reason, personal and pastoral experience, the Bible and theology to do this; and he does it accessibly.
He doesn’t pretend at any point in this book that what he’s saying is the whole story. He doesn’t dismiss Calvinism (though reading some online reviews, some feel he does). True, the version he was taught is very extreme; but the issue is that many people do actually take this theology to those extremes. He is also at pains to point out that he remains grateful for what Calvinism has given him, can see why some interpret Scripture in this way and lauds the intellectual integrity of those fully committed to it. The theological landing place he finds himself in is one he feels works, but he is clear it is not the finished article, and suggests that there should be no theological worldview that is complete and unassailable. God is other and holy; infinite and ineffable; and many other things besides. To suggest we can describe him fully would be folly; humility, says Fischer, should be the theologian’s and disciple’s ultimate posture. The God revealed to us in Jesus that the author paints for us is a loving, intoxicating and attractive one. I think I agree with Fischer more than I disagree with him.
There’s the rub. Increasingly there is no one theological system I can call my own. The other day I was trying to articulate this and said I might be ‘theologically homeless’. I wondered if that might be somewhat tactless; but then a friend pointed out that maybe it was apt – accepting nourishment and provision wherever I find it. Not a perfect image, but a striking one; and one I suspect many of my homeless friends might resonate with. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fixed points – Jesus’ divinity, the resurrection, historic creeds. But these describe rather than systematise; they give parameters within which to explore. These parameters, it turns out, are surprisingly spacious, far more so than the suffocating control I found Calvinism to be (and which other people experience of other closed theological systems). Yes, I have certainties; but there’s much I don’t know. It’s a city the streets of which I’m still walking; alleys, byways and major roads which I’m still discovering; working out where the refreshing parks and coffee shops are. Is it pushing it too far to state here that Jesus said he that had nowhere to lay his head? Maybe; but the most pure revelation of God humanity has received is a person, who for three years roamed from place to place, doing what he sensed God was guiding him to do. That’s not so much a system as it is a discovery of a map, a city, a region.
If you have a theological system to defend you always have to be on the look out. You sense someone probing away at one part of is, so you have to scramble to keep it intact. If one part disappears, the whole will go with it. Such a system may look attractive, and appear safe and secure, but as soon as you find one part doesn’t work, then it all comes crashing down. For me, as for so many others, that collapse can come around God’s ‘control’ or sovereignty or whatever you want to call it. Extreme Calvinists – who take it to its logical conclusions – decide that God is in control of everything. We sort of have free will; but nothing happens to which God doesn’t say yes. And still he remains perfectly good.
Many believe this with confidence and integrity; I never have. A few days ago the hugely influential Christian writer Rachel Held Evans died, painfully young, of a sudden illness, leaving behind a husband and young children. Her writing nourished many – including me – and painted a way back to a Jesus-centred faith that many who had given up on it all could embrace. She grew up in a theological environment similar to Fischer’s, and ended up in landing place that may be a little different to his, but also has many overlaps. In the wake of her death, many are mourning. Some of my more Calvinist friends, whilst sincerely lamenting the sadness of this loss, stated her final blog post on the subject of death and loss on Ash Wednesday showed ‘God was in control’.
I admire them, but wonder if that could be said to her family. I shudder at the idea that some may say God was in the control of the terrorist’s bullet which killed my friend in Nairobi one day. I think I couldn’t worship such a God. Rachel Held Evans, Austin Fischer, and others like them provide for me and many others a picture of a Jesus-like God whom I find mysterious and other and holy and majestic; yet still truthful, kind, good and impossible to systematise or fill in all the blanks of, at least this side of the new creation. Humans aren’t made in the image of a system; we’re made in the image of a God of three persons, all in perfect relationship, all-loving, all-good. I don’t need a system to draw close to that God – much as many seem to think I do. After all, when Jesus died, a curtain that preserved a system was torn in two.
No. I don’t think that I need a system. I need a person, one whom I can know even as I am known.