Equipping Congregations for Theological Conversations

November 1st, 2021
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Would you trust a psychologist who had never heard of Sigmund Freud? What about a literature professor who hadn’t read the works of William Shakespeare, or a philosopher who wasn’t familiar with Aristotle? Each one might claim to be an authority, but without taking time to learn about the authorities that came before them, they can’t possibly know where their ideas came from and why they’re true. 

People prefer to learn things from diligent students of the discipline they’re talking about. Our psychologists should know Freud, our literature professors should know Shakespeare, and our philosophers should know Aristotle. But what about our Christian leaders? When they talk to others about their faith, they present with authoritative knowledge about the most important aspects of existence. They claim to know about God, creation, and the nature of human existence itself! The Christian tradition has a long line of spiritual and intellectual geniuses who helped establish and refine the core of what we believe. Are Christians sincere students in the knowledge they claim to profess? Are they ready to speak with authority about the faith they love so much?

Most congregants certainly don’t feel ready to share their faith or discuss it in a small group or family. Parents are afraid to talk about faith with their teenagers. Office workers are afraid to talk about faith with coworkers. Friends are afraid to talk about faith with non-Christian friends. That fear might be healthy because it keeps us from what we’re unprepared to do, and informs us on future courses of growth if we choose to move forward. If we aim to help congregants conquer their fear of talking about faith, we can address those things holding them back; we can help them acquire a healthy knowledge of theology and the confidence to think theologically. Then they can start to speak with authority about what they believe and why they believe it. 

This process doesn’t have to be difficult or abstract. Theology has been unfairly maligned as an intellectual discipline best handled by experts, but basic, fruitful Christian discourse requires theological knowledge. Most questions asked by non-Christians are expressly theological questions. “How can God exist when there’s all this suffering?” “What about those weird passages in your Bible?” “What’s the deal with this whole Hell thing?” If we want to help people answer these questions in a way that shows that we take our beliefs seriously, we should equip others with knowledge of the great concepts within theology and the thinkers responsible for them.

Consider the most basic question that a Christian might be asked: “How do you know that God exists?” The questions is simple on the surface, but complex enough that it takes some thought. To give someone the theological tools they’ll need to answer well, we’ll need a few different perspectives: enough diversity that they can find where they fit within the tradition, but not so much that it feels overwhelming. As with most things in Christian thought, three seems to be the perfect number, because people have room to think and maneuver. When wrestling with the existence of God, here are three excellent theologians who influenced our thinking:

Kallistos Ware

Let’s start with a modern thinker: Kallistos Ware of the Eastern Orthodox church. His famous proverb, “God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder,”[i] speaks well to the kind of awe that so many of us feel when we speak about God. How can creatures as small as us prove the magnificence of something so grand? To that end, he introduces three pointers. They can’t prove God. Nothing can! But God isn’t a concept to be proven. God is a being. We can point others toward God through the beauty around us, the beauty inside us, and the beauty between us.

First, there’s the beauty around us. Despite all the evil that lurks in this world, it’s still the home of indescribable beauty. It’s not a random, disjointed beauty. There’s structure to it. It’s consistently beautiful. From the smallest snowflake to the daily sunset, the world is filled with astonishing things. How did this pattern of beauty come about?

The second pointer, the beauty within ourselves, reminds us of our basic nature as humans. As a species, we are deeply concerned with duty, honor, and love. We have consciences deep in our being that inform us about what’s right. It is agony to ignore one’s conscience. Many a sleepless night is the result of mulling over things that we aren’t proud of. Why has this quest for good and the intricate mental resources that accompany it been given to each one of us?

Third, Ware points to beauty in relationships. In those deep relationships in which we genuinely love someone, something special happens. We can experience another’s joy and sorrows, their pains and fears, and their hopes and dreams. In moments like these, we feel convicted that there must be a life after death. The love we feel demands an eternity to be properly expressed! In a world of mothers and fathers, of brothers and sisters, of lovers and teachers and friends, can we accept that death is truly the end?

With those three beautiful mysteries, Ware rests his case. He hasn’t attempted to define or prove God by presenting a list of facts. Instead, he invites the reader to experience wonder and awe at the mysteries of this world: the beauty around us, the beauty within us, and the beauty between us. Those mysteries led him to a greater mystery: a God that loves him and longs to be known. It’s a simple answer, but a compelling one, and one that could be remembered by anyone without much work. [ii]

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Jeffery Burton Russell

To add a second perspective to the mix, let’s move towards the right-brained side of thinking. Some people have minds equipped for logical debate, so the arguments of a rational thinker will appeal. We’ll stick to the modern era again. As much as I love the ancients, Justin Martyr’s assurance that Christians are not cannibals is only so relevant these days. Consider someone like Jeffery Burton Russell? The answers he provides in Exposing Myths About Christianity follow a trajectory much more relevant to modern concerns.

To dispute a purely materialist understanding of creation, Russell addresses the question: “If God didn’t make the universe, where did it come from?” One famous atheist, Edward Tryton, claimed, “[the universe] is simply one of those things that happens from time to time.”[iii] Russell argues that the cosmos is far too complex and diverse to have been something that “just happened” out of random chance. There are almost infinite variables that allowed life to form as it has, ranging from the perfect combination of elements to support the existence of atoms to the necessary age of the universe to build up the carbon required to support life. A delicate balance emerging out of pure chaos would be a wildly improbable event, even if we were to assume that the required materials all popped into existence and were drifting around in eternity. The old philosophical rule of Occam’s razor (the simplest explanation is usually the right one) begs that evidence-driven people give the historically normative answer more attention: everything is here because something powerful planned it out. The complexity of the world and the stability of creation as we experience it points to something intentional, rather than something random. Things have been carefully arranged for existence to flourish. That level of craftsmanship makes the idea of God more rational than many would like it to seem.[iv]

Augustine of Hippo

To give a third perspective to interested parties, we can tap the classic Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s most famous attempt to point to the existence of God takes a personal form: his story of conversion. It’s a very natural approach. Imagine that someone asked why we believed in anyone other than God. We wouldn’t feel obligated to start proving their existence! We’d explain why it is that we know we can trust this person. Belief isn’t merely about intellectual assent; it’s about the personal knowledge that you can trust someone. Why not be like Augustine and treat God like we would our best friend? Why not tell stories of how we came to trust God, rather than try to prove that God exists?

In his most famous work, Confessions, Augustine tells us exactly how he came to know God. Even though he’d accomplished so much in his life, he wasn’t happy. Instead of doing what was right, he usually ended up doing whatever felt good. The words of Paul express Augustine’s deep angst: “I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.”[v]Frustrated and unsure about his future, Augustine sat in his garden… when he heard the voice of some children singing: “Pick up and read! Pick up and read!”[vi] That wasn’t any nursery rhyme he’d ever heard before. Weird. And then he saw a copy of Paul’s Epistles that he had sitting on his table. He picked it up, opened it to a random page and read, from the book of Romans, “Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”[vii] That broke his heart open. He wrote, “At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”[viii] The happiness he wanted was right there waiting for him. He needed to fully commit to God and follow the faith that he’d been theorizing about. Many conversion stories sound similar to this. A person is unsure about God or running from divine presence, and then, in one fantastic moment, they know. If that’s someone’s best proof of God, they’re in good company! 

That’s three theological authorities with different ways to think about how God exists. By becoming aware of their work, our congregants are more equipped to answer doubts for themselves and other, which is how the gospel spreads. In an increasingly post-Christian and fragile culture, it’s no longer enough to invite someone to an event and expect they’ll become Christian. If we want to share and sharpen our faith, we should be able to show others that we’re sincere seekers of truth, with knowledge of our theological traditions. The tools we need are at our fingertips. Let’s get those tools to the people who need them.

[i] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), 14.

[ii] Ibid. 18-21.

[iii] Edward Tryton, “Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” Nature Vol. 246 (1973), 396-397. 

[iv] Jeffery Burton Russell, Exposing Myths About Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends (Downer’s Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 171-178.

[v] Rom 7:19 CEB.

[vi] Augustine of Hippo; Trans. Henry Chadwick, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 152.

[vii] Romans 13:13-14 CEB.

[viii] Augustine, Confessions, 153.

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