Will God protect you in a pandemic?
What does God think about sexuality?
How do you understand the word ‘hell’?
What about the end times and the rapture?
Have your beliefs on any of these changed over the years? How about your views on, say, baptism, other denominations or even other religions? I could go on, but there’s a long list of tough questions out there, and I for one have changed my mind on several. Here’s why I think that’s OK.
Women in Leadership
In the early 1990s I remember voting against the ordination of women at my church council meeting. The CofE was asking all churches to give their view on this divisive topic. My church overwhelmingly supported women in church leadership –I did not. But, in the following 10–15 years, my view of what the Bible says on this matter, changed 180 degrees.
We don’t like to admit that our Christian beliefs change. It makes us feel that somehow our faith might be on shaky ground. We worry that “mature Christians” will think less of us if we start to doubt something everyone else round here is dead sure about (at least that’s the impression they give). But, as NT Wright once said: “Has your understanding of Biblical theology changed over the years? … Then you are in great company!”
Our beliefs, our theology, what we believe and know about God should change over time. The only way our understanding of God could never change is if it was perfect to start with. The only person in this universe who has a perfect understanding of God is God (… and you are not God :-)).
Are there shifting beliefs in scripture?
Yes! We see examples of changing beliefs in God’s people in scripture. Here are just two. (They should involve a lengthy discussion, but I avoid that here).
First is it OK for Christians to eat meat that has been used in idol worship? Acts 15 says no, but Paul writing later in 1 Corinthians 8 says, it’s more complicated than “yes or no” and in fact, often it’s fine to eat it.
Second question, is the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, also for non-Jews (Gentiles)? The early church assumed the Gospel was only for Jews, since that made sense from everything they knew. But then, in Acts 10–11 God brings Peter to visit Cornelius. Cornelius is most likely a pagan and yet God has heard his pagan prayer. Peter and the church are astonished, but realise they were wrong — the Gospel must be for all.
Of course, it’s easy to dispense with the above by saying: “they were wrong – they needed correcting”. But isn’t that the point? Why would we presume that our theology, our understanding of God never needs correcting? A friend and minister from a nearby church once said to me: “20% of your theology is wrong Chris, and you don’t know which 20%”. This is not “being blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4.14). It’s just having the humility to accept that, on some matters, I might be wrong.
Are there stages or steps in our journey of faith?
Over the centuries theologians have offered descriptions of why our faith can change over time. Faith is sometimes described in three “stages”:
- Infant / institutional faith – here we accept at face value what we are taught. We learn by memory, and we don’t question. It’s like being a child in Sunday school but some people can go through their entire life in this mode very well – never feeling the need to get wrapped up in the really tough questions.
- Adolescent / critical faith – at this second stage we question our faith: why does God allow all kinds of awful tragedy? Why is he silent when I ask him about mine? And we look at opposing arguments from intelligent humanists, atheists, other faiths; to try to discover meaning.
- Adult / faith as mystery – we become aware of the complex and frankly conflicting nature of our world, and our God, but increasingly we feel able to hand our lack of understanding over to him. We learn to hold two conflicting, opposing ideas in tension (something writers of the scriptures were well able to do). We realise that God is less like us and more inexplicable than we ever imagined.
(Which stage best represents your faith right now?)
We can make the mistake of assuming you start at the first stage and work your way to the third. But no, it’s much messier than that with lots of back and forth. And eventually, we need to hold all three positions simultaneously. Eg it’s always good and helpful to memorise scripture and to thank God for the simple things, but we also learn to be content with having questions with no answers; while we also “challenge God” as to why things are as they are. And of course, we have to test out our new position on matters. Changing our view on a matter doesn’t make us right — it may take us into error, but if we are prayerfully seeking and staying in step with God’s Spirit, that shouldn’t be the case — he is the one who leads us into truth.
In recent years the last two stages (adolescent and adult faith) have been called “faith deconstruction” – taking apart foundational but potentially mistaken beliefs we may have held since childhood. This is an unsettling but healthy thing to do provided we are able to “re-construct” a more enduring faith at the end of it. Another phrase used in the past is “progressive revelation”, where God progressively reveals his truth to us but only as we grow to cope with that truth. (The Biblical examples above are examples of progressive revelation).
At its most severe, faith deconstructing can result in what Christian tradition calls “the dark night of the soul” – a spiritual crisis, which can include a crisis of doubt including that most fundamental doubt …. Is God there at all? (There are helpful resources at hand if you are in this place right now).
Where does all that leave us?
Sometimes I look back wistfully and wish my faith was as sharp and as simple as in my younger days. Everything seemed to be straightforward, whereas now there are so many questions. But I have also learnt that whether you call it deconstruction, progressive revelation or a crisis of faith, God uses such times to call us into a new and deeper relationship. He bids us let go of the comfort blankets we have carried for many years in order to enter a richer relationship which is more like a continuing conversation than simply “having the answer”. Maybe sometimes we have to momentarily lose our way for God to grasp us and show us a way we never noticed.
It’s like our knowledge of God is a tiny island in a huge expanse of ocean which is the vast mystery of God. Over time we experience life, we learn stuff, lots of stuff, and the island – what we know about God – grows bigger. Very good! But at the same time the boundary, the line along which this island touches the great unknowable ocean grows bigger still. So we know more but we realise there is ever more to know, our knowledge itself can create new questions. Perhaps a better phrase might be progressive bewilderment – but in a growing, trusting relationship, that’s OK!
We learn to not have the answers but to sit alongside the questions. We stop assuming that doubt equals weakness and realise that doubts are just human. We stop thinking we always have to get somewhere and relax and enjoy the journey. And, most of all, we give ourselves and others around us permission to change our mind.
So, whatever your view on the topics listed at the start, or others, make sure it isn’t be tied to the idea “… I always believed this so it MUST be right”.