Different Journeys

People are all different. We have different skills, personalities, experiences, preferences, thoughts, etc. There are many different ways to be human. Those differences do not mean that one person is “more human” than another or that one culture expresses humanity better than others. We express our humanity through diversity as well as sharing common traits.

When we add to this the fact that Christian faith is a dynamic faith built on interpersonal relationship, we should not be surprised that Christianity is expressed in a wide variety of ways. Just as many people might know and interact with the same person, but in different ways, we shouldn’t be surprised if other people’s relationship with God differs slightly from our own.

Yet, for many of us this can still be an issue, sometimes causing anxiety. I would like to suggest a couple of reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, perhaps we have tried to reduce the Christian faith to a formula. Maybe Christianity has become too much about learning a set of doctrines, with doctrinal accuracy being seen as the touchstone.

Now, it is important to say that doctrines do have a part to play. It is important to learn something of the story of the gospel and to learn truths about ourselves and God. However, perhaps we think that it is possible or maybe even necessary to get all our theology “right”.

When theology is done from a cultural standpoint (which it always is as we can’t think without using our own cultural filters), there will always be aspects that are incomplete (because of the limits of any human culture) or mistaken to some degree. No single human thought system is capable of laying down a definitive system of teaching that is 100% correct, or 100% exhaustive, nor would it be possible for it to be 100% transferable to all cultures.

We can forget that our own culture has been involved in creating the statements of faith and doctrinal systems that we or our denominations adhere to. This doesn’t mean that they are useless or utterly wrong, but it does mean that we should expect that theology done in a different cultural environment will be different. There will be key aspects that cross over the cultures (as there are key aspects that help identify us all as “human”), but some things will not be understood or expressed in the same way.

Spending time in other cultures can help us to learn and become gradually  more comfortable with the fact that others can eat, speak, dress and act in many ways differently to ourselves, yet still share the common bond of humanity. Similarly, if we spend time with different expressions of Christianity with an open mind we can begin to see the common bonds we share, as well as the differences between us. Some of these differences may well be “bad” and might warrant addressing. But this is far from being the case for all points at which we differ.

This brings us on to the second point. Perhaps partly due to the influence of consumerist, capitalist, materialist cultures around us, it is easy to become very individualistic. Couple that with a sense of cultural evolution that sees a superiority in the current age and you can easily end up with a position whereby we project ourselves as the norm by which all else is to be judged.

Much of our fear of others and our standing in judgement over them has less to do with whether they are actually “right” or fellow children of God and more to do with our desire to make ourselves feel more secure. We want to think that we are right. We like to think that our experiences are “normal” and so we judge others’ experiences against our own. So, we come to expect that “true” Christianity is one that embraces the same teachings as us, expressing its faith the same as us, with people coming to faith in the same way we did.

However, we, whether as individuals or even larger communities, are unable to account for the full diversity of humanity, nevermind the infinite complexities of the character of God. So, we are mistaken if we think that Christians should all look, think and act exactly the same. It is not possible and arguably it is not even desirable. God created us with differences, so we shouldn’t expect all of them to be wiped out and the children of God to become homogeneous, bland clones.

We also risk having very short memories. Many of us have had complex faith experiences including all kinds of struggles with our relationship with God and times when we have radically changed our mind on various doctrines and ideas. Yet, we get impatient with others if they fail to see our point and change within 5 minutes what took us many months or years of painful working out.

It is great that we want to share the good things God has shown us and that we want to help others to know God better and to have more fruitful lives. However, let us remain patient as we share with one another. Each has a journey to travel with God. It is not the same as yours. Some people might never have experiences you have had and vice versa.

You see, we are all different. We share one faith, one Lord and one God. Yet we do so in  a variety of ways that illustrates both the amazing complexity and joy of being human and the incredible depths and wonder of humanity in relationship with its God.


© Joe Lenton, January 2013

Reading the Bible – 2 Simple Questions

Open BibleReading the Bible can sometimes seem very complicated and confusing. The huge distance in history and culture may cause us to wonder if we can make any sense of it without specialist knowledge.

There are many tools that can be learned to help us study Scripture. In the main, they basically tend to boil down to 2 key questions that we can ask:

1) Why?
2) So what?

The first question, “why?”, relates to the text and what has fed into it. We ask why the author might have wanted to write this – what kinds of circumstances may have caused them to think this piece of writing useful or essential? Why is it structured the way it is? Why has it been included in our Bibles?

There are various resources that can help us to address the “why?” question. Historical and cultural studies may be of some value and so consulting commentaries may be useful. Also, when we come to think of how the text is written, an appreciation of literary technique – their skills as a writer – may come into play. If these feel too much like the tools of the expert for use in dusty studies only, then we can often get similar results by using our imagination – try to put yourself in the place of the author/first readers.

Answering the “why?” question is not an exact science. We simply cannot know for sure what the circumstances of writing were or what was going through the author’s mind. Using historical or literary tools may help us to understand better, yet in essence what they do is inform and feed our imaginative leaps at grasping “why?”. We trust also that God’s Holy Spirit is involved, speaking to us as we wrestle with the text.

The second question “so what?” is very similar to our first. The slight difference is that it concerns itself more with our present circumstances. What significance do our findings from the passage have for us today?

This cannot help but be a subjective exercise. We cannot judge what matters to us today without already involving our own cultures, theologies and preferences.  Moreover, our present situation and experiences will in part dictate what is “important” to us at the time, meaning that the “so what?” aspect of a passage may vary depending on when we read it.

If we don’t ask the “so what?” question, then we risk being left with historical artefacts or dry doctrines and systematic theologies. These things can be learnt and even agreed to without them having to affect us or the way we live. Everything is abstract rather than concrete. Asking “so what?” helps to ground our interaction with the text – we are coming to it with a purpose, not just to dig up a load of information.

The 2 questions do not always operate separately as we read. They can and do blur. For example, we can weigh up the usefulness of the answers we find to “why?” by constantly asking “so what?” – there can be a constant interaction between the past and our present.

A great deal of Bible reading involves the imagination and is an “art” not an exact science. Even if we don’t delve into “scholarly” methods, we can still help ourselves to get a lot from each passage simply by asking why it is there and what the significance is for us. If we can’t find any, then maybe we either need to work harder or come back another time as it isn’t speaking to us right now.

© Joe Lenton, September 2012