This post is contributed by Marc Cortez, Th.M. program director and academic dean at Western Seminary in Portland, OR and blogger at Scientia et Sapientia.
Jean Luc Picard frustrates me. Not only do women find him more attractive than me despite the fact that he’s old, bald, and has a pointy nose, but he also has one really annoying habit: He never puts the shields up in time! If you’ve seen many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, you know what I’m talking about. Faced with a terrifyingly dangerous situation, the Enterprise will be sitting there with it’s shields still down. Only after some alien vessel has actually blown a hole in the side of the Enterprise, will Picard finally yell, “Shields up!” And, it always leaves me thinking, “Um, couldn’t you have done that a bit earlier? You know, before people started getting killed.”
Having your shields down at the wrong moment can be very dangerous. The same is true in theology.
5 EARLY WARNING SIGNS THAT YOUR SHIELDS SHOULD BE UP
Sometimes you need to have your theological shields up. These are situations when you should be on high alert. Some of these are obvious. If someone is trying to convince you of an idea that is obviously contrary to God’s word (more on this in a moment) or immoral, go ahead and raise the shields. You don’t need me to tell you that. You can even yell, “Red alert!”, if it will make you happy. It might be worth it just to see the look on the other person’s face.
But, I can think of at least five situations that are far more dangerous. These are times when we’re likely to feel safe and comfortable, confident that we don’t need our shields because nothing is threatening us. And, we completely fail to realize that these are the very times when we should be at our most alert.
1. When you want to believe.
Nothing is more theologically dangerous than wanting to believe that something is true. If we want it to be true, we’ll do almost anything to convince ourselves that it actually is true. So, we’ll subconsciously lower our defenses, paving the way for believing what we want. It’s so easy to put the blinders on.
For example, in many ways, I want to be an egalitarian. I like the way it sounds: we’re all equal in every way. Who wouldn’t like that? And, with a talented wife and some amazing daughters, egalitarianism is very attractive. Consequently, there’s a part of me that would like to ignore the whole debate, disregard the data, and just conclude that egalitarianism is true. I’d get what I want that way.
Whenever I find myself wanting something to be true, I should immediately be on guard. Of course, just because I want it to be true doesn’t mean that it’s not true. (I’m also not saying that egalitarians only believe in egalitarians because they want to.) It just means that “wanting to believe” can be dangerous. And, in any dangerous situation, we need to have our shields up.
2. When it would be easier to believe.
Theological convictions have practical implications. How we understand the nature and purpose of the church shapes how we disciple, worship, and preach; our view of the “end times” affects whether we get involved in environmental issues and how we think about social justice; our understanding of the Gospel and salvation impacts almost everything we do, from how we parent our children to the way we approach our jobs. Theology has practical implications; it’s for the town, not the tower.
But this means that we’re constantly faced with the temptation to believe something because it would make our lives easier. It’s easier to believe that there’s nothing wrong with having lots of material possessions, because then I don’t have to change my comfortable American lifestyle. It’s easier to believe that my relationship with God is primarily a private matter between him and me, because then I can justify sleeping in on Sunday morning. It’s easier to believe that evangelism is a spiritual gift that only some people have, because then I don’t feel as guilty for not telling people about the Gospel very often.
Anytime believing that something is true will make our lives easier, or allow us to continue in an easier direction, we need to check ourselves. We’d like to believe that we’re all spiritual versions of Indiana Jones, bravely walking down even the most dangerous paths. But, if you’re at all like me, the reality is far less complimentary. The easy path beckons, and it’s hard to ignore.
3. When the broader culture wants you to believe.
We are creatures of our culture. That’s unavoidable. We receive a steady stream of messages from our culture about what is good, true, and beautiful, most of which we barely even notice. Slowly and steadily, that stream shapes us. And, nothing would be easier than to let go and drift pleasantly along. And, that very comfort is why we need to be on guard. Peer pressure isn’t just for kids.
For example, my American culture desperately wants me to believe that homosexuality and gay marriage are just fine. The current in that part of the stream is very strong. More subtly, my culture wants me to believe in consumerism, individualism, democracy, and American exceptionalism. And, knowing how easy it is just to let the stream shape me however it wants, I need to be extra careful with each of these messages.
Interestingly enough, though, many of us need to be equally careful of an opposite reaction here. Some of us are so sensitive to the cultural danger, that we need to beware the temptation to assume that if our culture wants us to believe something, it must be wrong. Returning to egalitarianism, some conclude that because egalitarianism is a cultural value, which it certainly is, anyone who affirms egalitarianism is simply capitulating to culture. The egalitarian does need to be aware of the possibility that they’re being shaped by culture here. But, non-egalitarians need to have their shields up as well, making sure that their position is not just a knee-jerk reaction against culture. Both approaches are dangerous to good theology.
4. When your immediate culture wants you to believe.
Cultures come in all sizes. Usually when we hear warnings about “culture,” people are thinking about the overall messages sent by an entire society. But, our immediate culture shapes us at least as much, if not more. So, we need to be alert to those dangers as well.
For example, one of my most formative “cultures” is the seminary where I teach. And, that culture would really like me to believe that the Bible is inerrant. Indeed, they want me to believe it so much that they put it in the document I signed when I agreed to teach here. It’s a strong cultural value. So, nothing would be easier than to believe in inerrancy simply because that’s what my culture wants.
Time for a gut check. Something as important as how I view the Bible should not be determined simply by the fact that it’s what a particular culture wants me to believe. Once again, of course, the fact that they want me to believe it doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t take into account the faith-commitments of my local community. Indeed, I’m a big fan of history, tradition, and the church. So I’d be the first to say that the theological commitments of my “culture” is important. But, it becomes a problem when I slip comfortably into the position of assuming that what my local culture wants me to believe must be right. That may be comfortable, but it can also be dangerous.
5. When the right answer seems obvious.
Of the five, this may be the most subtle. When the right answer is so obvious, why worry about it? Anyone who holds to the opposite view is either an idiot or isn’t really paying attention. The answer is right there. People can be so stupid.
I hear this problem most often when people start throwing around adjectives like “biblical” and “logical.” Nothing dismisses a contrary view faster than referring to yours as the only biblical or logical conclusion. The alternative, of course, is that the other view is unbiblical or illogical.But the problem is that any theological controversy worth the name involves people arguing for the other side who are not idiots and who do in fact read their Bibles. If that wasn’t the case, the discussion would have ended long ago. You can, of course, argue that they’re not reasoning well or interpreting their Bibles properly, but, at the very least, you have to acknowledge that your answer doesn’t seem at all obvious to them. And, you need to figure out why.
In my context, the clearest examples of this problem come from the Calvinism/Arminianism debate and in the argument between credobaptists and paedobaptists (i.e. believer’s baptism vs. infant baptism). There’s a tendency in each of these debates for people on both sides to act like the others are idiots (i.e. their arguments are fundamentally irrational) and unbiblical (i.e. there simply isn’t any biblical warrant for their position). The problem is that for this assumption to work, you have to believe that some really intelligent people in the history of Christian theology are also really dumb. Because, of course, both sides have their theological “giants.”
When the answer to a difficult issue “obvious” to you, then STOP. Unless you are Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius), it’s quite possible that you’re missing something. And, until you’ve come to understand how perfectly rational people can see the other perspective in a way that makes good biblical sense, you haven’t really understood it. You don’t have to agree with it, but you should try to understand it.
DANGEROUS SITUATIONS EASILY MISSED
Why are these situations so dangerous? Because we don’t see them as dangerous. Instead, these are the times when we’re likely to feel the most comfortable and safe. Rather than being occasions when we raise our shields and take a closer look at what we believe, these are the times when we’re likely to let our shields down, relax, and just continue in the same direction. And, in a perfect world, that would probably be the right response. But, this is far from a perfect world. And, when we let our shields down at the wrong time in this world, some alien is going to blow a hole in our hull.
What about you? What do you think are some theologically dangerous situations that we tend to miss? When are you likely to have your shields down when your really should be on high alert?