Monday, September 16, 2013

Pardonable Subjectivism

Question for Christians: How do you treat the personal story of someone's conversion? I mean when someone recounts to you their conversion story, what to you do about it. Do you, on one hand, analyze the account to death and point out its theological faults, or derive a deep abiding doctrinal statement from it, blithely bending and twisting what you thought you knew to fit with your friend's account? Or would you generally take a middle road and allow the person his private perceptions of how and why God has worked in his life without giving it universal application?

Second question, more theological this time: In the context of the above, taking into account God's universal love for us, how would you respond if someone told you that God, counter to your intuitive understanding of that love, saved him, showed mercy to him, gave grace to him, loved him, etc. (and yes, I lump these together on purpose. I think that we split hairs far too glibly in these matters.) only because of some extenuating circumstance and that otherwise he would have been passed over? Would you try to explain to that person, that no, God has mercy on everyone, because that is his nature and it's not at all about us or would you pass it off as not that vitally important?

Third question: What if this person was the Apostle Paul? In 1 Timothy 1:13 he says precisely the kind of thing I refer to in question-- that he was shown mercy because of his ignorance. Now what do you do? You see, a couple of days ago I was reading this. It's written by a friend, whom I disagree with sharply on many occasions and issues, but whose erudition and Bible scholarship are several "pay-grades" above my own. I was appreciating his exposition about the various biblical words for ignorance, when suddenly I thought, "Wait a minute. Saying something that seems to abrogate God's universal mercy is not allowed or maybe taken seriously from anyone else, but if Paul does it we have to alter our theology?" It's a question of paradigm. If we look at the Bible as inerrant (I'm starting to call this the "the book done fell from the sky" theory) we are forced to make everything in it true in an absolute sense and it has to distort our theology. That's why my friend sees a necessity to categorize different kinds of ignorance.

There's really another way. Let's remember who we all are. Paul is not the uniquely anointed leader of a church filled with people otherwise disconnected from God who need him to disseminate all that is true. He is one of many sons of God (ideally!) equally filled by the Holy Spirit. He has a very significant voice among us, but by very definition of what it means to be the church, if we really want to look ourselves as all (including Paul) members of the body of Christ (Paul's own metaphor) then we cannot claim absolute error free communication will come from any one of us. We are all here to complete each other. Moses' prophetic prayer -- to which the church is the fulfilment-- says it all. "Oh that God would put his Spirit on all his people..."

And when it comes to Paul's take on why God showed him mercy or indeed his claim to be the chief of sinners, which I really have heard people take literally, ("You can't claim to be too bad to forgive; Paul has already declared himself to be the worst of sinners and God forgave him...") the question becomes "Why do we have crank up the doctrine mill for a subjective throw-away comment about something very personal -- Paul's conversion experience?" I say we allow him this subjectivism. We certainly allow it for each other. But let's not try to theologize around it.

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