Freedom in Talking Theology, and an Amazing Talk on that Front
November 29, 2016
This is a longish post to introduce you to a stunner of a longish talk at the recent Blue Ocean summit. If my writing bores you and you want to get straight to Emily Swan’s fascinating talk, then have it.
Now for the introduction:
I was listening in on three of my friends having kind of a crazy conversation recently. They were having it in public, over on the Blue Ocean podcast, so I wasn’t eavesdropping. And my friend Tom told a story that captured something that I’ve been thinking about, and apparently something a bunch of my pastor friends have been thinking about as well.
Tom talked about a time when he gave a talk about evolution and Jesus and what a freeing experience that was for him. As a psychiatrist whose work interacts significantly with evolutionary genetics, Tom is rarely asked to talk about Jesus. And with his part-time hobby as preacher and pastor, Tom had rarely found his work and thinking on evolution to be welcome. In fact, his interest in science and career as a scientist was often viewed suspiciously.
So how freeing it was for Tom to be invited to give a talk on Jesus and evolution, in which he could think and speak freely, without fear that he would be censored or perceived as a threat.
I’ve been thinking recently about how rare this freedom it is when it comes to public talk about God, faith, and meaning in life.
Academia prides itself on cultivating a free and rigorous life of the mind pursuit. Researchers and thinkers try on new ideas and explore new perspectives and data, and see where it takes them. The process of research and peer-reviewed publishing and after-session chats at conferences helps people explore new intellectual territory that sometimes eventually shapes us all.
The business marketplace often rewards this kind of adventuresome thinking as well. Entrepreneurs and innovators are encouraged to try new ideas and methodologies and are often rewarded, rather than stigmatized, for failure, if said failed ventures were big and bold in its aspirations.
When it comes to people that talk about God and faith for a living, though, there’s an awful lot of fear and censorship. I’ve known pastors who tried out a novel idea in a sermon and were fired within a month or two. Many theological institutions, particularly our more conservative ones, encourage writing and scholarship only to the degree it arrives at pre-set conclusions about the Bible, or aspects of God’s nature or how God works in the world.
All of this means leads to a climate of fear around our deepest questions related to faith. Pastors fear sharing their true thoughts with churchgoers. Churchgoers fear sharing their real doubts or asking their thorniest questions. And no one learns anything new.
I’m incredibly glad to pastor and teach at a church where this isn’t true. Where people don’t assume I have to teach with supreme confidence or an infallible set of views on things. And I’m glad to be part of a faith network where people can freely explore big, bold views on spiritual issues.
All this to say, when a hundred or so folks gathered for the recent Blue Ocean Summit, this year held in Iowa City, Emily Swan gave the talk of the conference when she spoke about the theology of Rene Girard. Girard was a literary critic and deep thinker who came to the Bible and the Christian faith later in life and then never left either.
He is notoriously hard to read, a reputation I can agree with after reading one of his books on the Bible. He also has a theory of everything. He purports to explain the origins of human society, the nature of evil in the world, the message of the Bible, the meaning of most ancient literature, the unique and abiding power of the death of Jesus, and much more! So there’s a lot to take in. And – of course – as with all big ideas, he may not have it all right.
But Emily gives us a way in to Girard’s thoughts about what’s wrong with the world and what Jesus does about it that is deep, fascinating, vulnerable, and powerful.
I hope you enjoy this talk nearly as much as I did: