Like so many other parents with elementary-aged kids, I have recently learned that we don’t talk about Bruno, no no, no.
I haven’t even seen the movie, but I think I know the song just the same. And, like so many others my age, I also grew up with lists of questions we don’t talk about in our churches.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church, knowing that there were certain questions that were not allowed. But because I’ve never been great with authority, I asked them anyway.
Instead of writing about those that discouraged my questions, I would rather mention someone that is a hero of my faith – a petite, fiery saint by the name of Jana.
She hosted us every Saturday evening for Bible study. And every Saturday evening I’d find myself arguing with Jana. I didn’t necessarily intend to, but that was the way it went.
Looking back now, more than 20 years later, I would probably never use any of the materials we used. But I would, 100 out of 100 times, encourage Jana to lead those studies.
Why? Because even though our theologies differed, she saw that inquiry was not treason. She believed that young people deserve the respect of having an opinion and having the right to dialogue about it with people who know much more than they do.
Jana respected me enough to listen, to process and to disagree. She and her husband Steve gave me that space. Though I left much of the theology that they still hold to, I never left the Jesus that they demonstrated to me in their approach.
Theology is the lifeblood of the church, which Paul compared to a human body.
Healthy blood is always moving, continually being refreshed with oxygen and nutrients, constantly being remade. So it is with healthy theology.
Continuing the metaphor, honest inquiry and discussion can act as the kidneys and the liver of the church: cleansing and refreshing our lifeblood. This would be especially life-giving for younger Christians who are leaving the church at an alarming rate.
Dallas Willard, a different kind of hero of mine, said this: “Institutions could, without becoming terribly crushing in their authority, help people come to the place where their beliefs are based upon knowledge. But institutions tend not to do that because they find inquiry threatening. And one of the worst things that happens for young people, particularly who are raised in a particular political or religious context is they’re encouraged to think that to inquire is itself a kind of treason. Whereas the only hopeful thing for a young person is to inquire in such a way as to find out the extent to which their beliefs can be based upon knowledge” (emphasis mine).
“Deconstruction” is a lightning-rod term within today’s churches. It’s a valuable term that needs discussion, but I would encourage all church leaders to recognize that it would not likely be necessary if they would embrace inquiry from young people.
Churches and Christians need to champion inquiry, rather than treating it like treason. Does this mean a mentality of radical doubt, where we are not even sure if our kitchen table or the universe itself exists? I don’t believe so; I would not consider that “serious inquiry.”
Willard elsewhere said: “We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.”
Some things are obvious enough that we must live as if they are true, or we will be so paralyzed by philosophizing that we’ll never move.
It is important to help people understand the distinction between a good faith/serious inquiry, and a bad faith inquiry: which is actually the place much of our polarized media lives at the moment.
If a church wanted to practice serious inquiry, what could that look like?
First, serious inquiry does not begin with the end in mind.
In theological discussions, it is easy to allow our preconceptions and biases to tell us what scripture says. Serious inquiry seeks to enter with an open mind and open hands.
Second, serious inquiry should happen in multiple settings.
For Christian families, this should include discussions around the dinner table about difficult theology or scripture. But it can also be intentional times with the church family, where questions are discussed and encouraged.
Third, serious inquiry is not threatened by differing conclusions.
Jesus is the author and perfecter of the Christian faith, not the creator of homogeneous theology. Inquiry is the community seeking to have fresh and clean blood, to heal one another and, ultimately, to lead to the healing of Jesus Christ.
It is vital for church leaders to recognize that young people do not need rules or regulations so much as they need a hand to hold while they ask the hard questions and wrestle with the deep things of this life.
Don’t treat them like traitors for doing so, treat them the way Jana treated me – as a fellow sojourner trying to know and follow Jesus.