Recently in our simple church gathering, we were discussing creation and evolution — more about that in some other post, perhaps. Along the continuum between a literal 6-day creation and a young earth and evolution lies intelligent design and theistic evolution. Near the end of the discussion, an excellent word picture (metaphor, even) came up to illustrate how truth can be elusive even to those who claim to have it, and uncomfortably placed for those who earnestly seek it. I’ve diagrammed the analogy for ease of explanation. At the extremes, we have fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist atheism. We could perhaps replace that with paganism, Buddhism, pantheism, or just about any other -ism. At the top are those who fear the “slippery slope,” refusing to yield some point for fear that if they do, they’ll slip right down into some anathema worldview.
The odd thing is, most truth is going to reside someplace along what is perceived as the “slippery slope”, and in order to be near truth, we have to be prepared to live in tension — and trust God (or the one who is The Truth) to hold us. At the extremes of the diagram on either end of the slope are groups of people who maintain a certainty about the beliefs and positions they hold… which is another way of saying that they are not open to the truth if it isn’t what they already believe, because it might yield ground on the slippery slope. It bears note that the labels at the upper and lower ends of the diagram can be transposed, it’s just a matter of perspective. I’ve put fundamentalist Christianity at the top because it’s closer to my audience. And on that note, let me say that just as the labels at the bottom can be changed, so can the labels at the top. Change the bottom label to “liberal” and make the top say, oh, conservative Christianity… or evangelicalism.
It reminded me of a scene in Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, where Neo is explaining something to Dan during a hike they took in chapter 6 (p.47-8; the book is a few years old now, but I would recommend it to anyone who is newer to the whole emerging church conversation). Dan tells the story.
“This might help you. Very often,” he explained, “debates in the church occur on this level. There are all kinds of positions on an issue, along this line, with the most extreme positions being here and here.”
I offered a couple of examples: “OK. So Catholics are over here and Protestants over there. Calvinists are over here, and Arminians are over there. And charismatics are here and anticharismatics over there. And we could do the same on the issues of pacifism, inerrancy of the Bible, women in leadership, how the church should seek homosexuals, and—”
“Exactly,” he interrupted. “Now, almost all debate in the church takes place on this line. The issue is where the right point on the line is. So people pick and defend their points. Each person’s point becomes the point in his or her mind. Here’s what I’m suggesting: What if the point-defending approach is, pardon the pun, pointless? In other words, what if the position God wants us to take isn’t on that line at all but somewhere up here?” He was moving his hand in a small circle, palm down, about a foot above the line he had drawn in the dust.
“So you’re saying,” I replied, “that we have to transcend the normal level of discourse. that makes sense to me. I mean, Jesus did that sort of thing all the time. Like with the woman at the well in John 4. The big debate is over where people should worship, on this mountain or on that mountain. Jesus doesn’t choose one point or the other; he says that the answer is on this higher level, that what God wants is for us to worship him in spirit and truth, wherever we are. Both mountains are good places to worship, so in that way both sides are right. But where you worship isn’t the point at all, so in that way both sides are wrong.”
We can be so committed to ideas we hold so tightly but that really aren’t even the point. Clinging to the not-the-point ideas feels safe to us, as though we’re avoiding the slippery slope. In fact, if we’d loosen our grip on them, we might actually slip partway down that slope and find the truth. If only we could trust God in the process. Truth isn’t designed to be comfortable, or even necessarily to be easy to grasp and hold onto. Truth is meant to hold onto us.