The rebuttal books are coming out now, to contest Rob Bells’s latest controversy. Mr.Bell complains that they should at least read it before they condemn it. Back and forth go the readers, back and forth. Theology is like news, there are channels out there with the narrative you love, and the one you don’t. On the news, one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter; and on the theology bookshelf, one man’s fresh insight is another man’s liberal nonsense.
If any theology book traces the origin, makes the defense, and enjoys the value of TWO opposing points of view, then I have not found it. I’m starting to think that science does better at allowing us to simultaneously accept opposing theories that work effectively in different situations. Science accepts and allows that sometimes one theory does not seem to work as completely as two.
Science may therefore be better at implicitly ascribing mystical beauty; allowing for the undescribable and the inexplicable. Conversely, theology can diminish the mystical, when two authors pretend to discover their preferred conclusion from the hard evidence, leaving you feeling that the evidence was tampered with to support a prerequired outcome, and that a third author is needed to explain how they might both be “right”. For example, light behaves like both particles, and waves, though it cannot be both. Gravity pulls things together, so even a big bang can’t explain why the expansion of the entire universe is not decelerating but accelerating.
Anyway, I’m left wondering if theology really can determine any specific interpretation without having already decided the result? Sometimes I think history reveals that theology actually adjusts interpretation over the years to adapt to the fashions. For example, Christian teaching on the role of women traces sociological shifts almost like female characterisation in Disney films. Read C.S.Lewis on the role of women in marriage, and the most conservative Christian would laugh, or suggest a revised edition. (He suggests that men must be “head of the marriage” to guarantee resolution of disagreement. I.e. the man is always right! Brilliant!). Now we’ve gone to the opposite extreme trying to prove that the bible proposes absolute equality, and have to rewrite the marriage vows.
Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” (again!) makes a popular but insubstantial argument for some quite unoriginal conclusions about the non-existence of hell. His original questions are good ones, and real ones that remain unanswered by him or his opponents. What fun will we have in heaven celebrating God’s goodness while 95% of the people we love are tortured forever? It’s a strange idea that sits more naturally with the medieval rich established church that wielded political power, than with a poor true church that offers “Good News”.
So, should theology provide a signpost with the exact instructions? Or a mirror to facilitate self-examination and re-evaluation of our own projected truths? Christianity prefers final, unchangeable truth, but science is based on the principle of replacing any and every theory as soon as the old one can be disproved. In science, one’s absolute faith can be instantly transferred to the latest and best model of the universe. And yet that is faith, make no mistake.
Perhaps science can teach Christianity how to hold “ownership of truth”. Scientists know it’s important to be “right”, but when faced with the inexplicable, they acknowledge, even respect, the mystery of a truth that is bigger than we may ever know. Scientists point us to a mystical truth, having started with facts and measurements. Theologians start with stories and histories, and derive cold facts devoid of mystery.
Or maybe I’m just choosing the wrong books?