As my church moves through a year-long commemoration of the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, we are hearing from several speakers and engaging in lots of talk not just about history but also about what the church can be in the future.
The other evening, for instance, we heard from Amy Oden (pictured here), a professor of church history at the Oklahoma City campus of St. Paul School of Theology. She spoke to us about the many, many questions that Christians have been asking from the very beginnings of the faith.
She could have focused on any of dozens of such questions, of course, but she picked just three:
-- Are science and religion compatible?
-- What is the nature of God (that is, is God gendered and does it matter)?
-- Who has authority to interpret scripture?
Asking these and similarly difficult questions, she said, "is an important part of the Christian life. Curiosity is a spiritual gift and spiritual discipline." That is one of the major points of my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Any faith community that shuts down the questions of members is being not just manipulative but also controlling in radically unhealthy ways.
"Inquiry," she insisted, "is praise. Inquiry is awe."
One of the reasons asking questions is so important, she said, is that it helps us remember that we're following a long tradition of Christians who challenged received wisdom and sought to find new ways to make the gospel understandable and appealing for the next generation. Protestants got that name, after all, because they protested.
Well, we didn't come away with pat answers to the three questions Oden raised but once again we were given permission to question authority, to explore different interpretations of the ancient stories of faith, to make matters of faith understandable in our time and place.
When I say "directly from Martin Luther" I mean that Professor Robert Johnson, provost and dean of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, came dressed as Luther and described for us a bit about his life and why he thought the church needed reforming.
As you can see from the photo at left, Bob, who teaches Christian history, even dressed up for the part. In fact, he came down the aisle with a hammer and "nailed" (with tape or something) a replica of his "95 theses" to the pulpit.
We're using the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation not just as an opportunity to remind ourselves about some of the details (often troubling details) of Christian history but also to reimagine what the church should be today.
One of the things the church should be today is more ecumenical and more open to interfaith dialogue.
In that spirit, we've scheduled a conversation for later this month with Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and we're working on creating a working partnership with a Catholic parish.
If this 500th anniversary is simply another chance to maintain and deepen differences, it will be wasted. And smart faith communities never waste a good crisis.
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AN ANTISEMITE SEES THE LIGHT
I love stories like this: A rabidly antisemitic Hungarian politician, who gained much fame and power by denouncing Jews, later discovered that he is, in fact, Jewish himself. Csanád Szegedi now is under the tutelage of a rabbi and is embracing Judaism. It's been a difficult journey for him as he has had to give up the hatred that sustained him. But now it looks as if he's on the road to wholeness.