“God is so transcendent. Rather than being fearful of that, or worried, we should turn to face it, look directly at it in Scripture.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of the interview, in which Krish Kandiah explains how church leaders can explore the mystery of God in reaching people who are wrestling with difficult questions.
Let’s move from the personal to the cultural. The Oxford Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2016 was “post-truth,” reflecting the troubling trend of disregard for fact or faithfulness in modern culture, all the way to the top of our public dialogue. How does this vision of paradox meet our cultural moment?
That’s a vital question, and one of the dangers is that Christians are in no way exempt from “post-truth” culture. We’ve been caught up in that zeitgeist and are doing the same thing in so many ways. Too often, no one calls that out.
Paul, in 2 Timothy 4, is clear that that’s not the role of a pastor or teacher. We need to be rigorous, in a time where people gather preachers who will tell them everything their itching ears want to hear. We need to preach the Word, offering a countercultural model of what genuine truth looks like. But that truth needs to start with us, and we need to own the ways that we have failed the truth.
That means there are two things we need to have. Authenticity is the first. Integrity is the second. Authenticity in this context means that we are open about the challenging parts of the Bible. We don’t try to gloss over them. We don’t avoid them. We can’t pretend that the difficult parts of the Bible are not difficult. The whole Word of God is inspired, and all of Scripture is useful—not just selected Pauline epistles that we return to again and again. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
And so the integrity piece is no less important. There has been a huge disconnect between our proclamation and our living out of the gospel’s truth. There is much too little lived evidence of transformation to show our world. That’s true in our congregations, and it means that our proclamation will have limited impact.
What is all wrapped up in our current culture’s mindset of post-truth is that the church preaches big, but we don’t live that message out. That’s something we’ve been working very hard at in my context in the U.K. We believe in a God who says he’s a father to the fatherless and a protector of widows and orphans. We take that very seriously. We’re seeing a movement of people who are not just talking about compassion, not just offering a couple hours of service a week to serve the poor, but also opening their homes and their lives to take in the vulnerable.
We’re finding that that commitment to engaging very basic needs in our context is bringing huge credibility to the proclamation side of our gospel. We’re not just preaching “truth” about the poor; we’re trying to live that truth. We need to give living evidence of the paradoxical truth of the gospel. Preaching and proclamation cannot be separated from lived-out mission, especially in a “post-truth” world.
What examples of this in the church inspire you?
Wow—the global church. Many of our brothers and sisters around the world are living with profound suffering—persecution, ravaging sicknesses, poverty—yet are proving the truth of the gospel in their lives and communities. Too often we richer Christians go to the world with a sense that we are bringing the gifts with us, but one of the paradoxes of the church is that we are often the ones receiving from the “poor” in the global church. It’s multidirectional.
Going back to the authenticity of the church’s witness—the poor really are a direct line to God. They help us understand God in a whole new way. Just read Luke’s Gospel. Jesus pays such attention to the poor, outcast and rejected. The foreigner, orphan and widow are high on Jesus’ priorities of service, and as we engage with them we are given a richer understanding of God. This gives us a fresher perspective on Scripture, too. Start with James 1:27, for example. Our religion needs to be worked out in compassionate service or it has no value at all. True doctrine must be lived out in true practice.
Talk more about the connection between doctrine and practice as it relates to this idea of paradox.
We’re told to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind. But sadly, many churches separate those out. Some churches have a very strong life of the mind, but it doesn’t translate into emotionally healthy relationships with one another, or it doesn’t translate into service and care for others in the community. Other churches are strong on emotion and the life of the heart, but guess what? They don’t have a robust life of the mind, and by missing the rich depths of doctrine, they also miss a key to engaged service and mission. Then, a third way, some churches are missional like crazy, but don’t have the theological or emotional depth needed.
Scripture shows a pattern of holistic discipleship, though. It includes the life of the mind, the life of the heart and the life of the body. All three of those need to be fostered. But sometimes we’re so tribal as Christians that we only hang out with people who are like us. We only read books from “safe” people in our tribe, only attend conferences with folks who are like us and we live in a cultural bubble. We don’t have the opportunity of being sharpened by folks who have a different emphasis or distinctive. But we need prophetic encouragement from people who don’t fit our style. Therefore, we are poorer in our lives because we’re not sharing them with those who are different than we are.
I’m a big fan of the unity of the church. We need it globally, locally. We need brothers and sisters who can challenge us in areas of our deficiency and who we can challenge and encourage in return.
How do Christianity’s paradoxes compare to those of other faiths? Do we have a deeper sense of mystery and paradox in Christianity?
We ought to—because we confess from the beginning that God is transcendent, and unfathomable, then begin the paradoxical process of trying to fathom him in our theology. [Laughs] We have strength of understanding there, embracing our human smallness and limited nature. And yet we also have this sense of clarity. God speaks; his Word is true and reliable. That in-built paradox in our Christian epistemology should help set us up to handle the many paradoxes in our faith. But sadly, we often give up in one direction or another. We either oversimplify the faith to make it palatable to a sound-bite culture, or we go full on toward the mystery and there’s no revelation or reason anymore, and whatever you want to know about God is true for you.
It’s clear that both of those responses are accommodations to the culture. We should have a stronger intuitive grasp of paradox, but I’m not sure we do. It still feels to me like an untapped resource for us, but could be powerful for a culture that’s lost, and overloaded with information.
This post-truth world you mentioned is not an easy place to live. People want to know wisdom. They want to know how to raise their kids, have a just society, what good education means, how to care for the elderly and on and on. We’re still desperate for how to live. And Scripture can help us. That’s one of the beautiful things, particularly about the Proverbs. There’s one verse that says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:5), and then another that says, “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will become just like him” (Prov. 26:4). There’s a contextual wisdom there that implies that there isn’t a simplistic solution to some of the complex challenges we face.
Paradox is a rich resource, currently untapped, for doing ministry in our culture.
What would the values be of a ministry that incorporated mystery into its practice?
You must value Scripture as the Word of God. All of it. If that’s there, then you don’t have to have any embarrassment or fear when you look at the very hardest parts of it. That conviction that Scripture is true, alive and sharper than any two-edged sword is foundational.
Imagine a minefield—a place where kids would like to play, and farmers would love to farm, but they feel they can’t, because they’re afraid. They might trigger a mine if they go out there. This book is trying to de-mine the Bible, by exploring the bits that are difficult, and showing a way to handle it—by a rigorous understanding of paradox. That will empower the church. Without the Word of God, we have no cutting edge, we have no power, we have no voice, we have no energy. We have no direction.
Also, a love for people, and a love and respect for the questions that they raise. There’s a pastoral sensitivity. If you have a question, that’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity. But we need to process those questions well with people.
To do that, we first need to be comfortable with the paradoxes of God’s truth. It’s not easy.
But it’s sure worth it.
Paul J. Pastor, an Outreach contributing writer, is author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit.