Two of my favourite book titles are The Christian Agnostic and The Orthodox Heretic. Both express a paradoxical condition: believing while being radically uncertain; holding long-established beliefs while being radically unorthodox. As the father of the epileptic boy said to Jesus, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’, or as U2 put it, ‘Yes I believe it / but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.
Let me reassure (or disappoint) anyone concerned – I’m not losing my Christian faith. In fact, I’d say that my faith in Christ and love for God were stronger and deeper now than they’ve ever been. But I feel that I’m emerging, slowly and cautiously, from the confining chrysalis of many years of evangelical doctrine, literalism and legalism (‘oughtism’), into the fresh air, light and freedom of a new way of being Christian. It’s a way that owes much to the contemplative and mystical streams of Christianity.
Chrysalises are good and necessary, but are only meant for a time – they are just a stage in the full life cycle. However, growth and even metamorphosis does not have to mean turning your back on the past, rejecting what nurtured you. I’m not cutting off my evangelical roots; I’m quite happily remaining within the charismatic-evangelical Anglican church I’ve been part of for 17 years. Nor am I turning theologically ultra-liberal, jettisoning belief in God or miracles, the uniqueness and divinity of Christ or the reality of the resurrection. (Have a look at my sketchy Creed to see my current beliefs and doubts.)
Rather I would say I’m simply becoming more open in my beliefs and in my ways of believing; less hung up on right answers, sound doctrines and ‘correct’ ways of interpreting the Bible; more open to insights from other traditions and even other faiths; more open and honest about the flaws and inconsistencies in my own tradition, and about my own real doubts and struggles. I’m becoming less wedded to certainty and more open to mystery. I’m giving up my obsession with facts, proofs and systems of theology in favour of divine paradox, which I increasingly see as one of the creative cores of living Christian faith.
I’m even open to the possibility that Christ may be present and active incognito in and through other faiths than my own. I think my overriding sense is simply that God is greater, bigger and more than I’ve yet understood him – and than I will ever be able to understand.
Happy to be a heretic
So for now I’m happy to be agnostic and even heretical about parts of my faith. Agnostic merely means not knowing, and who but God can claim – or need – to know everything? ‘Heretic’ itself comes originally from a Greek word merely meaning ‘to choose’ or ‘to take’; and even the most orthodox of us cannot claim to be free from heresy. Pete Rollins (author of The Orthodox Heretic) suggests that true orthodoxy is not so much about believing the right things, as believing in the right way – the way of love; the way of Christ.
Meanwhile it looks like all the best titles have been used so for now my own (as yet imaginary) book will be called The Evangelical Liberal. After all, ‘liber’ refers to freedom, and ‘evangel’ to the good news of Christ, and I can’t find much fault with either of those.