A Doctrine of Ignorance?

I know it has been a while since I’ve posted, so my apologies.  Things have been pretty busy on campus with the end of the school year approaching and our chapter getting ready to head up to Cedar Campus for Chapter FOCUS Week.  So it has been difficult to be active on the web.

That being said, there is something that I have thinking a lot about in recent weeks.  This issue first cropped up surrounding the release of Rob Bell‘s new book “Love Wins”.  Bell has been a pretty controversial figure in both Christian and non-Christian circles, often because of questions that have arisen regarding his theology and methods of teaching.  So the fact that people started arguing about this book did not surprise me.  What surprised me was how few of those shouting had actually read the book.  In fact, several of my fellow seminarians asked me what I thought about the book.  I told them honestly that I didn’t have one because I had not read it.  The questions kept coming, so I ended up purchasing a copy and reading it on my trip to France back in March.

However, when I returned to campus and tried to engage these fellow students in discussion I was shocked to find that many of them were basing their opinions not on the book, but on the blog posts that had been written about it.  Others had judged the book based on the two minute and fifty-eight second promo video that HarperOne created to market it.  In fact, when I had inquired about the book at our seminary’s bookstore I was told that they would not be carrying it because of what it teaches.  (Nevermind the fact that they carry plenty of copies of Bell’s other works including his Nooma videos as well as his other book, “Velvet Elvis”).

What is so disconcerting about this is not simply the fact that these detractors have chosen willful ignorance over informed engagement about this book, but that this is happening at one of the leading evangelical seminaries in the country.  And we wonder why people call evangelicals narrow-minded?

This doctrine of ignorance worries me on a variety of levels.  On a theological level I am concerned because one of the things that Scripture tells us is that when we are saved through Christ we become one body, brothers and sisters in God’s family.  However, when Christians begin to judge and deride a fellow believer, as some of my classmates have done to Bell, based on second-hand opinions and conjecture they betray the unity of Christ.  They have turned upon a fellow sibling.  While there might be reason to correct some of Bell’s assertions and challenge his point of view, this should always be done out of a sense of humility and love for our brother or sister in Christ.

On an intellectual level I am worried because of how illogical this posture of willful ignorance is.  One of the great criticisms of Christian faith is just how unreasonable and unintelligent it is as a tradition.  By refusing to intelligently engage with those with whom we disagree we simply add more ammunition to this charge.  Furthermore, there is something to be said for being teachable and open to learning new ideas or refining old ones.  When we choose to avoid ideas or arguments that we might disagree with, we close ourselves off to this possibility.  I have found that it is when I am most challenged that I have found true reasons for faith.  In addition, these moments of disagreement have often been the doorway to true evangelism with those who have intellectual problems or objections to faith.

Finally, on a pastoral level, this doctrine of ignorance hobbles the growth of our congregations.  When we model an attitude of narrow-mindedness and fail to engage with the diverse religious and philosophical perspectives that are present in our world we do a disservice to those entrusted to our care.  For those believers in the pews, we teach them that it is acceptable to have blind faith and fail to equip them for the real challenges to belief in God which they encounter beyond the walls of our church buildings.  To the unconvinced we fail to minister to their deepest questions and objections to faith because we have shut the door to open conversation.  We also present a picture of the “mature” Christian as a person who ignores, attacks, or shuts down those with whom he or she disagrees.  Such a picture hardly points to the image of Christ, who was never afraid to engage, relate to, speak with, and even debate those with whom he disagreed.  May we live up to our calling as Christians by embracing challenges with faith, intelligence, and humility, for this brings glory to God.

So what did I think of “Love Wins”?  I’m not going to tell you.  Rather, I would encourage you to go out and read it for yourself.  My hope is that you will engage with it critically, wrestle with it honestly, and walk away with a much deeper and more reflective faith than you had before.  This is what it means to pursue discipleship of the mind and in doing so my hope is that you will overturn the doctrines of ignorance that continue to prevail in our world.

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2 thoughts on “A Doctrine of Ignorance?

  1. Craig Hughes says:

    I’d call it less a doctrine of ignorance and more a biblical attitude toward dangerous heresy and false teachings. A cursory reading of Jude should be enough to demonstrate that encouraging people to hear a false teacher out and see what they have to say isn’t exactly recommended. I would much rather encourage people to trust in the opinions and ideas of those with more learning than they have (such as the authors of those blog posts) and other great spiritual leaders of our time than encourage them to read teachings like Bell’s.

    This is not a doctrine of ignorance. It is a doctrine of not teaching heresy. If you want to encourage people to read something, it should be the Bible.

    • Thanks for writing in Alex. However, I think you are missing the point of the post. I think it is one thing for the average layperson, who might be confused about some of these theological issues, to “trust in the opinions and ideas of those with more learning”. However, what I’m seeing is my fellow seminarians, the future leaders of the church, defaulting to a theological position based on hearsay and second-hand accounts rather than personally engaging with Bell’s claims and thinking through a Biblically grounded response. My point is this: how do they know if it is heresy if they haven’t even read it? I think that a failure to think through this, as future leaders, will only harm their congregations.

      One response to this that I really admired was that of my own senior pastor. He took the time to read Bell’s book because he saw how much of an impact it was having and then was able to intelligently critique it and engage with his congregates about the issues that it was raising.

      In fact, I think that this is exactly the kind of posture that the cursory reading of Jude commends. Jude says that in response to false teachers the church should devote itself to “building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God…have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (vv.20-22). Jude encourages them to build up their faith, and I think this comes through careful and insightful teaching. Likewise, their response to false teachers should be one of mercy, not derision. The editors of the ESV Study Bible underscore this in their comments on the book when they write, “The church is called to show mercy to everyone, even its opponents” (pg. 2451, comment on vv.22-23). I think pursuing truth involves learning to engage with various perspectives while holding to the Bible as the source of truth.

      Finally, addressing your comment, “This is not a doctrine of ignorance. It is a doctrine of not teaching heresy. If you want to encourage people to read something, it should be the Bible.” I want to make clear that I am not encouraging people to read anything over and against the Bible. I have never said that and that was nowhere in my post. As an evangelical, the Bible is always the reference point for exploring theological truth. So I find it unfortunate that this was your assumption and that you would jump to such a conclusion. What I am advocating for is honest Biblical reflection on books like Bell’s because of the influence that they have, both in the church and in the broader culture. This kind of honest engagement was the very posture of the early leaders of the church and it is something that I think we are missing in our modern church context. I think this is why Paul encourages the Thessalonians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). I only wish that the modern church would have this same approach.

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