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Learning Outside the Camp

During the first week of August, a pastor that I respect and admire quoted 20th century German thinker and author Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. The quote, which reads “I had to experience despair before I could experience grace,” is a beautiful sound byte that sums up the ubiquitous human illness of wanting to cling to everything and anything before we submit in brokenness to the grace of God. Everything seems sure until it isn’t there anymore—when the only thing left is God’s mercy in Christ.

The only problem is that Hesse was a syncretist and about as far from what even the most ecumenical Christian—evangelical, progressive, post-liberal, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anabaptist, you name it—would consider within the boundaries of historical Christianity. And to be sure, people on Twitter let this pastor know this.

In that tweet, pastor Tullian Tchividjian set out to teach his tweeps (that’s a real term, look it up!) something about the grace of God using the writing of somebody who did not accurately understand the grace of God as articulated in Scripture. Someone who would certainly qualify as unregenerate in almost every Christian tradition. In other words, in one of those pop-psychology word association test nobody has ever shouted out “Hermann Hesse” when prompted with “orthodoxy.”

Likewise, the news of the band Gungor’s recent departure from several historically Christian positions has the evangelical internet aflutter with mourning, condemnation, and nuance. If you haven’t heard, in a blog on their website back in February Michael Gungor articulated his position on Adam and Eve, the flood, and metaphysics:

I have no more ability to believe, for example, that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago. I have no ability to believe that there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago and that all of the animal species that exist today are here because they were carried on an ark and then somehow walked or flew all around the world from a mountain in the middle east after the water dried up. I have no more ability to believe these things than I do to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity. But I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories. But this is what happens . . .

If you try to find some value in them as stories, there will be some people that say that you aren’t a Christian anymore because you don’t believe the Bible is true or “authoritative.” Even if you try to argue that you think there is a truth to the stories, just not in an historical sense; that doesn’t matter. To some people, you denying the “truth” of a 6,000 year old earth with naked people in a garden eating an apple being responsible for the death of dinosaurs is the same thing as you nailing Jesus to the cross. You become part of ‘them.’ The deniers of God’s Word.

In the last few weeks, World magazine and a few other publications got ahold of this and lamented Gungor’s lapse from orthodoxy. While a lot has already been said about this, both of these little case studies expose something about our hearts:

We (humans!) are often terrified to listen to and learn from people who hold to different (and sometimes contradictory) beliefs than us. In fact, our default reflex is to shun, condemn, and caricaturize.

The Bible, Orthodoxy, and Imago Dei

Ironically, the Bible is not afraid to affirm the God-implanted wisdom from those who fall outside of the perceived orthodox tribe. Most are familiar with the stories of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who helped the Israeli scouts, the Roman gentile God-fearers who ran to Jesus, and the Greek polytheistic poets Paul quoted from memory who unwittingly proclaimed aspects the gospel. But there is often a disconnect between these Biblical examples and our on-the-ground understanding of our fellow image bearers.

Just as the seraphim called out in Isaiah 6:3:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

God has filled the earth and the people of the earth with his divine imprint. The pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings—have been given a special conscious and unconscious understanding of his ways. God  “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11) and thus, has given each human being the capacity to teach every other human being something significant about the character of God.

Certainly, those of us whom God has saved, adopted, and, through the Holy Spirit, given special revelation into the character of God through Christ have a lot to offer a world groping at the shadow of God’s image. The damage of sin and rebellion has dimmed humanity’s understanding of God dramatically—and that should not be ignored.

Yet the image of God is still there in every person. Hiding in plain sight. Sitting somewhere between the doubt, confusion, and rebellion. Believers who have been illuminated to the glory of God’s grace through Christ have “everything [we] need for life and godliness” (i.e., God’s Spirit in us), including the ability to learn about the things of God from all of his creation—even those who seem to be fighting God’s revealed truth at every turn.

This process is far from complete in me—I am not the discerning, godly, thoughtful, gracious student of truth that I delude myself into thinking I am. Still, despite my weakness and foolishness God has used various people and media that fall outside of evangelicalism to teach me about the God who reveals the same orthodoxy that I love. And God has probably done the same in you.

My Story and Zossima

No fictional characters (and only a few real-life people) have ministered and instructed me in God’s love, grace, and mercy like Father Zossima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. Dostoevsky created the character of Zossima to be a Christ-like figure amidst a world and church institution fraught with sin and hard hearts. Zossima is not a Protestant pastor, but a Russian Orthodox monk. A system that is fraught with what I believe are major theological errors. However, the words of gospel-dependent love and tenderness that Zossima speaks in Brothers is a spiritual opus that I return to regularly.

Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognises that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach . . .

. . . Know the measure, know the times, study that. When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one; it is not given to many but only to the elect.

This passage—and many like it—showcase a beautiful, tender, gospel-rich love that Zossima beautifully articulated and, in the book, lived out. When I read it I am usually moved to tears. Though I don’t agree with some of his conclusions above (e.g., “if I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me”) I can see  and learn from Zossima’s Christ-like tenderness and love for sinners. I am moved by the tender love that Zossima articulates, and I believe that this tender love of people, God, and creation is close to what Jesus talks about in Luke 10:27. Zossima has discipled me in God’s love and grace, even though his systematics would not fly at any church I would ever join.

Back to Hesse and Gungor

So when Tulllian quotes syncretist Hermann Hesse about grace and suffering, I am free to nod and agree as I discern glimmers of God’s truth in it. To learn from Hesse’s saying, though he may not understand grace as articulated in Scripture, is to affirm his humanity and the divine imprint (common grace) on his musings. With orthodox grace-colored glasses, we can explore the world in search of God’s love. We can discern the good, affirm the truth, and love the person without harshly condemning and shunning all that is secular or not theologically airtight (because, honestly, besides Jesus, who is theologically airtight?).

We can disagree with Gungor’s steps away from an evangelical hermeneutic while still celebrating their music and whatever truth is in their statements. In fact, to love them and doubters like them, we must insist that their doubts may arise out of their honesty. As George MacDonald observes “doubts are messengers of the Living One to the honest”—they keep us humble and remind us of our humble dependence on God’s revelation to lead and guide. Though Gungor may still be in process, their doubts may be evidence of God working in their life—and like Thomas before them, Jesus will show them his wounds.

From here, we can listen to Michael Gungor’s words and hear the image of God. For example, when Gungor says,

To some people, you denying the “truth” of a 6,000 year old earth with naked people in a garden eating an apple being responsible for the death of dinosaurs is the same thing as you nailing Jesus to the cross. You become part of ‘them.’

We may at first just hear a jab at Biblical literalism, but there is much more there. He points a finger on the painfully shaming nature of much public and private discourse on doubt, grace, and orthodoxy. We (being, those who identify as more-or-less “conservative” evangelicals) should see this as a prophetic encouragement to love our enemies, bless those who persecute us (though this is not anything close to persecution), and to love our neighbor as ourself. We can say, “Thank God for these comments! Thank God for Michael Gungor!” Thank God that he used Gungor to articulate the pain that doubters often feel amongst those with less paradigm-shifting doubts.

Grace

At the heart of all charity and discernment is grace. The more we realize that we have been given amazing, free grace, the more we will desire to extend that grace. As our condition becomes clear, we’ll have more sympathy on other ignorant blasphemers. Our rejection of God and our reflected imaging of God is as instinctive

I remember teaching Sunday School with my wife, trying to get an adorable three-year-old to sing songs with us.

“Don’t you want to sing songs to Jesus with us?” I asked, as he sat in the corner of the classroom.

“No” he declared, as astutely as a three-year-old can

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t like Jesus”

Nobody taught him to say that. Nor does anyone need to teach us to deny God’s truth, doubt God’s promises, or disobey God’s statutes.

When this little boy told me that he didn’t like Jesus, I didn’t shun him. Neither does God when we daily, repeatedly declare that we don’t like Jesus! That is the beauty of grace. The patient, one-sided love of God that has blessed us with divine wisdom amidst our rebellion. This grace is patient with us, and so we can be patient with others. This grace sees the good in us, when we are a complete stinking mess. This grace teaches us when we don’t want to learn—as Newton reminds us, “t’was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

And this is the same kid that will come up to you with innocent affection, give you a high five, and tell you all about Super Mario with a glimmer of passion in his eye. Just your typical God-imagining blasphemer.

This grace can be extended to others as it has been extended to us only as we see ourselves in need of it and the grace of God’s image in others. And hopefully, in doing so we can, like Paul in Acts 17, see God’s fingerprint on the un-orthodox and lead the un-orthodox to a more beautiful, robust understanding of God than they could’ve ever imagined—all the while as we are learning from them.

Learning from un-believers sounds dangerous. It sounds like capitulation of our ideals and our morals. But the cross of Christ assures us that we can dangerously extend grace because grace has been permanently, legally, imputed to us. In our exploration of God’s world, we are securely tethered, inseparably united to Jesus who promised to be with us always. So, in light of that Christian, search for truth and explore grace—even when it comes from those who also do not fully understand grace. And may God lead you in his Truth and his Grace.

What a beautiful grace it is!

Nick Rynerson lives in the west suburbs of Chicago with his groovy wife, Jenna. He is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and a marketing coordinator at Crossway. Connect with him on Twitter @nick_rynerson or via email.