Books come my way quite a bit these days…but I must say, this title, “Not the Religious Type”, intrigued me. First, a little bit of back story. Back in Bible college days I came across the seminal work, “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis. I devoured it. For the first time in my faith journey I felt as if there were REASONS to believe. Looking back on it I’ve wondered if that REASON negated Faith (which is most often the absence of sight, of certainty). However, I came to the perspective that Blaise Pascal articulated so well in his pithy little quote: “We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit”. In other words, its alright to feel certain about some things. And, indeed, that certainty may very well be in spite of evidence often, or at least independent of it. Still, all of this to say that Mere Christianity has always held a fond place in my heart. It’s heirs have not. There are countless imitators, each of which ratchet up the certitudes, the historical evidence, the necessary proof, etc…And in my mind, they each take steps forward towards negating true belief. So, when I see books that claim to be in the tradition of CS Lewis and “Mere Christianity”, I am instantly suspicious. This book may be different though.
It’s written by a fellow who pastors a seemingly thriving fellowship right outside of MIT and Harvard in Boston. That, in itself, is no great feat, but it does seem to be working for him. A one time avowed atheist, Dave Schmeltzer, speaks the language of doubt with the best of them. He treads tenderly on the hallowed dirt of faith, ambiguity and mystery, while engaging that which we CAN know. His education and extreme diversity of exposure and experience makes him capable of being conversant in current pop culture and events…something that instantly seems to set him apart of from those whose only relationship to the dominant paradigm is simply spying in order to conquer it. He reads the New Yorker, Slate, and listens to and watches PBS. He speaks my dialect.
The book begins with a premise…the secular and the sacred need not be opposing elements. Because that is true the world need not be considered evil and God need not be considered exacting and rule bent. Cliche, but still overwhelmingly true, God is about relationship, a passionate relationship with His creation. More importantly, the deeper the relationship, the more uncertainty and ambiguity plays a part. Schmelzer highlights M. Scott Peck’s four stages of spiritual/emotional development. He abbreviates stage four as the “mystical” stage and suggests that this stage moves in connection with the Divine Other, but tentatively…humbly…with doubt as a part of faith.
You can see that stage 4 (mystical) is a stage filled with uncertainty to the same degree that stage two (rules based) is, by definition, filled with certainty. Or, to put it differently, stage 4 [the highest] is about questions; stage two is about answers. In this way of thinking, stage 2 looks at truth from the outside, as if it were a book that can and must be mastered. Stage 4 looks at truth from smack-dab in the middle of it, as if truth is everywhere and will take a lifetime just to begin to traverse (which is the joy of it).
This presentation allows for a beautiful steering away from the dualistic, linear way of thinking of liberal vs. conservative (rules based vs. rebellion). It’s ok to stand LOST in the center of God as Truth and feel overwhelmed, even confused…when you’re that close, you see LESS clearly…but experience MORE fully. Truly, wonderful.
He goes on to call Truth itself, relational, instead of propositional or abstract. This is similar to Tony Jones’ statements about Truth having, in the person of Jesus, needed a bath, maybe having lice, slept, ate/drank, loved…”Jesus didn’t claim to be a teacher of truth. He claimed to be Truth”. Truth as a person is always on the move, is never static, and therefore the only way to encounter Truth is to be around the person (and I would insert, that Person’s people who become a community of mutual question).
And here’s what I enjoyed most about this book…people. The author fills the pages with names and faces. He, as if truly believing that Truth is relational, presents his truths relationally, in bursts of story. That brings up a complaint about much of post Don Miller writing…everyone does the memoir schticknow …mostly, badly. By badly, I mean that their stories are so point driven that they cease to be interesting STORIES! Thankfully Schmelzer avoids this pitfall for the most part and his stories are actually interesting, rather than being drawn out battering rams for a theological point that everyone understands within the first sentence.
One point of interest…”Not the Religious Type” offers an interesting spin on something that most “high minded” academically oriented head cases probably wouldn’t touch: hearing the voice of God. Some of the narrative that surrounds it, about his tempestuous early dating relationship with his now wife, reads like Jeremiah or Job. Dave screams at God. God talks back. God makes a deal Dave can’t refuse. Dave gives God a timeline (or was it the other way around?). Etc.. And that may sound like an affront to the “modern” moderation of Christians (such as myself), who hesitate to say, “God told me…” Truthfully, it is. But, Dave suggests that over time, starting in small ways, as you relate to God in a way that suspends disbelief, we discover a place where God and man meet, where God speaks. It’s as if doubt propels us towards a void, a void where the object of Faith compels us to know and be known. Really, Schmelzer is saying, “Why not try it?” He admits that speaking with God, hearing His voice, is a learned taste, it takes time and patience. Very interesting…And I believe it too.
Ok…some questions for Dave Scmelzer:
1. Where’s the jumping off point? When does doubt embrace certitude and take the existential, “leap of faith”?
2. In a pluralistic society how do you hold your path loosely while still embracing it whole heartedly?
3. Are we happier people for believing in God and embracing Christianity?
4. Is the defining characteristic of Christianity grace? If so, how are our lives transformed in more than an abstract way? In what way does God’s good news for our spirit become good news for our marriage, neighborhood, environment, and global village?
All in all…a great book. I recommend it.
Filed under: Book Review | Tagged: agnostic, atheist, Book Review, certainty, Christianity, confessions of a turncoat atheist, CS Lewis, dave schmelzer, doubt, faith, m scott peck, mere christianity, modernism, Not the religious type, npr, pbs, post modernism, reason, slate, vineyard fellowship | 1 Comment »