Last weekend Ian – our worship minister – and I drove four hours north to Springfield, MO for Subverting the Norm 2, a conference about radical theology. “What is radical theology,” you ask?
I have no idea.
In fact, most presenters spent the opening six or seven minutes of their presentations explaining what they mean when they say “post-modern,” and the rest of the time explaining what radical theology means to them. This was not the premise of their speech, per se, but it was at the heart of each message.
Radical theology is primarily about making room for doubt. It begins with the assumption that God is not real and works up from there. I would say most of the people at the conference call themselves “Christian,” and most believe God exists. The question of radical theology, though, is essentially, “Can we know who or what God really is and, if so, what is God?”
The question posed by Subverting the Norm 2 was, “Can radical theology exist in churches?”
It was far different from the conferences I’m used to attending, which usually involve three things:
1. The most popular speaker/author/blogger the conference can wrangle in
2. The most popular band/worship leader the conference can wrangle in
3. T-shirt canons and various other gimmicks.
That’s not to say these conferences are shallow or fruitless; I usually end up feeling very filled and encouraged by the end. But Subverting the Norm 2 (henceforth “STN2”) was very, very different.
The primary difference for me rested in what was and was not assumed. At your typical conference (say Catalyst or Youth Specialties) every speaker, band, presenter, vendor, and sponsor operate with one common assumption: we all believe God exists.
Which, one would think, is good for a Christian conference!
What sets STN2 apart is that God’s existence – and the Bible’s accuracy and the Church’s authority, among other things – is never a given. At the heart of radical theology is room for doubt, room for really, really hard questions, and room to say things like, “Gee, what if God isn’t there? And, if he is there, what if he’s not at all like I’ve always thought?”
While this might frighten some in the non-radical theological world, it invigorates me. I believe God exists. I love scripture. And I love the Church. But there’s something freeing about stripping away the veneer of certainty on which most mainline churches build their buildings. There’s something real about unearthing the Trees of Tradition to see if the roots are actually deep and pure and binding or if, beneath the dirt, lies something else altogether.
As I explained to our Bible class Sunday morning, I’m a “Talk-About-the-Elephant-in-the-Room”-type person and preacher. When I encounter a text that challenges a traditional belief or tradition, I enjoy being confronted with its truth and challenging our church with it. So at STN2 I found an entire conference dedicated to addressing some of our biggest elephants.
The moment that defined the spirit of the conference best for me was when Namsoon Kang honestly asked at the outset of her presentation, “Why do we want to subvert the norm?”
See! Nothing is assumed. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is exempt from intense scrutiny.
To put it simply, STN2 forced me to be honest on a level I’ve never before experienced. Even in my undergraduate Christian education, no one ever challenged me to ask if God is actually there. Or if the way I think about God and Jesus and the Church is real or just a representation of the culture in which I learned about God, Jesus and the Church. Questions like that were written off as heretical, threatening, dangerous. However, after having experienced this sort of challenge, I am convinced that if I were a layperson in a church, I would expect my pastor(s) to be wrestling with these questions of doubt. How can a church know they are hearing Truth when some questions aren’t allowed to be asked?
I hope my doctor pauses to ask if a medication actually works before prescribing it. Sure brand name drugs bring the biggest bucks to the practice and the drug companies, but what kind of doctor prescribes something without ever having asked if it’ll cure what ails ya’?
Many pastors have never paused to ask, “Is God really there?” We are afraid to doubt. We are afraid to confront the hard truth that we might be wrong. We are afraid to disrupt the lucrative practice of selling Jesus as a brand name drug, so we continue prescribing something we’ve never examined deeply, intently, or personally.
But think of the power that comes from a pastor seeking the truth about God, Jesus, the Church, and existence as a whole. Think of MLK asking, “Is every person really created equal?” then beginning a movement from what grew out of that question. How much greater the fruit of those who take the time to dig deeper, to be honest, and to trust their doubts!