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How do you understand the word 'hell'?

What about the end times and the rapture?

There’s a long list of tough questions out there, and I for one have changed my mind on several. Here's why I think that's ok.

Women in leadership

In the early 1990s I voted against the ordination of women at my church council meeting.

The Church of England was asking all churches to give their views on this divisive topic. My church overwhelmingly supported women in church leadership – I, however, did not. But in the following decade my belief regarding what the Bible says on this matter completely changed.

Sometimes we don’t like to admit that our Christian beliefs change. It makes us feel that somehow our faith might be on shaky ground. We worry that “mature Christians” will think less of us if we doubt something that everyone else seems to be dead sure about.

But our theology should change over time. The only way our understanding of God could never change is if it was perfect to start with. The only person in this universe who has a perfect understanding of God is God (…and you're not God).

Do people shift their beliefs in scripture?

Yes! Here are just two examples. (There's more to it, and this will just be a brief summary)

First, 'Is it OK for Christians to eat meat that has been used in idol worship?' Acts 15 says no, but Paul writing later in 1 Corinthians 8 says, its more complicated than “yes or no” and in fact, in many cases it’s fine to eat it.

Second, 'Is the Gospel also for non-Jews (Gentiles)?' The early church assumed the good news about Jesus was only for Jews. But then, in Acts 10-11 God brings Peter to visit Cornelius. Cornelius is most likely a pagan and yet God has heard his pagan prayer and seen his good deeds. Peter and the church are astonished, and realise they were wrong...the Gospel is for all!

Of course, the easy way to dispense with the above is to say: “obviously they were wrong – they needed correcting”. But isn’t that the point? Why would we presume that our theology never needs correcting? A friend and minister from a nearby church once said to me: “20 per cent of your theology is wrong Chris, and you don’t know which 20 per cent”. This is not “being blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14). It’s just having the humility to accept that, on some matters, we might be wrong.

3 stages of faith

Over the centuries theologians have offered descriptions of why our faith changes over time. Faith is sometimes described in these three stages:

  1. Infant / institutional faith – Here we accept at face value what we are taught and learn by memory, and we don’t question. This stage is perhaps comparable to a child in a Sunday school. But some Christians are able to go through their entire life in this mode very well – never feeling the need to get wrapped up in the really tough questions.
  2. Adolescent / critical faith – At this second stage, we question our faith: Why does God allow all kinds of awful tragedy? Why is he silent when I ask him about mine? And we look at opposing arguments from intelligent humanists, atheists, other faiths, or simply other theologians and writers from outside our own tradition, to try and discover meaning.
  3. Adult / faith as mystery – We become aware of the complex and frankly conflicting nature of our world and our God, but increasingly we feel able to hand our lack of understanding over to him. We learn to hold two completely opposing ideas in tension (something the ancient Israelites and writers of the scriptures were well able to do). We realise that God is less like us and more inexplicable than we ever imagined.

Sometimes people make the mistake of assuming you start at the first stage and work your way through to the third. No, it’s much messier than that, with lots of back and forth. And eventually, we need to be in all three positions simultaneously. For example, it’s still good and helpful to memorise scripture and to thank God for the simple things, while at the same time, we can learn to be content with having questions with no answers; while we also “challenge God” as to why things are as they are. And of course, we have to test out our new position on matters. Changing our view on a matter doesn't make us right - it may take us into error, but if we are prayerfully seeking and staying in step with God's spirit, that shouldn't be the case.

In recent years the last two stages have been called “deconstruction” – taking apart foundational but potentially mistaken beliefs we may have held since our childhood. This is an unsettling but healthy thing to do provided we are able to “re-construct” a more enduring faith at the end of it. Another common phrase is “progressive revelation”, the belief that God gradually reveals his truth to us, but only as we grow to cope with that truth. (The biblical examples above are examples of progressive revelation).

At its most severe, faith deconstructing can result in what Christian tradition calls “the dark night of the soul” – a spiritual crisis, which can include a crisis of doubt including that most fundamental doubt - 'Is God there at all?' (There are helpful resources available if you're in this place).

Where does all that leave us?

Sometimes I look back wistfully and wish my faith was as sharp and as simple as in my younger days. Everything seemed to be straightforward then, whereas now there are so many questions. But I have also learned that whether you call it 'deconstruction', 'progressive revelation' or a 'crisis of faith', God uses such times to call us into a new and deeper relationship. He invites us to let go of the comfort blankets we have carried for many years, so we can enter a richer relationship which is more like a continuing conversation than simply “having an answer”. Sometimes we have to momentarily lose our way for God to grasp us and show us a way we'd never noticed.

It’s like our knowledge of God is a tiny island in a huge expanse of ocean, which is the vast mystery of God. Over time we experience life, we learn stuff, and the island – what we know about God – grows bigger. Very good! But at the same time the boundary - the line along which this island touches the great unknowable ocean - grows bigger still. So we know more, yet we realise there is ever more to know. Our knowledge can create more questions. Perhaps a better phrase might be 'progressive bewilderment' – but in a growing, trusting relationship, that’s fine!

We learn to not have the answers but to sit alongside the questions. We stop assuming that 'doubt = weakness' and realise that doubts are just human. We stop thinking we always have to get somewhere and relax and enjoy the journey. And, most of all, we give ourselves (and others around us) permission to change our mind.

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