Was Jesus a Heretic? The urgency of asking questions
Last evening, I sat down to watch a little of the news to get the latest update on the unspeakable tragedies in Japan. My children moved in and out of the room and didn’t seem to pay close attention to the television. Later on as I drove my oldest son to his practice, he began asking some questions about the earthquake, the tsunami, and the problems with the nuclear reactors. We talked for several minutes before he asked the most poignant and unanswerable question of all: “Dad, how could God just let all those people die?”
Like many of you, I grew up in a faith tradition where unanswerable questions were, for the most part, unwelcome. Many Christians live in a culture that is intentionally insulated from those questions. We only feel secure answering those that can be easily identified as true or false. The greater church seems to have adopted the idea that the very foundations of our faith are built around having all the answers.
In some ways, I was protected from that type of thinking because my parents were educators. Any teacher will tell you that open questions (the ones with a range of possible answers) are the lifeblood of a healthy classroom. Every field of study, every industry, every relationship stays alive and healthy only to the degree and frequency that new and open questions are asked. Rob Bell’s promotional team created quite a buzz with the video for his upcoming book the other week by simply asking the question: “Is Gandhi in hell?” If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out here: http://bit.ly/fcXb6m . The video and ensuing controversy are outstanding examples of the fear and anxiety that can be caused by an open question.
Bell has been accused of being a heretic by certain groups of evangelicals (many of whom have not yet read his book) since the release of this video. As far as I can tell, Rob Bell simply asked a question. The outrage by some at Bell’s video chronicles what truly threatens the health of Christianity. In my opinion, it also marks a deep misconception about the very nature of our faith. The name “Israel” (the one that God chose for His people) means “to wrestle with God.” I believe there is somethingdivine in the very fabric of questions we are bold enough to ask. And, as I point out in The Mockingbird Parables, questions are the beginning of every relationship.
The Biblical narrative is driven by questions: from Genesis, “Where are you?”…to the Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?”…to the Psalms, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” and, “…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”…to the Gospels, “Who do people say that I am?”…to the Epistles, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” So, too, is the story of the church: from Martin Luther’s theses, “Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”…to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transformational inquiry, “Is this right?”. I believe the voracity of our faith is marked by our willingness to ask the open and unanswerable questions; it is what pushes us into relationship with God. I haven’t read Rob Bell’s new book about heaven and hell yet, but I am pretty encouraged by his willingness to publicly ask tough questions. I don’t believe that the strength of our faith is defined by our answers, rather by the questions we are compelled to ask. Questions like the one my twelve year old asked in the car…questions like the very One we follow asked on the Cross. When it comes down to it, there is little difference between “How can God let all those people die?” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I wonder if the journey of faith doesn’t truly begin at the place where there is no clear answer.