Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hell and Beyond Interview and Discussion, Part 4

Below is the fourth segment of the interview I did with my dad on his new e-book Hell and Beyond.  For background about the book and this interview, see my earlier post 'Introducing Hell and Beyond.' To read all the interview segments that have been published so far, click here. To download the entire interview as a pdf, click here. A Facebook plugin has been imported into the end of this and every other interview segment to facilitate a user-friendly discussion. We want to here from you, so please don't hesitate to leave your thoughts or further questions.

RP 14: You say in your Preface that “we do not and cannot know what the afterlife holds.” You also say that the goal of your “imaginative supposals” is to “guard against…imbalance toward error”. But if we cannot know what the afterlife holds, how can we know what constitutes imbalance or error?

MP 14: That was perhaps a poor way of stating it. It was my way of highlighting what I emphasized in the previous answer, that taking one or another firm and dogmatic stand on any
point of doctrine upon which Scripture is ambiguous (the afterlife included) will lead to imbalance and error. By “imagining” a variety of possibilities, keeping open minds in many directions, we keep ourselves from such dogmatism. That was the only point I was trying to make.

RP 15: Few people on either side of the universalism/eternal torment debate would deny that there are details about the afterlife on which Scripture is ambiguous. But historically the church has also taught that some things about the afterlife are very clear. Because of this, many readers may want to know whether your statement that “taking one or another firm and dogmatic stand on any point of doctrine upon which Scripture is ambiguous (the afterlife included) will lead to imbalance and error”, includes your dogmatic insistence on Scripture’s ambiguity concerning the afterlife. In other words, to be consistent with your own criteria, are you willing to keep an open mind to the fact that some things you consider to be ambiguous might not be so ambiguous?

MP 15: Absolutely…of course! There are few things so thrilling to me as a new insight on some portion or verse or theme or passage of Scripture that I had not considered before, new light cast from a new direction. I am always open and eager for refreshing new and alternate points of view—as long as they are consistent with the character of God and the teaching of Jesus. 

That is not a minor caveat. This is THE determinative measure of truth. The character of God and the teaching of Jesus are the undergirding rock (not two rocks, but a single Rock, Anchor, and eternal Foundation) by which all truth (and thus all that I believe personally) must be measured. Every idea that comes, every thought that is presented to my senses, every doctrine, every possibility, every interpretation, I lay beside the character of God and the teaching of Jesus. Then I ask, “Is there consistency here? Is this idea, this possibility, this perspective, the interpretation of this doctrine, consistent and in harmony with who God is and with what Jesus said of him?”

When new light measured beside the character of God and the teaching of Jesus reveals that I have not seen something clearly, or perhaps even reveals that I have been blatantly in error, nothing is so easy for me as to admit that I am wrong. Most people have a hard time doing that. I don’t. I don’t mind admitting I am wrong. But I have to be shown evidence and sound scriptural reasoning (a very different thing than a list of proof-texts, which is often the methodology employed), not simply opinion. 

The trouble is, most people debate and discuss scriptural controversies on the basis of learned and proof-textual opinion rather than true scriptural logic and evidence. Most scriptural debate is not founded in the character of God or the teaching of Jesus. Nor are most people adept at listening to scriptural logic and evidence that does not conform to their predetermined conclusions. So what is often presented as “non-ambiguity” and positive scriptural clarity and proof is usually just one individual’s opinion on some matter they have not thought through in much depth. They have been taught what they are supposed to believe, then they accept that teaching (which may completely violate the character of God or the teaching of Jesus) as unambiguous, unalterable, truth. 

Your question thus contains a hidden subtlety that strikes to the very heart of much scriptural debate, and to the core of this issue we are discussing. 

What is obvious, what is ambiguous, what is true, what is false in Scripture is usually in the opinionated eye of the beholder. More times than I can count, in trying to discuss the afterlife in a reasoned and scriptural manner, those of a more traditional perspective make statements such as, “The Bible clearly teaches…” from which then follows a proof-textual regurgitation of the learned doctrine. To such individuals there is no ambiguity about hell at all. The King James and most Bibles say that sinners will go away into “everlasting punishment” and that is enough for them. 

When I bring up scriptural “ambiguity” on the matter by referencing the Greek text of Matthew 25:46, for example, trying to point out that the verse has been mistranslated, insisting that we have to get at what Jesus really said in order to understand his teaching and the character of the Father as he came to reveal him, they think I am adding to Scripture and trying to read my own opinion into the text. Even my attempts to understand Jesus’ teaching accurately, and to know the character of God truly, are met with argumentation and objection.

It is a very frustrating divide. Objective conversation and dialog become almost impossible. If William Barclay or an equally open-minded and objective Greek scholar were to tell me, “You are not understanding this passage correctly. Where you are reading ambiguity there really is none. This is what the verse implies in its Greek original,” I would take that very seriously and then would rethink my previous perspectives. I would happily abandon an inaccurate interpretation in which I had been wrongly taught or which I had been reading without sufficient light and knowledge.

But I don’t often encounter that. What I encounter more often are those who are so closed-mindedly convinced that they are right as to have removed all ambiguity from the scriptural landscape. My speaking of scriptural “ambiguities” only proves to them how little I know the Bible. In most cases, however, they haven’t studied these matters in much depth at all.

I don’t know…you tell me—how does one engage in objective dialog in such a situation?

All I ask is for open-mindedness. Then there can be a fruitful discussion. When I say to those of more traditional perspective, “Lay aside your proof-texts and what you have been taught and look at what the Bible has to say with objectivity,” I am willing and eager to take that same medicine too. I expect the same standard for myself. I do not depend on what I have been taught by others. I have searched the Scriptures for myself, and continue to do so. I look at both sides. I will listen to any logical, scriptural, non-proof-textual line of reasoning. If I insist on the open-mindedness necessary to look at both sides of some particular scriptural conundrum, it is because I am open-minded enough to look at both sides myself. I am the most open-minded person I have ever met! That’s why, as I have often said, I remain neutral about the ultimate outcome of God’s purposes in the afterlife. I am open enough, and realistic enough to say, “I don’t know.”
Perhaps this eternal I don’t know represents the ultimate and final ambiguity.

RP 16: I’m curious about your statement that the character of God and the teaching of Jesus is “THE determinative measure of truth” and that “by which all truth (and thus all that I believe personally) must be measured.” Is it possible that you could be wrong in your understanding of the character of God? If, as you argue, “what is obvious, what is ambiguous, what is true, what is false in Scripture is usually in the opinionated eye of the beholder”, then how are you exempt from this limitation when dogmatizing on the character of God?

MP 16: I would hesitate making use of such a black and white word as wrong. That casts the whole discussion into the realm of debate—there is one right, one wrong. I consider this to be an inaccurate and unproductive means of discussing spiritual truth and a singularly ineffective way to probe the depths of Scripture to get at more truth.

Turning every spiritual conundrum into a “debate” in which one individual makes a point, another individual counters that point, then comes yet another argument in favor of the first point—each more intent on proving the other individual wrong than gaining fresh light—resembles an intellectual tennis match. As the points of argument are fired back and forth, the exercise becomes an intellectual contest, not a search for truth at all. This methodology represents, in my “opinion,” one of the great blindnesses of Christendom to the detriment of the gospel.

Spiritual growth is a process of learning, absorbing new information, exploring ideas, and open-minded discussion. As this process continues, personal maturity, life experience, steadily increasing insight and wisdom, and divine revelation are all woven into a deepening understanding of who God is. We recognize that some of what we once believed may not be as true as we once thought. We grow into expanded new realms of insight. It’s not a tennis match of opposing is a journey.

That journey is ongoing. It is never completed in this life. The growth, the weighing of ideas, the exploration of new ideas and deeper insights, probing for fresh scriptural revelations all continue.

Therefore, I would prefer not to speak of my being wrong about the character of God, nor would I say that you are, or that anyone is. But neither would I say that I am capable of seeing the character of God with 100% accurate truth. It is a process of growing insight and expanding truth. I think I see the character of God more accurately now than I did thirty years ago. I hope to see it more clearly twenty years from now than I do today. I would not say that that means I am wrong about many things today, but that my insight and vision will remain hazy and obscure as long as I am in this life. Hopefully they are coming into increasing focus with every passing year.

All those who are seeking to know God aright should be able to say the same thing. We all have insight to contribute to that journey. I will be able to learn from others who see various aspects of God’s character and plan more clearly than I do. That’s why I do not see such discussions as these as intellectual sparring matches where each “side” is trying to score debating “points” in a game where there is a clear winner and loser. I see them as opportunities for me to learn and grow myself, as well as to share where my growth thus far has brought me. Of course other men and women will be able to contribute and add to my understanding where the clarity of my vision is incomplete. I welcome such influences in my life and in the discussion of God’s character! I anticipate them eagerly!

Does this mean that I am “wrong” in those areas where my vision is incomplete and where others can add to my understanding? I suppose I will leave that for your readers to decide. I question the accuracy of the terminology, but I won’t argue the point. I would agree that my vision is incomplete, that I continue to grow and study these matters, and that the journey is an ongoing one.

To answer your question, I am not exempt from the same limitation you seem to feel I have placed on others in the quest for truth. Certainly I am also a “beholder.” My own opinions and perspectives on the truths of Scripture are in the eye of the beholder too. That beholder is me! We are all on the quest for truth together.

I have a question for you. Where do you find me “dogmatizing” on the character of God? Is it dogmatizing to insist that we come to the Scriptures with an open mind? Is it dogmatizing to insist that all our perspectives on the character of God must be rooted in his goodness, his love, and his Fatherhood as Jesus explained his character to us, and revealed that character through his own life? In Hell and Beyond I am not trying to set up an alternate “dogma” but simply to open hearts and minds to larger possible perspectives—my own heart and mind (with my own limitations of understanding) included! Somehow the word dogma seems inappropriate to apply to the general perspective of Hell and Beyond, or to the emphasis on open-mindedness that I have been attempting to articulate in this interview.

RP 17: I was referring to what you said in MP15, where you seemed to be setting up certain rigid absolutes as "THE determinative measure of truth…by which all truth (and thus all that I believe personally) must be measured.” Many may feel that this approach to hermeneutics simply short-circuits the type of discussion you say you value, since all exegesis becomes subsumed into what you have already determined in advance to be “the undergirding rock” of “the character of God and the teaching of Jesus.” My own personal concern is that this method might be akin to cutting off the branch of the tree you are sitting on, for if we can’t say “there is one right, one wrong”, then how can you assert (as you did in MP 15) that it was wrong to “debate and discuss scriptural controversies on the basis of learned and proof-textual opinion rather than… the character of God or the teaching of Jesus”? 

MP 17: Sometimes we use words and phrases without fully considering their precise definitions and implications. It may be that I should not have phrased it as “THE determinative measure of truth by which ALL truth MUST be measured.” Those are black-and-white, absolute terms that perhaps indeed conflict with my stated perspective of a more fluid, growing, continually expanding approach to truth. Your point is well taken. I accept the gentle rebuke of inconsistency. 

And yet…does inconsistency exist here? 

Perhaps I ought to clarify it like this. I DO consider the character of God and the teaching of Jesus to be THE determinative measure of truth by which ALL truth must be measured. I stand by that. However, I do not believe I have ever claimed to grasp the completeness of that truth myself in its fullness. If I have, then I was wrong to do so and apologize. In other words, I believe that those are the measures of truth, but at the same time I believe that no one is fully capable of apprehending the character of God nor the full truth of the teachings of Jesus with 100% accuracy. Certainly I don’t. As I said, we are growing toward such understanding. 

Your question seems to contain the subtle implication that I think I possess that truth to a greater extent than someone else. I’m not sure where you find that in anything I’ve said. I am trying to point to a standard that is higher than myself. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis’s famous progression is based on the existence of a “higher standard” which no one fully lives by. Lewis is the first to admit that he doesn’t live by the higher standard either. I am using his logic and approach to examine the question of what is our ultimate reference point for truth. I am simply trying to convey what I feel is a straightforward principle: “I do not myself perceive truth completely. You don’t. No one does. We are studying and thinking and discussing and learning and growing toward an increase of truth all our lives. In that quest, this must be our ultimate reference point. This is the higher standard.”

I fail to see the inconsistency in that approach and perspective. I admit that I do not see all, that I do not understand all, and that I am eager to learn from the perspectives of others. I’m not sure what dogmatism exists in that. It is a variation on exactly the point Lewis made. There is a higher standard. We don’t live up to it. But we mustn’t lose sight of it.

What I object to is setting up a different standard as THE determinative measure of truth. Christians set up many alternate standards. Some set up “church tradition” and the teachings of the church through history as the final authority of truth. Some set up “what my pastor teaches” as their highest and final authority. Many set up the “Scripture’s proof-textual interpretations” they have been taught about the doctrines of Christianity as their final authority. Others base their perspective of truth on “personal experience and revelation.” Christians make these, and many others, their “higher standard.”

All these, however, in my opinion (yes, I will use that word of my perspective in this case) are false gauges of ultimate truth and will inevitably lead to error and mistaken interpretations both of the Bible and of truth in general. They may be “standards” by which to gauge truth. Again to borrow Lewis’s nomenclature, none of them can be the higher standard.

It is important that you hear me clearly. I would never say that these are false guides in and of themselves. They are only false criterions when they are relied on to reveal ultimate truth. I believe that much truth has been revealed through church tradition. I value and honor the Quaker tradition of my ancestors, and the evangelical tradition of my upbringing and all the teaching I received through it. But I cannot rely on this, nor can any tradition be relied on as the ultimate and final word on truth.

Likewise, I believe that much truth is revealed by the teachings of pastors and teachers and authors whom we respect. But I cannot rely on the teaching I have received, not even from the men whom I revere most highly, as the ultimate and final word on truth.

I believe that much truth is revealed in the interpretive doctrines of Christianity. In most respects I am in complete agreement with the traditionally-held doctrines of our faith. But I cannot rely on a series of doctrines, no matter how right they may seem to the intellect of man, as the ultimate and final word on truth.

And I believe that much truth is revealed by personal experience and revelation. God has used all these means to deepen and develop truth in my own walk with him, and continues to do so every day. Yet personal experience will always be a limited and incomplete revelation.

I do not look to any of these as ultimate and final guides into the loftiest eternal truths of God. They must all be interpreted through the higher light shed upon them by the character of God. They are lesser lights. The character of God and the teachings of Jesus are the greater Lights.

In my opinion, only the character of God and the teachings of Jesus represent that highest authority by which we can study, investigate, grow in, and come to know ultimate spiritual truth. I realize that others use different standards. I happen to think that these are the final standards. I also recognize that I am a flawed human being and that my perspective is still growing. Is it possible in the light of eternity, when I am shown more, that I will see that my present perspective is incomplete? Of course I recognize that. 

In other words, my personal inability to ascertain truth completely is built into the equation. In the same way, Lewis’s flawed inability to live by the “higher standard” was intrinsic to his argument. My growth as a flawed receptacle for truth is similarly built into my argument. Nowhere have I said, nor would I dare say, “I know truth completely.” But I do say, This is the standard of truth which I am seeking every day to understand more completely.

If you perceive a rigid absolutism in this statement, or feel that I am short-circuiting discussion by such a perspective, I’m sorry but I fail to see it. I have emphasized with as much force as I know how to give it, both here and in my other writings, my urgent conviction that intellectual analysis and doctrinal dogmatism will not and cannot lead to the highest truths of God nor provide an adequate foundation for an obedient walk with God. After all I have said, however, what it seems your question reduces to is that you find me open to the charge of being dogmatic about not being dogmatic. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s bewildered cry (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittinger”) when he said, “How many times does a man need to say something before he is safe from the accusation of having said exactly the opposite?” If there are those who truly find me being dogmatic about not being dogmatic, I suppose in the final analysis nothing is left me but to say, “Guilty as charged.”

I don’t think many readers will find a “rigid absolutism” in Hell and Beyond. Even late in the book where the fictionalized George MacDonald is explaining many things to the book’s narrator, he is quick to admit that he still does not know what will be the final outcome of eternity. One of the features of rigid dogmatism, it seems to me, is the conviction that one possesses all the answers about some given question under consideration. This is the very opposite of my outlook. I know that I do not possess all the answers. This is actually one of the themes in the book that Paul Young and others have pointed to as very important, underscoring the fact that I have NOT tried to lay out a rigid absolutism about the future. Even having written a fantasy such as I have about the other side, I have left room—both for myself as the book’s author, and for readers—to say, “We don’t know.”


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