Travelling together - the story of our conversations
Baptist ministers John Weaver and John Rackley are exploring how their lived Christian lives shape their theology. In this third piece John Weaver highlights how a shared understanding began to develop
Here is a flavour of a project that John Rackley and I have been working on over the last four years. It is very much a work in progress, and this series of articles in The Baptist Times is a step along the road of many discussions and some changes of direction and emphasis.
The project arose from the willingness of the two of us to talk to each other. We did not know each other well at the beginning, but we have grown in mutual respect and understanding of each other through our conversations. At a deeper level, as we talked, we realised that what we had in common was that we had survived changing and testing times for Baptists and especially ministers. We recognised that we were now in a very different place in our faith and relationship with God and the Church. As our retirement has proceeded, we have found that we are able to take a more detached view of how the churches attempt to witness to the Gospel, and reflect on what we see now; retracing our own tracks through the life of our ministry.
Early in our conversation we found the Lucan story of the meeting of the two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus brought our thoughts on faith journey into clear focus as we both centre our personal faith journeys on an ongoing relationship with the Christian Scriptures and with Christ revealed in those texts.
However, our sharing with each other was leading us into an Emmaus Road experience of our own. Like those disciples, we talked about disappointments, unfulfilled hopes, surges of blessing, our own doubts about God and positively of his presence in our lives, together with our experiences of grace. We were sharing our faith-stories and how we know God. We both agree that we need to live anything we say we believe.
John Rackley has already described the impact on his teenage faith in the second of these articles on reading The True Wilderness by Harry Williams, Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge.
My own reflection is that having grown up in a Christian home with a father who taught evolutionary biology, and myself going on to study and lecture in geology I became well-acquainted with the wonder of creation at both microscopic and telescopic levels. But this also challenged my view of the ways in which scripture might be interpreted, as a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 was not possible in the light of scientific understanding.
I believe that this awareness made me open to new ways of reading scripture and learning about God as I entered college. In ministry I learned much about God and myself through addressing the life situations of the people I pastored, and through charismatic renewal in the 1980s, which together gave me a further openness to the ways in which God works in human lives, the church, and the world; and moved me further away from propositional theology.
Some years ago, I read Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian, A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001, which had a profound influence on my thinking. McLaren describes the painful process of letting go and embracing a new way of understanding God: a reformation, which in my scientific life I would have referred to this as a paradigm shift. Many of us have experienced such a paradigm shift, which we have needed to experience in the development of a sustainable contemporary and realistic faith, and we will have come to the realisation that the Bible does not fit into any narrow definition, but breaks free to challenge our thinking.
Throughout his text McLaren demonstrates the importance of a friend, a fellow-traveller, or confidante with whom to explore the journey from the old to the new. This is something that John and I have come to value. We have shared this project with a number of friends in the Baptist family. Here are extracts of what three of them have said:
David Kerrigan described how his faith journey had taken him from south of Ireland Catholicism to middle England Baptist, which involved huge differences. But it was more than a doctrinal or theological journey. It was the journey from the culture of his birth to the culture of the place he now belonged. It was the journey from the convictions and values of his parents to the convictions and values he assimilated for himself. David introduced us to the theme of God’s Travelling People, through his own travels as missionary, pastor, and his last role as General Director of BMS World Mission.
He has written:
As we engage with life, and life engages with us, surely we must rework our theology again and again in response to new things we encounter and new things we come to understand from God’s word. I would find it despairing to hear someone say ‘I’ve been a Christian 40 years and what I believe today is what I believed right back then!’ Really? I’d ask where have you been these 40 years, in a cave? To grow and learn and change and adapt is to travel. So one of my stock questions to people I meet, maybe those I know or who I sense are open to a theological conversation is ‘what do you believe today that you didn’t believe when you were a new Christian?’ I want to see evidence of their journey, and of the places they have encountered God upon the road.
Looking back on a life that has moved from Welsh Baptist roots, through church experience in Washington DC, on to work as Director of Missionaries with BMS World Mission, as a Baptist minister and then as a Baptist College Tutor, Sian Murray-Williams reflects on the constants of her life: a loving family carrying its own wounds, an experience of the love of God made known in different and unexpected ways, the centrality of Jesus in how she understands the church’s work and witness, that the community of the church is pivotal for learning how to live ‘Christianly’, that life with God opens things up and closes things down, that the movement of God is constantly towards us, inhabiting our spaces, inviting us to ever deeper experience and the hospitality of God which is vast, generous and invitational.
Joshua Searle writes in the opening chapter of his book Theology after Christendom. Forming Prophets for a Post-Christian World of his life experiences as a member of the Millennial Generation through university, research and teaching:
These experiences nurtured in me the conviction that theology should extend beyond notions of individual formation and should encompass the vital issue of social responsibility. I believed intuitively that theology makes a profound difference not just to the individuals who are formed by it, but also to the broader society in which Christians are called to be salt and light. The social responsibility of theology has been revealed to me in a particularly poignant way in my teaching work among the deprived, marginalized and underprivileged in the countries of Eastern Europe where I have lived and worked.
In his book Falling Upwards. A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr maintains that in the second half of life we do not have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people, as much as we allow things and people to delight us, sadden us, and truly influence us.
In other words in the second half of life older people can become explorers. Rohr believes that the first part of life is writing the text, and the second half is writing the commentary on the text. The second half of life is marked by holistic and contemplative thinking, which moves toward the both-and and therefore moves away from the either-or.
Each of us is offered the gift of hearing and seeing Jesus on his own terms. John and I are now firmly placed in this second half, and at the heart of our reflections on life we now place three questions:
what does all this living say about God?
what does it say about what God desires for our life?
what does it say about the ways in which God works in the world?
In the next article John Rackley continues the theme of conversation with others.
John Rackley: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Weaver: email@example.com
Baptist ministers John Rackley and John Weaver have been working for four years on a project entitled 'Faith Journey as Theology', exploring how their lived Christian lives shape their theology. They first presented this at Theology Live at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in January 2019. From this meeting others have joined them in reflecting on faith journey as theology.
They are now at the stage of putting these discussions together. The six part series includes:
Jesus the Emmaus Road Companion
Faith, God and Story - the principles of faith as story
Travelling together - the story of our conversations
The unending conversation
The Emmaus story as a model for ministry
Faith Journey as Story: an invitation for self reflection
Image | Photo by Oziel Gómez | Unsplash
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