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How systems can undermine us
When I was in college, the youth pastor at our church started a Bible study. Or I should say, he called it a Bible study. Really, it was a book discussion group. They were going to be working their way through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. The book is massive, clocking in at a whopping 1,617 pages. It is considered the gold standard of modern Systematic Theology. I was not a part of this group. Still, I remember seeing high school seniors and college freshmen carrying around this book and thinking to myself, “They are serious about understanding the Bible.” In certain ways, I was jealous of their devotion. If I remember correctly, I was working at a small church as a youth pastor at the time, and, along with my own college coursework, I did not have time for a study of that magnitude.
Prior to this, I had read a book by John MacArthur called Charismatic Chaos. In his book, he spends over 400 pages talking about how wrong the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are due to their “misinterpretations” of the Bible. Especially with regard to prophecy and speaking in tongues. According to him, God is done talking. They stopped talking audibly long ago, and their voice is only heard through the words of the Bible. As proof, he cites this passage from the New Testament:
As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)
He ignores the fact that nowhere does the Bible say that they actually have. He, rather, bases his assertion on experiential knowledge. As one studies the history of the church, he claims, you see these things gradually fade away, indicating that the perfect is here. The perfect being the Bible. He seems to tie the end of God continuing to reveal themselves with the church’s determination of a canon of Scripture, specifically the Protestant version of said Bible.
This stuck with me. In an attempt to fit his beliefs into a specific system of theology, he had to find or create ways to interpret the Bible that matched. He was manipulating the Scripture to fit his beliefs rather than allowing his beliefs to be informed by the very Bible he claimed was the totality of God’s revelation of themself to us.
Humans love their systems. We will go to great lengths to defend them. When something comes along that threatens those systems, we mock it and deride it and do everything we can to prove this new information wrong. When it was discovered that the earth, indeed, was not the center of the universe, it rocked the world. He and his findings were silenced, or at least the church attempted to silence them.
I dated a psychology major once. On the one hand, it was fascinating being able to ask questions and learn more about how the mind works. But because of what she knew, she tended to compartmentalize things and box stuff in. Things were supposed to happen in certain orders and for certain lengths of time. There was a point where our relationship was not following the proper timeframe. She told me she was still feeling things at a time when those feelings should have shifted to whatever that next stage was. This was perceived as a red flag, I would assume, because it was not long after that the relationship fell apart.
We do the same with grief. Once it was established that grief occurs in certain stages, and generally in a certain order, it seems as if we have started trying to navigate that grief for people to force it to fit into the proper framework. Despite our rhetoric to the contrary, that grief happens for different people in a different order and for different lengths of time.
We want all grief to fit into the prescribed timeframe. We want all relationships to fit in the box. We want all theology to work in the system.
Systems often fail. Immune systems can become compromised. Computer systems hacked. Social structures corrupted. No single system is perfect and none of them are going to last forever. According to the Bible verse I quoted above, “As for knowledge, it will pass away.”
We are constantly finding and learning new things about our world and about ourselves. More often than not, it seems like this new knowledge does not quite fit the systems that we have become accustomed to. The Washington Post recently had a story about glacial runoff in Alaska. The scientists studying and observing this have been able to predict these floods with relative accuracy until recently. The pattern, system, of filling and emptying has become unpredictable thanks to a warming climate. The system is falling, and it would be foolish for the people of Juneau to keep building and living as though everything is fine or to deny reality and defend the status quo.
Theology used to be a process. People were studying and learning and trying to find ways to describe God and put to terms what they were coming to believe about them. Theology had a lot of give and take. But somewhere along the way, the church needed to reign this in. People were coming to vastly different ideas about God, all under the umbrella of Christianity. So groups came up with creeds that laid out a set of beliefs that would separate the true Christians from everyone else. But even the early Christian creeds were vague by comparison to what we have today. We have gone so far as to set in stone exactly what a Christians is supposed to believe about every little thing. It is similar to what was happening in the Old Testament laws. If you read through them, it really starts to get petty after a while. And the religious leaders kept at it until they decided how many steps a person could walk on the sabbath before it counted as work and a violation of sabbath laws.
We are still doing this even today. We want the system to work perfectly every time and we will do anything to force it to. Rather than change the system or adapt our behaviors and beliefs, we attempt to force the world around us to fit into the system.
Even when it clearly does not.
We add rules and restrictions and ultimately do damage to the very systems we are trying to maintain. Worse, we are doing damage to the people whose lives and experiences may not fit the systems to begin with.
So people grieve alone. They abandon relationships. They leave their churches.
The system is failing, and we would do well to figure out what we can do to repair it. Assuming it is not too late.
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