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Seminary questions my orthodoxy12 min read

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I am in the process of applying to seminary, and my application essay is causing some pause at one college.  Check out the question they asked and my response.

Thank you very much for your response to the questions of the Admissions Committee. The committee has asked if you will provide an example of the “truths” you are referring to in the following statement?

  • Scripture is the rule for doctrine, but on some issues, like the presences of truth (common truth) in other Xian or faith traditions, I have had to come to both an appreciation for the truths they contain that my tradition does not have, while maintaining the integrity of the gospel, which is that the Xian soteriology (Christ died to save sinners) is THE truth, and He is the WAY.

As I have mentioned, I believe that it is theologically sound to say that there are, generally speaking, two kinds of truth – empirical, or “common” truth, and revealed truth. Common truth, also called “wisdom” is available to anyone who observes the creation, and is not limited to Christianity. In fact, most enduring religions and systems of wisdom (e.g. Confucianism) endure because they have captured some of these truths. Regarding the scriptures and common truth, I have three beliefs.

1. NOT ALL common truth is captured in the Bible

An exhaustive list of such truths might be very long. However, I do believe that the essential common truths are there. Just as science can teach us about nutrition in ways that scripture does not describe, there are lots of things to learn from observing creation.

2. The Bible integrates common truth with the one true set of revealed truths

I believe that the bible distinguishes itself from other collections of common truth in that it is integrated with the revealed truths of God, as opposed to the revealed truths of other faith traditions, which I do not believe. For an example, while both Xianity and Buddhism might agree on the common principle of sowing and reaping (which they call Karma), their revealed truth (answers to questions that can not be determined by observation, such as what happens after we die, or their soteriology) I find lacking, and inconsistent with the scriptures. So while we agree on sowing and reaping, I believe that it is appointed for man to die once, and then the judgment. I do not believe the Buddhist perspective that we are reborn to work off our Karma over successive lifetimes.

3. Earlier Christian traditions AND other faith traditions have a rich store of common truth which modern Christianity has either abandoned or ignored due to it’s emphasis on revealed truth

This last point is probably the crux of the discussion, but I appreciate your continued interest in me as a candidate despite such possibly controversial or questionable statements. C.S. Lewis once suggested that for every modern book of theology we read, we should read one from a century past (my paraphrase). The reason is that you can then see which “truths” from your own generation are perhaps merely emphasized due to modern culture, or influenced by modern culture, and which ones are actually more timeless. Also, you can see which truths were emphasized in the past, and again see what has been lost or gained. The modern, American view of God is certainly skewed by our modern context and influences.

For example, modern evangelicals have a mistrust of the mystical experience, and so pretty much deny the writings and experiences of the “Desert Fathers”, and there is a strong distrust of what is sometimes called “contemplative prayer” and “spiritual formation”, as promoted by those such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. And while modern Pentecostals and Charismatics have done a good job of restoring the experiential to Christian life, the wonderful disciplines of solitude and other non-intellectual approaches to God have yet to be appreciated in most Christian circles.

So, having said that we have missed out on some of the great truths and disciplines within our own history, I also have found that there is much to appreciate and learn from other traditions, primarily Yoga and Buddhism, as well as more “secular” purveyors of Wisdom, like Stephen Covey (a practicing Mormon, but full of wisdom).

I understand that Yoga is founded in Hinduism, and I surely appreciate those who warn others away from it. However, as a discipline of self-awareness and self-mastery, I have found it quite beneficial. Christianity offered me absolutely no integration between my physical and spiritual health, save “Praise aerobics.” One of the most balanced and cautious Christian “approvals” of yoga I have read is a chapter in Peter Toon’s book, Meditating as a Christian.

Regarding Buddhism, I have benefited greatly from a few things I have learned there. As I said, I have not abandoned Christian soteriology or revealed truths about the nature of man or God, but I have gained some meaningful insights and tools that my experience of modern Christianity did not provide, or did not provide in a full or digestible manner. These include primarily the following ideas/practices:

a. Non-judgmental self-observation
This practice is very similar to that of brainstorming, or putting aside the critical side our our mind temporarily in order to let all possible ideas surface. In non-judgmental self-observation, you observe your thoughts without evaluating or trying to “fix” them. What ends up happening is that you create a safe environment for your deeper feelings and self to emerge. If you are constantly critical, you inhibit this deeper awareness of your patterns of thought and feeling.

This practice has another benefit – when you meet others, you have practiced not jumping to conclusions, not jumping in to correct or fix them, and allowing them space to be themselves and show you their deeper self that they protect from such judgments. This type of grace is a form of love. Common Christian responses to this include

(1) it is the truth that can expose our deeper inner selves (discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart)
I totally agree that this is a valid method for self-knowledge. But this simple Buddhist practice is also hugely beneficial, and encourages the practice of love. We can always bring the critic, or the truth to bear on a situation, but practicing acceptance and grace is also a great skill to have. Truth spoken at the right time, rather than being spit out at first glimpse of error, is a skill to have.

Proverbs 25:11
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

(2) This practice seems like it just accepts sinfulness
This is entirely untrue. Just like in brainstorming, the purpose of temporarily suspending judgement is to access all of the ideas before limiting them unnessarily. In practicing non-judgment, we are not condoning anything, only providing the environment in which all can be safely revealed for later parsing.

(3) Emptying the mind is dangerous and could lead to the entry of demons or deceptions
This particular practice is not emptying the mind or getting into a trance-like state (which I do not practice, and those practices may be dangerous). This practice is a mindful self-observation, which can also include listening to our bodies (to see where they hurt), and to become aware of our deep thought patterns and habits which unconsciously influence our decision making.

b. Decreasing suffering by letting go of strong desires
Central to Buddhist practice is in letting go of our desires, both for and against things, in order to accept and see what is. This is often misunderstood as leading to a cessation of desire. What is beneficial here is to see how our longings for things, or our fears, cause us to suffer needlessly. This is compatible with such things as letting go of our lust for possessions (world), physical gratification (flesh), and achievement (pride of life). Selfish ambitions and fears should be examined and released. Godly ambition should be encouraged, and of course, perfect love can certainly help alleviate fears. But again, this Buddhist approach, in my mind, may be synchronized with Christian views on desire. It is just an alternate approach to the subject, which provides some alternate methods for understanding ourselves, and for helping us release desires that drive us, rather than draw us towards the divine.

c. Impermanence
The Buddhist emphasis on Impermanence is a constant reminder that the things of this world are temporary. In times of trial, we must remember that the trial is temporary. Admittedly, I don’t think that the Buddhist approach to this adds much to the Christian view, but it is nice to read their perspectives on the temporal nature of suffering.

d. Truth as Paradox
In Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck talks about his conversion from Zen to Christianity (admittedly, a bit of a more liberal Christianity than mainstream evangelicalism). What is interesting about his testimony is that he mentions two things drew him to conclude that Christianity was true. First, he became enamored with and impressed by the person and teachings of Jesus. However, second was the fact that Christianity did not oversimplify the truth, but presented it in a way that showed both sides of many deeper truths.

Peck was taught in Zen that many profound truths appear in paradoxical pairs, and he saw the same in Christianity. Paradoxical ideas such as grace and truth, predestination and free will, love and justice, are everywhere in Christianity, and this convinced Peck that Christianity was true. He goes on to say that he believes that much heresy is accomplished by taking one side of a paradoxical pair and teaching it out of balance, or in exclusion to the other side. This uniquely Buddhist view of truth as being found in paradoxical pairs has helped me tremendously in my approach to scripture, and to contentious issues that seem to have opposing truths. Christians, though they probably agree with this approach, rarely use this viewpoint of paradoxical pairs.

Last Things

Just as Paul was able to affirm and appreciate the truths of contemporary Greek philosophers at Mars Hill, and in so doing, earn the trust of his hearers, I believe we ought to affirm, respect, and learn from the truths in other traditions.  And, like Paul, we can use these as a segue into the gospel.  My heart is mainly to reach those who earnestly seek for truth in these other traditions with the amazing gospel of Christ.  In addition, my heart is to raise up mature believers who know how to respect others, treat them as equals, and serve them and share the gospel in ways that make it clear and easy to see Jesus.  The stumbling block of our narrow “we’re the only ones with truth” approach is both an error and a sin.  Let us admit our limited knowledge while we present our glorious Savior.  That’s all I am really trying to accomplish.  In my own search for truth, I have been hurt by unnecessary narrowness in Christendom, and I don’t intend to extend that in my own service to others.

I appreciate your continued interest in me, and understand how my responses may have given you pause. I also understand if you think my views risky or just this side of unorthodox. May God guide you in your decision making! Thanks very much.