Dave Tomlinson is a well-known author who came to fame with his book The Post-Evangelical in 1995—reprinted in 2014 as an SPCK Classic! The book was launched at Greenbelt, and Tomlinson talks of himself as a ‘progressive orthodox’, language which might characterise the Greenbelt movement. His latest book is Black Sheep and Prodigals: an antidote to black and white religion, and my eye was caught by the strapline used to promote the book: ‘If you’re blessed with spiritual certainty, this book may not be good for you!’ You won’t be surprised, dear reader, to know that I couldn’t resist making an observation in response, and the short dialogue that followed was enlightening:
IP: Did Jesus suffer from ‘spiritual certainty’?
DT: a) I’m not Jesus; b) but yes absolutely Jesus experienced doubt and uncertainty which can be seen in the temptations, Gethsemane and other places in the gospels. If he hadn’t lived with uncertainty the notion of incarnation would be a nonsense!
IP: a. I’m not Jesus either, but Jesus offers himself as a model for the new humanity.
b. he lived with uncertainty…but even a brief reading of the gospels seems to suggest that he had a spiritual certainty to go with that that you appear to have a problem with…?
DT: He had an obviously profound sense of calling, commitment and passion but that’s different to certainty. I see certainty as the opposite of faith, doubting is part of faith. To doubt and question is human; if Jesus didn’t wrestle with doubt he wasn’t human and as I say, belief in the incarnation would be nonsense. Basically Ian, I can’t see that certainty has anything whatsoever to do with faith or Christianity; I reckon it’s greatly overrated! As Benjamin Franklin said, nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. Uncertainty is good for the mind and the spirit too – it keeps us open to new possibilities, new insights, new experiences. It stops religion from ossifying and turning into rigid beliefs and traditions. From cover to cover the Bible is packed with instances where God overturns certainties, saying in effect’ So you think you’ve got it sorted, eh….!
Interestingly, I think there are several areas where I would offer enthusiastic support for Tomlinson’s rejection of certainty. The first is in the question for intellectual foundationalism in belief, something that evangelicals and others have suffered from, where there is a quest for an objective truth ‘out there’ which cannot be questioned and on which the architecture of a faith system is constructed. This has been a popular quest since the advent of modernism, but it is futile, since it transfers faith from God and what he has done to whatever foundation one decides to erect faith on. The second kind of certainty I would want to reject is the kind of monolithic certainty about one particular tradition which says that I have nothing to learn from people with whom I disagree. This isn’t really a certainty of belief, but a simple closedness to learning from others, and (as I think Tomlinson would agree) often springs from a fragility rather than a confidence in one’s own beliefs.
But Tomlinson’s formulation has some serious problems. At a practical level, people do value ‘traditions’, and not just as a refuge from an ever-changing world. Traditions can create a life-giving framework that nourishes and teaches, and it seems to me no accident that one of the areas of church growth is amongst those with a strong sense of tradition. In terms of the biblical story, clearly God is constantly challenging the false certainties we find in the people of God (and others)—but it is not clear that God replaces certainty with uncertainty, as Tomlinson wants to. Rather, the old, fragile certainty is replaced with a new sense of certainty—and often one that carries God’s people further and more confidently than they were before.
The need for certainty and confidence in what we belief is stamped all over the New Testament. Paul is certain of what he has been taught and in turn teaches to other (1 Cor 15), and the writer to the Hebrews is clear that continuing ‘in Christ’ depends on ‘holding firmly to the end our original conviction’ (Heb 3.14). But Hebrews goes on to highlight two important aspects of this certainty. The first is that it is relational certainty in the first instance, rather than a kind of propositional certainty—that is, it is the kind of certain confidence we have in a relationship rather than a formula. Secondly, it is an eschatological certainty, one that looks in hope to the future on the basis of the (partial view) that we have in the present. ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see’ (Heb 11.1). But being both relational and eschatological, our confidence in God still has a certainty that is enough to carry us in the face of life’s biggest questions. On Monday I led a service of the interment of ashes, and I spoke these words:
We have entrusted our brother/sister N to God’s mercy, and we now commit his/her mortal remains to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We don’t ask for absolute, propositional certainty of what we belief—only enough certainty to allow us to face death and even to die for. If that is not the kind of faith we have, then it is a different faith from the one we find in the NT. (If you are unsure of that, just read Revelation 2 and 3.)
I actually find Tomlinson’s approach profoundly disintegrating, in two important ways. The first is that he actually detaches Christian faith from the person of Jesus. In another extract from the book, posted on Facebook, he offers:
My Practicing Resurrection Easter Note to Self
1. Look beyond the darkness of present circumstances, and lean toward the light; never let gloomy times define who you are;
2. Ask questions and doubt fearlessly, but never forget that life is a mystery;
3. Remind yourself often that doing what you know to be the right thing is a way of winning even when you lose;
4. Bring hope and laughter into places of tears and despair, but never try to give ‘answers’ when you don’t have them;
5. Actively oppose prejudice, discrimination and oppression wherever you see it, even when it makes you unpopular;
6. Care for the earth and its creatures, and live in the best possible way that all may flourish;
7. Where there is conflict, do everything you can to spread peace and reconciliation; and learn to apologise as naturally as breathing.
They look great on the page—but try reading them out loud to someone. They contain some good advice—but they quickly begin to sound like not much more than slogans from a self-help guru. And they have little connection with what actually happened at Easter. The events of the resurrection were not concerned with good advice and looking at the world in a certain way, but about the fact that God has done something, and what God has done in Jesus is the thing that makes all the difference. Without the thing God has done, the change in outlook is unwarranted and without the power to change us.
In his new introduction to the reprint of The Post-Evangelical, Tomlinson contrasts the fixed closedness of a sterile orthodoxy with an openness to new and ongoing revelation by the Spirit of God. But what he fails to notice is that the closure of the canon of Scripture is intimately related to the status of Jesus as the final revelation of who God his is—his last Word on the matter. If we think that revelation can add to Scripture, then we are ultimately denying that Jesus is God’s revelation of himself.
This disintegration, this fragmentation, then makes itself felt in his approach to what it means to be human. In one of the chapters of the book, (and in an Easter sermon based on it) he argues that the empty tomb is a distraction, and that real Easter faith is about the existential experience of transformation. But the New Testament never countenances such a divide between the material and the personal, between objective fact and subjective experience. In his long exposition of the resurrection, Paul notes that ‘if Christ has not been raised, we are of all people to be pitied!’ (1 Cor 15.16–19). For Paul, resurrection was bodily or it was nothing, and the tomb in which Jesus ‘was buried’ must now be empty.
Tomlinson does offer a serious challenge to evangelicals—and in fact anyone wanting to live out orthodox Christian faith: will you allow space for genuine expressions of doubt and questioning exploration? Though I think his remedy is seriously mistaken—fatal even—his diagnosis clearly resonates with many. He quotes Rowan Williams describing an orthodoxy that is:
pre-packed, pre-determined, watertight, a comprehensive ideology. This sort of orthodoxy stifles thought and distorts perception. it allows no real conversation. It is a monologue. No critical element is permitted. The reason there is no conversation in this kind of orthodoxy is that actually everything has already been said, and all that is left to do is repeat it.
I have no interest whatever in that kind of orthodoxy. I do want a conversation—but I want a conversation that leads to greater certainty, not less, one that understands why the canon is closed and focusses on the person of Jesus as the full revelation of who God is.
The other thing that evangelicals can learn from Tomlinson is to be a bit more interesting! A glance at his church’s website suggests an engaging, creative and even quirky community; sometimes we evangelicals are just a bit dull and earnest!
But I think Tomlinson might have a few things to learn from the evangelicals that he has decided to leave behind. He notes (again in the introduction to The Post-Evangelical) that 24% of readers of Third Way magazine identified themselves as ‘post-evangelical’.
The magazine recently closed.
Offering people great self-help slogans might scratch the itches of today, but it isn’t going to last into the challenges of tomorrow. We do need good experiences in our faith, but they are good experiences that spring from good teaching. If we abandon the teaching, we have nothing to offer the next generation for their own experiential encounter with God.
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