The Pilgrim’s Pensieve #3

My Church History

As it turns out there are a couple of ways to tell your story. When you slice through a tree trunk, the number of rings tells you the age of the tree. Similarly, in my own life the role models I have had mark the stages of my own development.

There have been basically two stages of growth for me so far. When I decided to make my faith my own the Charismatic Movement (CM) had an instant and exciting pull on me. The cliché that God was still in the business of doing miracles was attractive. The CM courts the supernatural in a ways other forms of Christianity barely do. I was hooked and naturally my role models were those who espoused that doctrine.

The second stage came when I realised the CM in itself was not sufficient. Initially CM type theology seemed to answer all the questions. However, as I started maturing in my own thinking and I could take a view point independent of my role models, I saw it was not enough. When I started questioning the CM itself with passion and rigour it was found wanting.

In seeing the lapses I started looking towards the world of academia. Not only did I find it diverse and engaging, I loved what they espoused was held to more stringent standards. Teachers in the CM are mainly not peer reviewed professionals and the quality of their work is largely according to their own discretion. In academia we find the opposite. In scholarship things are investigated and can be challenged, arguments can be made, and things are to be considered based on the reasoning and evidence supporting. Of course that world is not perfect and it has its own challenges, some of which are common to all human institutions.

Mainstream Christian scholarship largely comes from the larger Evangelical tradition. So my influences started coming from Evangelicals and my theology was being shaped by that perspective. As I dug deeper also I found my Christian worldview also shifting. I noticed recently that the people who have influenced me the most in developing my own perspective all come from the Anglican tradition. It is quite curious that a person raised in a Pentecostal home and is a practising Charismatic has been influenced heavily by a couple of Anglicans.

My experiences, the people who have influenced me, have me made a smelting pot of different ways of looking at the world and Christianity. Church history is similar in that she has had many different influences and viewpoints throughout her life.

Having a role model, a hero, a mentor, however you wish to call them, is not a bad thing. In the words of C.S. Lewis none of us are complete originals. We are all copies of one thing or another and we need guidance and foresight to tread paths we have not walked before. One disturbing thing I have seen several times is when mentors become idols. This happens at individual and societal levels, even to churches as well.

Protestants, for example, have long criticised Roman Catholics for the veneration of the saints. Yet I see in Protestantism that certain figures cannot be touched. Names like Luther and Calvin are so revered that anything that so challenges the ideology or principles of the Reformation is seen as near heretical. This is quite paradoxical in the sense the classic Protestantism at its core teaches that the scriptures are the God given mediator of the truth and not individuals no matter how influential they are. It is not only Protestants who are guilty of this. The Church Fathers (I do not have a clue why they are called the fathers and not the first generation Christians) are also held sometimes in almost inscrutable regard.

In my experience the worst kind of mentor a person can have is the one you can only praise and never engage in serious critique. Not all our influences are the same and therefore it is likely some are definitely better than others. This of course means it is possible that we can have bad influences as well. If we follow people no questions asked then we are in a very dangerous position. I have seen first-hand what happens when blind faith is mistaken for loyalty.

Like Kwaku Ananse no single person, or even group of people, is the reservoir of all wisdom. We must be humble and courageous enough to consider things from a different angle, to ask the probing questions. If we have total confidence in ourselves or in others to be always right, like the schemer of folklore, we might find everything come crashing down.

Those who challenge the status quo, the received wisdom, are often seen as disloyal. A person who tells his friend something wrong with them often turns into an enemy. Isn’t it possible that the person who speaks truth to another is the one who truly loves them and not the one who wraps them in a cocoon of lies and indifference towards their failings? As the proverb goes, wounds from a friend are faithful.

At Kakum National Park in Cape Coast there is the world famous forest canopy walkway. When you take a walk on it, it creaks and croaks and sways with the weight of those on it. It gives the impression to the newcomer that it is about to give way in one terrible accident. However, in the decades since it has been open there has never been a single incident. They check it thoroughly and regularly to make certain its integrity. Just because they trust it does not mean they do not subject it testing. They do it because the safety of individuals is more important than their pride in their engineering or the revenue their principle attraction brings in. Similarly influencers affect the lives of real people. We cannot blindly submit to whatever they say because something really precious is at stake. If we hold ourselves to the immutable standards of truth, love and righteousness there should be nothing we cannot ask the hard questions of.

One of my heroes is N.T. Wright. He once said “Heroes are meant to be engaged with, not stuffed and put on a pedestal.” When heroes become mute idols who we can not address neither will they address us, we lose the opportunity to learn and grow. Just as in academia advancement comes through challenging the paradigm, we cannot develop if we accept things just because they are the way they are.

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