Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beyond Beliefs

ESR Director of Recruitment and Admissions Matt Hisrich reflects on John David Geib's recent book Beyond Beliefs:

“This book of words is for all of us who are seeking for more than just words.” With this invitation, retired Malone University theology professor and founding dean of the Logos Institute John David Geib begins his exploration of a Christian faith that is not hostile to postmodern culture. “Post-modernity opened the door to personal experiences,” says Geib, and “[f]or me, this means Our Present Time is a time to return to the experiences, beyond words, pointed to in the original writings of the first followers of Jesus” (emphasis original).

The lengthy introduction is an embrace of this idea. Geib shares openly about his own struggles with faith and culture and how the nonreligious environment in which he was formed shaped how he ultimately came to a strong faith. He sees the development of atomic energy and LSD as key moments that both marked the zenith of the modern era and the beginnings of the postmodern era, as humanity saw that scientific progress could bring destruction with it. This is the most personal section of the book and also the most successful in dialoguing with those from a postmodern perspective.

Already, though, postmodern readers might sense cause for concern when Geib employs phrases to describe them such as “Post-Modern humans” (xxvii). To whom is this book really addressed?  I think it’s fair to say that the primary audience is not “Post-Modern humans.” He makes this clear toward the end of the book when – apparently addressing another audience – he says that “Experiential story sharing, or narrative communication, may represent an initial contact point with those who consider themselves Post-modern.”

To some extent, this helps explain the structure of the book. On the one hand he seems to be offering an empathetic historical account of how postmodern thinking came into being so as to help those from other perspectives gain some understanding rather than simply being dismissive. On the other hand, though, he clearly operates out of - and argues for - a very clearly defined orthodoxy. He emphasizes a non-denominational perspective, but one that (while it may cut across denominations) is nonetheless arranged (book title aside) along a fairly specific belief set.

The transition from chapter one to subsequent chapters is jarring in this regard. Almost immediately Geib shifts from personal experience as his point of reference to a heavy reliance on proof-texting scripture to establish his position.

“Irreligious readers may get bogged down,” The Kirkus Review of the book cautions, “by continual references to biblical passages.”

This approach creates a tension between what Geib says he is trying to do – getting beyond words and beliefs to a direct experience of Christ – and what he actually does on the page – outline a set of words and beliefs about what that direct experience looks like. Here, for example, he describes what we might call a “beyond belief” experience:

“Many in our Post-modern age have stopped believing that words can describe reality or objective standards. They are not primarily logocentric, or word centered, in their lived experience. I am returning to the experience of the supernatural persuasions of The Holy Spirit. I now see more than ever that depending primarily on the supernatural, interior persuasions of The Holy Spirit that are beyond mere words will ultimately lead people to authentic experiences with Jesus” (emphasis original, 32).

But later, he shares what can only be described as a doctrinal statement of belief:
“Jesus taught His first friends and followers that The Father, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit shared with one another Oneness, their common Eternal Deity, from all eternity. Jesus temporarily gave up the use of this type of Oneness with God, the use of Jesus’ Deity, and assumed the limitations of living as a human. As a true human, Jesus exchanged His human life for us so that we would receive His eternal Life.” (53)

This latter statement is chock-full of specific theological viewpoints about trinity, atonement, and the nature of God and Christ. These are positions that Christians have discussed and debated since the earliest days of the faith. If we are to get “beyond beliefs” to genuine relationship with Jesus, then why is it so important to articulate this particular conception of the life and work of Jesus? Geib continues in this vein later as he explains how God’s eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent nature resolves many theological concerns – again advancing a particular understanding of who God is (86-87).

His view of scripture provides another example. On page 59 he states in an open-ended way that, “The words of the scriptures, as signs on a highway do, point not to themselves but to the way, or in the case of the scriptures, to The Way, Jesus” (emphasis original). Several pages later, though, he follows this by describing “Jesus as believing that the teaching Jesus gave before being glorified was also inspired by God and thus authoritative” (62-65). This, Geib says, is “clear beyond dispute ” (65).

Modern and post-modern distinctions aside, of particular theological concern to this reviewer is Geib’s repeated emphasis on the very limited value of humanity. “God needs nothing from humans in any way to bring about God’s sovereign plans” (87). This is a strong theological claim, and certainly not an uncontested one. A reader might justifiably ask why humans exist at all, and why God seems so interested in working with and through us.

With reference to Jesus, Geib argues that “Exchanging Life with Jesus is Jesus giving repeat performances of His Life in anyone who allows Jesus to do so” (49). Geib’s vision of God (at least as presented here) seems fairly self-referential, leaving little room for God’s love of individual human beings in all of their uniqueness operating in unique times and places in the world.

Geib, left, with fellow retired Malone professor John Oliver. The new company Oliver House Publishing, launched by Geib, Oliver, and Stanford Terhune - published Beyond Beliefs.

Geib’s association with Malone University, which was founded by Friends, and his listing of Robert Barclay’s Apology as one of several “Specific Christian creedal beliefs that I agree with,” on his Logos Institute bio page, indicates a potential point of contact with current Quakers, postmodern or otherwise. Much of what Geib says about direct experience with the divine should actually resonate strongly with Quaker theology. The whole effort to get “beyond beliefs” and move toward personal narrative and an inward experience of Christ rather than the mere repetition of scripture is one that the Religious Society of Friends has been working on for centuries.

It was Margaret Fell, after all, who in the 1600s became a convinced Friend after hearing George Fox raise the challenge, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?”  While there are points of connection with Quaker ideas, though, many Friends – again, postmodern or otherwise – might bristle at some the creedal language informing the bulk of his theological statements. This, of course, gets us back to the heart of the general tension at work in the book.

One way to read this book would be to see Geib holding these two pieces together – postmodernism and doctrinal, textual authority – as a way to accomplish a tactical maneuver. Maybe this is really a manual for how “moderns” might try to more successfully evangelize “post-moderns.” My sense, though, is that he is genuinely speaking from his experience and trying to begin a dialogue. Perhaps a better way of reading “Beyond Beliefs,” then, is as a memoir – an account of one man’s effort to reconcile his upbringing with where he finds himself now. He makes it clear that he has been wrestling with the boundaries of belief his whole life when he shares that “My parents raised me in a loving home without any formal religious beliefs… Little t truths existed for me, but Capital T truth? No!” (14-15).

If readers approach “Beyond Beliefs” in this way, and understand Geib’s intent as “an initial contact point with those who consider themselves Post-modern,” then it becomes easier to set aside the lack of engagement with real-life, flesh-and-blood postmodern humans in this book. Readers can hope that this initial contact point then becomes the first title in a series.

Perhaps Geib could take up this task through an open and honest dialogue with those he is writing about. Would he consider, for instance, co-authoring a book with someone who considers themselves postmodern? Or maybe he could begin some small group discussions and one-on-one interviews with this group and share these along with his own processing and reflections on the matter.

This is important, because there really is worthwhile work to do in building a bridge between a culture of skepticism toward orthodoxy and textual authority on the one hand, and one rooted in those very attributes. This is a project “for all of us who are seeking for more than just words,” and I am confident we all have much to learn. As Geib reminds us:

“Whenever we focus on the letter of the Bible, no matter how well-intentioned, we can supplant and can even kill the unity of The Spirit and faith in Jesus. Whenever we begin to confuse Jesus The Word with our understandings of the Bible and our third-level understandings of the Christian faith, our sermons, teachings, doctrinal statements and stories, we can supplant and even kill the unity of The Spirit and faith in Jesus... When that happens, we may allow the letter of the words of God and our own words to kill our possible experience of oneness with Jesus and one another” (emphasis original, 65-66). 

1 comment:

  1. But how can we talk about Jesus "The Word" WITHOUT relying on our understandings of the Bible? Or what it means to be Christian? Without doctrines? Without beliefs? Can you even talk about having an "inward experience of Christ" without defining what Christ means?
    You can't.