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January 23, 2014Leadership

Why We Need to Do Our Own Math, a Guest Post from David Park

Like in mathematics, we must show our work when we do theology.
Why We Need to Do Our Own Math, a Guest Post from David Park
Image: nab_nabb2003 / flickr

"What's 12 times 6?" one girl shouted out while looking at me expectantly, pencil in hand, ready to write on a worksheet dog-eared on the top corners. I stared back at her blankly and with no Christ-like compassion and said, "Do the math." "60." She spat out. "Nope." "C'mon! Just tell me! I have to do this whole sheet before I can go play. Please! You're Asian, I know you're good at math." Apparently this Hispanic third-grader didn't know what a backhanded compliment was either. "I do know. But it's not my homework. It's yours." "62!" "No! Stop guessing. Where's your scrap paper?" "72!" Pause. My hesitation gave it away and she quickly scribbled it down. "No, not good enough. Show your work. Let me know how you got to that answer. And here's some paper."

These are the right things to tell someone whether it's basic arithmetic or advanced calculus do your own math, show your work. But for some reason, when it comes to conversations about theology and faith, we don't share the same patience. We want others to know the answer. We want them to live in a way that proves the answer. We want them to love the answer, but unless others do their own math and show the work (and this requires we do the same), they won't, at least not for long.

The gospel is foolishness, the Apostle Paul said so himself.

As the body of Christ grows in diversity and in the next generation, especially from the global East and South, we have to practice allowing others to do their own math, even when they get the answers wrong (or right!) and encourage them to show their work.

"Jesus is the answer."

I've heard people say. But do we show our work about how to get to that answer? Because our credibility falters if we can't share how we arrived at Jesus. The original disciples had to testify to what they had seen and heard, not what they read and rationalized. We are witnesses, not copiers. In fact, it seems terribly insecure if we won't entrust other generations and cultures to do the math themselves. If we're afraid others won't get to Jesus as their answer, then we betray our own lack of trust in the "reason for the hope we have", which describes how precarious Christians can sound to the likes of Buddhists, Hindus and other universalists.

Jesus may very well be the answer, but if you want a good conversation, you may need to clarify what the question is, because the first question is not about eternal life, but about the nature of reality itself.

"The Bible is so clear. It makes complete sense."

Complete sense? Can't we at least articulate the Bible is a function of x, where x = the Protestant canon? Or acknowledge there are variables we leave out of the equation (wisdom literature, apocrypha, theodicy) in order to make sense of it? Don't get me wrong, I understand what people mean when they say this, but it is hyperbole. The gospel is not meant to be sensical; The gospel is foolishness, the Apostle Paul said so himself. Our ability to acknowledge the factors that influence our theological calculations will really help acknowledge an x-factor and the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages in church history. And as others show us the working out of their problems to which Jesus was the answer, we will see our own cultural and theological idols more clearly. Jesus will be more clear, not less, as we all share our work on the problems.

We can't be committed to orthodoxy without room for recalculation

"We are just revisiting old heresies."

I understand the stakes of letting others do their own math are high, namely, there is the possibility for heresy and deviant teaching. But what is the end game here? Is it a certainty with our answers, or a diligence to do the math to find Jesus. We can't be committed to orthodoxy without room for recalculation or else the claim that "Jesus is a relationship, not a religion" would be false, right? If the relationship is dynamic, then the math needs to be re-worked, even if the answers stay the same, not because I believe the answer less, but my hope is to find Jesus again and again, not just get the answer right. I know a student of church history can point to a laundry list of mistakes to be avoided on the way to the Chalcedon, but again, we can discuss the problems we were addressing with the various councils, and show the amount of work which was done to help proclaim Christ above even our own preferences.

Just like with homework, if we say the answers are in the back, kids never learn how to do the math. If we tell them the answers where there is no learning of the basic operations, we do a great disservice to the process by which theology becomes a credible resource. And we shouldn't be insulted our theology is questioned, nor should we be disappointed people don't know what they used to, it just means people are trying to learn how to work the problem. And as easily as we dismiss the question or steamroll the questioner, that person will dismiss our faith and theology. Do the math and show your work. And give others the freedom and resources to do so as well.

Here is the panel of which David was a part:

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Why We Need to Do Our Own Math, a Guest Post from David Park