How the Church Changes It’s Mind

The process by which the church forms it’s beliefs can be symbolized by a tent. Isaiah sings a new song in a foreign land: “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (Isaiah 54:2). Our tent is too small.

When Abraham received the holy nudge to leave Haran, and walked away from his country, his kindred and his father’s house—setting forth for the land of Canaan, he was beginning the construction of a new way of thinking about God. He was writing a new theology. He pitched his tent in the hill country of Canaan, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and there, the text says, he built an altar to the Lord, and invoked the name of the Lord. And then, he journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb, which was a tract of land in southern Judah, so that the word “Negeb,” came to mean simply “south.”

The early development of the people’s idea of God took place on the move. The process by which we came to think of God was a living, breathing, dynamic, evolving, unfolding, chaotic, and mobile process. I cannot underscore how important it is to understand that we did not learn to think about God from the place of a rigid, static, isolated, unchanging, stultifying, provincial, narrow, single point in history, or geography. We learned to think about God “on the fly,” over a long period of time, and large expanses of land. We did not think the same thing about God through all that time, over all those regions. We had a larger tent in the early years. Today, our tent is too small.

In the early years, our thinking about God was expanded by our experience. We encountered different peoples with different ways of thinking about God. Their ideas deepened our own. We were broadened by our contact with other lands, cultures and people. We spent long years in conversation with the most unimaginable kinds of concepts, stories, speculations and conclusions. The thinking of the people we encountered influenced ours. The Garden of Eden is a composite story compiled from our journeys through the eons. The Story of the Flood was a popular campfire legend that we told until we thought it was something we thought of, and took credit for.

The conception of the God we came to think about as ours was shaped and formed through the ages of our sojourn as we came into additional contact with other conceptions, other views, other ways of thinking about gods and goddesses. We would walk through a land, hear an idea, and walk on through another land and hear other ideas, and on our journey, we would reflect on what we had heard—without having to embrace any of it. The journey allowed us the freedom of rumination, reflection, contemplation and realization. It was a long, ongoing, walk-a-bout. We could turn ideas over in our mind without being forced to accept any of them, without being told there were things we had to think, and other things that we couldn’t think at all. We could form our own ideas of God, out in the desert, out in the wilderness, with none to condemn or condone, free from the burden of orthodoxy, tenets, books of doctrine, and conventional standards of belief and practice.

In the desert, beyond the jurisdiction of the priestly castes in the city-states, we could see the absurdity of child sacrifice, and decide that any God worthy of our allegiance would be just as happy with a nice fat goat. In the desert, thinking about our contact with such a wide variety of ideas and notions about God, we could connect the similarities among the different ways people thought of God, and could begin to think of ourselves as the connecting tissue, so to speak, with God using us as “a blessing to the nations,” to “draw all people to God,” and to help all the nations see that God is more than any of us can “ask, or think, say or imagine.” In the desert, our tent was expansive, inclusive. Today, our tent is too small.

Our thinking about God narrowed and became restrictive when the politicians won the day, named a king, built a temple, institutionalized religion, codified beliefs, required everyone to think the same way or else. But there were always those who had a different take on things. The Prophets kept the tent flap open, kept moving the stakes, kept loosening the ropes, kept saying: “We have to enlarge the tent! We have to remember where we came from. We have to know that God is not bound by, or limited to, our ideas of God, and that there is more to know of God than is known, or can be known!”

The Prophets were wanderers—mentally, if not physically. They imagined the God beyond the concepts, beyond the theology, beyond the doctrines of the day, any day. And, they called us to expand our thinking, to enlarge our tent, in order to make room for the unheard of, the scandalous, the heretical and profane, as God acted to shake the foundations, and transform our notions about who God is and what God will do.

God is not bound by our views of God, they told us. God is not restricted to what has been thought of God. “The spirit is like the wind that blows where it will.” And God is free to live beyond the concepts of God in order to create an Eternally New God, a God who has never been conceived. About whom Meister Eckhart said, “The final leave-taking is leaving God for God.”

As if to prove their point, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:9-12).

The wilderness is the birthplace of God. At the very least, it is the birthplace of new ideas about God. As we wander through the wilderness, through the emptiness of the desert, through the silence of the deserted places, things begin to stir. The process comes alive. Thought evolves, unfolds, and one’s tent expands. Jesus was a wanderer. Jesus’ thinking about God was not bound to how he was supposed to think of God. Jesus’ thinking about God was not restricted to what had been thought of God. “You have heard it said,” he said, “but I say unto you…” Jesus thought differently about God. Jesus’ tent was larger than theirs, or ours. Our tent is too small.

The Resurrection experiences ratified Jesus’ expansive approach to theology. There is more to God than meets the eye. Revelation continues. There is more to know than is known. We do not have the last word, or even the next to last word. We cannot freeze the frame and say, “This is it. This is all there is. This is all we need to know.” We cannot stop ideas from evolving, unfolding, expanding. We cannot kill ideas. Ideas will rise from the dead. God will not be entombed in the constructs of the past.

The angel told the women at the tomb, “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has been raised. Come see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’” (Matthew 28:5-7). As it was with those who were disciples then, so it is with those who are disciples now. Jesus is ahead of us. If we want to see him, we are going to have to go where he is. Want to guess what that means?

It means leaving what we have become accustomed to, and wandering amid the possibilities. It means leaving our parents’ house (with all the connotations that phrase suggests) and enlarging our tent. We cannot think the resurrection is real without understanding that Jesus has gone before us into Galilee and beyond, into all the world. Jesus is “out there” (with all the connotations that phrase suggests) ahead of us, calling us to follow him. We fold our tents, and step into the world after Jesus, wandering, wondering, evolving.

The process by which the church forms its beliefs, and changes its mind, is symbolized by a tent. Tents are appropriate because thinking about God is a living, breathing, dynamic, unfolding, evolving, chaotic and mobile process. In living out of a tent, we avoid the tendency to lock ourselves into an unchanging concept of God, and open ourselves to new ideas, and new ways of thinking, after Isaiah’s summons to “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.”

To say that Jesus is raised from the dead is to say that thinking about God cannot be confined to the concepts of the past—cannot be codified—cannot be frozen in place, unchanging, and unchangeable, forever. The world that stretches out before us is nothing like the world our ancestors knew. We cannot hope to do it the way they did it, and find our way. If we are going to take seriously the possibility of a spiritual journey, we are going to have to wing it into Galilee, and into all the world, in the spirit of the disciples, not knowing what we will find there, or what will be asked of us, or how we will respond, but trusting ourselves to the spirit that is like the wind blowing where it will, and to the path that opens before us as we step into the Mystery and all that lies Beyond.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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