Theological Impatience image

Theological Impatience

Theological impatience is one of the most troubling features of our generation. Examples of impatience in everyday life abound – measuring your progress against that of the person in the adjacent supermarket queue, tutting at the slowness of a microwave dinner – but far more inisidious is the way this everyday impatience now manifests itself in the way we do theology. Assuming, as we are often told, “the means is the message” (that is, the physical way in which you communicate something forms an important part of what you communicate), we would expect that: if theology is done in blog comments and tweets and Facebook posts, then it would be surprising if that did not make us theologically impatient. This is true of what we write, as Matt reminded us on Friday. And it’s also, perhaps less obviously, true of what we read.

When we read things on computer screens, we get used to scrolling and skimming. (For me, this is a good argument for retaining paper Bibles, but that’s another issue.) We get used to the cosy illusion that we have read and understood something because we got from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Frequently, however, we haven’t. Our theological impatience, fuelled by a world in which (so we tell ourselves) we are entitled to know anything we want as quickly as we want to know it, is often getting the better of us.

A few examples from last week. Last Tuesday, I read that a guy called Ben Stevens was republishing Jonathan Edwards in readable English, and tweeted my approval – but in doing so, made the quip that “Jonathan Edwards is theologically brilliant and virtually unreadable.” My friend Matt Anderson (from Mere Orthodoxy) and John Wilson (from Books and Culture) both responded, very helpfully, that for someone like me to describe Edwards as “unreadable” only served to reinforce the notion that he wasn’t worth wrestling with because he was difficult. I had, without thinking about it, added yet another bit of fuel to the fire of theological impatience with which our generation is already struggling (even though I, and I think Matt and John, still think that the Edwards project is a great idea). They were right.

Wednesday was a very odd day. I was slammed for being a mainliney, floaty liberal in the morning, for saying in a TGC article that inerrancy was based on evidence and therefore “provisional”, and then slammed for having a low view of women in the afternoon and evening, for this post on feminism and the notion of equality. What was interesting, on reflection, was not the reaction itself (which could have been anticipated by a less naive writer than I am), but the extent to which theological impatience manifested itself. Tweeted excerpts of my TGC post distorted my position considerably, as these things go, resulting in some readers thinking I was opposing inerrancy when in fact I was defending it. One feminist wrote an entire blog response to the equality post, without having read it sufficiently carefully to notice that the text she was objecting to was written by Alastair Roberts and not me. (I thought, and still think, it was a fascinating piece, and Alastair’s subsequent defence of it is also well worth a read, but that is not my point here.) A number of others celebrated her article, again without noticing or commenting that she hadn’t even identified the author correctly (although she has since had this pointed out to her and clarified it). And one commenter said some fairly unpleasant things about Alastair himself, effectively on the grounds that since his posts were comprehensive and articulate, he couldn’t reasonably be engaged with. It was as if, having sown the wind of theological impatience with my Edwards comment on Tuesday, I had reaped the whirlwind on Wednesday.

And then, in the middle of all this, came a wonderfully insightful post from Wesley Hill, entitled “An Impatience with Biblical Exegesis.” He began:

I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:

When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”

... I am more and more unhappy with this mood or trend, and I’m determined to try to talk more about Scripture in future speaking engagements and debates that I participate in.

Good call.

Theological impatience is everywhere, and we do ourselves no favours if we capitulate to the easy-answer, emotivist, two-half-points-and-an-accusation style of discourse that characterises the social media generation. That means reading thoughtfully, writing slowly, thinking thoroughly, and above all, expounding the scriptures carefully. Who knows? It might also mean having another crack at Jonathan Edwards.


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