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Blog // Thoughts
August 18, 2006

Book Review: A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity РThe Bad

A Heretic‚Äôs Guide to Eternity is not a book for theo-critical cork-sniffers. If your idea of a good time is attacking a book with a highlighter and a red pen looking for errors and bad doctrine, I suspect you might find this book entertaining, but you would be missing out on a lot. It‚Äôs not […]

A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity is not a book for theo-critical cork-sniffers. If your idea of a good time is attacking a book with a highlighter and a red pen looking for errors and bad doctrine, I suspect you might find this book entertaining, but you would be missing out on a lot. It’s not that A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity is replete with error, it is just that it is willfully creative in it’s approach to reading Scripture. For me that is refreshing and thought-provoking, but I suspect for others it might also be the sort of thing they enjoy, but for all the wrong reasons.

Some years back, I was chatting with a friend who was at theological college. He was asking me about universalism and I was doing my best to explain why a number of well respected theologians had, in one form or another, taken universalism seriously. He asked if universalists rejected the doctrine of hell and I said no, not outright, some saying that God’s grace extends to the possibility of exiting hell. I remember he shook his head slowly and explained that if universalism was true, then he would abandon the church and lead a life of sin (in particular it seemed, liberally sexual sin). I was shocked and saddened, not in the expression of a possible desire to sin, but in the almost total devaluation of the present benefits of life in the Spirit. It seemed that for this minister-to-be, Christianity had no tangible benefits apart from salvation from a fiery hell.

A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity explores a fairly nuanced form of universalism. Perhaps the main weakness of the argument was the passing reference to Fowler’s stages of faith. There is a lot to be learned from Fowler, especially about ill-formed beliefs, but the advanced stages seem to depend on emptying the faith of it’s content. Fowler tends to approach faith as a generic thing, which in later work he admits is a problem when dealing with the faith develops in evangelical contexts.

For me, somewhere after the transition between the fourth and fifth stages Fowler‚Äôs suggestion comes unstuck, not just for fundamentalists. Initially I was deeply worried when I saw Spencer introduce Fowler uncritically in the early stages of the book, but towards then end, when a number of passages of Jesus‚Äô teaching are considered in more detail, it was clear than Spencer‚Äôs sense of universalism is more critical and more evaluative than Fowler‚Äôs final stage. However, there is also an interesting conundrum, because Fowler tends to see stage advancement as a consequence of spritual formation within a tradition, which is not really the emphasis of A Heretic’s Guide To Eternity. In fact, much of Fowler’s recent work focusses on helping fairly mainstream religious groups to prioritise spiritual growth within their educational programmes.

A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity advocates what we could call ecclesiological minimalism; it doesn’t totally atomise the church, but it comes very close. It’s not that I don’t have my “why bother with church?” moments, because I do. But, I’m ready to jettison it to the extent that A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity suggests.

Why do I bother? Simply put, because church teaches me about God. I don’t mean the sermons or songs, they are sadly all too often disposable. I learn about God from the stories of other believers. That is a cornerstone of my faith Рwe learn about God from hearing accounts of God’s providential action in the lives of others.

I recall hearing Mike Frost describe the ideal church as a “sociological impossibility.” I’ve had the privilege of seeing a few churches that were like that (in urban and rural settings, never in the suburbs). Places like that are not filled with PLU (people like us) are powerful spaces for learning about God. They problematise the assumptions of linear, programatic, consumer Christianity and in many ways manifest aspects of the kind of universalism A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity advocates. I’m not ready to reject the search for that kind of church.

Perhaps the most obvious tension is the use of the term heretic. The idea Рthat you can be an outsider and remain faithful; that being an outsider may be the place to grow in faith; that outsider status does not rob of a spiritual voice Рis a powerful and timely message. I recall the first time I heard that folks in my home denomination were calling me a “dangerous liberal.” It was saddening, confusing and frustrating because my academic work was being massively misrepresented. I don’t think adopting the label heretic would have helped at that time, in fact it would have hindered by conceding too much. However, that was a time of real deepening in my faith and my understanding of God.

What I did instead was focus on faith and spirituality, which is actually what we find under the surface of A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity. The core of the book is not really heresy, it is responsible mysticism.

As far as being a heretic goes, well maybe, I’m a simpleton, but I couldn’t get past the plain meaning of heretic as “… someone the church kicks out.” The outsider position A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity adopts is more like being a whistle-blower, revolutionary, mystical-pundit, gadfly or wise fool. Heretics are intentional outcasts, you don’t call yourself one, you get called one, then you get tied to a tree and burned, either literally or metaphorically.

Now, A Gadfly’s Guide to Eternity РI like the sound of that.

See also,
A Heretic’s Guide To Eternity – The Good
A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity – The Ugly
A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity – Conclusion

[tags] A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, Spencer Burke, Heretic [/tags]

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