Communicating the simple message of Jesus while emphasizing the importance of faith seeking understanding through critical thinking is one of the more pronounced tensions in local church ministry.
How can we maintain the simplicity and centrality of Jesus’ message while also maintaining the continual quest for truth and knowledge if we already know what saves us?
If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, “The message of Jesus is so simple, why must we make it difficult or ‘overthink’ things?”
We have difficulty balancing knowing and not knowing, balancing our knowledge while being aware such knowledge is tertiary at best. I have found this is a difficult chasm to cross for many parishioners.
The trouble with bridging this gap is that within our congregations we have competing ideas of what it means to “think,” as it means different things to different people.
For some, thinking means rehearsing what one knows about the Bible.
Thinking doesn’t mean learning so much as it means loving God with one’s mind, which is distinct from experiencing God in one’s heart. It is a recitation of given teachings via the mind.
Those holding to this understanding are not interested in having presumed ideas challenged, or learning something that might challenge a conviction, so much as having those ideas affirmed by authority, whether it be biblical or pastoral.
Thinking under this paradigm is more akin to rehearsal and remembrance than reasoning.
For others, thinking is the process of discerning what one knows by submitting ideas, convictions and teachings about Jesus and the Bible to human reason, tradition and experience.
By default, thinking under this paradigm privileges seeking over knowing as the process of seeking continually tests the certainty of one’s knowledge.
Consequently, such faith seeking understanding must include the possibility that one’s ideas might need amending.
While there are competing ideas of what it means to think, there can be little argument that the world needs more thoughtful Christians who can balance faith and reason outside the echo chambers of their churches or traditions.
During my undergraduate years, I had a church history professor who often said, “The best argument is the one that will save the world.”
We won’t save the world by simply saying what we believe louder and louder. It will take faith, but it will also take reason.
The cultural impression is that Christians are shallow, naÃ¯ve people disconnected from reason, science or objective thought.
While there are many reasons for this, a main contributor is the lack of interaction many have with thoughtful Christians, as well as the multiple Christian personalities with microphones who are more interested in beating the drum of knowledge rather than inviting others onto the Emmaus Road.
In a post-Christian world, we need Christians who are thoughtful, reflective and know where they come from.
The message of Jesus may be simple but it comes to us through a complicated and culturally distant book (the Bible), with a complicated history, via a tumultuous historical context.
Indeed, the Bible itself is the historical memory and living practice of being thoughtful, reflective and about its story. It is critical thinking about the stories and traditions received by biblical authors.
The simple message of the Torah, to worship and dedicate your lives to God, appears to have required many authors to spill much ink attempting to understand and communicate that message to others.
The simple message that Jesus is the Christ required several gospels, and many letters of Paul, to understand. The message of Jesus may be simple but it is not simply given.
“Understanding” is just as important regarding faith as it is to anything else worth thinking about.
If we take seriously reason and its role in the secular disciplines of science, math and history, how much more so should one use reason when thinking about something as complex as Scripture and the enigmatic figure of Jesus?
Jesus may save, but that really doesn’t tell us much.
The post-Christian world, and hyper-ideological context of our lives, demands we not allow our minds to succumb to the temptation to hide under the blanket of Jesus’ simple message.
We must not avoid the complexity of life and the complexity of translating the full story of Jesus into the present in such a way that we sound like people with a thoughtful voice rather than a shaky certainty.
A Jewish Mediterranean peasant doesn’t have to have complex words to necessitate careful thinking about those words, their transmission, preservation, articulation and application.
And just because the message of Jesus is simple, doesn’t mean Christians should be simple thinkers either.
Nathan Napier is an ordained Nazarene minister and pastor of Christian education at Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene in Cleveland, Tennessee. A graduate of the McAfee School of Theology, he is currently a doctor of ministry student at McAfee focusing on missiology and secularity.