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The Church and the Life of the Mind: Reflections on a Faithful Discourse of Inquiry

by Carson T. Clark on January 6, 2013


Dr. Doug Downs had made a distinction between the Discourse of affirmation and the Discourse of inquiry. He uses the capital Ds because these paradigms aren’t merely ways of communicating but are rather “ways of being.”1.This is Part 2 of “The Church and the Life of the Mind” blog series. My reasoning here builds upon the previous entry. Click here to read Part 1 entitled “Why Am I So Protective About This Issue? (Miniblog #165).” The Discourse of affirmation declares, simplifies, and expects conformity. It values resolution, submission, stasis, and the pursuit of certainty. Its objective is crisp answers and devout faith. Received knowledge is accepted chiefly through affirmation of an authority. The Discourse of inquiry offers, complicates, and facilitates searching. It values curiosity, challenge, wrestling, and the existence of ambiguity. Its objective is nuanced questions and critical doubt. Received knowledge is accepted through inquiry into its validity. It’s these divergent Discourses that often account for the tragic conflict between faith and reason. Downs makes clear that, although theses Discourses aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, “their underlying values are in strong conflict and enacting them simultaneously is neither easy nor intuitive.” Consequently, one approach or the other does tend to time priority.

My observation has been that individual Christians and the churches they comprise tend to pretty well embody one Discourse or the other. If I may be permitted to paint in broad brush strokes, the more they skew progressive the more they hold to an untethered Discourse of inquiry and the more they lean traditional the more they hold to a self-righteous Discourse of affirmation. So long as a person embraces the community’s dominant Discourse there tends to be peace. Trouble often arises, however, in one of two scenarios. The first is when a church’s primary Discourse is in question.22.For example, when some people in a church want to have flexibility and discussion about different views of God’s sovereignty and another group wants uniformity of belief. It usually leads to an identity crisis, the development of contentious factions, and sometimes church splits. The other is when individuals seem to haphazardly alternate back and forth. One moment they’re pursuing complexity while engaging with full intellectual rigor. The next they’re demanding simplicity while chiding such efforts.33.So, for example, they’re exhibiting the Discourse of inquiry while discussing how to teach Scripture to children but unexpectedly switch to the Discourse of affirmation when the conversation subtly shifts to homeschooling or public schooling. In this ways their “way of being” fluctuated from life event to life event, topic to topic, or even emotion to emotion. That lack of social instability causes much strife. Few churches negotiate these dynamic well, so avoidance tends to be the name of the game.

As someone who’ll be ordained in the near future, I’ve been giving thought to how I might interact with these Discourses in a healthy way.44.That is, I’m not proposing some grand thesis for how every church should deal with this nor am I even suggesting what’s the objectively best way forward. My purview is much more modest. I’m looking at my ecclesiastical commitments, personality type, strengths and weaknesses, and ministry context. What I’ve tentatively come up with is something I’m calling the player-coach model. This never happens anymore with today’s specialization in sports, but back in the day you occasionally had guys who simultaneously played on and coached their team–Bill Russell and Pete Rose being the most well-known. Seeing the Discourses through this metaphorical lens, as a Christian I see myself as just another player. My spiritual health necessitates that I need to get out on the court. That means being brutally honest about where I’m at, asking tough questions, and wrestling through things.55.i.e. Discourse of inquiry Yet as a (future) pastor I see myself as a coach with extra responsibilities. The spiritual health of those I shepherd necessitates that I oversee them from the sidelines. That means discerning situations, withholding thoughts at times, and standing firm on certain essentials.66.i.e. Discourse of affirmation The methodology of this player-coach model might be best summarized as a faithful Discourse of inquiry, and it requires constant discernment.

Practically, what does a faithful Discourse of inquiry look like? Most apparent would be preaching orthodox doctrine with conviction from the pulpit while teaching orthodox doctrine critically in small group settings. Take the Trinity to illustrate the latter. When teaching it I typically don’t use a Discourse of affirmation by telling them what it is, how long the Church has affirmed it, give a list of biblical proof-texts, and conclude by saying, “And if you’re a Christian you must believe it, too.”77.To me that seems heavy-handed and is bound to produce fragile, mindless faith riddled by cognitive dissonance and insidious, deep-seated doubt. It’s only a matter of time before that person “unexpectedly” loses faith. I truly believe faith that has been stretched and tested is more durable than faith that has been spoon fed and protected. My alternative approach is to use a faithful Discourse of inquiry by teaching people what it is, how and when it developed, note its longstanding affirmation, carefully explore the biblical evidence, and then say, “Let’s talk about why Christians believe it” or “What doubts/questions do you have?” For as much as I’m told that I’m too critical of people and need to be more encouraging, I’ve actually got a pretty hopeful view of what they’re capable of. Truth be known, a Discourse of affirmation is demeaning in that it requires very little trust in people whereas a faithful Discourse of inquiry is exhortative in that it requires them to step up. Delicious irony, no?

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