Off to Greenbelt | Heretic’s Guide to Eternity

I’m off towards Greenbelt tomorrow, via a stop with some friends in Devon, so probably won’t be blogging. Before I go, I promised to post a review of Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor’s book ‘A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity‘.

First, an apparent paradox in the book, which I think helps unlock its position quite well. Spencer begins with a well written polemic about the state of religion: immovable, unchanging, unresponsive. Religion no longer works for him, but he remains hopeful that “faith can be practiced without the baggage of religion.” Yet a chapter or two later, Spencer writes that “in religion, nothing ever stays the same. Our religions are practiced within our cultural horizons, not outside of them.”

So which is right? Is religion over, or is it still evolving? Is Spencer leaving religion behind, or practicing it in a new way? The book appears to affirm that it’s both/and. And this is the unique place of the heretic: one who stands both within and without, who “pushes past and beyond the conventional wisdom of the dominant group and pulls us across sacred fences that hold us back… Heretics either burn in flames, or light the way for a new generation.”

In other words, this is heretic as Trickster. And for that alone, the book deserves to be read. It will challenge and frustrate and stir up and question. And we absolutely need that to happen. In a great section on the prodigal son, Spencer asks us to reflect on ourselves not as the tragic/heroic younger son who gets so marvelously saved, but on the hard, cold, elder son who equally needs saving. Perhaps the younger son’s heresy will save them both, for what the story tells us is that grace is something they both needed.

So what’s the central heresy here? For Spencer, this grace is an ‘opt out’ issue, not an ‘opt in’ one, and this sails him mighty close to Universalism. In fact, he calls it ‘Universalism with hell attached’ – hell being the place where people who consciously opt out go. Personally, I think there needs to be a lot more careful thinking here. In fact, my reading of the prodigal son story is precisely that grace is an opt-in issue: the elder son hadn’t ‘opted out’ – he’d hung around and done his duty – but neither had he yet opted in, which the younger son did do.

Either way, one of the other key undertones of the book is the centrality of gift – and it is this line of thought about the nature of the ‘transaction’ of grace that I would have liked to see pursued more rigorously to push beyond the simplicity of opting in or out. But in a sense, that’s the beauty of the work: like a good heretic or trickster should, it demands a response from the reader. What is important now is for those theologians who vigorously deny their ivory tower status to come and get their hands dirty with some of this stuff.

Spencer explores a variety of meanings of the word religion, but doesn’t mention the latin verb ‘religare’ – ‘to bind’. He is fighting those bindings, and wrestling to be free of them. But we never will be. We are bound and obligated to live inside some plausibility structure: atheistic, Islamic, hedonistic, universalist, Christian. And bound by culture and place within them. The answer is not that these double binds don’t exist, but how we negotiate these boundaries and learn from each other about ‘the other’. What is perhaps unique about Christ is this: here was a God prepared to be bound, become human and nailed down. And, accepting these limits, forged a freedom for us.

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4 responses to “Off to Greenbelt | Heretic’s Guide to Eternity”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review, Kester. I’ll be chewing on it for awhile in light of our talks on “dirt” at Soliton. It was fantastic to meet you, by the way.

  2. martin hill

    Thoughtful review kester. Made me interested to read it. Thought that your comments on close to ‘universalism with hell attached’ for those who opt out show honest appreciation of orthodoxy. Will like to see their appreciation of gift as I liked yours on gift and dirt in complex christ.

  3. damnflandrz

    Agreed. Like the “opt in” and “opt out” views of grace. I’ll be using that in other parts…
    My mates said GreenBelt was good. So I assume it was 😉 I was in the Isle of Wight trekking to ancient shrines with my kids.

  4. Re: prodigals. It’s worth wondering who Jesus, as the oldest son in Joseph and Mary’s family, identified most with in his parable. I’ve not read the book, but I expect it touches on this.
    Also (from personal experience) I’m a little less convinced than you that:
    “He is fighting those bindings, and wrestling to be free of them. But we never will be. We are bound and obligated to live inside some plausibility structure: atheistic, Islamic, hedonistic, universalist, Christian. And bound by culture and place within them.”
    Yes, it seems to me true that in every attempt to express ourselves (to others and inwardly) we may have only the tools of evolution (physical and cultural) with which to do so. But I wonder how far theologies of silence and negation (such as those explored by Pete Rollins in his new book)can be seen as ways of cutting us out from the cultural binds we are in, leaving us alone with Love, only after which we choose to move back into culture as a form of missional engagement. What do you think? Possible?