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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 1: Solus Jesus

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name )you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

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Solus Jesus

In the context of Blue Ocean faith the phrase "Solus Jesus" is usually presented in apposition to the protestant reformation doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" and, less often, "Sola Fide". In broad strokes, Blue Oceaners tend to see themselves in the recent tradition of the "post-Protestant" conversations which first notably coalesced around the "emergent church" movement in the US. By any religious taxonomy I can think of, Blue Ocean is still Protestant insofar as it is certainly not Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, or Roman Catholic. Since it has it's roots in the Protestant tradition, it is a "thing" that grew out of Protestantism and, more specifically, American White Evangelicalism. Whether it is sufficiently distinct from Protestantism to ultimately justify a new category is yet to be seen, but this theological distinctive makes a good argument for it. 

The claim in this distinctive—and as you will see as we work through the series, the distinctives each impact one another—is often more epistemological than anything else. It is about where we look for Truth. In contrast with traditional Evangelicalism, which tends to identify the Bible as the fundamental, basic source of truth (and often Truth), Blue Oceaners try to hold on to Jesus of Nazareth as the basic source of Truth (and much truth). You can see that the parallel is not perfect. Evangelicals certainly don't claim to reject that Jesus Christ is "the Truth", and Blue Oceaners do not dislike the Bible (although their relationship with it does tend to make Evangelicals uncomfortable). But the focus is nearly entirely different. Where the axiom for Evangelicals might be "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Blue Oceaners would likely come up with something more like "I am pretty sure Jesus says this, I am doing my best to follow Jesus, so I'm going with this."—The Blue Ocean isn't quite as tidy or succinct as Evanglicalism.

Image result for middle eastern JesusBut I there is a really good reason for that. Blue Oceaners value a far more relational faith than Evangelicals tend to do. Or, let me replace that with a statement I have more authority to make: As a Blue Oceaner I find that I my faith is far more relational than it was as an Evangelical and I value that. Furthermore I find that the Blue Ocean folks I know publicly value a relational faith far more frequently and consistently that my Evangelical friends. And I have a suspicion about why that is.

When I was an Evangelical (and for the record I am now part of a wonderful Mennonite congregation and, if pressed, would probably label myself a "Charismatic, Blue Ocean style, Anabaptist") I took "Sola Scriptura" very seriously. "Yes, definitely" I would have told you, "Jesus is the point of our faith—it is really all about knowing Jesus. But..." I would continue, "The only externally verifiable way for us to know anything about Jesus is through the Bible. We need the Bible if we are going to really know anything about God and what God wants in the world." Once I added the "Charismatic" to my self description (I joined a Vineyard church around the time I turned twenty-five) I would have modified it to "We need the Bible if we are going to be able to have meaningful conversations with one another about God. The Bible is our final authority, it gives us an objective standard for knowing what God really wants."

This was Sola Scriptura.

The role of the Bible was to be an objective standard for knowing whether I was, and/or others were, correct about the will of God. Yes, the point was to know God. And, yes, a significant part of knowing God meant actually talking to, and hearing from, Jesus Christ—total side note, many Christians really do believe that we hear from a dead and resurrected Jewish teacher on a fairly regular basis; we don't seem to talk about that a whole lot in secular circles because people look at you funny when they hear that you believe that God talks back, but we still believe it—but, since the human mind is imperfect, God had given us the Bible to use as a final, absolute, "gold standard" for knowing God's will.

The massive allure this had, and continues to have, for me is that certainty is a hell of a drug, particularly when something as foundational as one's faith is concerned. I remember growing up I was regularly reminded that one of the great selling points of Christianity was that it offered a guaranteed answer to the question "If you died tonight, are your sure you know what would happen to you?" For Sola Scriptura people the comforting answers was "Yes, if I have 'asked Jesus into my heart' then I know that I will be in heaven when I die". Whether or not that was a good answer, the justification for it, it's whole selling point really, was that the Bible guaranteed it and the Bible represented an absolute, objective set of true propositions. Now I would be far more likely to answer a question like that with something like "Gosh, that is a kind of abrupt question—I don't really think anyone knows a whole lot about what happens after we die, but I know that Jesus loves me and wants to be with me so whatever it is that that looks like (and I know of a number of really interesting compelling theories if you want to chat about it) I am confident that I will be with Jesus." That answer seems far richer to me, but it is clearly less confident, less certain.

See, Solus Jesus takes relationship rather than academic study to be the central anchor of our faith. Where a Sola Scriptura person is likely to answer "because the Bible clearly says", a Solus Jesus person will more likely say something like "because Jesus is like that". The pushback (and it was my biggest pushback for years) is that we need Sola Scriptura if our faith is going to be objectively true. I thought Schmelzer put this objection and his response well in the book:
It feels so ... subjective! (And we modernists hate subjectivity!) Just because you say you "heard from God" about this or that, why should I trust you? Why should you trust yourself?
And, indeed, that's a totally worthy line of conversation. But, whatever our concerns, Jesus seems fine with all that risk. There's that "secret of the kingdom of God" stuff [a reference to the Jesus saying that the secret of the kingdom of God had been revealed to people on the basis of asking him questions directly and in person]. There's the Hebrews 10 encouragements to go to the throne of God because of Jesus. There's Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
So for all the rists and the need for thoughtful pastoring and wise and loving community, are we advised to make sure not to require a living God?
Image result for oceanIt is that last line that, I think, ultimately got to me. Let me try and recommend an un-philosophical category: Philosophically (traditionally) an event can be recognized as objective or subjective. Objective events are ones which exist independent of the observer (some physicists, if I understand them correctly, seem to be suggesting that there may not actually be any objective events if we insist on this definition) whereas subjective events are known only through the experience of the observer. Objective events are therefore taken to be far more certain, solid, and reliably true than subjective events. Now to be honest I have quite a few issues with all of that but let's let it ride for the moment and imagine a third "between" category—relational events. If Objective events are certain, and subjective events are dubious, I would suggest that relational events fall somewhere in between. If a truth claim is relational, it speaks to or describes the reality which is created between two or more participants. The participants are therefore likely to be quite certain about it but effectively unable to demonstrate it to the satisfaction of a third party who demands objective certainty. My wife and I know in our bones that we love one another, but I would be at a loss if you asked me to prove objectively that our love is real and not an act, thus our love is a relational truth.

What strikes me as so incredibly beautiful, good, and true about Solus Jesus is that it is the enunciation of an entirely relational framework. If Jesus is not a real, existing person who interacts with us, then the whole thing collapses. And I am entirely fine with that. Some friends and I were talking about this just recently and I explained that I had no way of imagining someone who found the Blue Ocean approach satisfactory who didn't also experience a living Jesus. but that I could easily imagine a Sola Scriptura person accepting the internal coherence of a Christian theology without, themselves, knowing Jesus of Nazareth as a person. Put another way, the structure built on Sola Scriptura can stand whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is a living person; the structure built on Solus Jesus cannot. And maybe a third way of saying the same thing: In my experience, the Jesus of the Blue Ocean cannot be understood by study, He has to be surfed.

There is a lot more I could say here about my thoughts on Jesus and what he is like, about why I think that the whole concept of objectivity is complicated (I think things are objectively true but that any individual thing cannot be absolutely demonstrated to be so), about how I learned to let go of my desire for certainty and embrace uncertainty instead (I cannot recommend Peter Enns' book The Sin of Certainty enough) but this is probably a good place to stop. I would love to interact with any comments, questions, or objections in comments below. I am, by nature, fond of disputation and the back-and-forth of rigorous intellectual questioning so please don't hold back (though I would ask that you be respectful).
Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon
Part 2: Centered Set is HERE

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