One of the wonderful conversations in C S Lewis’s ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is when Mr Beaver speaks of Aslan, describing the Lion as ‘the King of the wood, the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea and the King of the Beasts.’
Mrs Beaver joins in to say that ‘anyone who can stand before Aslan without his knees knocking is either braver than most or else just silly.’
“Then he isn't safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver…. course he isn't safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The desire for safety is deep-seated. Lucy Pevensie, the character above, was instinctively averse to risk. Like most of us, if we’re honest. So the realisation that ‘he isn't safe’ wasn’t immediately reassuring. Only the seemingly illogical follow up ‘but he’s good’ reminds us that danger, or risk, isn't always synonymous with being bad.
Which brings me to the other Lucy – van Pelt – and her brother Linus, in the Charles Schultz ‘Peanuts’ cartoon.
Looking out at the pouring rain, Lucy gives voice to her anxiety:
Lucy: “Boy, look at that rain… what if it floods the whole world?”
Linus: “It will never do that… in the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow..”
Lucy: “You’ve taken a great load off my mind…”
Linus: “Sound theology has a way of doing that!”
This Lucy wanted safety as well, and Linus’s response gave her all the reassurance she wanted. ‘Sound theology has a way of doing that!’ A great line, laden with some irony I suspect.
These encounters offer us two responses to anxiety. One is met with ‘sound theology’, the other with an encouragement to journey on, accepting unknown risks but trusting that God is ultimately good. Both responses have their place. But knowing there is more than one possible response is the key here, and a sign of spiritual maturity.
You see, I can easily argue that a Linus-like response can be just right. In my early twenties, the faith that was nurtured in me from childhood was suddenly fanned into flame. It all came together one evening round the kitchen table with two wonderful older Christians. Their patient and skilful theological unpacking of Ephesians 1:13-14 and 2:8-9 cemented my faith in God, a faith that I now knew could not be lost by me, because it was never gained by me. From that day to this, God’s grace has characterised my understanding of the Christian faith.
This is the time and place for sound theology, in particular to be found in laying the foundations of faith, outlining the great truths of the bible, sharing what learned and insightful men and women have discerned over many centuries. Without this passing on of the faith, we will fail to enrich each successive generation, as we ourselves have been enriched.
But where the foundations have been laid, there is also a danger that our sound theology, far from nurturing growth, actually stifles it. And this danger is certainly there in evangelical circles where the adventure of theological exploration can be frowned on and seen as betraying our heritage.
This is especially true when mission takes us, as it must, to the boundaries between belief and unbelief, and we are confronted by issues that demand fresh theological and ethical reflection. If at that point, we only produce our previously constructed ‘sound theology’ and even argue that these matters, whatever they are, have been settled once and for all in the past, then we will fail to grow and develop our faith, and condemn others to the same. That same ‘sound theology’ has a place to play, of course. Haven’t I just called it foundational? But yesterday’s word is not always today’s word, and is rarely God's last word.
Linus’s response to Lucy ‘took a load off her mind’. But is that what theology is about? Her instant gratitude for Linus’ answer had the effect of dulling her enquiring mind and robbing her of the deeper encounter that her quest for understanding might have yielded. She puts aside the troubling thoughts of the world and settles for ‘sound theology!’
I hope that we'll see the legitimacy of both responses. When people look to us in moments of anxiety we can be flattered into thinking our only role is to be the dispenser of theological aspirin.
More often I would rather see leaders like Mr and Mrs Beaver who have the courage to say that actually God may not be as you imagine God to be; God may not be containable by your words and formulations, and he definitely isn't safe! But I tell you this – he’s good! Journey on!