God and the Goodyear Blimp

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goodyearblimp

When the Hindenburg blew in 1937, engineers accepted the reality that the rigid airship needed to be completely rethought. However great the lift gained by using Hydrogen, its explosive tendencies ruled it out as a source of lift (except for moon rockets a generation later!). Ironically, the Hindenburg was originally designed to use Helium, but since nearly all the world’s Helium was produced in the US, and the US had doubts about selling Helium to Nazi Germany, the German engineers decided to trust their own technological powess and continue the gamble on Hydrogen. And however cleverly engineered the “big gas bag” construction seemed, some means of limiting damage seemed clearly needed, even with inert gas providing the lift. The result can be seen in the familiar Goodyear Blimp. Helium, not hydrogen, provides the lift. Helium does not provide as much lift as Hydrogen, but it’s resistance to detonation trumps any disadvantage. Engineers also rigorously compartmentalized the interior of the airship so that if a leak compromised one compartment, the others would remain functional and keep the airship…well…an airship instead of a pile of scrap metal and fabric.

If Hindenburg Theology represents an obsessive, perfectionistic approach to thinking about the faith, “Goodyear Blimp Theology” is an alternative. Note we’re still talking about airships! This is not a theological model that gives up on truth or doctrinal standards. We still want to fly, and fly far with lots of folks and stuff! But we want to fly, not die! So “Goodyear Blimp” Theology has some differences from it’s incendiary tough (but devastated) big brother.

In humility, we must recognize the limits of our knowledge, even given divine revelation in scripture. We have no promise that the revelation is exhaustive on all topics, nor may we presume that all our interpretations possess the same freedom from error that the word itself possesses. With every step of inference from the text’s witness, our conclusions become just that much more provisional, and our insistence on them must be more nuanced. The humility James counseled regarding the plans of our lives (James 1:13-17) applies to our theological formulations as well. James calls us to abandon the presumption that what seems perfectly logical and possible within our immediate perspective must be the case. James reminds us that we don’t have the whole picture and summons us to subordinate all things to God’s sovereign will. It isn’t a cop-out to confess humbly, “If it is the Lord’s will…” in stating our hopes, plans and our theology. Does this lead to timidity and inaction? No, in verse 17 James reminds us that knowing what is right, and not doing it, is still sin! So humility is not a post-modern repudiation of absolute, eternal truth, nor is it doctrinal indifference. We simply recognize that the Gospel stands in judgment over all, including ourselves. We will name heresy when we see it, but we will not name everything we see heresy just because it challenges our views or deviates from our interpretations.

So Goodyear Blimp Theology won’t necessarily reject or demand the concept of biblical inerrancy, but will assess each position on its merits. I’m personally on the inerrantist side of the spectrum. As I said previously, I see little future in “errancy!” But the various positions disputing the concept of biblical inerrancy have their own kinds of hydrogen gas bags, prone to blow up as well, and need the same humility as their more conservative colleagues. While we confess that the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms” (to quote the Lausanne Declaration), we also confess humbly that we do not always know exactly or fully what it affirms, or how far those affirmations are meant to be pressed. Furthermore, our logical inferences and extensions of the word’s affirmations cannot carry the same certainty that scripture carries because biblical interpretation is an inductive process, a gathering of observations and evidence from which we try to draw conclusions. Add to the evidence, nuance the observations, and the conclusions will shift. I’m tempted to talk now about drystone fences and why shifting is good, but “drystone fence” theology will have to wait for a later post!

Goodyear Blimp Creationism will stand with other creationists in affirming that the world originated and continues to endure because of the active will and love of God, who in goodness chooses to sustain it, and not from blind forces and chance. But ironically, that does not mean there are no chance forces in creation, and that does not mean every force or event in creation is a direct expression of the will of God. The creation is a living organism, not a dead rock, a lifeless machine with God pulling ever lever. So we won’t be so quick to rule out in advance processes like natural selection, genetic mutation and speciation. We will affirm the dignity and uniqueness of human nature, but not feel like we must blind ourselves to the fact that 95% of our genetic code is identical to that of a chimpanzee. We might even be surprised that the percentage is not higher! I wonder if that shouldn’t make us treat chimps, and all of the creation differently?

Goodyear Blimp theology has one problem: it simply doesn’t appeal to the theologian’s testosterone the way Hindenburg Theology does. It provides less basis for the Hindenburg Theologian on the right to condemn others, consigning them to deviancy or heresy, or worse. It doesn’t allow the Hindenburg Theologian on the left to castigate others for lacking critical integrity or courage, because the theologian remains acutely aware of the complexity of theological debate. We must examine all things carefully, including our own convictions, with an open mind. We recall that theology is about God controlling us, not our control of Him!  A biblical discipline certainly must exist in the church. Insistence on honesty and courage in scholarship is crucial. The maintenance of doctrinal standards and intellectual rigor remain vital. But precisely these values should drive home to us that abuse of power in the name of biblical truth and church doctrinal discipline, or prideful and conceited disdain of the integrity and ability of others in the alleged service of scholarly “objectivity,” become heinous sins.

Goodyear Blimp Theology, like its namesake, has two overwhelming advantages: First, it does not crash and burn in a smoking heap when it takes a single hit. By avoiding the arrogant certitude of the Hindenburg approaches, left or right, we also avoid the danger of the fall to which pride always leads. Second, just as the Goodyear Blimp is compartmentalized, we can profit from an appropriate compartmentalization of our thinking about the faith. Whenever I hear someone argue from the “domino principle,” I always suggest that maybe they should have stacked the dominos differently! While Christian truth is a unity, and is reasonable, we have no insurance that (a) we know all the aspects of that unity and (b) that we know all the linkages that join it into the fabric that it is. But that’s just the point: Christian truth is not a single line of dominos, but is a fabric, a web, woven from many strands in many directions. Rather than pull on one thread and have the whole garment fall apart, good Christian theology should be a web that, if we touch one strand, pulls us in a connects us with even more truth until we are wrapped tightly in the life-giving truth of God.

For the Goodyear Blimp biblical or theological scholar, a single historical theory or discovery does not immediately require a revision of theolgoical convictions. Between the discernment of the “facts” of history and the formation of doctrine are many stages, drawing on numerous domains of learning. Archaeology, for example, is only one part of the study of history. History, likewise, is only one part of the task of exegesis. And exegesis is one, albeit one very important, part of theological formulation. Theology is not algebra, not a spreadsheet. It’s more like calculus, more like a massive, interlocked intellectual, spiritual and relational ecosystem, made up of truths, but also surging with the life and power of the living God. Sure, it can be attacked, but it’s much harder to rip apart than we think. There are no end-runs or hail-Mary passes that dodge or short-circuit the whole theological task. So if one area of our thinking is under the stress of fierce debate, new ideas, or cultural conflict, the rest of the fabric holds, allowing us to be honest and fearless as we investigate new questions or revisit old ones. And times do come when our faith is sorely tested, when little seems to support our belief. Then the intellectual dimension of our faith is sustained by the spiritual, ethical, and relational strands in the web. Enduring such times require enormous courage, character, wisdom and even tact. And sometimes, it’s just not pretty!

Which actually brings me to another kind of…aircraft…for another post.

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

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