When I took a pre-Algebra class in junior high, I struggled with the formulas used to solve equations. Fortunately, my teacher recognized my problem and taught me that there is often more than one way to solve for x.  All through math classes in high school, I often found a different way, a different equation that just made sense to me, and if I showed my work, my teachers always accepted it.

Before I got to Algebra, I had to learn the basics of math: numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions… the fundamentals.

The fundamentals are important. Whether it’s math, reading, music, sports, or faith.

When we begin our journey as Christians, we are usually taught the basics, the fundamentals. We are taught what the Bible says, we are taught that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and what it means (atonement), we are taught what it means to be a Christian, and we are taught right from wrong.

With math, reading, music and sports, we are meant to move on from the fundamentals. They remain at the core of what we do, but we are expected to progress. We would never show up to a concert to watch someone play scales, or a basketball game to watch the players practice their free throws for an hour, we expect that they will have mastered those. We expect them to go beyond “do, re, mi,” because “it doesn’t mean anything.” 

Like everything else, mature faith must be expressed beyond the fundamentals, or it doesn’t mean anything. Christian living is more than mastering the fundamentals.

When we’re first taught the Bible, usually as children, we learn it literally, or we assume it’s literal. The Bible is God’s Word.

Eventually, we have questions. The other night, my family watched the VeggieTales’ version of Jonah and my eight-year-old, said: “but Jonah didn’t really live in the belly of a whale for three days, did he? You can’t, it’s full of water.”

Questions aren’t necessarily doubts, they’re just questions to help us better make sense of the stories as we mature. Questions, and doubts, are necessary for spiritual formation and should lead us into seasons of spiritual contemplation which should drive us to search deeper what it means to follow Jesus.

Too often, our instinct is to offer up simple answers that reinforce the basic beliefs, both with children and with ourselves. When we deny people their questions, we deny them the ability to mature in their faith.

Fundamentalism seems afraid to let people ask questions and seeks to bubble wrap faith so that it cannot break, unfortunately it can have the side effect of suffocating faith.

We need to allow people’s faith to breathe. Let people ask questions, let them have doubts, let them try different formulas. This is how maturing spiritual formation happens, it may threaten certainty, but it leads to deeper faith.

Over the past decade, I have learned that there is more than one way to interpret what the Bible says, there is more than one understanding of atonement, there is more than one way to be a Christian, and right and wrong are not as simple as I had been taught.

I still believe that Jesus is the way, but my understanding of what that means has changed. I don’t think that I have found the single, correct formula for all of this, because I don’t believe there is a single, correct formula. My contention is not that everyone must agree with me, rather that neither I, nor anyone else, must agree with anyone else’s formula.

Fundamentalism believes it has found the right formula so that a person can stand before God fully justified. They are confident in their salvation, and they want everyone else to have such certainty, because friends don’t let friends go to hell. 

This assurance however is rooted in works. Do you believe the right things? Did you remain pure? Did you avoid temptation? Did you keep the Ten Commandments? Were you obedient to the Law? 

That’s fantastic! But it’s not really Christianity because there’s no need for Jesus in that equation. It’s the first century Judaism that both Jesus and Paul called people to move forward from. Those are the fundamentals, but they lack the beauty and nuance of melody and harmony.

Jesus invites us to build on the fundamentals and have faith so that even when we err, he’s got us. The fundamentals are the boat that gave the disciples assurance in the sea, but Jesus calls us to step out, knowing that we might sink, but having faith that Jesus will reach his hand out and grab us.

The fundamentals teach us a worldview of judgment, that “this” and “that” are sins that we must put an end to. That may be biblical, but it’s not Jesus ‘ worldview. Jesus calls us to err on the side of love. Every single time. It’s hard, and we will fail. We might even go too far sometimes. 

Jonah could not fathom that God would offer mercy to the Ninevites; he would rather run from God than extend God’s grace. 

What if we imagined a different ending for Jonah… what if instead of sitting on the outskirts of Nineveh wrapped up in his self-righteous virtue, what if he said, “Wow, God, you’re pretty awesome! I had no idea that your grace and mercy extended to those people over there! Where should we go next?”

But it doesn’t end that way. Jonah is like an early version of the Self-Righteous Older Brother (as found in the parable we refer to as The Prodigal Son).

This is the Good News: there is room at the table for everyone! Will you accept the invitation?

Will you go even if the table is in the home of a Gentile? What if God sends his servants out into the streets to invite the poor, the elite, the abortion doctor, the trans woman, the racist, the socialist, the capitalist, the gay couple, the Creationist, the evolutionist, the conservative, the progressive, the fundamentalist, the universalist? What if our theory of atonement is lacking and God even invites the atheists, the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus?

We don’t get to make the guest list. We can sit outside with Jonah, or we can get up and go with Peter.

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