OK, I’ve finished reading William Young’s “The Shack”, which has become the book to read around here. It took a little longer than I expected because I found his writing to be tedious in places. It seemed like he got himself in a rhetorical circle and couldn’t find a way out. In any case, I believe that he did a pretty decent job of portraying an image of the Trinity that would make sense to a lot of people where the traditional language of the Church and its creeds seem to them to be just so much mumbo-jumbo.
Having said that, there were portions of the book that I found questionable. For instance, on the one hand he made it clear that the bible is not a rule book and only seeks to “paint a picture of God.” On the other hand he takes the version of the creation story as found in Genesis 2.4-3.24 as literally and factually true.
He appeared to have little respect for human imagination and ascribed to it a great deal of what has gone wrong in the human condition, but it seems to me that imagination is one of the most important ways in which we are created in the image of God and can participate with God in the ongoing acts of creation.
He also appeared to have conflicted thinking about independence. On the one hand his hero, Mack, was constantly urged to give up all of his independence to God because that was what was limiting his ability to understand God’s ways, but on the other hand he was repeatedly told that he had free will and that God would never compel him to do anything. The seductive part of that is to tempt people into the illusion that if they declare they have given up their independence to God and will henceforth submit their entire lives to God’ will, then whatever happens to them, or whatever they decide to do, must be God’s will, and that’s scary to me (it’s one reason why I find Sarah Palin so frightening).
He took a pretty heavy shot at the Church, but not without some justification. Religion and faith are not the same thing. Faith, in which I would include all that we call spiritual, is what defines one’s beliefs about God and one’s relationship with God. Rites and rituals are what make up the religion through which we engage in a life of faith. It may be true that Jesus did not create a church, but he did leave us with teachings and commandments that his followers put into practice as they assembled for instruction and worship, and one way or another the Church was born to be the vessel that has carried the faith through the centuries.
It’s fairly common today to hear people say that they don’t need a church; they can have their own communion with God without it. But I think they can say that only because the Church is there to continue the faith from generation to generation. Without the Church there would be no faith. As an aside, many theologians over the ages have talked about the visible church and the invisible church by which they have meant that the visible church is the imperfect and often erring institution that, nevertheless, enables the invisible church of God’s faithful to assemble and go on. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in a Nazi prison and near the end of his life, became so depressed over the failure of the church to oppose Hitler that he wondered if we didn’t need a religionless religion. In the end he reconciled himself to the reality that we need the visible church in all of its imperfections.
Young’s struggle with the idea of universal salvation also mirrored the struggle of the Church that has gone on for centuries. The bible can be used to argue both for and against it. Early Church fathers such as Origen argued for it, and recent developments in the churches of the Catholic tradition have begun to agree with him. But Reformation figures such as Luther and Calvin argued against it, and the popes went even farther to say that unless you were a Roman Catholic you were damned. As a progressive Anglican I believe that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, but that is not the same thing as saying that you have to be a Christian. It simply means that there is no way to God except through God and God is the first and final judge of how that works, and we cannot limit how God does that. But it also means that we Christian are the bearers of the Good News that in Christ all things are made new, all things are reconciled with God and our eternal lives have already begun, even if only in part.
Those of us in the Catholic tradition are also confident that in the Eucharist we are continually brought into material, as well as spiritual, communion with God in Christ in a way that mysteriously and profoundly feeds and nourishes us. I doubt that any of that would make much sense to William Young because I suspect he is writing from the perspective of a particular type of evangelical Christianity that has become rather dualistic (spirit equals good and material equals bad) in its theology, and has spiritualized its faith so much that it both hungers for and cannot find the material reality of God’s presence with us. But I could be wrong about that. So, now we are ready to talk.