The Right Circles
I know what the Corinthians were thinking when they fought over theological allegiances. Paul describes the discordant sounds of the Christian community in Corinth: One was saying, "I follow Paul" and another, "I follow Apollos" and another, "I follow Cephas" and still another, "I follow Christ." I remember a time when these words seemed so strange, and with Paul, I agreed the Corinthians were in need of reprimand. But I know how this happens; I have seen it happening in me.
The longer I study theology and its varying schools of thought, the more I realize how much I do not know. Mapping all of the types and categories, trends in thought and history, and the emerging theologies today seems nearly impossible. And even if it was possible to make sense of every school of thought, it would hardly mean that every theologian today and in history would fit neatly into one such school. The more I study theology, the more I fear being able to soundly navigate through the noisy choruses. I fear the blind spots that I likely have—and nurture. And so I find myself wanting to stand behind one or two trustworthy theologians in particular, drawing a line between us and all the rest, declaring myself a follower of his or her theological camp, and following my safe theological leader through the labyrinth of good and bad theologies.
The Corinthian mindset is not so different from my own.
During his tenure as a professor at Magdalen College in Oxford, C.S. Lewis delivered a memorial oration to the students of King's College, the University of London. It was titled, "The Inner Ring." Addressing his young audience as "the middle-aged moralist," Lewis warned of the natural desire to find ourselves a part of the right inner circles, which exist endlessly and tauntingly throughout life. He cautioned about the consuming ambition to be an insider and not an outsider, on the right side of the right camp, though the lines that distinguish the camps are invisible, and the circle is never as perfect from within as it looks from without. Like the taunting mirage a weary traveler chases through the desert, noted Lewis, the quest for the Inner Ring will break your heart unless you break it.(1)
Of course, the desire to be seen inside the right camp is a desire that reaches well beyond the bounds of theology. The longing to belong and belong to the right group is an intense motivator of human behavior. It is how we make sense of the world around us; it is how we navigate through the recesses of conflicting thoughts, ideas, and worldviews. But it is also misleading. Membership can lead to blind allegiance, thoughtlessness, and persecution of those deemed outside. One only has to watch a group of kids to see how easily our desire to belong can be corrupted by our need to exclude. The inner circle is not inner if there are no outsiders. Choosing to follow Cephas is just as often about not choosing to follow Apollos or associate with his followers.
My choice of theological leaders bears similar qualities. Paul's question rings in my ears the same way it did for the Corinthians: "Is Christ divided? Was Paul [or C.S. Lewis or your seminary professor] crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul [or John Calvin or your favorite preacher]?"
The kingdom in which Christ invites us to participate is in fact far greater than any one theologian pretends to describe, and it is not one of these, but Christ himself who reigns within it. "We go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tiny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's 'weakness.'...But everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ."(2) The camp to which we want most to belong is his.
Following anyone other than Christ, we may find words of human wisdom, but we have emptied the cross of its power. Likewise, we find not the kingdom of God, but an inner circle with which we will eventually grow weary. Following Christ Jesus is something else entirely. Following Christ, we find a wisdom that is foolishness to many and a kingdom whose very description continues to crumble the walls we neatly build. Following Christ, we are repeatedly jarred awake to the realities of God's reign, the inadequacy of our circles, and one far worthier of our boasting.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1980), 154.
(2) The Message, 1 Corinthians 1:22-31.