Perhaps, Joshua M. McNall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: Advances the idea of “perhapsing” that allows for the exploration of the space between doubt and dogmatism through close reading of scripture, asking hard questions, exercising imagination, and the practice of holy speculation.
Many of us feel pulled apart by the discourse of our times. On one hand, we encounter unbending and sometimes partisan dogmatism, and on the other unbridled doubt or an outright cynicism about truth. Then there are those who find ourselves in the middle of these extremes. We believe God and yet don’t possess either the certainty or the arrogance of the dogmatists. We don’t doubt in the sense of being in two minds or are we given over to the unwillingness to believe of the hardened cynic. We have questions. We wonder if there is room to wonder or set aside the pronouncements of the certain and the cynic to look afresh at the scriptures to hear its message through the noise and to use our imagination to explore how both/and might be possible when all we’ve been presented is either/or.
Joshua McNall affirms this longing for a space between doubt and dogmatism, proposing that this is the place of “perhaps.” He contends for the recovery of what some would consider a dangerous practice, that of holy speculation, a “faith seeking imagination” that is not without boundaries but opens us to be surprised by God. “Perhaps” may function to take us from a place of questions to the embrace of an orthodox faith. It may also give us the space to not feel we need to be certain about everything, particularly some of the important but contended questions that may be considered adiaphora.
McNall observes that this was the kind of speculative imagination necessary for monotheistic Jews to embrace the possibility that Jesus, come in human flesh was God and that, somehow, the One God was also Three. He then goes on to consider other instances of “perhapsing” in scripture. He considers what I think one of the toughest parts of scripture, Genesis 22. He proposes the possibility that Abraham, caught between the fulfilled promise of a son from two people as good as dead reproductively and the command to sacrifice his son, “perhapsed” that God could even raise the dead Isaac and so did receive him back from death (cf. Hebrews 11:17, 19). He then considers three historical exemplars, Origen, Julian of Norwich, and Jonathan Edwards. I found his treatment of Edwards especially fascinating. He notes how Edwards brings together the truths that God does all for his glory with the observation of the human longing of joy and that our greatest joy is the pursuit of God and his glory. He also notes Edwards’ distinctive thinking on immaterialism, occasionalism, and continual creation as other examples of a kind of holy and disciplined speculation.
McNall then talks about “guardrails” in our “perhapsing,” recognizing speculation can go off the cliff. He offers ten principles drawn from a dialogue between theologians from Augustine to Edwards with writers like Cormac McCarthy and E. M. Forster that is so good, I will not list the ten because it will not do justice to his exposition of them. One that I appreciated was Number eight: “Seek Noncontrastive Connections.” Later, he illustrates this in wrestling with the goodness of God and the existence of animal suffering and death before the fall.
Parts Two and Three contend against both dogmatism and doubt. He names the issue of the shrillness of dogmatism, contrasting it with the dancing and weeping of real prophetic Christianity. He shows how the quest for certainty often ends up in nihilism rather than obedient trust. Against the fashionability of doubt in our culture, he names the dividedness of heart that occurs when doubt becomes a way of life. Against this, he proposes the example of Martin Luther, ascending the steps of Santa Scala to pray for his grandfather in purgatory, assailed with questions about the steps, the power of relics and the reality of purgatory. McNall writes:
“Luther’s attitude is one of obedience. The question does not lead him to depart for a weeklong bender in the Roman brothels. Nor does it correspond directly to a repudiation of church tradition. This shift would come later through his outrage at indulgences, and by reading Paul. At the moment, Luther simply walks down the stairs. He descends Santa Scala–because a willingness to walk and wait and pray is the best response to doubt” (p. 126).
In the last part of the book he offers three examples of practicing “perhaps. As noted previously, he considers the suffering and death of animals before the fall, exploring three proposals that perhaps the significance may reside in some for of self-sacrificial instinct pointing toward a greater sacrifice. Second, he considers Romans 9:22-23, that some humans are “vessels prepared for destruction.” He notes how verse 23 breaks off mid-sentence and wonders if this might be a descriptive but not determinative statement, particularly in the context of Romans 11:32 which says, “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Then he turns to C. S. Lewis and his novel, The Great Divorce. It is a “perhaps” between rigid exclusivism and unbounded universalism. George MacDonald, who affirmed a kind of universalism is present as a character and witnesses the refusal of some of the residents of hell to believe. Yet not all turn away.
One of the distinctives of McNall’s account is his appeal to story and imagination even as he uses discursive reason. Interwoven in the chapters is the narrative of two young women, Eliza and Claire, one in the process of losing her faith and the other finding faith. It offers a narrative rendering of what “perhapsing” might be like. It also underscores a contention of McNall that the theological imagination of “perhaps” is cultivated by the reading not only of great theologians but great writers of fiction. He models this by literary references throughout and offers a specific challenge to these two types of reading in his conclusion.
Perhaps is an important word for all who teach and pastor in this divided age. McNall captures the distress of many young Christians I know who do not want to walk away from the goodness of Christ, but are disillusioned by the shrill dogmatism of so many of his followers in positions of leadership in the church. McNall cogently diagnoses the real dangers of the divided heart of disillusioned doubt. And he articulates the desperately needed third way for those of our generation, the way of perhaps that leads to an imaginative and supple orthodoxy without dogmatism that addresses the challenges of our age.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.