Thursday, October 29, 2009

Give Me a god I Can Idolize

Jesus is not an idol. Let me explain.

I have a few friends who are questioning their Christian faith at a fairly basic level. If God is even there, why isn't he more obviously real and present to me? In a conversation with one such friend in a hot tub, I objected that because God's being is so unlike ours or anything else that we know, it requires an entirely different mode of knowing, closer to the way in which we know a beloved parent than the way we know algebra (I realize now that this analogy is more problematic than helpful). His response was that though he understands that a personal mode of knowledge is required for him to truly know his mother, she presents herself as objectively real to him prior to all demands of personal knowledge; in other words, he might neglect her and therefore fail to come to know her on a personal level, but he would not easily be able to deny her plain existence since he can see, hear, and touch her (all Freudian comments will be deleted). Why isn't God more like this, he asks? This friend claims he would understand having to humble himself, take up his cross, lay down his life, whatever, as long as first he had solid reason to believe he wasn't deluding himself into acknowledging God's existence.

Another friend, in an online chat type discussion, said something like this: "I don't need theology; I need a God I can see and touch, who can hold me when I'm distressed, speak to me and kiss me."

These types of comments are beginning to make the problem clear to me. They're just asking for what the church we've grown up in, the seeker-sensitive evangelical church, has told them to expect. We've been told that God will meet all our needs, without being told to repent of our need to control everything. We've been told that God will answer all our questions, without being told not to put God to the test. We've been told Aslan IS a tame lion and this is the kind of god these guys want. They want a god who will hop up on their examination tables so they can see and touch him while he, in his infinite patience, might ask for a few token observances, but won't demand that they surrender everything, especially their thinking ("otherwise how would I know I wasn't deluding myself?"). The god they want doesn't need them to renew their minds. They want an idol.

Idolatry rests on the confusion of the transcendent and the creaturely, making the divine openly available to the creature to be seen and touched. These guys don't want the transcendent God of the Bible; they want the god we talk about at church.

One of these friends of mine, who holds a degree in biblical studies and theology, often comes back to the signs motif in the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus performs numerous miraculous signs with the explicit intention of their serving as signs toward belief in him. This guy claims that if he could have been one of that select group who were lucky enough to live in Galilee or Judea in that three year or so period when Jesus walked around turning water into wine, he would believe. Of course I raise all the classic objections that plenty of people did see these things and didn't believe, but he comes back with the honest enough self appraisal that he truly thinks he wouldn't be one of them, that he would be one of the few to put his whole trust in Christ if he saw that kind of objective proof. Isn't the whole point of the incarnation after all to bring God within our observable sphere so we CAN see and touch him?

Two things seem important here. First, Jesus' divinity is never objectively observable. It is objective, but its objectivity stands in total authoritative lordship over us, opening us up to investigation, not itself. It is Jesus' humanity that is on open display in his incarnation; his divinity, despite all the miraculous signs to it, is still only known through faith. The signs, for all their impressiveness, do not establish his divinity but point past themselves to it; they are, after all, miracles performed by a human and this can never be proof that this human is God. Even in Christ's incarnation, there can be no proof for God's existence. This is why so many can see the miracles and disbelieve while Anna and Simeon are able to believe seeing only the unimpressive infant Jesus with no external objective proof of his divinity (yes, I know thats in Luke, but its still valid).

Second, and probably more importantly, we must consider the theological implications of Christ's ascent into heaven. It is on purpose that so few saw the historical Jesus and so many more see the church in all its fallibility. Jesus was not an idol in his historical earthly life, but his ascension only establishes that fact more plainly. God never gave us any reason to expect any epistemological control over him; we can always only know him through faith. But won't we see him directly in heaven? Yes, when our minds are raised incorruptible from the dead. For now, they must be subjected to death. Our minds must be renewed and there is no undoubtable Cartesian basis for this to convince us in our fallen state that this must be so. We must relinquish control, repent of attempts to epistemologically control God and put him to the test. We must respond to the transcendent Word of God present in Jesus' humanity in faith for its own sake, not because we find it reasonable. To know God in Christ we must totally start over, including starting our thinking over from a totally new starting point, outside ourselves in Christ; we must be born again in him. A god that presents himself as fully reasonable to our fallen minds cannot be God; likewise a god that presents his full being to our eyes without destroying us can only be an idol.

10 comments:

  1. My thoughts are so long, it'll take two comments to post them. Whoa.

    Pt. 1

    I resonate and agree with a number of things you've said here Adam. I also appreciate that you've quoted me warmly and accurately. Thirdly, I have a kind of respect for the boldness with which you maintain your view, in part because I perceive it to stem from a genuine concern, perhaps over both God's honor and image in the world and your friends' lives and hearts.

    I resonate with a good deal of what you've said here. The fact that we can't expect God to be subject to our epistemological control. The salient points about Christ's divinity including the great examples of Anna and Simeon. I'm on board for a lot of it. Yet there's something about what you're saying, or perhaps the way that you're saying it that just doesn't sit well with me. I want to try to articulate what that is.

    I sense that you have some assumptions about what it is that's motivating my questions. I don't know exactly what those are, but I feel in part like they might have something to do with apathy, or a dangerous embrace of post-modernism, or a reaction against the church traditions I was raised with. I don't want to put words in your mouth so maybe you could say more. I just know that I'm not Kyle and Kyle's not Andy and we've all got our own reasons, not all of which you're privy to.

    More importantly, I want to let you know, because I truly care to, that these questions are good and necessary for me at this point in my life. They also follow a rich biblical tradition. Job, David, Jeremiah and a host of others have set the precedent for asking God what he's doing why he's doing and that we don't see him or feel him and that we would like to please, not me. I don't subscribe as fully as you seem to to the idea that God's sovereignty is the end of the story, in that we should be quiet and listen to whatever He says without talking back. Of course, I also have questions about the end of the Job story in which God essentially says "I'm not going to answer your questions." The biblical tradition is not as clear as either of us would probably like it to be on the issue of questioning God.

    You've articulated a frustration with people who sit on the fence forever. I think I understand that. I also don't think some of these things are black or white or that I can help but be on a process of figuring them out. Perhaps a life-long process. I'll have to stand before God on my own two feet with no one else to condemn or defend me and I hope, in humility, that I'm going to acquit myself well through this process by continuing to be honest with God about where I'm at, what I'm feeling and what doesn't make sense to me.

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  2. Pt. 2 (see comment below for Pt. 1)

    I suspect strongly that our different views of scripture contribute to our different conclusions about some of these issues. I wonder how much you're willing to set aside your own worldview in order to better understand or have grace for the worldview of another, and to recognize that everything you espouse comes through a lens (as for anyone) determined by your own story, background, family, culture and indoctrination. This includes all of your views about everything you've said. Which doesn't make them untrue. I just don't get a vibe of openness or true dialogue from you. Let me say a little more, because this gets at what may be the heart of where I frankly think some of my other friends, who've read the comments you placed on Kyle's facebook wall, are coming from. I share some of their frustrations...

    It's like this. I have questions. Your other friends have questions. The very essence of what we're doing is trying to follow the rabbit hole as far down as we can go, to get at things we can't grasp or that don't make sense to us on a foundational level. We're examining how we've been taught to view the world, holding it up to see the warp and weft of the glass... but you want to come to the table with all these presuppositions about God that are based off of your own belief system and how you yourself view the world. Now, of course, you may say. It can't be any other way. Very true. But you ask us to accept massive statements as a starting place, to agree with you on things we're not sure we agree with you on. You're basing a lot of your beliefs on the Bible. While I absolutely recognize that at the end of the day the making of meaning must have a starting point and that that starting point will require an element of faith, be you a Muslim, a Presbyterian or a philosophical modernist atheist, I do not think that things are as clear cut as you seem to want me to agree that they are. I'm not certain. You seem certain. Something about the way that you're engaging my uncertainty seems kind of out of touch with the essence and ethos of the process myself and certain of your other friends are going through.

    A God who knows and loves me must know and understand the conflict I'm going through. This is not to say that He or She is going to change who He or She is to please me. I do feel that the gracious God I believe in is going to lead me through a process of mediating grace further to me; helping me understand, in a way that makes sense to me, how all of this shakes out.

    There's more to talk about, but that's all I've got for now. I'm reminded in dialoguing with you of the need for humility before God. Thank you for reminding of that and for caring enough to keep the conversation going.

    Ben

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  3. Pt. 1

    Brother Ben, thank you for your thoughts.

    I want to start off by saying that you have hit the nail on the head with your appraisal of my motives: I am heart sick for my friends, you, Andy, Kyle, Isaac (if you’re reading this) and several others who are allowing presuppositions that are foreign and hostile to the gospel to hinder their perception of God’s love and care for them, keeping them also from the work of the kingdom for God’s glory that they are capable of.
    You've spoken of my presuppositions. I want to make one of them clear as I begin a re-response. I perceive this conversation to be between two Christian brothers, which is a very different kind of conversation than between a Christian and a non-Christian, or even between a Christian and a lapsed/former Christian. This presupposition is important because it means I assume we share a starting point of faith in Christ, a common self-identification as his followers. If this is false, if you approach this conversation as between a Christian and a non or former Christian, I need to know that because it would certainly change my tone. As it is, my sometimes aggressive, urgent, and even angry tone comes from sadness at a Christian community giving way to opposing claims from an outside source utterly alien to the claim of Christ's Lordship. I hereby retract everything I say below if your reply is that you are not, or are no longer, a Christian.
    You expressed concern about certain presuppositions I seem to be making about your reasons for questioning. I apologize if I have assumed too much. I admit that you might be going through things I don't know about. I don't know exactly what is going on in your life that is motivating your questions so I cannot make judgments about that; I can make judgments about what you write, however, and to that I now turn.

    You speak of yourself in line with a rich biblical tradition in your questioning of God, one including Job, David, and Jeremiah. That would seem valid except for two differentiating points. First, the nature of these men’s struggles were not, and therefore their articulations of them were not, general frustrations with God’s approachability. Job lost his family. David was being relentlessly pursued by a king whose throne God had promised him, or was otherwise hemmed in on every side by enemies who threatened to revoke God’s promises to him and his people. Jeremiah watched his city, the city of God’s dwelling in the temple, fall to a godless empire as the mothers ate their children after the long siege left them starving. Their questions were not abstract frustrations with the remote mode of God’s Being, but “how long oh Lord? When will you act to fulfill your promises to your people?” Their questions sprang from and were articulated as incongruity between their faith in who God is as revealed to Israel in the exodus events and the covenant at Mt Sinai on the one hand, and their (actual, not merely intellectual) experience of God forsakenness on the other. Again, I don’t mean to assume anything about the real life trials you may or may not be facing, but the complaints you are making in your post are totally cerebral, beginning not from concrete instances of particular suffering as with the men you mentioned, but from unsatisfied curiosity, holding the knowledge of Christ up to examination and finding uncertain results. Again, this is not presupposing your own lack of suffering (as I may have been guilty of before), but recognizing the form of the argument you’ve made. I see no one in Scripture, particularly not the ones you’ve mentioned, hold the revelation of Yahweh in the history of Israel up to scrutiny from some assumed neutral vantage point and come away approved of by God. The conclusion of Job only reinforces this point. “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (38:3).

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  4. Pt. 2

    Second, and more importantly, we are not in the historical situation of Job, David or Jeremiah but are privileged to live in the light of the revealing of God in Jesus Christ they longed for. They had no way to interpret their sufferings as blessing as we do. However, if those three guys had lived after Christ, is there any doubt that they with James would have considered it pure joy when they faced trials of many kinds? (James 1:2) Now that God has come among us and suffered with and for us, our suffering serves as our share in Christ’s suffering; it is our participation in his death. Thus, as I see it, the wrestling with God that characterized Israel’s whole life with God in the Old Testament has been taken up and fulfilled in Christ. Do we continue to struggle with God? Of course, but because of our sin, not God’s obscurity; He has made himself clear in the midst of our suffering.

    Moving on to another issue, let me quote you a bit: “I wonder how much you're willing to set aside your own worldview in order to better understand or have grace for the worldview of another…” I’m sorry, but this rather arrogantly suggests that my convictions are cheaply arrived at, that I haven’t struggled myself for my faith, which appears to you to be na├»vely certain, but is actually the fruit of many years of prayer, struggle, sin, repentance, grieving, asking God why? and how long? But I have learned that these struggles only produce fruit if done in faith, done in the certain presupposition of God’s faithfulness. I have had to repent of my own attempts to arrive at God’s existence and/or faithfulness by a process of logical deduction or worldview neutral examination. It is only in clinging to Christ, the center of my worldview, that has given me grace for others. Setting him aside is, to quote Luther, “neither right nor safe.”

    “…and to recognize that everything you espouse comes through a lens (as for anyone) determined by your own story, background, family, culture and indoctrination." This is where you really reveal the total extent to which presuppositions of a completely non-Christian origin have crept into your thinking and now determine your struggle with faith. Everything I think is determined by external factors? Do we not make decisions of belief? Are we not morally accountable for our beliefs? Are you that much of a fatalist? As much as you've warned me not to presumptuously accuse you of a dangerous embrace of post-modernism, in this quotation you dangerously embrace post-modernism. Of course our experiences leave marks in our thinking, but it is what makes me a Christian that I believe Christ can and does interrupt those determinist cycles to call us out of them, out of ourselves, into faith in him. Real faith in Christ cannot be determined by background or other factors, as much as I hope as a parent that I can encourage it in my children; real faith in Christ can only come from Christ himself, from hearing his voice in the proclamation of his gospel and yielding to it. I agree that many things are not black and white, but some things are; either we yield or we don’t.

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  5. Pt. 3

    “I just don't get a vibe of openness or true dialogue from you.” I’m sorry about that. To whatever degree I’m just a jerk, please forgive me. But I wonder whether you’re holding me up to criteria I just don’t acknowledge. Do you get a vibe of openness or true dialogue from Jeremiah? Paul? Any prophet of God or Christian in conflict with the promotion of doubting God’s very existence? Does Isaiah invite the Assyrians or the Babylonians to share their idolatrous views so he can carefully weigh them against the Yahweh worship of his upbringing and impartially decide which is better? What I’m saying is that I guess I just don’t feel obligated to be open to apostasy. Christ calls us to humility before him, not competing worldviews. The demand that we put ours aside and consider others from a (impossible) neutral position is a demand of our modern, Western, nihilist, militantly tolerant society; it has no root in Christian thinking.

    “It's like this. I have questions. Your other friends have questions. The very essence of what we're doing is trying to follow the rabbit hole as far down as we can go, to get at things we can't grasp or that don't make sense to us on a foundational level. We're examining how we've been taught to view the world, holding it up to see the warp and weft of the glass” You’re judging God by your own limited understanding. In fact, by maintaining your right to ask your questions irrespective of submission to his Lordship over you, the context in which true learning and discovery flourishes, you are refusing to go down the rabbit hole and demanding that it empty its contents before you so you can examine them and then decide whether going down there makes sense to you.

    The rest of that paragraph is kind of all over the place. “... but you want to come to the table with all these presuppositions about God that are based off of your own belief system and how you yourself view the world.” Yes, I’m coming to the table with the presupposition of Jesus Christ and his claim on my life and yours. This is absolutely not based on my own belief system or how I privately view the world but the biblical and historical proclamation of Christ as Lord. I am in a process of continued repentance of my own worldview in favor of Christ’s claim on me. You, however, come to the table with the presupposition of your own claim on him and a bunch of post-Enlightenment epistemological baggage.

    “you ask us to accept massive statements as a starting place, to agree with you on things we're not sure we agree with you on.” I do not ask you to agree with me on anything but point past myself to Christ in his Lordship over all of us.

    “You're basing a lot of your beliefs on the Bible.” Thank you.

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  6. Pt. 4

    “While I absolutely recognize that at the end of the day the making of meaning must have a starting point and that that starting point will require an element of faith, be you a Muslim, a Presbyterian or a philosophical modernist atheist, I do not think that things are as clear cut as you seem to want me to agree that they are.” Ah, there’s that radical embrace of post-modernism again. Seeing the Bible as a starting point for “meaning making” is a radically subjectivist reinterpretation of Christianity. We don’t make meaning. We acknowledge it. I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. There are some things that are obscure or difficult to interpret. But its central claim that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord over all creation is not a meaning that I make but the clear proclamation of the apostles. This is clear, Ben. The Bible as a whole is clear. Its our own futile thinking, our searches for meaning on our terms, that make it confusing. Christ’s graciously calls us out of that, to find a totally new way of thinking in him, a new view of the world in his Spirit.

    “I'm not certain. You seem certain.” I’m not certain either. I just trust God. It is the need for certainty that blocks trust.

    “Something about the way that you're engaging my uncertainty seems kind of out of touch with the essence and ethos of the process myself and certain of your other friends are going through.” Hm. I don’t know. When Israel was wondering in the desert, what do you make of how Moses dealt with their process and uncertainty about whether it would be better to go back to Egypt? That is the nature of your struggle (at least as you present it here): you stand in God’s care and freedom and wonder if it would be better to wander back into the slavery of your own judgments. I know you are probably only able to hear rudeness and arrogance in my tone, but I seriously care about you and only intend to speak truth in love. I had a couple brothers in Christ give me some of this same medicine several years ago and I didn’t like it either. But heeding the call to repentance, intellectual and otherwise, is the only way to freedom.

    “A God who knows and loves me must know and understand the conflict I'm going through. This is not to say that He or She is going to change who He or She is to please me. I do feel that the gracious God I believe in is going to lead me through a process of mediating grace further to me; helping me understand, in a way that makes sense to me, how all of this shakes out.” Is the idolatry stamped across this paragraph not completely clear to you by now? Stop telling God who He (I’m not even going to comment on the “She” thing) must be and what He must understand. Do you not fear God? Does the God you believe in (or not believe in) burn with anger, revealing his wrath from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness? (Rom 1:18) No? Then you’ve fashioned an idol for yourself and exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Yes, God does love you and understand your conflict. He understands it as sin and lovingly calls you to repentance and the freedom found only in Christ. There is no arrogance or insensitivity in proclaiming this; there is no humility in refusing it.

    And you thought yours was long.

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  7. I just got done reading your response and, while I need some time to digest it, I want to say three things off the cuff.

    1) Yes, you're correct in addressing me as a follower of Christ. That is what I still profess and desire to be.

    2) I'm prone to hyperbole, but this strikes me as one of the all-time great responses anyone has ever given me to any statement or question. I'm struck by the fact that you care enough to address me as thoughtfully and at as much length as you have. I truly appreciate it.

    3) Once I have some chili and a nap I'm going to destroy your position like Santa Ana overrunning the Alamo.

    Just kidding.

    PS - feel free to delete my pasted comments from the hot tub thread.

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  8. Thanks Ben. I just re-read it myself after writing it last night and I do have one balancing thought. I don't want to give anyone the idea that questioning is bad. Questioning is necessary. John tells us in his first epistle to test the spirits. We've got to hold stuff up to the light to see if it makes sense. The issue we're having is which light to hold other stuff up to. As a Christian, it is Christ himself that becomes the measuring rod against which I measure everything else. He is my starting point, my worldview. Therefore I cannot measure him against any other light because this would presuppose its sovereignty over him and I would in essence be revoking my confession of him as Lord.

    But you and I have inherited a Christianity that is not always a faithful witness to Christ and therein lies our mandate to question what we've been taught by the Light of Christ. Though I confess that I have been and continue to be guilty of irreverently questioning Christ at times, it has been the questioning of my Christians tradition, comparing it to other periods and other current traditions in Christianity, and at points even non-Christian philosophies, all against the standard of Christ, that has brought clarity (not certainty). We must question ourselves and what we've been taught by our human teachers and seek the answers in Christ. This has been the path of my academic theological studies over the past 10 years. We've got some good guides along this path: Paul, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, and more recently Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance have become more and more influential in my thinking in these areas. All these guys encourage us to be faithful to the church, the family of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, by relentlessly holding it up to the Light of Christ. It is when we change measurements, when we allow standards other than Christ to direct our movements as the church that we cease to be the church. This is the clear crisis we once again find ourselves in, much like the early church in the Arian controversy which the Nicene father addressed, and the medieval Roman abuses which the Reformers addressed. We must face our modern crises (modernism, postmodernism, liberalism, fundamentalism, existentialism, etc) with the same radical presupposition of Christ as those who came before us rather than let these movements call the shots.

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  9. I'm wondering if Ben would explain what this perceived "ethos" or "process" that he sees Adam being out of touch with is. Being explicit would help in identifying the disconnect.

    I swear I'll have the first post tomorrow.

    Andy

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