An artist can appreciate the beauty of a flower. Can a scientist? Or, does the scientist get lost in detail and analysis, forgetting to enjoy the sheer beauty of what he or she is studying? That’s the question Richard Feynman leads with in this video, arguing that knowing something better just adds to our appreciation of its beauty. Looking closely at the flower doesn’t mean that we miss its beauty; it means that we get to see aspects of its beauty that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
As he was talking, I was struck by how similar this is to theology. Many worry that theology turns God into an object of analysis. Theologians study God like a beetle under the microscope, forgetting exactly how amazing and beautiful this wondrous God actually is. And, I’m sure that happens. But, that’s not theology. If theology is about reflecting deeply on who God is so that we get to know him better, it should only lead to a deeper appreciation of his beauty. Theology is about looking closer.
This is really just the first two minutes of the video. In the rest, Feynman discusses scientific knowledge and doubt in an uncertain and mysterious universe. And, he comments on why he finds all religious explanations unsatisfying.
Check it out. If nothing else, the pictures in the video are stunning.
Some words are inherently frightening. Among the more obvious ones, I’d include words like death, failure, torture, and jalapeño ice cream. Surely anyone who hears words like these immediately feels a small sliver of fear sliding its way mercilessly through their chest. And, only the bravest could possibly maintain their composure in the face of such terrifying terms as trapped, disease, helplessness, despair, and reality television show.
But, is there anything more frightening than hearing someone ask, “Do you trust me?”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear a question like that, my fight-or-flight instinct immediately kicks into overdrive. On the fight side of the equation, I start thinking, “What do you want? Surely you want something or you wouldn’t be asking. Well, you’re not going to get it that easily. You’ll have vanquish me and pry whatever it is from my cold dead fingers.” Okay, that may have been a bit strong. But, I like to use the word vanquish whenever I get the chance. And, you get the point. If someone asks about trust, I start to wonder what they’re after and what I’m going to have to do to protect it.
And then there’s the flight response. Ask, “Do you trust me?” and I’m looking for the nearest exit. “You’re not going to trap me so quickly. I have superpowers that enable me to slip through the smallest cracks. Trust you? Sure I trust you. Look! A squirrel!” And I’m gone.
There’s just something scary about being asked to trust someone.
I remember trying to teach the game “trust fall” to my daughter Leah. It’s a simple game. All she has to do is stand in front of me, with her back turned and her arms stretched out to each side. Then, without looking or moving her feet, she needs to fall backward, trusting that I’ll catch her before she hits the ground.
It sounds simple. But Leah actually found it quite difficult. She’d stand there for the longest time, trying to build up the courage to start the fall. And then, just as she was almost at the point where I’d reach out and catch her, she’d get scared and take a step back.
It was rather frustrating. Each time I would reaffirm that I was going to catch her and that I’d never let her hit the ground. Then I’d ask if she believed me. And, of course, she always said that she did, that she knew I’d never let her fall. And, every time she caught herself before she reached my arms.
She believed, but she didn’t yet trust.
We’ve already seen that the faith that saves must be a faith in something. But, biblical faith involves even more than that. Simply believing the truth about God and his amazing story will not lead to salvation. Satan and his demons believe these truths about God. But, it won’t do them anything good. Why not? Because they don’t really have faith. Knowledge and faith are not the same thing.
Do you trust me? As scary as that question might be, it lies at the heart of faith. Having true faith means answering that question with a sometimes confident, though often hesitant, “Yes.” An eyes-closed, arms-outstretched, knees-quaking, yes.
Do you trust me?
That’s the question faith asks. As you’ve worked your way through this story, you’ve heard a lot about God. You’ve read about his grace and his glory, his constant faithfulness, and the amazing promises that he’s made. And, you’ve read about how he sent Jesus to fulfill those promises and lead his people into his Kingdom. So, you now have quite a bit of knowledge about God.
But, do you trust him? Do you believe that he really has your best interests in mind? Are you sure that he will live up to his promises? Do you think that you can place your life in his hands and know that he will take care of you? Are you ready to stretch your arms wide, close your eyes and fall back—placing yourself in his hands, ceding control over your life and well-being, trusting that he will catch you before you hit the ground? That’s faith.
It’s not easy. It’s actually quite scary. But that’s what faith is.
Do you trust me?
(You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)
I love watching my daughters on Christmas morning. As the youngest members of the family, Leah and Sydney are usually tasked with the job of pulling the presents out from under the tree and distributing them to the rest of the family. It’s an important responsibility.
I remember the first Christmas the girls did this together. They were busy grabbing presents and sorting them into different piles. After a few minutes, I realized what was happening. The girls were shoving the presents for the adults off to the side and pulling their own presents into two large piles right in front of the tree.
“Of course,” I thought, “they’re just trying to find presents for themselves. Greedy little urchins. Must take after their mother.”
I quickly realized how wrong I was.
They weren’t building their own little stash. They were trying to find the presents they had made for each other. One after another, they held out their little treasures, watching with delight as their sister received these gifts of grace.
In my brokenness, I had assumed that they must be greedily hoarding presents for themselves. Instead, they taught me about grace. There is nothing like a small child, eyes bright with excitement, wanting only to give. In that exchange, there was no merit, no earning, no shame—only the joy of giving…only grace.
Apparently they take after their mother after all.
I can easily imagine God being like that—eyes bright with excitement, unconcerned with any gifts he might receive in return, interested only in reaching into the pile of presents under the tree, drawing forth all that he wants to share with us.
That’s why Paul declares that the gospel is about “the grace of God” (Acts 20:24)—free and unmerited; we did not earn it, and we don’t deserve it. Grace is gift.
And, entrance into God’s kingdom is by grace. A gift joyously given.
Could apostasy actually be a sign of a healthy church?
Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School recently considered the situation of writer/director Paul Haggis’ defection from his faith. Haggis bitterly – and publicly – left the Church of Scientology because of his disagreement with them over gay marriage (turns out Scientology is not a fan). Haggis now counts as an “apostate” from Scientology because he has renounced them and their teachings. So why does Winner care at all about any of this? Because it helps her think about her own church (Episcopalian) and the rigor (or lack, thereof) it takes to be a part of it. She writes,
So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.
Now this is a fascinating angle to get at thinking about discipleship – a group isn’t really much good, or good for you spiritually unless it is demanding enough of you that you might leave (or even be pushed out). So…is she on to something? Or is she really romanticizing a certain “rugged” view of Christian community that in fact is coercive and harmful? What do you think?
- Carl Trueman posts his second blog in praise of the generalist, this time arguing that being a generalist is in fact possible.
- Bob Cargill has an excellent reflection on the relationship of faith and doubt. “While the interplay between faith and doubt is daunting enough in the abstract, its lived manifestation fundamentally alters the foundational worldview of anyone who dares to wield the powerful sword of doubt. And that is precisely what I did.” (HT)
- James Smith continues to talk about going to grad school, this time looking at the importance of friends, family, and church in the grad school experience.
- Laura Miller has an interesting post at Salon.com on some significant problems with Google Books.
- Mere Orthodoxy has an interview with Brett McCracken, the author of Hipster Christianity.
- Nijay Gupta offers some reviews of a couple of books on the historical Jesus.
- Justin Taylor offers a list from Ken Myer of the 10 best books for developing a better understanding of culture.
- And, Daniel Kirk explains one reason why understanding Greek accents is more important than you may have realized.
[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]
For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).
The Nature of Evil
Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:
Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)
It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:
evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)
And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.
The Nature of Sin
Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.
In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.
Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)
Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”
Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)
The Origin of Sin
Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.
every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)
So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:
However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)
Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.
Sins vs. Sin
That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.
Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).
When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)
The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both. Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.
Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be will be.
St. Augustine (cited by David Kelsey in Eccentric Existence, vol. 1, p. 501)
Many thanks to Brian LePort for handling these posts while I was at the Acton conference. I have returned and will be posting some more reflections on Acton over the next day or so. But, for now, here are some interesting links.
- Peter Leithart has a very helpful post on whether we should continue to use the label “Arian” despite recent historical studies suggesting that Athanasius’ opponents were far too diverse to be covered by a single label like this.
- There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Ron Hendel’s decision to relinquish his SBL membership over concerns that the society has changed its position on the relationship between faith and biblical studies, and that it has done so for largely financial reasons (i.e. they’re trying to recruit more evangelical and fundamentalist scholars). John Hobbins, Mike Bird, and Jim West have all offered comments.
- Jim West asks if someone can be a committed Christian and a practicing homosexual. In the process, he presses on the popular notion of what it means to be a “committed” Christian and how this relates to ongoing sinful practices in general.
- Diglogtting reviews Don Schweitzer’s Contemporary Christologies. It sounds like a good, brief resource for familiarizing yourself with a variety of recent less-traditional approaches to Christology. The apparent lack of material dealing with more traditional Christologies, though, belies the back-cover claim that the book deals with the “chief approaches” in Christology since WWII.
- CT has posted its June 2010 interview with Al Erisman, who contends that “we need to think about ministry in the digital culture the way missionaries think about the culture of the people they serve”. They’ve also posted the responses by Wha-Chul Son, Haron Wachira, Nigel Cameron, and Juan Rogers. If you’re wanting to understand some of the pros and cons involved in using technology in ministry, this would be a good conversation to follow.
- With the growing use of the rosary in popular culture, Alan Creech offers a helpful primary on the rosary.
- Stuart discusses some recent claims that fundamentalist Christians are using the BP oil spill to support their eschatology. Joel Watts offers some thoughts as well.
- C. Michael Patton offers some thoughts on his two days as an atheist. His story raises some interesting questions about the nature of faith, doubt, and disbelief.
- And, apparently if you jump onto a moving semi on a dare, you should have some plan for getting down.
The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.
And its despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots….One can find no meanings in a jungle of skepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied to its tail.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane Co, 1908), 292-293.
If you haven’t seen this yet, Jim West posted an article at The Bible and Interpretation arguing that a-theistic biblical studies are at an end (HT Jim West). Studying the Bible apart from an active faith commitment, which he argues is the dominant approach to biblical studies, leads nowhere. Indeed, with typical West-ian pointedness, he summarizes where this approach has taken us.
So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.
And, he contends that there are two very good reasons that Scripture cannot be studied a-theistically. First, the Bible is the church’s book. It was written by the church and for the church. Non-christians can observe the text, but they will never participate in it like believers do. Indeed, “Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event.” And correspondingly, Scripture itself claims to be “insider literature” – i.e. literature for the people of the Spirit (1 Cor 2).
So, wrapping it all up, West contends:
Authentic biblical studies will more and more be found among the people of faith who value the bible and who understand it because they are endowed by the Spirit with the gift of understanding. Farewell, a-theism. You were amusing, for a while, but now you’re time is over and your discipline so completely fragmented that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can never be put back together again.
This doesn’t mean that West rejects any role for non-Christian scholarship on the Bible. But it is a necessary limited and superficial role because they will always be “outsiders” with respect to the text – outside the community and outside the Spirit.
What do you think? I’m sure this is an issue that you’ve worked through in your own understanding of how hermeneutics works. Is there a difference between a really well-done commentary produced by a non-believer and one produced by a believer? If so, what exactly is the difference?