Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Marriage of Heart and Mind

I had this thought yesterday as I drove home from work: If the heart of Pentecostalism could merge with the mind of Presbyterianism, the results could be incredible! Just before leaving work I had been in conversation with a student who calls himself an atheist, but who is graciously, and curiously, engaging me in conversation. During our first conversation some weeks ago, he mentioned a series of YouTube videos made by a 20-something who was raised as a Pentecostal Christian, but has since become an atheist. The videos tell the story of his deconversion. He is a sharp young man, and I am very intrigued, and at times challenged, by the case for disbelief that he builds in the videos. But something that had been latent in the whole series struck me forcefully yesterday as I watched the video entitled “Losing God,” in which he narrates the climactic crisis point in his turn away from faith.

It’s clear that he never wanted to lose God. But he found himself in conversation with a learned linguistics scholar whom he calls “The Professor.” The Professor had gone through his own deconversion earlier in life. At first, he warned the young inquirer not to go down the path he was starting on, knowing where it might lead. But after sensing his determination to seek Truth, The Professor told him to sit down, relax and listen. Listen he did, and The Professor’s arguments appeared logically sound and even complementary to what he had been learning in his university studies. Finally, he reached a point of such cognitive dissonance, on so many levels, that he just couldn’t hold it together. At this point, he sinks into despair. He’s yearning for the kind of experiences of God that he had in his youth, which had been the primary basis of his faith. The longer they don’t come, the lower he descends. All the while he is still going to church; he doesn’t want to give up belief.

His faith, before all this started, was typical of many in the Pentecostal tradition: authentic, emotional and grounded in experience. Throughout his devconversion journey thus far, he’d all but lost the feelings he used to have. He stopped hearing God’s voice, feeling God’s Spirit, and experiencing God in prayer. He longed for these things, but didn’t know how to recover them. He prayed, but nothing came. At his deepest point of crisis, when he felt the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he went to his parents. He hoped his dad would have “a core of faith underpinned in wisdom that could at least start to help me sort through these issues and get back to God.” Unfortunately, he did not. Instead, when asked how he would respond if someone showed him evidence that the Bible was historically wrong, he said, “Well I would tell them that’s not what I believe, and if they didn’t like it, that was their problem. And if they were gonna tell me crap like that, I wouldn’t talk to ‘em anymore.” But what if it was true? “Jesus told us to live by faith and that he would bring us salvation. He never said, I will give you the truth.”

Apart this statement’s flat contradiction of Jesus’ own claim to be the Truth, and John’s claim that he came “full of Grace and Truth,” these statements typify the anti-intellectual, don’t-ask-questions-just-believe kind of perspective that often passes for authentic God-honoring faith in contemporary post-revivalist, post-fundamentalist evangelicalism and that is particularly prevalent in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles.

Now, before you hear an arrogant criticism of “those uninformed Pentecostals” by someone who thinks he’s arrived at some higher spiritual plane through intellectual study, let me swiftly say that that is not my point. Those, like Pentecostals, who have a deeper awareness of and attunement to the things of the Spirit have taught me much in my journey to a more complete and generous orthodoxy, and I believe they have much to teach much of the Western church, which has mummified the spiritual life of faith and obedience in a layers of rationalist, post-enlightenment (and post-modern) scholarship that have torn the history out of the Bible, cut God out of the gospel, and ripped the heart out of the faith. It is some of these same academic arguments that castigated the faith of the young man in the videos. But the solution to rationalist scholarship is not to a thoughtless (and fearful?) retreat back to “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” The solution is good scholarship!

What if, in a world where the enemy is working all the angles to subvert the Christian faith, we had more people who have a heart and a mind dedicated to God. Perhaps we need thoughtful believers and faithful thinkers. Some of the men I most admire are shining examples of this marriage of mind and heart: Pentecostals like Gordon Fee, Craig Keener and James Dunn; Anglicans like N. T. Wright, Chris Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Bauckham and the late John Stott; and brilliant apologists like Peter Kreeft, J.P. Moreland, and Timothy Keller.

What if, when this young man was enduring his crisis of faith, he’d had found a faithful man in his church (which he continued to attend) who had the intellectual capacity to walk with him through his doubt, the patience to listen to his questions and discuss reasonable answers, and the interest to suggests books by people like those named above, which would present reasonable responses to the arguments he encountered in books recommended by The Professor, arguments which systematically dismantled every aspect of the young man’s faith – everything from prayer to the reliability of the Bible to the “experience” of God, to the very reality of God.

The videos hint that there was more going on in this young man than simply being persuaded by a series of rational arguments. (It seems there always is.) But what if a mature mentor had given him some intellectually satisfying reasons to believe at that defining moment in his life, when, as he says, “my mind broke free from my prohibition from using logic,” which led to feeling like “I was losing the most important thing in my life. As the poison of these ideas coursed through my veins, I tried to resist it, but I couldn’t. It just made too much sense. . . I was beginning to enter a stage in my life were I simply couldn’t believe in God anymore no matter how hard I tried. I laid on my couch and prayed again, my hands over my eyes, but it didn’t feel like anyone was listening anymore.”

In God’s seeming silence, in the absence of the feelings and experiences that used to assure us, we need others to come alongside us and believe with us and for us. In this story, no one did that. In the war of worldviews, atheism claimed another victory. Another of our young people moved out into the big world and encountered its big ideas, with their appearance of wisdom, and found that his Sunday School faith was insufficient for the onslaught. Oh, that a wise believer had been there to help!

The moral I wish to draw out of this story is nothing new: we need each other. We need to learn from the things our brothers and sisters in other parts of the church are doing well. We need to abandon the arrogance that says we can win the war if we “just believe” and the arrogance that says we’re too smart to believe that the war really is spiritual. At the end of the day, we need to obey what Jesus said is the first and greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” or, as Scot McKnight renders it, “love God with every molecule and globule” – both those in the emotional control centers of our brain, and those in the intellectual center of our being. Lord, help us to follow you with every faculty you’ve given us so that we, in turn, can help others do the same. sober us with the fact that our neighbor’s faith might hang in the balance.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On Coming to Know

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, mostly because of a busy school and family schedule, but spring break has come, and with it a bit more time to reflect and write.

I am not a philosopher and this is not a blog about philosophy. But I am a learner and a teacher, so I occasionally ponder on the process of how we come to know things (what philosophers call epistemology). I woke up way too early Friday morning, thinking about how we move from knowing what other people know and tell us, to knowing for ourselves.

My students and I are have been exploring some faith traditions with which we share a largely common worldview, but also have divergent belief and practice. For the last few weeks, we’ve been engaging Catholicism. I’ve been doing my best to represent a Catholic view of the Eucharist, drawing largely on Brant Pitre’s stimulating book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Pitre argues that when we view Jesus words and deeds in light of ancient Jewish history and custom, and first-century messianic expectation, we see him teaching that his real presence would be conveyed through the Eucharistic bread and wine.

As we process these unfamiliar ideas, both from Pitre and the guest speakers who have shared with us, I get a number of responses. Some say, “I don’t like that” and basically check out. Others listen and process, but respond that it doesn’t make sense to them. This is an honest response because it truly doesn’t fit into the plausibility structure they have inherited and developed; its strangeness makes it sound senseless. These students often make counterarguments, which rest on prior assumptions about what the Bible says. But they are listening and thinking, and this is great! Still others listen, weigh, question, dialogue and seek to understand and evaluate whether the position presented is what Jesus actually meant. I received an encouraging email from one of these students. He said:
One point that you made that made an impact on me was that the Passover lamb was sacrificed and then consumed. . . I was not completely sold on what you were saying about the spiritual presence of God in the element, but the fact that Jesus is our Passover lamb seemed to be a very convincing argument for a more literal point [of] view. . . As I was pondering this on my own I thought about the Passover lamb that Jesus is compared to. . . Were not the sacrificial lambs merely symbols, representations, and placeholders for the real sacrifice that was to come in Jesus? When the Jews would eat the lamb they would not be eating the real sacrifice but a symbol for that true sacrifice. That would then imply that we are as well eating a symbol for our Passover Lamb. 
I am by no means convinced one way or the other and our discussion have opened my mind to the issue. . . I thank you for having these days in class.
I was so encouraged to hear how this student was not disparaging or dismissing, but processing and evaluating what he was hearing. I wrote back sharing my own process of thinking through these concepts, which has been going on for some time and stimulated by our current study:
You bring up a good point about OT sacrifices being symbolic pointers to the Reality that was to come. Your line of thought makes sense: that because they were eating a symbol, we are too when we eat the bread and wine/juice. Another way to think of it is that because lambs/animals were symbolic foreshadows and Christ is the greater reality, so they consumed a symbol and we consume the reality. That reality, in my provisional view at this point, is the spiritual presence of Christ (i.e. the Holy Spirit; though I appreciated what Father Barnett said about the Trinity all acting together and the HS being like the leading point of the triune triangle). Thus, we feed on Christ’s presence by receiving His Spirit.
Granted, I have not thought through this with respect to every text that might be brought to bear on the question, nor in dialogue with systematic theology. That’s why I used the word provisional above. I think I’m at a point where I want this to be true, because I want Communion to be more meaningful and mysterious than it has been for me in the past, and there seems to be some solid scriptural basis for at least the idea of a spiritual presence, so, in light of this recent engagement with the [biblical] text [i.e., John 6] and Catholic theology, I’ll let that simmer in my mental stew pot and see if it continues to ring true as I keep studying and growing.
This kind of discussion is why I love teaching biblical studies. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.
This exchange, I think, is what prompted my early morning musing about epistemology and the following insight. (For those who really are philosophers, this insight is obviously nothing new; I’ve just seen it play out recently and so “discovered” is personally.)

When we’re young, we know because we’re told. This knowledge comes largely from our parents and teachers. Right or wrong, we’ll die on the hill saying, “My dad said so!” Some never really move beyond this point. Adults often live on a basically borrowed belief system. Many blindly believe what reporters say. Academics often accept the ungrounded claims of scholarly “experts” without considering their arguments or their bias. Similarly, grown-up Christians regularly appeal to what “the Bible says,” which is really nothing more than what their pastor or teacher says; they never consider the complexities of interpreting and applying ancient texts or recognize that there are credible alternative readings.

Now, I should admit that all knowledge is in some sense inherited. We will never escape learning from others, nor should we try. But the hope is that people learn to choose their teachers wisely and honestly evaluate both messengers and their claims. We want to seek the truth, not just what confirms our prior beliefs. And one goal of education (at least one of my goals as an educator) is to help people move from knowing because they’re told to knowing because they know, that is, because they’ve come to “own” a belief. We own a belief when we understand its ins and outs, its whys and wherefores. Ownership comes through reasoned thought, experience and engagement with opposing viewpoints.

When we come out the other side of this long and arduous process, our knowledge is, paradoxically, both more and less certain. On the one hand, we know the reasons beneath our beliefs and, therefore, why they’re worth holding. On the other hand, we see a bigger picture and gain a deeper understanding of alternate beliefs. If these beliefs are groundless, our own are confirmed. But if they are reasonable, we may discover some value to be appreciated and learned from them. We may find, as I have with the Catholic view of the Eucharist, that they add more to the beliefs we have, without diminishing what we already knew. We, therefore, gain respect for alternate ideas and those who hold them. We have learned to listen and to learn. We emerge with a more personal knowledge and with humility – a combination which amounts to wisdom.

Although, as I said above, I’m not a philosopher in the professional sense, I hope I still am in the etymological sense. For the philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” He knows how much he doesn’t know and therefore invites new and challenging ideas. He listens and ponders, and processes and evaluates, develops and strengthens his personal knowledge. I hope my students see me doing this kind of philosophy, under the authority of Christ, and that they too will come to “own” their knowledge, so they can live the truth wisely in the world.

What ideas are you currently processing? What beliefs are you coming to own? Do you have insight on how we move from inherited knowing to personal knowing?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

We humans have a tendency to turn our religious beliefs and practices into something about us. Things meant to be God-focused and God-exalting, we make self-centered and self-serving.
This is sometimes true of prayer. Something meant to nurture relationship with God, we turn into a laundry list of requests. Something meant to change our hearts, we use to try to change God’s plan.

Jesus’ disciples saw something different about the way he prayed. It was not about him. In Luke 11, they asked him to teach them to pray. Why? They had seen amazing things happen when Jesus prayed. While praying at his baptism, the heavens opened, the Spirit descended and God affirmed Jesus messianic identity. While praying on the mountain, Jesus inner circle of disciples saw him transfigured and God spoke confirming Jesus as his Son. The disciples saw Jesus pray before miraculously multiplying bread and fish. They knew that when he prayed, God acted. They knew Jesus’ prayers were about his God-given mission, not his self-driven program. They wanted to learn. So Jesus taught them to pray.

To teach them, he gave them what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. The longer and more familiar version is in Matthew 6:9-13. It starts with God, intimate (Father) yet transcendent (in the heavens). It’s about God’s reputation, God’s name being sanctified, that is, cleansed of all the grime smeared upon it by fallen people. It’s about seeing God as he truly is: holy and glorious. It’s about God’s kingdom, his rule and reign over his creation. Implication: we are dethroned and we submit. It’s about God’s will, not ours. How often we pray for our own will “in Jesus’ name,” and give no thought to whether our agenda has any resemblance to his. We say things like:

Please heal
No complications
Relieve his stress, pain
Fast recovery
Return to what she loves
And so on

There is rarely any acknowledgment in prayer of what we know to be true upon reflection: God has a purpose in our pain and does his best character-forming work during our toughest tests and darkest days.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray for help, relief or provision. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer goes on to request daily bread, forgiveness, preservation from trial and salvation from evil. But all these requests come from the position of humility established by the former, God-focused lines of the prayer.

Jesus is again our example. In his darkest hour, alone and in anguish, he prayed, “Father, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done.” And in that act of submission – and suffering – God’s kingdom came.

Let’s learn from our Lord’s life and his prayer. Let’s praise first. Let’s make it about God more than us. Let’s follow Jesus in denying our self-sovereignty and praying, “May your kingdom to come and your will be done.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Doing Good for Goodness Sake

Why do we do good? So often it’s to get something, some reward. This is the way the world works. From the age of two, we are persuaded (or not, as the case may be) to do what others want us to do by means of a carrot and a stick. At home, in school, on sports teams, even in church. It’s not rocket science to figure out why people do this: it works. People respond to rewards and punishments.

But the question haunts me: does it work in the long run? What kind of people does it create? How do we become people who do the right thing, just because it’s the right thing, even when the reward is neither immediate nor tangible

Jesus encourages us to righteousness because it will lead to “reward” or “treasure” in heaven. I have neither space nor expertise to deal with the theological question about heavenly rewards. But Jesus is clearly not thinking about a piece of candy I can eat right now nor a gold star I can put on today’s behavior board nor a good grade on an assignment. (Nor, when Jesus speaks about punishment, is he thinking of losing my cell phone or being grounded for the next week.) The reward (and punishment) is out there in the uncertain future, and, although I have some scripturally-informed ideas about what it is, Jesus never comes right out and tells us precisely what “treasure in heaven” is. So we don’t know exactly what reward we’re working for or when we’ll receive it. Very different from all those years at home and in school. 

The question for me is: How do I raise my children to desire and pursue that reward even when it means forgoing some more instant gratification? Where’s the balance between using carrots and sticks sometimes to motivate my kids, and other times saying, just do this because it’s right. The question for you is: Will you trust Jesus when he tells you the kingdom is worth selling all you have and righteousness is worth seeking as your highest goal? Even when there’s no immediate or tangible reward, will you be good for goodness sake? Isn’t that, after all, a reward in itself?