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, 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?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chris Wright on A Holistic Theology of the Cross

I’m on a bit of a Chris Wright kick right now. He’s been one of my most valued scholar-mentors, through his writing, for some years now. Last week I finished his The Mission of God’s People, and I also recently dipped back in to his outstanding larger work, The Mission of God, while preparing to teach on the Jubilee. I came across a compelling passage that gives a savory taste of his skill and passion as a biblical scholar and missional author. See what you think.

A full biblical understanding of the atoning work of Christ on the cross goes far beyond (though of course it includes) the matter of personal guilt and individual forgiveness. That Jesus died in my place, bearing the guilt of my sin, as my voluntary substitute, is the most gloriously liberating truth to which we cling in glad and grateful worship with tears of wonder. That I should long for others to know this truth and be saved and forgiven by casting their sins on the crucified savior in repentance and faith is the most energizing motive for evangelism. All of this must be maintained with total commitment and personal conviction.

But there is more in the biblical theology of the cross than individual salvation, and there is more to biblical mission than evangelism. The gospel is good news for the whole creation (to whom, according to the longer ending of Mark, it is to be preached [Mk 16:15; cf. Eph 3:10]). To point out these wider dimensions of God’s redemptive mission (and therefore of our committed participation in God’s mission) is not watering down the gospel of personal salvation (as is sometimes alleged). Rather, we set that most precious personal good news for the individual firmly and affirmatively within its full biblical context of all that God has achieved and will finally complete through the cross of Christ.

The fact is that sin and evil constitute bad news in every area of life on this planet. The redemptive work of God through the cross of Christ is good news for every area of life on earth that has been touched by sin, which means every area of life. Bluntly, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news utterly and only because of the blood of Christ on the cross.

Ultimately, all that will be there in the new, redeemed creation will be there because of the cross. And conversely, all that will not be there (suffering, tears, sin, Satan, sickness, oppression, corruption, decay and death) will not be there because they will have been defeated and destroyed by the cross. That is the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s idea of redemption. It is exceedingly good news. It is the font of all our mission.

So it is my passionate conviction that holistic mission must have a holistic theology of the cross. That includes the conviction that the cross must be as central to our social engagement as it is to our evangelism. There is no other power, no other resource and no other name through which we can offer the whole Gospel to the whole person and the whole world than Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
-- Chris Wright,  The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 314-16.

John Oswalt on the legacy of the Enlightenment

My mother-in-law just picked up John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths. Since it dovetails with my current study in worldviews, and since she urged me to have a look, I’ve started reading it while we vacation at her home. The first chapter is a densely-packed overview of the Greek and Hebrew worldviews and how they intersected with both the dominant worldview of the surrounding culture and with each other. Oswalt concludes the chapter with this insightful gem:
The unique linkage of Greek and Israelite thought led to several characteristic features of Western Civilization. Included among these are: the validity of reason, the importance of history, the worth of the individual, and the reality of nature. But in the revolt of the Enlightenment against what it saw as the stultifying strictures of Christian dogma, these and other results were made ultimate values.
What has happened? Rationality has become rationalism. We have made the human mind the measure of all things and the result was a century in which two of the chief accomplishments were Buchenwald and Hiroshima. Rationalism has taught us that there is nothing worth thinking about. History has become historicism, in which we assert that finally we can know nothing about the past except what we make up to serve our own historical fictions. Individuality has become individualism, in which we assert that individual rights come before everything else, with the result that we are each locked in lonely isolation. Nature has become naturalism, in which the cosmos becomes and end in itself serving its own implacable, mindless, and deterministic ends. . . . We can no longer answer the “so what” questions. Reason for what? History for what? Individuality for what? Nature for what? In the absence of these answers we fall back into the pursuit of survival, dominance, comfort, and pleasure.