pre⋅ténse

I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Category: Theology (page 1 of 4)

The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Having finished The Moral Vision of the New Testament last week, I am in the familiar position of wanting to get some thoughts about the book down before the details slip from my memory, while also wanting to take more time to let the ideas percolate, while also being aware that the longer I delay, the less likely I will be to write anything at all.

This was my first Richard Hayes book, and I am certain that it won’t be my last. From everything I could gather, Hayes is a committed disciple of Christ, who engages credibly with the academic literature. I don’t know whether he identifies with evangelism, but something like evangelicalism certainly comes out in his writing, though with a few gestures toward liberal protestantism. (He is a minister in the United Methodist Church.) To call Hayes “and American N.T. Wright” would probably offend many people, however descriptively accurate the phrase might be.

First, I have to offer an appreciation of Hayes’s writing. It’s certainly not a given that intelligent academics write well. Hayes’s prose is a pleasure to read. It reads quickly, and he always uses the right word. (Or almost always: in 500-odd pages, there was one word I would question, though the quality his writing generally makes me question my own judgment.) Moreover, we get appropriate personal revelation, and amusing asides to boot. Example:

New Testament scholars are sometimes oddly resistant to the idea that Paul could have developed or even declined as a theological thinker. When the topic of pseudonymous composition arises, I like to ask my students whether all those albums issued under the name of Bob Dylan for the last fifteen years can possibly be the work of the same person who performed “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Hayes’s project is to think about how the Church can obtain ethical guidance for contemporary issues from the New Testament. To organize the task, he presents an admittedly simplified four-step procedure: careful exegesis of the New Testament texts, developing a synthesis of the texts (without papering over the diversity of the New Testament witnesses), the hermeneutical stage of interpreting the meaning of the synthesis in our time, and then finally the practical application of the New Testament’s teachings. The structure of the book follows the procedure proposed; the “practical” portion consists of Hayes’s reflection on several hot-button issues of the day (meaning, the mid-90s): violence, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict, and abortion.

In addressing contemporary issues, Hayes recognizes that various Christian ethicists make use not only of Scripture, but also of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I appreciate his comments on what these three sources contribute to the task of biblical interpretation.

I would propose the following minimal guideline: extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. In other words, the Bible’s perspective is privileged, not ours.

Immediately following this, Hayes admits that this may be a tricky thing to implement in practice. But I think he’s got things the right way round. Reason, Tradition, and Experience certainly influence the way we interpret Scripture—we are not disembodied intellects floating around in the ether—but they are not normative in the same way that Scripture is. I can acknowledge the role of Tradition in how I read the Scripture—as in “This is the traditional reading” or “I’ve always thought about it this way” or “I never thought about it that way”—without Tradition (for example) being a competing source of authority. I think this strikes the right balance between a naïve logical-positivistic hermeneutic (for want of a better term) and a post-modern the-interpretation-is-the-community-is-the-tradition hermeneutic.

The curious thing about this book is that Hayes uses liberal exegesis to come to conservative conclusions. (The imprecision of that sentence in no way detracts from its truth.) Exegetically, Hayes seems to adopt the intellectual fashionable tools of redaction criticism, and the irritating practice of attributing the New Testament texts to otherwise-unattested Christian communities, who chose (for their own reasons) to write in the names of the apostles. At the same time, however, he holds tightly to the authority of the texts, and comes to conclusions that could establish him (more or less) comfortably in the ranks of conservative social commentators. For the most part, this works, though I some objections below.

In his survey of New Testament texts, for instance, Hayes assumes that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actively revising the Markan material. He also assumes that the pastoral epistles were written by somebody other than Paul, under Paul’s name. To speak plainly, I bristled at these two claims.

I bristled personally, because my introduction to redaction criticism of the gospels, and to the various doubts about Pauline authorship, was in an undergraduate course in the New Testament during my undergraduate studies at a secular university. The tenor of the course was respectful, but the tenor of the textbook was anything but. It was written from a postmodern perspective: all of the documents were produced by communities, and any piddling discrepancy or difference in viewpoint was taken as evidence of violent conflicts between the apostles—or rather, of course, between the various communities claiming to write in the apostles’ names. (The textbook was called Understanding the Bible; one class period I suggested that the book might instead be called Misunderstanding the Bible.) Suffice to say, Hayes writes from an entirely different personal perspective. Whatever his reasons for following the scholarly trends, it’s evident that he is a committed disciple, and that he takes the inspiration of the New Testament canon seriously. So it was salutary for me to see these ‘newfangled’ ideas expressed by a committed Christian person.

I bristled intellectually, because I can’t understand the appeal of these proposals. Take the composition of the synoptic gospels as an example. The mainstream scholarly consensus is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke revised Mark to suit their own perspective. Now I ask what different predictions this hypothesis generates, relative to the simpler hypothesis that in the 1st century, there was simply a way that the gospel was normally told, so that when three authors sat down to write up the story, it came out in a broadly similar way.

But instead of this, I am asked to believe that the various gospels were produced by communities of disciples, each with their own agendas, or at least their own pastoral needs. The very first question to ask is whether anyone has ever read a committee-written document, and then desired to read it a second time. Committees—communities—simply do not produce compelling documents. Remarkable documents are produced by remarkable individuals—conditioned by, but not constrained by, their communities.

But set that point aside. I ask what is gained intellectually if starting, say, from the gospel of Matthew, I posit the existence of a community of Christian disciples who needs and pastoral context that gave rise to the gospel of Matthew’s distinctive perspective on the life of Christ. Remember that no historical records of any of these communities exist. How then I can I know anything about this hypothetical community? Only by examining the distinctives of the gospel of Matthew. And how are those distinctives explained? By reference to the hypothetical community. If anyone reading this think that this amounts to an intellectual achievement, I’d like to get in touch with you to discuss an exciting business opportunity.

Nevertheless, once these hypothetical communities are spun into existence, they’re able to do quite a lot of work for us. Hayes accepts the idea that Matthew and John are basically anti-Jewish documents. Vexingly, he also acknowledges that Jesus and nearly every prominent Christian was Jewish. And he acknowledges that ‘Judaism’ was not a monolithic entity in the first century, and that Christianity cannot therefore be meaningfully be isolated from the various Judaisms of that time. But those acknowledgments don’t really amount to anything: there was such a thing as Judaism in the first century, and (the communities behind the gospels of) Matthew and John were against it. And if they were anti-Jewish, it must have been because they were being persecuted by Jews. (Why? Hayes doesn’t explain; presumably that’s the best excuse we can come up with for their behavior.) And if that’s the case, we can safely relegate their teaching to secondary status within the canon:

Because the statements of Matthew and John about the Jewish people originate in powerless communities under persecution, they bear the marks of pain and bitterness. They come out sounding like the indignant complaints of the righteous sufferer in the lament psalms. Such texts should be understood as cries of anguish that can be read with integrity only by a Christian community in a similar position of weakness and suffering. This guideline still does not justify the vituperative content of a text such as John 8, but it at least serves as a safeguard against the later appropriation of such a text by a powerful Christian community as a weapon against a weaker Jewish community. Our earlier discussion of violence becomes again pertinent here; the cross serves as a critical norm that governs Christian responses even—or especially—in the situation of persecution. In light of this norm, better patterns for the attitudes of a suffering community are offered in the Lukan narrative, where Jesus and Stephen, facing death, pray for the forgiveness of their persecutors (Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60); or again, we find a better pattern in Paul’s wish that he could be cut off from Christ for the sake of the Jewish people (Rom. 9:3). Here we see another reason why the positions of Luke and Paul on this issue are to be given greater normative weight than those of John and Matthew.

I repeat that I have no doubts of Hayes’s sincerity, and of his acceptance of the full canon of Scripture as authoritative. He also insists strongly that we must not form a canon within the canon. But I do question how all those beliefs can coexist with the idea that part of the canon was written by people who were sort of in a bad place at that moment, and whose (alleged) anti-Judaism can be safely put to one side. Some acknowledgment of even the possibility of a conflict would have been welcome.

While I’m ranting, I’ll say that I have very little sympathy for his treatment of the gospel of John. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish and proto-Marcionite, which is about as strange a reading of that gospel that I can imagine. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish without asking the basic lexical question of whether, in each case, the word Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) means ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’—a distinction that might conceivably have been relevant to a Galilean Jew in the first century! Here is one further example of his weird approach:

Consequently, it is easy for John to conclude that Jews who do not believe when they first hear the gospel presumably never will; indeed, he feels compelled, as we have seen, to ascribe their unbelief to an ontological alienation from God.

This ignores what is certainly one of the most prominent themes in John’s gospel, which is that the decision to follow Jesus or not is a moral decision, and is conditioned by the moral character of the individual. (This is in the other gospels as well—the parable of the sower—but it’s very prominent in John.) Truly, I would recommend any reader to stop reading when Hayes starts on the gospel of John.

So much for the exegesis. Hayes moves on to synthesis, and proposes that each New Testament text that deals with ethics can be examined with the lenses of Community, Cross, and New Creation. Hayes proposes that each text be read in relation to these three categories. Community indicates the focus on the Body of Christ (or the newly re-thought Israel). The Cross indicates the paradigmatic role that Christ’s suffering has for all believers. And the New Creation emphasizes the eschatological renewal of all things, which began two thousand years ago, continues through the life of the Church, and awaits its fulfillment when Christ returns.

Hayes calls attention to absence of ‘love’ as a unifying force in Christian ethics. In the first place, he notes that ‘love’ as such is not prominent in all of the New Testament witnesses; it is huge in John, for instance, but almost absent in Hebrews. In the gospel of Mark, it receives very little direct mention. I’m not entirely convinced here, and I think it is probably worth a bit of exegetical work in the meaning of ‘love’ in the New Testament (and especially in the Septuagint), before giving up. Hayes goes on, however, to note that the Cross is the perfect expression of love, so that love really ends up being defined by the Cross in the New Testament, rather than the other way around. That is far more satisfying. And of course one could also note that between Cross (self-denial) and Community (concern for others), ‘love’ is more or less covered.

Throughout the book, Hayes consistently returns to Community, Cross, and New Creation when he discusses his syntheses of the New Testament texts. I cannot, upon reflection, think of an instance where use of these images focused an otherwise unclear matter, or contributed materially to his synthesis. The images are not wrong in themselves, I just don’t see their contribution to the overall work.

The third part of the book addresses hermeneutics. Most of the part is a description of  how some prominent Christian thinkers do New Testament ethics.  His sensitive treatment is a model of careful and respectful engagement with the work of others. Following that evaluation, he proposes some normative principles for applying Scripture to ethical situations. He discusses appeals to rules, principles, paradigms (i.e., people who are presented in Scripture as paradigmatic), and the symbolic world of the New Testament. This raised some questions for me, since I have internalized one of the main messages of The Lost World of Scripture, which is that we can’t simply spin morals out of Bible stories: we only take the authority of Scripture seriously when we use the texts as the authors intended them to be used (which, yes, is an interpretive decision). On a lighter note, I was personally amused that, after hundreds of pages of exegesis and careful engagement with the literature, Hayes suggests that when we turn to the New Testament for ethical guidance, we need to draw an analogy between what the Scripture says and the situation we’re facing. Just a bit anti-climactic after all the intellectual fireworks. He adds in the provisos that we should do this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the accountability of the community. Controversial ideas, indeed!

Then in the final part of the book, Hayes applies his model to several important issues of the day. These are selected to test different parts of the process. With respect to violence, for instance, the New Testament is consistently and univocally opposed to violence, whereas Tradition would generally endorse a just war theory. With respect to abortion, the New Testament says nothing specific, but Tradition before 1950 is univocally opposed. And so forth. (Hayes does not treat two of the topics that he feels are most pressing in our day: our relationship to our possession, and gender relations in the church.)

I accuse myself of intellectual laziness in saying that I don’t have a lot to say about this part of the book, because I mostly agree with where Hayes ends up. There are a couple of points of inconsistency, which for me are larger than quibbles, but far from being fatal flaws.

Hayes’s chapter on anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict assumes that the Church in the present day bears responsibility for crimes committed against Jewish people by Christians in the past. “Christians cannot disown the church’s past abuses of Jews.” What does that mean? Unfortunately I can’t be certain, because in the footnote following this sentence Hayes dismissively quotes another author asking the same question, and without providing any answer to it. In the first place, I certainly repudiate any instance in which a Christian person was anything less than kind and courteous to a Jewish person. I accept that terrible things were done, certainly some in the name of Christ, or using biblical texts as justifications of those actions; and in doing so, the perpetrators multiplied the gravity of their sin immeasurably. But with that said, I think it is obvious to all thinking people that those sorts of actions are never condoned or even hinted at in the New Testament. There is no conceivable warrant for violence against Jews in the New Testament—which Hayes himself proves indirectly, in his claim that there is never any warrant for violence in the New Testament. This paragraph is already overly long, but I want to walk this idea a bit further down the road. As an American, a descendant of the “good guys” in World War II, a good-natured person, a person who abhors racism of all varieties, and abhors anti-Semitism as particularly inimical to my faith, it would be easy for me to put on a display of false humility and say, “Yes, I am responsible too. Those people claimed to act in the name of Christ. I claim to act in the name of Christ. All Christians bear the guilt. ” That would go over well just about anywhere. But you cannot start from that muddled-headed concept of corporate guilt, and then explain why we should not then hold all Muslims responsible for the September 11 attacks, or the atrocities committed by ISIS—and all Muslims are certainly not responsible for those things. Particularly in the 21st century, it is profoundly important that we keep the sin firmly associated with the sinner, rather than with his/her religious or national demographic.

An separate issue with is the relationship between ethics within the Church and ethics within the society. Hayes is fairly consistent in limiting his treatment of ethics to life within the Body of Christ. He is emphatically not offering prescriptions for society. Mostly. So for instance when he discusses abortion, he clearly states that abortion should not be an option for people within the church, while leaving aside the question of civil law. When he discusses homosexuality, he says that Christians should support civil rights for homosexual people. Now, to be honest, I don’t know what “civil rights” meant for homosexuals in 1996—seven years before Lawrence v. Texas and 19 years before Obergefell v. Hodges. But the point is, in one instance Hayes doesn’t see Christian faith as informing Christians’ civic activities (e.g., whom or what they vote for), and in another he assumes that it will.

This gets into the broader question of what exactly the Church has to say the world about ethical matters. What is the nature of the New Testament’s ethical instruction? Was Jesus describing the ideal life of an idiosyncratic group of people, or was he talking about what it means to be truly human? If the former, then we had best keep to our private set rules and not presume to tell the lost what to do. If the latter, then it seems like we might have something helpful to say. This is a question that Hayes does not even wrestle with (on paper).

I don’t have an easy answer to this question. On the one hand, none of the New Testament’s ethical teaching is binding on those who are not disciples of Christ. It would also be inappropriate to communicate Christ’s ethical teaching in isolation of proclaiming His Lordship. This at least is something that Hayes sees clearly. He offers the following corrective to those who—perhaps out of a naïve liberality of spirit—would advocate pacifism on grounds other than obedience to Christ and trust in His reign:

Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus’ way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simple obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.

But on the other hand, doesn’t Christ’s rejection of violence tell us something about what it means to be human—for instance, that coercing people to act in a certain way is to reject their humanity? Do we actually have nothing to say about violence, consumerism, sexism, racism, etc., except to those within the Church? Should the abolition movement have stopped when the last Christian sold his slaves? Do we really wish to rebuke Wilberforce and Douglass for imposing their beliefs on society?

Somewhere between outlawing slavery—which was good and necessary—and enshrining my understanding of sexual ethics in civil law—which seems excessive and inappropriate for government—I want to draw a line. I’m not in a position to say right now where that line should be, which is intellectually frustrating. But it’s one of those splinters of the mind that keeps this blog going.

So, Hayes wrote a good book. The things I appreciate and have learned from greatly exceed the number of things I object to, though (in the nature of things) my objections have filled most of this post. I’d be happy to write half as well as he does. I certainly look forward to the next book of his that I read. (I suspect it will be Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.)

The Idea of a University

I finished reading The Idea of a University a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to write up my thoughts on it. I still don’t have time to do the book justice, but I thought I would write something at least before whatever synthesis I have slips away. I read from a Kindle, and so it is easy to include quotations. I doubt there exists any book titled The Quotable Newman because, as is evident from the length of my quotations, Newman thought in paragraphs rather than in sound bites. So these quotations are overlong but, I believe, still worthwhile.

Because it is a famous book, I had a go at it probably twelve or fifteen years ago. I did not make it further than the introduction. One passage from the introduction struck me then, and struck me again recently. Newman contrasts with the goals of liberal education with the lesser goal of making suitable conversation partners—instilling a superficial knowledge that consists mostly of having opinions on a wide variety of matters.

Some one, however, will perhaps object that I am but advocating that spurious philosophism, which shows itself in what, for want of a word, I may call “viewiness,” when I speak so much of the formation, and consequent grasp, of the intellect. It may be said that the theory of University Education, which I have been delineating, if acted upon, would teach youths nothing soundly or thoroughly, and would dismiss them with nothing better than brilliant general views about all things whatever.

….

Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of “views” on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practised on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Newman was concerned about the rise of periodical literature in 1852. How much greater cause for concern in 2004, with the then-new 24-hour news cycle. How much greater cause for concern in 2016, with blogs, tweets, social media, and so forth. “Chief evils of the day” isn’t putting it too lightly. Indeed I almost (almost!) look back fondly of the media climate of twenty years ago, when ‘infotainment’ at least gave a nod to information. Today’s media and social media coverage seems to have a laser-like focus on my opinion: Condemn this! Support that! Have an opinion about this! It’s the democratization of the shallow news coverage we all despise. And the causes were of course the same in 1852:

We refer the various matters which are brought home to us, material or moral, to causes which we happen to know of, or to such as are simply imaginary, sooner than refer them to nothing; and according to the activity of our intellect do we feel a pain and begin to fret, if we are not able to do so. Here we have an explanation of the multitude of off-hand sayings, flippant judgments, and shallow generalizations, with which the world abounds. Not from self-will only, nor from malevolence, but from the irritation which suspense occasions, is the mind forced on to pronounce, without sufficient data for pronouncing. Who does not form some view or other, for instance, of any public man, or any public event, nay, even so far in some cases as to reach the mental delineation of his appearance or of its scene? yet how few have a right to form any view.

“Few have a right to form any view”—that’s not terribly democratic, but I think it’s more or less accurate. What legitimate right do I really have to a view about the situation in the Middle East, the presidential election, or this or that shooting? I’m a linguist with exposure to a very narrow slice of the world.

In one of the early chapters, Newman argues that it is necessary for theology to be taught in universities in part because, left unchecked, academics are likely to colonize other areas of study with their own approaches and methodologies. As Newman points out, this is a flaw in the individual, not the science:

For example, it is a mere unwarranted assumption if the Antiquarian says, “Nothing has ever taken place but is to be found in historical documents;” or if the Philosophic Historian says, “There is nothing in Judaism different from other political institutions;” or if the Anatomist, “There is no soul beyond the brain;” or if the Political Economist, “Easy circumstances make men virtuous.” These are enunciations, not of Science, but of Private Judgment; and it is Private Judgment that infects every science which it touches with a hostility to Theology, a hostility which properly attaches to no science in itself whatever.

Of course, anyone with any exposure any media will be familiar with academics who use their credibility in their narrow specialization as a soapbox to declaim about any social or scientific issue they desire. (An advantage of peer review: it is acknowledged that the scientist is not the authority, and that individual claims stand or fall on their own merits.)

Properly, a university environment should correct these tendencies in individuals, by keeping the individual grounded and oriented in the big (universal) picture. These lines, which I am sure have been quoted thousands of times by proponents of liberal arts, are worth quoting again:

This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.

(Tangentially, it is interesting to see Newman—throughout the book—addressing an audience in which, although it was obvious that not everyone was a Christian, it was not really socially possible to be open about that. On the one hand it allows for some interesting rhetorical ploys, and on the other it gives him opportunity to refer gently to unspoken realities.)

I quote the passage below for the last sentence. Newman defends the idea of a liberal education as a real thing, not just a label. That’s not an easy distinction to make, so I find the last sentence interesting methodologically.

Now, as to the particular instance before us, the word “liberal” as applied to Knowledge and Education, expresses a specific idea, which ever has been, and ever will be, while the nature of man is the same, just as the idea of the Beautiful is specific, or of the Sublime, or of the Ridiculous, or of the Sordid. It is in the world now, it was in the world then; and, as in the case of the dogmas of faith, it is illustrated by a continuous historical tradition, and never was out of the world, from the time it came into it. There have indeed been differences of opinion from time to time, as to what pursuits and what arts came under that idea, but such differences are but an additional evidence of its reality. That idea must have a substance in it, which has maintained its ground amid these conflicts and changes, which has ever served as a standard to measure things withal, which has passed from mind to mind unchanged, when there was so much to colour, so much to influence any notion or thought whatever, which was not founded in our very nature. Were it a mere generalization, it would have varied with the subjects from which it was generalized; but though its subjects vary with the age, it varies not itself.

A beautiful passage about the formative effect of education, as opposed to a mere utilitarian concept of instruction, or training:

Moreover, such knowledge is not a mere extrinsic or accidental advantage, which is ours to-day and another’s to-morrow, which may be got up from a book, and easily forgotten again, which we can command or communicate at our pleasure, which we can borrow for the occasion, carry about in our hand, and take into the market; it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment. And this is the reason, why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word. We are instructed, for instance, in manual exercises, in the fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business; for these are methods, which have little or no effect upon the mind itself, are contained in rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use, and bear upon an end external to themselves. But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connexion with religion and virtue.

Note how precisely calibrated the last sentence is, hinting at an association without committing himself to an identity. Later on, however, Newman differentiates clearly between virtue and intellectual formation.

I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

More:

There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.

….

To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself), I say, an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.

….

It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates. And therefore a truly great intellect, and recognized to be such by the common opinion of mankind, such as the intellect of Aristotle, or of St. Thomas, or of Newton, or of Goethe, (I purposely take instances within and without the Catholic pale, when I would speak of the intellect as such,) is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.

A caution to those of us who are in a position to acquire an (ahem) superficial urbanity because we have had the opportunity to travel:

Perhaps they have been much in foreign countries, and they receive, in a passive, otiose, unfruitful way, the various facts which are forced upon them there. Seafaring men, for example, range from one end of the earth to the other; but the multiplicity of external objects, which they have encountered, forms no symmetrical and consistent picture upon their imagination; they see the tapestry of human life, as it were on the wrong side, and it tells no story. They sleep, and they rise up, and they find themselves, now in Europe, now in Asia; they see visions of great cities and wild regions; they are in the marts of commerce, or amid the islands of the South; they gaze on Pompey’s Pillar, or on the Andes; and nothing which meets them carries them forward or backward, to any idea beyond itself. Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Every thing stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leave the spectator where he was.

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

A gem:

That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.

This is a harsh perspective on the potential of mass media. I think we can credit readers with the ability to process what they read, and to profit from it.

What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.

An apt contrast:

The bodily eye, the organ for apprehending material objects, is provided by nature; the eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.

The following provided food for thought. I believe it is a commonplace that the Industrial Revolution reduced craftsman to button-pushers. There is a parallel sense in which, in our highly specialized modern world, everyone is reduced to a cog in a machine.

“It is an undisputed maxim in Political Economy,” says Dr. Copleston, “that the separation of professions and the division of labour tend to the perfection of every art, to the wealth of nations, to the general comfort and well-being of the community. This principle of division is in some instances pursued so far as to excite the wonder of people to whose notice it is for the first time pointed out. There is no saying to what extent it may not be carried; and the more the powers of each individual are concentrated in one employment, the greater skill and quickness will he naturally display in performing it. But, while he thus contributes more effectually to the accumulation of national wealth, he becomes himself more and more degraded as a rational being. In proportion as his sphere of action is narrowed his mental powers and habits become contracted; and he resembles a subordinate part of some powerful machinery, useful in its place, but insignificant and worthless out of it. If it be necessary, as it is beyond all question necessary, that society should be split into divisions and subdivisions, in order that its several duties may be well performed, yet we must be careful not to yield up ourselves wholly and exclusively to the guidance of this system; we must observe what its evils are, and we should modify and restrain it, by bringing into action other principles, which may serve as a check and counterpoise to the main force.

One might succeed reasonably well in a highly specific field in a university setting, for instance, and then move to a developing country and realize the extent to which one was dependent on one’s context. J

Mr Newman quoting Mr Davison’s reply to Mr Copleston:

Judgment does not stand here for a certain homely, useful quality of intellect, that guards a person from committing mistakes to the injury of his fortunes or common reputation; but for that master-principle of business, literature, and talent, which gives him strength in any subject he chooses to grapple with, and enables him to seize the strong point in it. Whether this definition be metaphysically correct or not, it comes home to the substance of our inquiry. It describes the power that every one desires to possess when he comes to act in a profession, or elsewhere; and corresponds with our best idea of a cultivated mind.

Here and there, you can tell that Newman really perceives university education as a component of spiritual and moral formation.

But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to [pg 178] popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

We’ll just ignore the slightly gnostic tone at the end of this first paragraph (As an INTJ, I understand what he’s getting at.)

Here then I think is the important aid which intellectual cultivation furnishes to us in rescuing the victims of passion and self-will. It does not supply religious motives; it is not the cause or proper antecedent of any thing supernatural; it is not meritorious of heavenly aid or reward; but it does a work, at least materially good (as theologians speak), whatever be its real and formal character. It expels the excitements of sense by the introduction of those of the intellect.

….

This then is the primâ facie advantage of the pursuit of Knowledge; it is the drawing the mind off from things which will harm it to subjects which are worthy a rational being; and, though it does not raise it above nature, nor has any tendency to make us pleasing to our Maker, yet is it nothing to substitute what is in itself harmless for what is, to say the least, inexpressibly dangerous? is it a little thing to exchange a circle of ideas which are certainly sinful, for others which are certainly not so?

And more on intellectual development as a moral good. What to say? I can’t deny the benefits of education in my own life. I resist the idea that formal education offers any unique opportunity for moral formation, simply because today’s widespread formal education is a historical anomaly, and postsecondary education is not typical even in America. The second passage below is more amenable to my democratic sentiments.

In many cases, where it exists, sins, familiar to those who are otherwise circumstanced, will not even occur to the mind: in others, the sense of shame and the quickened apprehension of detection will act as a sufficient obstacle to them, when they do present themselves before it. Then, again, the fastidiousness I am speaking of will create a simple hatred of that miserable tone of conversation which, obtaining as it does in the world, is a constant fuel of evil, heaped up round about the soul: moreover, it will create an irresolution and indecision in doing wrong, which will act as a remora till the danger is past away. And though it has no tendency, I repeat, to mend the heart, or to secure it from the dominion in other shapes of those very evils which it repels in the particular modes of approach by which they prevail over others, yet cases may occur when it gives birth, after sins have been committed, to so keen a remorse and so intense a self-hatred, as are even sufficient to cure the particular moral disorder, and to prevent its accesses ever afterwards;—as the spendthrift in the story, who, after gazing on his lost acres from the summit of an eminence, came down a miser, and remained a miser to the end of his days.

Cheap literature, libraries of useful and entertaining knowledge, scientific lectureships, museums, zoological collections, buildings and gardens to please the eye and to give repose to the feelings, external objects of whatever kind, which may take the mind off itself, and expand and elevate it in liberal contemplations, these are the human means, wisely suggested, and good as far as they go, for at least parrying the assaults of moral evil, and keeping at bay the enemies, not only of the individual soul, but of society at large.

And a final, lengthy-but-worthwhile reflection on the distinction between liberal education and spiritual formation. I feel as though C.S. Lewis could have written this first paragraph; presumably he profited from it when he read it.

And from this shallowness of philosophical Religion it comes to pass that its disciples seem able to fulfil certain precepts of Christianity more readily and exactly than Christians themselves. St. Paul, as I have said, gives us a pattern of evangelical perfection; he draws the Christian character in its most graceful form, and its most beautiful hues. He discourses of that charity which is patient and meek, humble and single-minded, disinterested, contented, and persevering. He tells us to prefer each the other before himself, to give way to each other, to abstain from rude words and evil speech, to avoid self-conceit, to be calm and grave, to be cheerful and happy, to observe peace with all men, truth and justice, courtesy and gentleness, all that is modest, amiable, virtuous, and of good repute. Such is St. Paul’s exemplar of the Christian in his external relations; and, I repeat, the school of the world seems to send out living copies of this typical excellence with greater success than the Church. At this day the “gentleman” is the creation, not of Christianity, but of civilization. But the reason is obvious. The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart. She ever begins with the beginning; and, as regards the multitude of her children, is never able to get beyond the beginning, but is continually employed in laying the foundation. She is engaged with what is essential, as previous and as introductory to the ornamental and the attractive. She is curing men and keeping them clear of mortal sin; she is “treating of justice and chastity, and the judgment to come:” she is insisting on faith and hope, and devotion, and honesty, and the elements of charity; and has so much to do with precept, that she almost leaves it to inspirations from Heaven to suggest what is of counsel and perfection. She aims at what is necessary rather than at what is desirable. She is for the many as well as for the few. She is putting souls in the way of salvation, that they may then be in a condition, if they shall be called upon, to aspire to the heroic, and to attain the full proportions, as well as the rudiments, of the beautiful.

….

This embellishment of the exterior is almost the beginning and the end of philosophical morality. This is why it aims at being modest rather than humble; this is how it can be proud at the very time that it is unassuming. To humility indeed it does not even aspire; humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain. It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound; however, we are little concerned with them here, for, I repeat, it is hardly professed even by name in the code of ethics which we are reviewing. As has been often observed, ancient civilization had not the idea, and had no word to express it: or rather, it had the idea, and considered it a defect of mind, not a virtue, so that the word which denoted it conveyed a reproach. As to the modern world, you may gather its ignorance of it by its perversion of the somewhat parallel term “condescension.” Humility or condescension, viewed as a virtue of conduct, may be said to consist, as in other things, so in our placing ourselves in our thoughts on a level with our inferiors; it is not only a voluntary relinquishment of the privileges of our own station, but an actual participation or assumption of the condition of those to whom we stoop. This is true humility, to feel and to behave as if we were low; not, to cherish a notion of our importance, while we affect a low position. Such was St. Paul’s humility, when he called himself “the least of the saints;” such the humility of those many holy men who have considered themselves the greatest of sinners. It is an abdication, as far as their own thoughts are concerned, of those prerogatives or privileges to which others deem them entitled. Now it is not a little instructive to contrast with this idea, Gentlemen,—with this theological meaning of the word “condescension,”—its proper English sense; put them in juxta-position, and you will at once see the difference between the world’s humility and the humility of the Gospel. As the world uses the word, “condescension” is a stooping indeed of the person, but a bending forward, unattended with any the slightest effort to leave by a single inch the seat in which it is so firmly established. It is the act of a superior, who protests to himself, while he commits it, that he is superior still, and that he is doing nothing else but an act of grace towards those on whose level, in theory, he is placing himself.

….

Knowledge, viewed as Knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own centre, and our minds the measure of all things.

A couple of brief quotes on literate:

Literature stands related to Man as Science stands to Nature; it is his history.

.…

Literature is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his Life and Remains.

This is a portion of an interesting passage in which Newman rejects the idea that we should aim for a Christian literature, and reject secular literature. Following on from the shorter quotes above, Newman observes that since literature is a mirror of humanity, it’s pointless to expect it to be exclusively Christian.

Such is man: put him aside, keep him before you; but, whatever you do, do not take him for what he is not, for something more divine and sacred, for man regenerate. Nay, beware of showing God’s grace and its work at such disadvantage as to make the few whom it has thoroughly influenced compete in intellect with the vast multitude who either have it not, or use it ill. The elect are few to choose out of, and the world is inexhaustible. From the first, Jabel and Tubalcain, Nimrod “the stout hunter,” the learning of the Pharaohs, and the wisdom of the East country, are of the world. Every now and then they are rivalled by a Solomon or a Beseleel, but the habitat of natural gifts is the natural man. The Church may use them, she cannot at her will originate them. Not till the whole human race is made new will its literature be pure and true. Possible of course it is in idea, for nature, inspired by heavenly grace, to exhibit itself on a large scale, in an originality of thought or action, even far beyond what the world’s literature has recorded or exemplified; but, if you would in fact have a literature of saints, first of all have a nation of them.

And I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Christian literature doesn’t often work. Christian themes work best when explored in literature indirectly. (One thinks of The Lord of the Rings and The Space Trilogy in this regard; and of course of Lewis’s gentle criticism of the novels of George MacDonald.) Novels written from a Christian world view, set in a world saturated by Christianity, don’t work because that’s not the world we live in.

Psalms

This is a chapel talk I gave this past Summer, which is more or less the religious counterpart to my previous two blog posts on the cultivation of literary appetite (here and here). In my previous post I credited Japanese culture (by way of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) for the idea of cultivating appreciation.  On the religious side, Dallas Williard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines was an important influence. The two strands are now fused in my thinking, but I don’t believe that they were in the beginning.

This struck me as as rambling and over-long when I first delivered it, and the passage of time has not softened my opinion. Oh well.


I want to speak this morning about the book of Psalms, and the role that the psalms are beginning to play in my own life. I’ve undergone a change in the last few years, from reading the psalms as poetry, to reading them in a more disciplined fashion, with the intent of transforming my soul. So this is pretty recent, and I don’t expect everything that I’ll say this morning to be helpful.  I don’t even give it much weight myself. But here we go.

My testimony is fairly typical I think. I grew up in the church, but as I grew up I came to realize that I was not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, and then there was point of repentance, of the presence of the Holy Spirit. All that to say, long before I had made any sort of commitment to Christ, I grew up in a very pro-psalms environment. I heard that the psalms were classic expressions of faith, applicable to any situation, and so forth. I heard it in sermons, books, and the testimony of Christians of all ages. So I have always had high expectations from the Psalms. Unfortunately, I was rarely able to really get into the psalms. For a time, I had the practice of reading five psalms every day. That gets you through the psalter in a month. I did that for quite some time—I’m don’t remember how long, but I certainly read each psalm several times over. Then at some point I lost that practice, and I can’t honestly say that I missed it.

Now, I used to read the psalms like I read any other poetry—with more reverence and respect, but still just like any other poetry. Let’s say that I was reading through the psalter systematically. I would read a psalm and think, more or less, about whether I agreed or disagreed—or, not about whether I agreed or disagreed with the Bible as such, but I thought about whether I could feel the sentiment that the psalmist was expressing. It either did it for me or it didn’t. Or, I might read a psalm for a specific occasion: Psalm 23 if I was feeling upbeat, Psalm 51 if I needed to express repentance, Psalm 100 if I wanted to praise God.

That’s just how I read poetry: I read to enjoy the poem, to try to understand it, and to see whether it speaks to me at any level. Some poems speak more to me than others; some authors speak more to me than others. Rightly or wrongly, I tend not to care for poems I have to think too much about. I like to understand what’s going on. How well do those preferences serve me when I approach the psalms? Not too well, actually. The Psalms are very different. A modern poem might be happy or sad, jubilant or meditative; it might tell a story or reflect on a theological truth. But psalms often have all that in a single poem. There are celebrations of past deliverance, agony over being pursued by attackers or slanderers, and meditations on wisdom. Each of those might be given two lines in a six-line psalm. It can be a struggle to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It can even be hard to figure out the psalmist’s state of mind: is he facing opposition and galvanized for action? Is he paralyzed by depression and trying to talk himself out of it? It’s not always clear, and that makes the Psalms difficult. And that makes it hard, of course, to find a psalm that I feel speaks to where I am. And so, not very long ago, it seemed strange that someone would advocate “praying the psalms”—because unlike David, I’m not often being pursued by my enemies; I’ve never wronged a Hittite; and so forth.

Psalms are also challenging because of the breadth of emotion they express. When I read very optimistic psalms, I want to pull the psalmist back a bit—so he’s not disappointed if things don’t turn out well. When I read angry psalms, I’m uncomfortable for different reasons: breaking arms, breaking teeth, dashing out babies’ brains. Even allowing for some hyperbole, those are not feelings that I’m accustomed to expressing. (That’s not to say that they’re not there, they’re just not the feelings I talk about, or even admit to myself.) But the best thing about the psalms is that they are so comprehensive. Depending on the day, each of us will want to pray for deliverance, curse our enemies, celebrate God’s word, or imagine that we can see everything working out according to God’s perfect will. Now, it’s rare to find contemporary Christian music that will explore the darker side of life; you can’t put that on Christian radio or sing it in church. Some emotions are okay and some are not. So it’s sad that the psalms are not read in church much, but perhaps not surprising. The psalms give us that emotional range.

Psalms are also difficult because, as an Old Testament professor put it, they are written for us but they are not written to us. Many of the images and metaphors in the psalms are not meaningful to us. Here is the whole of Psalm 136:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

There’s nothing there that I don’t understand, but there’s also nothing there that connects to me emotionally. It really takes all of my historical knowledge and cross-cultural experience to understand the imagery: how anointing was a privilege—though it does not sound pleasant to me; how the abundance of oil would be so much more meaningful among people who were materially poorer than we are; how the entire community gains honor when its leader is honored; how Aaron represented the ideal priest, the pure form of religion, free from later corruptions; how valuable dew is in the desert, how it is a sign of life and prosperity. I have to make a huge effort even to understand the imagery, and even then, I am barely able to connect emotionally.

So, it’s been quite easy for me to list the reasons that I wasn’t connecting with the psalms. I’d now like to tell you what has changed for me.

The first thing that changed for me was that I became convicted that I had become quite disconnected emotionally from God. About three and a half years ago I was in a very dark place emotionally—I think certainly was more despondent, cynical, and frustrated than I ever have been before or since; and there were good reasons for that. At that time in my life, a poem called The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, meant a great deal to me, because it expressed much of what I was feeling. Now, Yeats was not a Christian and the poem isn’t a Christian poem. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it is striking that my thoughts and emotions connected to that poem rather than to something from the psalms, or to some other passage of Scripture. I think it’s a clear demonstration that I was not engaged with God as I worked through things; I had gone elsewhere. So—not in the midst of that experience, but as I reflected upon it months later—that was something of a wake-up call.

In the year or two following that, I read two helpful books. One was The Case for the Psalms, by N.T. Wright, in which the author basically begs the reader to take the psalms seriously. The other was A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson, which is a meditation on the Psalms of Ascent, psalms 120 through 134, which are thought to have been sung by pilgrims during pilgrimages and feasts. Both are excellent books, and I’m drawing on them with what follows.

But first let me share something that C.S. Lewis said, in his book A Preface to Paradise Lost, which speaks to the way I was reading the psalms. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language—possibly in any language—and in his preface, Lewis reflects on the nature of the epic genre. He said most students of poetry approach epic poetry as if it were lyric poetry. Lyric poetry emphasizes the expression of emotion with beautiful language. Lewis said that if you check out a copy of Paradise Lost from the library, you will find that people have underlined “the good lines” in the first few pages, but that the underlining drops off quickly because such people give up on the poem. They miss the larger effects that the author intended—the effects that require an entire epic poem to develop. They miss out on the poem because they’re not reading it in the right way. They’re approaching it with the wrong goals.

Lewis was only speaking of how students of poetry misread Paradise Lost, but I think his critique applies equally well to the way that I was reading the psalms. I was looking for the good verse, the psalm that spoke to me, the emotional high. But I think that in reading the psalms that way, I was more or less missing the point of the psalms. In fact, I was reading the psalms for exactly the wrong reason. I wanted the psalms to express my feelings. But—and this is the main point of this talk—the psalms should instead form our emotions and our interpretation of life.

In seventeen years of Christian discipleship—of course at various levels of seriousness and intensity over the years—this is the most profound thing that I’ve learned about the Christian life: you are being formed spiritually. Right now. Yesterday. The day before that. All the way back to the day you were born. You are constantly being formed. You’re being formed by your friends, by your church, by the books you read, by the movies and television you watch, by the music you listen to: everything is contributing to who you are. In fact, once you know where people are from, what denomination, what family background, what they read and listen to, and who their friends are, there are usually few surprises about how they live. There are surprises, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Our character is largely the sum of the things that influence us.

I’d be surprised if you didn’t recoil at least a little bit when I said that, so I’m going to take a moment to explain myself. There are probably two things going on in your reaction. First of all, if you’re from the West, your culture is incredibly individualistic. Western culture is largely a product of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement. That means that we value and believe in individual freedom, and the importance of an individual response to life. The classic expression of that line of thinking, familiar to all of us from grade school, is this: “You are special and unique.” Special and unique, you know, just like everybody else. And the reason we talk like that is because we’ve absorbed values from Romanticism: the idea that the only thing that counts is a unique personal or emotional reaction. American Pastor Max Lucado did not write a book entitled You Are Special because there’s a Bible verse that says, “You are special.” He wrote that book because our culture has created in us an emotional need to feel special, and he’s responding to a need that our culture has created in us. I’m not prepared to say that’s a wrong thing to do, but I think that we should at least be aware of where the need comes from: from our culture, not from the Bible. So when I say, “Look, there’s this book of Bronze Age poetry is really important and should be forming your soul, whether or not it means anything to you right now,” Western culture does not really prepare you to receive that message.

Second of all, if you’re an evangelical Christian, you probably favor stories of sudden, dramatic conversions. I will leave it to you to reflect upon how our expectations from Romanticism inform our expectations about our relationship to God. But I had a dramatic conversion experience, and I know it’s real. But we can take the wrong lesson from those experiences, and start to think that progress in the Christian life comes when we finally believe hard enough, or are finally dedicated enough, or finally having a sudden flash of insight. Important as sudden changes can be—and they are real, in my experience and in the experience of many others—our spiritual and moral formation is typically an extremely gradual process. That is the overwhelming experience of Christians throughout history, even those with dramatic conversion experiences. Christian spiritual formation is the product of thousands of decisions, turning toward God or away from God, doing things that sensitize you to sin or deaden your perception of it. But again, certainly for Westerners, the message that you should read and meditate on the Psalms, not as a one-off, but as a life-long discipline, is a bit odd. Rich Mullins had something to say about this. He says:

It used to be I only got born again every year, about once a year. That was when I was going to camp; you know, you go every year and get born again again. Those of you who are young enough to go to camp and rededicate your life every year, keep doing it. Because by the time you get to college you’re gonna have to re-dedicate your life about every six months. Then you’ll graduate from college and it will become a quarterly thing. By the time you’re in your 40’s and 50’s you’ll do it about four times a day.

I think that sums it up nicely. Many of us, growing up, rededicated our lives to Christ on the last night of camp on an annual basis. Long before the end of high school, that started feeling a bit artificial, at least to me. But the problem was not that it had to be redone every year, but that it was only being done once a year. We need to repent—that is, to turn back to God—continually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, even just this Summer, we have heard several people give messages about the importance of the slow and steady—and repetitive and unexciting!—work of spiritual formation. That’s where real Christian discipleship happens.

Let me bring this back to the psalms. By now I think the reasons for my earlier disappointment with the psalms should be clear. I had all these wise and holy people talking about how much the psalms meant to them, but they did nothing for me. That wasn’t a coincidence. It’s because I was immature in my faith—as I still am, relatively. But here’s the shift in mindset: now I don’t read the psalms because they mean something to me. I read the psalms because they should mean something to me. I read them because I need to be formed by them. The language, and emotion, and thought of the psalms need to get into me, and start changing how I speak, feel, and think.

That means that sometimes I read psalms out of a sense of duty, with no emotional or spiritual response. That will set off all sorts of alarms in your head, partly because you come from a culture informed by Romanticism, and partly because of an ill-defined bogeyman in evangelical Christianity called “legalism.” But it’s absolutely necessary for me to stick to it. I don’t want my emotions in the driver’s seat; I am trying to train my emotions to give an appropriate response. The idea that we can train our tastes and desires is not strongly emphasized in American culture. I first encountered the idea in an ethnography of Japanese culture, but it’s also in the ancient Greeks. Let me try to give an analogy. Who’s ever been rock climbing? I bet I can sum up your first experience of rock climbing with two words: terror and humiliation. We’re terrified at first because we’re not used to trusting our weight to a thin rope. We’re humiliated because we’re using an entirely different new set of muscles, and making all sorts of idiotic mistakes. Our forearms turn to jelly, and people are shouting incomprehensible things to us from below. The first difficult climb is not a pleasant experience. But if we can soldier through those difficulties to learn to enjoy that sport, I think we can train ourselves to appreciate the psalms as well. The emotional response and the spiritual formation are not the same thing, but they are not independent. In rock climbing, our emotional enjoyment of the sport is clearly different from the process of developing muscle and stamina, and learning climbing techniques. But the two go hand in hand, and reinforce one another. So it is with the Psalms.

I’m now going to talk a bit about how our commitment to a text informs the way that we read it. To do that, I want to read another psalm, Psalm 95.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Now be honest, how many of you were surprised by the way that end? I hope it was a little surprising at least. I hope that you’re not so accustomed to not understanding the Bible that you didn’t notice the shift in tone. We start off with a statement of corporate piety, and a celebration of the Lord as a Creator, and of Israel as his special possession. And then there’s a sharp pivot, and we’re reminded that that first generation that came out Egypt rebelled and were rejected by God, and, as the author of Hebrews says, “their bodies fell in the desert.” It’s a strong and sudden contrast. What do we make of it?

One option is to give up. Both pragmatics and discourse admit that, for some messages, the listener has to conclude that the text doesn’t hold together, or make any sense. So that’s one option: maybe it’s just two unrelated halves. But if I’m coming to the text from a place of commitment—that is, if I believe that God has taken care, throughout history, to ensure that Psalm 95 has come to me in this form—then I have to be willing to live with the psalm. And, more than that: if I take God’s message seriously, it’s probably better that I live with my questions, rather than try to answer them and be done with it.

I do have some tentative ideas. I think Psalm 95 is a very jarring presentation of a very jarring reality: both that we are God’s chosen people, protected by a mighty God, and that we have it in our power to reject God and be rejected by him, just as our forefathers did. Humans are, as Milton said, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” God did create a special people for Himself, but the People of God throughout history have continually drawn the wrong lesson from that. Membership in the People of God—the Body of Christ—is, I believe, more a position of responsibility than a position of privilege. Now that’s my current interpretation, but I hope that, beyond whatever I happen to think right now about Psalm 95, the psalm is getting into my heart and rearranging my thoughts and emotional responses, filling me with both awe and caution. And poetry is well suited to the task. In poetry, the reader or listener is invited—to a greater extent, say, than in a story—to think about the meaning, and take responsibility for interpreting it and absorbing it. Perhaps for that reason, poetry often sinks in deeper than more direct communication. It’s no coincidence that three-fourths of the Hebrew Bible is in verse.

I’m now going to talk about how the Psalms can form our understanding of prayer in general. I’ll go about it in a slightly unusual way. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It’s a collection of German fairy tales, published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century. When you read the tales, you begin to get a sense of the world of German folk literature. There are kings, princes, and princesses; there are millers, wood cutters, and servants. There are fairies, magic beans, and magic animals. And there are certain kinds of events: certain kinds of cruelty, certain acts of kindness, certain means of resolving problems. It gets to the point where, long before the end of the book, you’ve got a pretty firm idea of how things work in that world—what stories are possible, as it were. They’re all stitched together using the same basic elements. It’s kind of like going down a list of sentences in a grammar exercise: you eventually come to understand the combinatorial possibilities, and you learn the grammar of the language. And, working from that metaphor, there have been studies of narrative grammar.

Now I’m concerned about sending the wrong message if I compare the Bible with a book of fairy tales. … But I think you can see the point. The Psalms—as a large collection of the prayers of the people of God—constitute a sort of language of prayer, a theory of everything that can be prayed about. We can internalize the grammar of the psalms in the same way that we internalize the grammar of a foreign language, though exposure and reflection. The metaphor works pretty well. At the outset, we’re confronted by a wall of noise: unfamiliar poetic structures, strange metaphors, foreign concepts. But through exposure, the psalms begin to mold our outlook on life; they begin to inform our understanding of our relationship to God, and to the people of God. They place us where we belong, in the story of Israel. They present what should be the fundamental categories of our life: worship, loyalty to God, the pursuit of wisdom, the need for forgiveness, and so forth.

I wouldn’t want to push this too far, because we have other prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or Jesus’s prayer at the Last Supper, which are not just rearrangements of verses of the psalms. But the breadth of the psalms provides a very rich grammar. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to pray as fluently as we can speak our mother tongue? Wouldn’t it be nice to be saturated by Scripture in that way—not just from memorization, but because the words have had their proper effect on our hearts? I’m not there, not by a long shot. But I can tell you who is. The strongest recommendation I can give for the psalms comes from the writers of the New Testament. No other book is quoted in the New Testament as much as the psalms. No fewer than forty-three psalms are quote directly in the New Testament—some of course by Jesus Himself. And just about every other psalm is alluded to, though without a direct quotation. Some of those are quoted with a purpose, like the messianic psalms (2, 8, and 110). But elsewhere it’s clear that the psalms were so much a part of their lives that the quotations came out naturally. We have the prayer book of Jesus and the apostles. We have the opportunity to pray along with them.

I start writing this talk a few months ago. When I returned to it recently, the last thing I’d written was, “Now I’m going to share a few things that I have learned from the psalms.” And try as I might, I could not recall what things I was thinking about when I wrote that, or if I even had anything in mind at all. It’s quite possible that I wrote it just because that’s the kind of thing you say in a chapel talk. But isn’t the phrasing interesting? It’s a very linguistic approach. “I have read the psalms. I learned these things. And now I will tell them to you so that you can know them too.” All of a sudden we’re back in the realm of transferring knowledge. And that’s really a very small part of Christian discipleship. All of the knowledge about the Psalms—and imagine how much there is to know, and how little you and I know—is insignificant compared to the value of a heart that is being transformed by the Psalms. It won’t come naturally at first; that’s the point. But the Lord has provided the Psalms as part of our journey of spiritual formation. They were part of His life; they were part of the apostles’ lives; they should be a part of our lives as well.

Speculation Grows About Unspoken Prayer Request

WINONA LAKE, IN — Speculation regarding the nature of Michael Armstrong’s unspoken prayer request, which has made repeatedly over the several months, is reaching fever pitch, sources within his small group say.

“At first, I figured it was pornography,” says Sarah Hawkins, 26, a fellow group member. “Now, I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s dealing with same-sex attraction.”

Armstrong, 28, by nature a modest and reserved man, works in the financial services sector. He says he enjoys the fellowship and prayer support that his small group provides. Yet in spite of his endorsements of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘authenticity’, he has less than forthcoming with information about this unspoken request. This has led some members to suspect more nefarious goings on.

“Mike doesn’t give much away,” says Cassandra Davis, 29. “He’s very careful about what he divulges.” An important moment for Davis is when Armstrong is reported to have said, “It’s a situation that the Lord needs to speak into”—a statement she says was clearly designed to avoid admitting culpability. “That’s when it hit me: he’s got to be involved in some kind of embezzling at work.”

Group member John Fredrickson, 34, also suspects criminal wrongdoing. “Mike went to school out of state, and then he did an internship he never really talks about,” says Fredrickson. “I figure he must have gotten involved with the mafia in those years. Maybe not as an enforcer, but I could definitely see him as a mule. Maybe money laundering.”

According to people present at the meeting, discussion stopped immediately when the sound of a flushing toilet announced Armstrong’s imminent return to the room.

“Hey guys, what are we reading for next week?” he is reported to have said.

Sources confirmed that Armstrong’s sister and brother-in-law will be initiating divorce proceedings early next month.

Controversy as the meaning of shalom expands to the breaking point

Geneva, Switzerland — The World Council of Churches announced today that an increasing range of meanings has pushed the word shalom (שׁלום) “to the breaking point.” The announcement follows the recommendation of a study group to include “access to a smart phone or equivalent tablet device” to the accepted legal definition of shalom.

The scope of the Hebrew word has been increased several times in recent years. In 2002 the WCC described shalom as, “a place in which there is free wireless internet for all, most especially for the marginalized, e.g., people in airports with long layovers.” A 2006 publication added that “shalom an only be found in a carbon-neutral economy.”

Scholars have long accepted that shalom means not just peace, but also the social conditions that lead to peace; at the individual, family, clan, tribal, ethnic, national, and international levels; especially with regard to the just distribution of natural resources and social services; the provisions for equal participation in society irrespective of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, marital status, political affiliation, handedness, hair color, eye color, skin color, parenting style, level of education, or personality type.

Notable 20th-century expansions include the wholesale incorporation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights into the concept shalom of in 1948, and the 1969 expansion to include the satisfaction watching the one’s parents play with their grandchildren, the flavor of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and the good feeling one gets from using a Q-Tip™.

Theologians are saying that the present controversy is the greatest challenge for shalom since 1988, when a working group proposed a definition of shalom that included the ability to define the word shalom once and for all. The proposal created an infinite feedback loop, and the committee has not yet been able to report back to the main assembly.

Practical difficulties over of the scope of the Semitic noun have been apparent since at least the first century of the Common Era, when Jesus of Nazareth greeted his follows with, “Peace be with you” (Grk. Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν; prp Heb. שׁלום עליךָ), leaving an awkward silence as His followers considered the full implications of His greeting.

WCC General Secretary Olav Tveit compared the present crisis to the definition of shalom created as a condition in the 1979 Camp David Accords, which defined shalom simultaneously as the existence of a sovereign Palestinian state covering the whole of Israeli territory, and the existence of an Israeli state covering the whole of Palestinian territory.

“We can’t just update the definition whenever we all get a new device,” said Tveit. “That does not make for shalom.” Some observers link these comments to the retrospectively embarrassing periods in the 1970s and 1980s, when access to respectively an 8-track and a pager were considered to be necessary preconditions for shalom.

The representative of the Unitarian delegation demanded acceptance of the newly proposed expansion, accusing Tveit of saying, “shalom, shalom where there is no shalom.”

In a show of unity, the Council defeated a proposal to amend the definition of shalom to include a reference to the Almighty (344–1; 2 abstaining).

Reductio ad vim: a fallacy for our time

I’ve just finished reading an article with such poor, tendentious reasoning that it made my blood boil. No exaggeration: my muscles are twitching involuntarily. I assume that age or death will give me greater patience with fools, but until then, I have this blog.

Obviously I’m not going to say what the article was about. It was about a contemporary moral issue; you certainly have an opinion about it. That’s not important right now.

So the guy analyzes three passages from the Bible, and sets aside one after another with an argument with this structure.

The Bible says X. But X is actually addressing Y. Y is not necessarily present in the present-day situation. Therefore the Bible’s saying X is irrelevant today.

The three arguments were all slightly different—the prevalence uncited historical claims and miscellaneous bold assertions about authorial intention varied—but the most interesting one had “power” in the Y-slot:

The Bible says X. But X is actually addressing a power relationship. A power relationship is not necessarily part of X nowadays. Therefore the Bible’s saying X is irrelevant today.

When I watch a superhero movie, I’m waiting for the superhero to save the girl from the bad guy at the end of a movie. When I read a 20th or 21st postmodern argument, I’m waiting for the claim to be made: “it’s really all about power.”

Morality? It’s really just about the majority imposing their values on the minority.

Law? It’s just a way that the powerful systematically oppressing the less-powerful.

Politics? That’s really all about power. (Okay, that one’s not far off.)

The amount of work performed per unit time? Silence. (Postmodernists have learned to tread lightly in the physical sciences.)

And I won’t even tell you how many times, as a linguist, I have heard morphemes and lexemes accused of nefarious power plays.

In the context of a discussion about morality, the idea is to set aside a moral teaching by saying, “What the Bible was talking about here was power. If there’s now power problem, there’s no moral problem.” It’s as if the moral issue is freeze-dried so that it can be tossed away more conveniently.

Surely this fallacy deserves a special name. I propose “reduction ad vim”—reduction to power. It can be applied in general to the case where an issue of phenomenon is described as a power play in order be dismissed. The long form of the fallacy is to describe how power is no longer relevant to the present-day situation.

Expressing myself in writing has helped my blood to stop boiling. A little satire will put me in a good mood. So here, for your enjoyment and use, are some arguments to justify your less savory desires.

Invoking power specifically

Greed!

Jesus said, “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But he was working within a peasant’s limited-good framework in which one person’s taking meant another person’s losing. He was really criticizing income inequality. Now we know that it’s possible to create wealth. Acquire away!

Ignore your neighbor!

The good Samaritan is often invoked to suggest that we have to love everybody. But in historical context, the Samaritans were only despised because they prospered by collaborating with the Assyrian invaders. (I’m not sure whether this is true, but it sounds plausible.) We really only have to love the rich and powerful. Screw the meek!

Power!

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Yes, but apparently first century power dynamics were such that false humility was a great way to get ahead (cf. His advice for social climbing in Lk 14:7-11). And after all, Jesus is endorsing the goal of being first! In the 21st century, the way to be first is to be first.

Murder!

The fifth commandment prohibits murder. But really, the text—maybe even the original Hebrew word—assumes that murder is a non-consensual act, indeed, an exercise of power. It’s not the act itself but the presupposition that there is an abuse of power. But these things can be consensual…

More generally

Murder! (again)

The fifth commandment prohibits murder? But the fifth commandment was written before there was hope of resurrection, so it was really a prohibition on destroying a soul eternally. Now that we have the hope of the Resurrection, so we’re free to murder!

Child sacrifice!

Leviticus 20:2-5 prohibits child sacrifice. But, as is well-known, child sacrifice was prominently associated with the worship of Molech. Today there is no danger of Molech-worship being revived, so sacrifice your firstborn at your pleasure!


Latin disclaimer: I’m making an educated guess that “reductio ad vim” means “reduction to power”—because (1) I know that “ad” takes an accusative object, (2) Google tells me that the accusative of “vis” is “vim”, and (3) other “reduction ad” fallacies also end in “m”. Guerilla linguistics.

The moral implications of individualism and collectivism

The moral implications of the question of individualism verses collectivism have been a splinter in my mind since I first studied the issues around ten years ago. Some cultures—like Western cultures, especially American culture—view the individual as an autonomous unit, responsible for all of his/her own decisions. Other cultures emphasize broader social units: decisions are made by groups (or by leaders within groups), and people identify not primarily a free agents but as members of a familial or social group. (More here.)

The books I’ve read about this, from the likes of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede, have emphasized that both individualism and collectivism create social problems. Individualism’s focus on the individual creates problems like pathological self-centeredness and high divorce rates—in short, a personal ethic that extends no further than individual desire, and a social ethic than recognizes nothing more than mutual consent (even if this produces inconsistent judgments in some cases). Collectivism’s tendency toward in-group/out-group dichotomies promotes things like discrimination and genocide.

From the perspective of cultural relativism, there’s nothing more to say. Cultural relativism doesn’t allow cultures to be compared along a moral dimension, since morality too is relative in that framework. I, however, believe in morality—even absolute morality—and so am faced with a quandary. Do cultures really just choose between divorce and genocide? Should we split the difference, as India and Spain seem to do? At what point is it illegitimate for a society to intrude on the actions of the individual? At what point should individual desires be subordinated to the group life?

I myself stand out as an individualistic person in the most individualistic society in the world. I was chided in high school for my lack of school spirit. I don’t have any branded clothing except what I may have picked up at a thrift store. I’m not patriotic (though I am proud of some aspects of American culture). In my bones, I just don’t care about group identity. On the other hand, the perils of individualism are plain for me to see: the aforementioned divorce (along with a general lack of loyalty to family), lack of interest in civic life, selfishness, and so forth. So I’m an individualist with strong reservations about individualism. My experience in a more collectivist society has shown me both some strong points and weak points of collectivism: the tendency on the one hand for the individual to be steamrolled by (in this case) the family, but on the other hand the strong family ties that exist, and the individual’s commitment to the welfare of people beyond his immediate family.

All of this a prelude to a distinction that occurred to me this morning as potentially helpful. By way of introduction, here are four decisions that, as an individualistic American, I would expect to make for myself.

  1. Who to marry
  2. Whether or not to kill someone
  3. What I do for a living
  4. What religion I practice, if any

As an American, the very idea that someone would make these decisions for me produces a wave of revulsion. Am I not free? Can’t I make my own decisions? I have rights! The full emotional and intellectual response, etc.

Where I live, most people would generally not make these decisions on their own, but to follow the decision of the head of household, or the broader family (#2 in special circumstances only, of course, like an honor killing). As an American, I bristle at that. And yet, I see that arranged marriages don’t produce notably unhappier marriages, and that most people would never think of choosing their own profession. (In fact, I’ve basically come around on the idea of arranged marriages.) The problem is that I’m certain that my reaction mixes some legitimate moral concern and some American culture—how to distinguish these?

Here’s the distinction I’ve realized. Decisions #1 and #3 are matters of preference; decisions #2 and #4 are matters of conscience. I’m slowly arriving at the conclusion that cultures can “legitimately” delegate matters of preference to units larger than the individual. On the other hand, matters of conscience need to remain in the hands of the individual. When the group makes a decision in a matter of conscience, I may bristle as an individualistic American, but that’ just a cultural difference. When the group makes a decision for an individual in a matter of conscience, then the culture has perverted the moral order. (As all cultures do, one way or another: Tim Keller said once that all cultures take good things and turn them into ultimate goods. I think that is a very elegant way of describing things.)

To take this a bit further, even an American can recognize that #1 and #3 are not only up to the individual. Maybe I love Jane, but Mary is the only one willing to marry me. Maybe I want to be a doctor, but I can’t get into medical school. These are cases were my preferences may be strong, but not determinative. If I can’t marry the person I want, or if I can’t get the job I want, then that’s disappointing, but I haven’t been forced to violate my conscience. But if I don’t want to kill someone and society requires me to, or if I want to change my religion and society will not allow me to, then I am forced to violate conscience. (C.S. Lewis helped me to realize that the former is why I am a pacifist.)

This doesn’t solve the problem for me, but I feel like there is a seed of a solution here. I feel like I have at least some intellectual traction in parsing out my emotional/moral/spiritual responses to various cultures.

Losing Faith

In graduate school I once attended a one-man show, put on by an Australian who was visiting a friend of mine. We had chatted a bit before the show, and it turned out that he and I were about the same age. As I watched him cavorting around the stage—in a way entirely appropriate to the performing arts, but still, he was a grown man—I had a very clear sense: that could never be me. Odd as it seems to me now, I had never really considered that certain paths of life were effectively off-limits to me.

This essay is prompted by reflections about the nature of the Christian faith, and about how that faith is alternately gained or lost. Any change in a person’s ultimate beliefs about reality is quite a remarkable thing; it’s perhaps for that reason that changes in religion are relatively infrequent among adults. I’ve known three or four people to leave the Christian faith, who were Christians as adults. When I think about those people, part of me has a similar feeling as with the guy on the stage—that could never be me. But another part of me says: that could certainly be me. And (more provocatively) that is like the thought you get when standing on a cliff or the edge of a tall building: I could jump off. The immediacy of the possibility is somehow gripping.

The Christian faith is unique among the world’s religions, I believe, in that it is founded on a single historical fact: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19; ESV)

The whole edifice is built on a single event, one Sunday morning, not quite two thousand years ago. Here I contrast historical fact with (say) a set of propositions or a logical proof. I cannot believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in the Pythagorean Theorem. I have to believe that Christ rose from the dead in the same way that I believe in my wife’s faithfulness—as a contingent fact, one which can never be known with absolute certainty, but which is established on the basis of relationship—and indeed a relationship that would be destroyed ipso facto if I demanded the rigorous sorts of evidence that I would demand in mathematical demonstration.

The other major faiths are founded on religious texts. The Qur’an is its own witness; the Tanach simply is. The Bible is probably unique among religious texts in identifying a single particular fact which, if falsified, would bring the whole thing down. (Paul is not doubting the Resurrection in the text above, but is instead highlighting its importance for the Corinthians: as if to say, if there were no gravity we would fly off into space, toward certain death in the absence of the sun’s warmth.)

Historical facts are flimsy in at least a few ways. There is in the first place the logical possibility that the disciples overpowered the guards and stole the body—or that some or all of the gospel accounts were simply fabricated. (There’s no external corroboration for or against the miraculous claims, so one’s view on those matters will be a recapitulation of what one has decided a priori to be possible.) The five hundred people who Paul cites as witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6) have now all fallen asleep, so I am denied immediate access to the eye witnesses—not that, if I were inclined to doubt, that would not beget ever more elaborate objections about the nature of eyewitness evidence.

Historical facts are also flimsy in that one’s acceptance a given fact is strongly dependent (as noted above) upon one’s worldview, and consequently upon the company that one keeps. Example: In the middle of our city there is a religious shrine frequented by white pigeons. All of the pigeons near the shrine are white; elsewhere in the city the pigeons are the usual greyish color. The local story is that a bird that spends forty days at the shrine turns white. I don’t believe this for a second. Of course I have no explanation for why the white birds are concentrated in that very part of the city, but it’s certainly not evidence some supernatural bird-whitening force. It’s simply not possible in my worldview.

And the company one keeps. The go-to example here is the Flat Earth Society, but any survey of the public will reveal that large numbers of people hold nonsensical beliefs, and are reinforced in these beliefs by their respective communities. One is struck by the very flexibility of belief. This is amply demonstrated in any of the instances of paradigm shift provided by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Just before the paradigm shift, the entire scientific community is a reactionary anti-empirical mob. After the paradigm shift, they are once again aligned to reality. Of course, there is no guarantee that the paradigm shift occurs.

One cannot help but see the applicability of these facts to one’s own situation. My beliefs are undoubtedly communally conditioned—and I say that as a person who stands out as individualistic in the most individualistic society on earth. Our globe apportions the faith of its citizens in groups of billions: to believe anything or nothing is to believe that an awful lot of people have deceived themselves rather thoroughly.

Two things follow on from these reflections. The first is an idea from Joseph Ratzinger’s excellent non-introductory book, Introduction to Christianity. He observes that the fact that the person who embraces faith and the person who rejects faith can never be entirely certain. That lack of certainty is perhaps the strongest point of contact between a believer and a non-believer.

The second thing is to consider the role that the community of faith plays in the maintenance of faith. I believe it is uncontroversial to say that loss of faith is generally preceded by a disconnection from the faith community. I am aware of exceptions, but I believe that on the whole the pattern holds. Among adults I have known who have turned away from the Christian faith as adults—as I mentioned, three or four people—I believe that a separation from Christian community preceded the loss of faith.

This ineluctably leads to the suggestion: “Aha! There is no such thing as faith in Christ: it is simply a large group of people playing make-believe, and as soon as they’re apart, the game ends.” I don’t wish to be dismissive of such an argument because (as noted above) that is more or less my own analysis of the billions of people in the world who see things differently from me. But to acknowledge the communal dimension of Christian faith has no bearing on the truth of Christian beliefs. That would be as illogical as scattering a brazier of coals and concluding from the coals’ subsequent cooling that there is no such thing as fire, or scattering a sports team and conclude therefrom that there is no such thing as football.

I confess freely that I make every intellectual effort to conform my heart mind to the Christian faith. Repeated prayers, reading of Scripture, a consistent semi-liturgical structure: aside from offering meet worship to the Creator, a substantial portion of that time is devoted to transforming my own mind. And one cannot devote such energies to forming one’s character without at least thinking, “I sure hope I’ve got this right.”

As an exegete-in-training I must point out that the Bible has no idea of individual Christians. The community is the locus of salvation, which is why the unity of the community is so important in, e.g., the letters of Paul. A great deal of theological shoehorning is required to make an inherently communitarian faith relevant to the individualistic West. So, to update my earlier sentence, one cannot live in community with others without thinking, “I sure hope we’ve got this right.” (Actually, I run with a pretty fringe crowd, and we live in sort of an extreme context—if we’ve got it wrong, we’ve got it really wrong—so I have thoughts like that a lot.)

When I was younger I was much enamored of worldview analysis, tracing broad historical movements using intellectual commitments as a guide. So for example, Augustus accepts ascriptions of divinity, and within a few generations Nero has made his horse a senator. Eugenics aims to improve the bloodstock of the human race, and within a few generations we have the racial policies of the Third Reich. The hidden implications of ideas work out historically. While there’s a liability to blunt analysis and over-interpretation, on the whole I think there’s a lot to it.

More recently I have become more interested in the way that decisions are reinforced and amplified over time, the way that habits form character for good or for evil. Why can’t I run a marathon today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions not to train for a marathon—or rather the lack of any conscious decision to that effect. Why can I read the New Testament in Greek today? Not because of any one decision, but because of thousands of decisions to spend about 20 minutes a day on it, for about five years. Why can’t I love my enemy today? Why doesn’t material wealth have as much of a draw as it once did? Why I am a tea person and no longer a coffee person? Why I am married to the woman I am married to? Why do my children exist? I am constantly walking through a multi-dimensional universe of watershed moments. Sometimes an early decision has permanent effects; sometimes they have to be reinforced constantly. Recognizing this is probably the most important intellectual development in the last fifteen years of my life. Fifteen years ago I had the Romantic (or, perhaps just the young man’s) infatuation with spontaneity, freedom, and individual choice. I have now torn down the poster that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” In its place I have, “Today is the day you’ve been training for your entire life.”

I think the decision to remain in community is one of those decisions. A decision to be in Christian community is a decision to amplify the Christian resonances, and dampen non-Christian resonances. By the same token, choosing to engage in a non-Christian community is a decision to dampen the Christian resonances, and to embrace whatever else is there. It is surprising that this is true, given that even the best Christian community is not very Christ-like; but there you go.

Ten Questions

Today I took a half-day for prayer, reflection, and Bible study, reflecting on how my life is going and how things should change. Along with many more personal reflections I developed a list of questions, which are below. I welcome anyone’s input. (Your answer to #1 might be more of a guess, unless you’ve known me in years past. After #1 they got a little more general.)

  1. Have I always needed nine hours of sleep? Or is that new? It’s not hard to believe that I was previously chronically sleep-deprived.
  2. How does one balance the need for personal time with the need to spend time with the spouse and children?
  3. How can learners be made (to speak frankly) to accept responsibility for their language learning?
  4. How can I embrace a vocation of suffering when—so far—increased stress levels have harmed family life? How do I protect my family without that being an open-ended license for laziness and self-indulgence?
  5. How can I satisfy my intellectual (and moral? and spiritual?) need to articulate the rottenness of a given situation, without discouraging others and prompting despondence in myself?
  6. How do I hold forth a positive vision for language learning without snuffing out smoldering reeds and/or ignoring the more significant pastoral issues involved?
  7. How do organizations work? How can there ever be congruence between the kind of person the leader is and the kind of person the people need for a leader?
  8. How does a person in a position of strength relate genuinely without overpowering a person in a position of weakness?
  9. What kind of leadership profits strong-minded and self-motivated people?
  10. How should a strong-minded person relate to an organization? With no loyalty, cooperating incidentally on shared aims as a matter of convenience? Or with an intensity of commitment to molding the organization that will (almost inevitably) beget conflict? Or is there a middle ground?

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve just finished reading Lila (2014), Marilynne Robinson’s second novel following the story she originated in Gilead (2004), in which the elderly pastor John Ames writes letters to his young son, reflecting upon his life. Lila tells the story of Ames’s young wife, Lila. Gilead was a wonderful book, with thematic and emotional complexity, and a strong sense of historical depth. Home (2008), which narrated the same events of Gilead from the perspective of the pastor-friend’s wayward son, Jack Boughton. I thought Home was a much weaker offering: perhaps an accurate depiction of what it is to be an alcoholic, but without much more depth to it—I could have been in an off mood when I was reading it, but it didn’t compare at all with Gilead. By contrast, Lila was far more compelling. The historical element is back, and there’s a greater range of emotional interrelationship between the main character and the people in her life. Lila is variously abandoned, kidnapped, neglected, and pimped: the story is largely one of her coming to grips with what she’s gone through, and coming to terms with the complex relationships she has with the people of her childhood.

By the end of the book—no real spoilers here—Lila comes to some sort of fragile emotional resting place following the birth of her son, and articulates a sort of wishy-washy universalism, expecting to see everyone from her past life in Heaven. It’s an emotional breakthrough, and represents a sort of reconciliation between Lila and those who had either helped or abused her.

I am not a universalist, so I had a bit of a reaction to that. Now, I know that Lila is not Robinson, and that the book is not a straightforward theological treatise. Still, the emotional weight of the book falls on this sort of universalist claim. It’s also played off against the beliefs of the more conservative Calvinist pastors in the book. Wikipedia says that Robinson was raised Presbyterian and is now a Congregationalist—which is prima facie evidence that the development of Robinson’s own thought follows the sequence followed in these books.

What is irksome to me is that the universalism is presented as diagnostic of Lila’s person reconciliation to the various figures in her life: her kidnapper/surrogate-mother, her depraved biological family, and her favorite john from when she was kept in wage slavery as a prostitute. She’s over it—sort of—so there’s no reason that everybody shouldn’t be in Heaven together, and at Lila’s own request.

The emotional flourish disguises the theological claim: that really, sin is not a problem. People may get hurt, but as long as there is personal reconciliation, we’ll all be just fine. Did your surrogate-mother kill your father? That’s hard, but once you’ve processed it, we can all move on. God can wink at it; He’s beyond our petty concerns. Mostly He’s just glad you feel better about it.

Let’s not lose sight of the implications here: injustice has no consequence. Racial prejudice? Can be overlooked. War? Not necessarily a problem. Child abuse? Some sort of misunderstanding, surely. Environmental degradation? It can be cleaned up. Systematic abuse of prisoners of war? Come now, show a little generosity of spirit! Genocide? Just one of those things. Human trafficking? Not God’s concern, apparently. Did you do all of those things and not even repent of them? That’s not part of the picture.

How petty of reactionary conservatives like me to be bothered about such things.

This is really quite a radical way to deny the gospel: to deny that there is any need for the gospel. It destroyed the individual’s relationship with himself, with others, with creation, and with God. “Cursed is the ground because of you” — the effect of sin changed the whole way that the created order functioned. There’s no cheap grace: sin has consequences. Sin and death together were dealt with only the death of Jesus Christ.

(Incidentally, Robinson’s apparent view is familiar to me from one of our fellow monotheistic religions.  If your religion consists of a confession of faith and general sense that God is willing to forgive sins, you get some interesting results. I have said to people, “So these people just throw acid in little girls’ faces, say the creed, and are welcomed into Heaven? I don’t think I actually want to go to that Heaven.” How far from the conception of the God who joined Himself to humanity to the point of suffering and death, because He took sin that seriously.)

The forgiveness and reconciliation that is possible between humans as a consequence of Christ’s work—and which is absolutely necessary for salvation—should never be taken as an indication that that work was never necessary in the first place. To compare the large with the small: one doesn’t look at an African American president in 2016 and say, “See, there was no need for a Civil Rights Movement after all.”

It’s almost as if the entire question of salvation is reduced to some sort of playground controversy. The nasty Christians won’t admit you’re saved unless you become one of them. If only they would show a little generosity of spirit, we could all play nicely and go to Heaven together. No, sin is a somewhat bigger problem than what Adam Baker happens to think about it.

I’ll take my lessons in universalism from George MacDonald, perhaps as expressed by the titular character in Robert Falconer, who functions straightforwardly as MacDonald’s mouthpiece. There are beautiful and moving passages expressing desire for the salvation of all. At the same time, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce, MacDonald didn’t really take into account the power of sin to destroy human lives, human minds, human souls. My sincere and heartfelt desire for the salvation of all—which, by the by, is infinitely weaker than the Lord’s—is not the cure for sin. I should as soon expect to cure cancer with well wishes.

And that is only from an individualistic perspective. The twentieth century alone provides too many examples—the Holocaust? apartheid, Stalin’s famines,… It strains all my understanding and requires all of my faith to believe that these injustices can be forgiven at all. But that is possible only through the Cross of Christ, and not through any (other) human agency.

Praise God for His mercy; may we never forget our need of it.

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