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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Exploring the cultural influence of the "Enlightenment" on the Western Church

The importance of journey.....
I hope you are on a journey. I hope that like Abraham of old you are today not where you were yesterday, and tomorrow will not be where you are today. I hope that in all spiritual virtues from love to faith, you can see advance and progress. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Disciple means 'learner' and learner means, if nothing else, I have not arrived, I am on a journey of discovery with God.

Journeying requires honest heart searching
Part of every journey involves asking ourselves where we have been shaped by the thinking of the world more than the teaching of Scripture. Ask a fish to describe water and he'll say "Water, what's water?" He can't see the stuff since he is immersed in it moment by moment. So too with the world we are born into - unless Amish-like we literally have no / minimal contact with the world. Everyone who reads a newspaper, watches TV, Googles, uses apps or works in the world, is influenced by the world. This involvement with the world is right, for we are called to be in the world, though not of it.

What we often fail to realise is how profoundly the world has shaped our thinking. Like the fish we may not even be aware of it; "Worldly thinking? What worldly thinking?" And this blindness may work not only at the level of individual falsities such as a view of sexuality, it may operate at a far deeper level of philosophy. We may in point of fact be shaped more by the philosophy of the world than by Scripture, and be completely unaware of it. Scripture calls us away from the counsel of the ungodly and to a radical renewal of our minds (Psalm 1, Romans 12). 

My own journey
Having come from a scientific background I can see more and more how "The Enlightenment" (which I prefer to call The Narrowing) has so affected western Christian thinking  - and especially middle class western Christian thinking. And part of my own journey has been asking the question: "To what degree has your theology been shaped by the enlightenment more than the Bible?" The Narrowing, in a nutshell, placed all the emphasis on human reasoning and the mind. The mind is all that matters and reason and logic is the only way to truth. I call it The Narrowing, because that is exactly what it has done to life: narrowed what is important down to logic and reason.

Another way of putting the issue is this: our culture's philosophy acts as a filter on the mind. This filter determines what can be seen and what cannot be seen, what can be discussed and what cannot be discussed, what is real and what is not real. So how has the western church (as I say, in particular the middle-class educated western church) been affected by The Narrowing? These five are explorations....

(1) Training. When we think of training someone for full-time service, we immediately think "Bible College". Why? Because they need to know stuff - and knowing stuff is the most important thing of all. See? If, on the other hand we value faith and courage and love as more important things, we would train them as Jesus did, on the job - with teaching thrown in as well.

(2) Preaching. We elevate the preaching gift to the MOST IMPORTANT GIFT because through it we are learning things. See? Preaching is vital and no church that sidelines it will flourish, but what about other gifts in the church? And what about the importance of Christ-like character as believers learning to love one another  are thrown together in a small group in a home setting?

(3) Bible Study groups. Many folk think that should small groups exist they should be heavy Bible studies, because then we are learning stuff. See? But what about carrying one another's burdens and fulfilling the law of Christ?

(4) The role of emotions. "Reason should guide us irrespective of our feelings" was the childish call of the enlightenment. Childish because it is both impossible (no scientist has ever entered a lab objectively without his feelings affecting every single part of his work) and undesirable (can you imagine paying attention only to the digital 1s and 0s streaming from a Samuel Barber CD and ignoring the way his Adagio for Strings moves your soul?) Unlike the Son of Man, who was so often moved deeply with compassion, we children of the enlightenment are plain scared of our emotions.

(5) The work of God's Spirit. Perhaps worst of all, an emphasis on the rational could filter out the work of God's Spirit, the Spirit whose movements and work is not subject to our reason or control or logic, for, like the wind, he blows wherever he pleases. He doesn't work in tidy human categories or according to well laid human plans. Perhaps that is why the people who react most against any possible work of God's Spirit always come from the rational end of the church spectrum.

I don't know where this particular part of my journey will end....all I know is that I mustn't let the world squeeze me into its mold but instead I must be transformed by the renewing of my mind - or else I shan't be able to test and approve God's good, pleasing and perfect will.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Narrowing, Part IV: Different kinds of knowledge

Varieties of Knowledge
So much mischief has been caused by our refusal  - or inability - to discern between varieties of knowledge, and to give them appropriate attention or weight.

Scientific knowledge concerns itself with details of natural law, chronology, amount, size, and so on. This kind of knowledge is immensely helpful for getting rockets to the moon, designing integrated circuits, writing out a blow by blow account of some battle and the like. But apart from these sorts of matters, it is largely irrelevant to the great issues of meaning in life. 

Life Knowledge, on the other hand, the kind of knowledge we use in our real daily lives, concerns itself with  much greater matters such as love, beauty, happiness, suffering, death and eternity.

Ever since the enlightenment, which we prefer to call The Narrowing, Scientific knowledge has been regarded as the ONLY kind of knowledge, or if other kinds are admitted, at least the most important kind of knowledge. So when reconstructing a historical event for example, what matters most of all  is the exact sequence, number, timeline, position, speed, and so on.

The Scientific Commentators
Some commentaries on books of the Bible are written more by scientists than theologians: authors whose whole outlook has been so shaped by The Narrowing, that they read the Bible as a scientific text and worry themselves endlessly with when this happened, how that happened, and so on. They are either surprised that the Bible refuses to yield this knowledge, or if they are of a critical mind, judge the Bible for its resolute refusal to collaborate with them. The classic case is the death and resurrection accounts. Despite 2000 years and about 2000 million man and woman hours, they stubbornly refuse to yield a blow-by-blow chronology. Every attempt is blown apart by the next scholar!

Foolish 'scientific commentators' then damn the texts for their failure to yield a "scientific chronology", never once asking if the problem lies with themselves and their here-today-and-gone-tomorrow world view.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a reason why the Gospel writers refuse to bother with "this happened at XY.AA hours followed by this at XY.AA + 43 seconds.." ad boringeum kind of knowledge.....

Why the Bible won't yield scientific accounts
....perhaps there are good reasons the Bible refuses to bow to the little gods of human reason and science. Rather big reasons such as:

(1) Who cares? So what if you could work out a detailed chronology of who came to the tomb at what time when? What lives would be changed by such data? What benefit for mankind?

(2) Meaning doesn't arise from scientific data. The meaning of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, does not arise from a precise chronology of events, but from an understanding of the significance of these events: since He died we are forgiven, since He rose, we too will one day rise, since He is our Life and Pioneer!

(3) The Bible is bothered with peoples from all time, not one tiny western passing blip of a community. One day people will look back at this silly western age and wonder why they were so wrapped up in one kind of (rather trivial) knowledge. Perhaps Rising China will be that people. The Bible wasn't written for us alone, to satisfy our silly pre-occupations. It was written for all peoples, living across all ages. Hence it rises above the demands of so-called Scientific Knowledge.

Scripture, don't get me wrong, is never ever 'wrong' on scientific details; it's just indifferent to them. But if you come with a 'scientific knoweldge' mindset you'll probably get real mad at Scripture because it won't play ball, and so you'll end up criticising it rather than learning from it. 

What makes great commentators and timeless preachers is their resolute refusal to bother too much with these questions, knowing that they are foolish pre-occupations of a passing day. Instead they bother themselves with matters of much greater significance, such as love and life and death, hell and heaven, God and Christ.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Map of Truth

"Theology" and "Doctrine" bad rap
In our western world, 'theology' and doctrine are hated words: polluted by association with fundamentalists who bomb innocent people, made distasteful by unpleasant characters and thought incredible by post-modern minds.

And yet of course everyone who believes anything holds to some kind of doctrine. "I believe that Roy Hodgson was a great/rubbish Liverpool Manager" (delete as appropriate)  is a belief held to by Liverpool fans as firmly as any fundamentalist conviction.

Christians should not be ashamed of doctrine or theology. Quite to the contrary, we ought to love truth because we follow the one who claimed to be The Truth, spoke the truth and lived a life of complete  integrity. Against the tide, we ought to resolve to hold on to truth.

Only "asking questions"
One reason doctrine gets a bad rap is ignorance. Doctrine is nothing other than asking questions of the Bible. For example, we might ask the Bible "Who are angels and what do they do?" An accurate and prayerful summary of the texts yields the doctrine of angels. Not exactly rocket science.... but on the other hand there are finally balanced truths about the character and nature of God which do require hard humble work.

A Map of Truth
Another way of looking at doctrine is to think of truth as a map. We start off  on our Christian journey with a very rudimentary understanding of Truth. Let's liken it to this map from 500BC (I refuse to use the pathetic BCE). You will see that it is just so 'cartographer-centric' - it revolved around the tiny world of the guy who drew it. That's what a young believer's theology looks like, "my little world-shaped".

Over the subsequent years explorers bumped into new lands, and discovered the outlines of the ones on their map were wrong, so they reshaped the map until it looked something like this, c500AD. A lot better, but where are the Americas and why is Africa joined up with Antarctica? But it's better than the previous one, you have to admit.

Many years later we get our modern map, which we all recognise as "the Truth" (or shall we say, we all take on trust as the Truth, since not one of us have time enough to verify it for ourselves.)

Let's say this final map represents the final truth of God. Not one of us has access to final truth, for we are finite and sinful, and the Scriptures, while sufficient are not exhaustive.

Growth in doctrine is the life-long joy of making our map closer to The Map. As we read the Scriptures, and walk with God we discover now and then a new island - perhaps even a new continent. We are fools if we don't redraw our map. Or else we discover the shape of one of our continents needs re-drawing and out comes the rubber and pencil once more.

A danger with doctrine is that we think we've got the final map; and then we stop growing. How foolish! The truth is that our map of truth never looks any better than the 1500AD map of the world to the right. As if little minds or hearts could ever in this world (or even the next?) fathom the greatness of the God of Scripture.

The joy of doctrine is that it is a highway to knowing the Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise, and his Son, Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Great Hope for 2011!

Worldly Hopelessness: Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street
Many of us remember the haunting saxophone which made Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street such a hit (not to forget the class guitar riff at the end!). The mood of the saxophone reflected the sadness of the words which were about the failed promises of Big City Life:
         Windin' your way down on Baker Street....
         This city desert makes you feel so cold.
         It's got so many people but it's got no soul
         And it's taking you so long
         To find out you were wrong
         When you thought it had everything

  He senses that life is passing him by but still hopes his day will come:

       Another year and then you'll be happy
       Just one more year and then you'll be happy
       He's got this dream about buyin' some land
       He's gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
       And then he'll settle down there's a quiet little town
       And forget about everything

But this hope is never fulfilled:

        But you know he'll always keep movin'
        You know he's never gonna stop movin
        Cus he's rollin'
        He's the rollin' stone

We live in a world of despair.

Philosophically, despair is the natural outcome of evolutionary theory, the West's dominant "where we came from" creation myth: if we are here only by the brutal outcome of a battle for survival and the pitiless laws of a purposeless universe, hope can be nothing more than an illusion, a false-crutch for the weak-minded. Experientially, this despair comes from the multitude of seemingly intractable problems which beset the world, ranging from global-warming to terrorism to fiscal uncertainty.

Hope Springs Eternal
Oddly (that is oddly, only to the materialist) we pine for hope, which, according to Alexander Pope, "springs eternal in the human breast." We could stop here and ask where hope comes from, if nature is so hopeless, but instead we note the sad truth that human yearning for hope, when left to itself, always, always and always finds itself shipwrecked on perilous rocks. We hope in all the wrong things!

We put our hope in our brains, brawn, money, family, uprightness, kings, princes and presidents. Isn't that how Obama got to power? Men and women looking for hope, voted for him. The ticket of hope. The Audacity of Hope.

The trouble is that all of these human hopes fail. And often they fail "big time".

David's Hope
Surrounded by treacherous enemies, king David said to God, "My hope is in You" (Psalm 25:21). He meant that he hoped in the power of God to rescue him. He hoped in the ability of God to bring good out of evil. He hoped in the purposes of God though he couldn't see them. He hoped in the everlasting love and faithfulness of God. Not in himself or in his money, but in God.

Resurrection Hope
We have even more hope than David, for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has demonstrated historically, once for all, that tragedy doesn't have the last word, injustice is not the end of the story. God's good and great purposes will always triumph.

David, inspired by the Spirit, said what every believer should be able to say as the New Year dawns: "No-one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame." (Psalm 25:2) Hope burns as brightly as the promises of God.