Friday, February 17, 2012

Putting first things first

Dear Theophilus,

Thank you for writing, and for sharing your struggles and doubts so openly. Let’s be honest: being a Christian is an ongoing negotiation. To confess is to wrestle, to discover as we live life, questions, crosses, and thanks be to God, worship. To confess is to wrestle and not turn away.

As you've talked here with me and with others, I see that you are wrestling, and that you are not turning away from your questions--and yours are good questions. You say you feel foolish. You say, “my ignorance must shine out to those who are better educated.” Actually what shines out is courage and tenacity, and to that I respond that "no temptation has come upon you that is not common to all" whether formally educated or not. Remember that some come at a question early in our Christian life which may only confront others later, or not at all. A PhD in theology may, because of their own story, find themselves wrestling in an area that a teenage parishioner has already come to terms with. And daily life may cause that faithful teen to revisit her question in greater depth later--questions moving up and over and around each other in a giant ascending corkscrew the steps of which go from one glory to the next.

Now before we address some of the questions you mention below, there is something you should well consider. This formation or corkscrew or ladder or path we find ourselves on, this is a theological path, not a philosophical one. The difference is important.

Philosophy is the effort human beings make to inquire about the world using all available skills--mental and physical. It is a discipline that in our era is a pursuit of reason and the mind. Theology, on the other hand, has an element of life and death to it, in that we are personally, ethically, socially, morally, physically involved in its questions and its answers because theology is done coram Deo, in the presence of God.

The theologian can do philosophy, but the philosopher cannot do theology. A philosopher can ask so-called theological questions, but it is a scholastic exercise. Theology bleeds. Said in another way, a philosopher can play with theology but doesn't fear for his life. A theologian (and all Christians are theologians because they all wrestle) cannot afford such a luxury. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," says the proverb. And as Martin Luther said in his Heidelberg Disputations, "Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work."

The philosopher cannot ascend to heaven. Human reason cannot of itself and upon its own presuppositions arrive at worship of the triune God. "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor 1.20)? And Luther again: "Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ." Luther had a wonderful phrase for philosophers who attempted through their dialectic to grasp at theological knowledge. He called them theologians of glory and said they were trying to climb up and get a peek at the naked God.

Over against them, Luther taught a theology of the cross. "He deserves to be called a theologian," he wrote, "who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." Jesus crucified is who God is, he maintained. Jesus is the beginning of theology and the very true proclamation of God's truth. But it is a truth whose truthfulness is confessed rather than arrived at.

Yet how can someone confess what he or she is unsure of? One may as well ask, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb?" And the answer is the same: "That which is born of Spirit is spirit." Our minds, our selves, were at one point chaotic, dark, and demonic. But then the Spirit came, hovering upon us, overshadowing us, and we came alive and confessed. Now we see by resurrection light, and no longer with the sputtering candle of philosophy. Light is now ours, the true light that gives light to everyone. "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 4:6).

Now the point I'm getting at is this. Our friend is correct who said that the historicity of Scripture is an important part of the confession of the Christian, giving him confidence and an answer to cultured despisers. But historicity is not the foundation. The foundation is that by the will of the Father and the quickening illumination of the Spirit one has beheld Jesus, and having beheld him, nothing else will ever truly matter ever again. "The [way, the truth, and the] life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us" (1 Jn 1.2). And now "the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rm 8.16).

This “bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God” means that, beholding the cross, we are called beyond the doubt and skepticism of the philosophers to embrace a holy inquiry. This holy inquiry is called by St. Anselm fides quaerens intellectum, or faith seeking understanding. Augustine put it this way: "Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe so that you may understand." He then quotes John 6:29: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

So, Theophilus my friend, if you long to know without doubt that there is an incredibly loving, interactive God who created you, cares for you, understands you, and encourages you to know him, then examine your heart. And if the Spirit does not testify within you so that you cry "Abba, Father!" then call upon the name of the Lord. He will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. He removes the heart of stone and gives back again a heart of flesh. It is the good pleasure of the Father in heaven to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. This is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation. As you seek, remember that God is light; in him is no darkness at all. His presence will go with you, his wisdom instruct you, and he will give you rest.

There is no confession apart from his rest, and what theology exists is only a theology of glory which calls evil good and good evil, adding sin to sin so that one becomes doubly guilty. Therefore the struggle with which we began is not the struggle of a slave, but of an heir. And it is not a struggle of the solitary, but the awestruck, happy liturgy of the redeemed people of God ascending as incense from every tribe, tongue, time, and nation to the throne of God.

This, then, is the proper foundation to begin asking about the Scriptures and their interpretation. Without it, we fall under the condemnation of the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn 5.39-40).

I hope you do not feel I am dismissing your questions by asking you first this most important of all questions. That is not the case. Instead, by asking I face you open-handed as seriously and as soberly as I can.

Warmest regards,