Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A Note From Class: Can We Say Anything About God?

Dear Friends,

Based on your correspondence since my last post, clearly, we have a lot to talk about.

In our last class, you wanted to talk about several things: (1) the scroll and the codex, (2) Egyptian deities, (3) the New Testament as a collection or cabinet of books--and we started learning those books in order, and (4) genre.

These may seem quite scattered, but I assure you that they are not. These and other subjects join hands around the same center, which is the triune God revealed in the prophetic word, the Bible ("He has spoken through the prophets"). Like servants attending a king seated in his throne room, some are lowly workers while others are important judges and generals. Yet they all look toward the same face.

I've attached a photo of a leaf from one of the earliest bits of the New Testament that we have. It is the opening page of the letter (epistle) of 2 Corinthians (Corinthians B in the photo). You can tell that it was part of a codex because you can see the holes from the woven binding on the left-hand side of the page. You can also see that the "paper" is made of pressed papyrus leaves, as the stringy vegetable bits hang out where the page has been ripped or has gone missing.

It is part of the rich store of pages (and sometimes whole copies) from the Bible that have come down to us from cultures and languages all over the world. Together, they tell us something about the Our we talked about: the Our of "Our Father." We do not pray alone, nor are we the first to do so. We join untold numbers of others--a great family--who are invited to address God as Father.

Remember how I said C. S. Lewis described the church "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners"? Or notice how John of Patmos describes the church in his vision, "Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (That whole reference is worth looking up, Revelation 7.9-17.)

That is the beautiful and forever fellowship that we are about. But such visions are certainly not what we see with our eyes.

Going back to C. S. Lewis again, the "terrible army" spectacle of the church is invisible to us. As Lewis, in his book The Screwtape Letters, has a senior devil say:

It is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.
Interestingly enough, we are running parallel with the problem we talked about in my last post to you: the problem of knowing a word but not knowing its meaning. The church, says Lewis, looks like the face of the local grocer and the people one has so far avoided, even while it is really that innumerable multitude that no one can number.

Things are rarely what they seem to be on the outside. A boring, tired teacher at your school turns out to be a lover of the mystery of math who felt called as a young woman to help kids see that beautiful thing that she sees. That wrinkled, bad-breath-afflicted uncle in your family that no one talks to once took on German tanks and infantry in the Battle of the Bulge. Or, scientifically speaking, things--you, me, rocks, trees--are mostly made of empty space. We're all, from the perspective of the Earth's axis, standing sideways.

Language both helps us and harms us in solving problems like this. We use language to describe nouns and verbs like tear and tear. But the bare words don't tell us which one is salty with grief. Language has its limits--and homonyms like light, letter, book, and duck demonstrate that. And what about cleave? Are we chopping something into pieces or joining together till death do us part? We must use language, but we can't always trust it.

So consider the theological problem of language. Poets, authors, explorers, and scientists may struggle to find just the right word for the right thing. But what if that thing is by definition indescribable? What if that thing is a person and more than person? What if we want to talk about God?

People are so free to talk about God. They run everywhere saying this and that about God and no one gives it a thought. We hear it so much--and especially in the south--that we get used to it. But this is a real problem. Severe even.

How can a creature talk about a creator? How can the limited talk about what is, by nature, unlimited? How can mortals grasp the immortal? Do you get what I'm saying here?

Skipping ahead: nevertheless, we do it. We talk about God. So given that, how do we know we're saying anything true? What gives us the confidence to say things about God using a thirteenth-century language like English and then act like we've done something? I hope you are getting this.

Let's get even more practical. Ministers--think of the ones you know--have jobs that require them to say things about God and on God's behalf. How can they do this? How do we know they aren't lying? How do they know they aren't misrepresenting God? And why should we listen to them? It stands to reason that everyone the world over who claims to speak for God isn't telling the truth. Someone is lying or self-deluded. So how do we know whom to listen to and whom to ignore?

The Greeks struggled with this problem. One of their solutions was to imagine their gods as human beings but bigger. Their gods, like Zeus and Hera, Poseidon and Aphrodite, argued and squabbled like superhuman babies.

It was a solution that didn't fly for long, even for the Greeks. Philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, along with other educated people of their time, made fun of this kind of thinking. "You can't just blow human beings up like big balloons and say you've made a god!" they said.

Closer to our time, a German atheist named Ludwig Feuerbach said that Christians do the same thing. He said the God of the Bible is but the outward projection of human desires upon the clouds. We, like little children, imagine the parent or friend that we want and call it god. Of course, he used fancy, nineteenth-century language: "In the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature."

Certainly, atheism is a popular answer in our day to the problem of talking about God, "god talk" for short. Atheism takes a big pair of scissors and cuts any notion of God or gods or the supernatural or transcendence completely away. No more "gods" means no more god talk problem. Now then, what's for lunch?

But, I'm going on too long. Allow me one more subject: genre (pronounced /JHAN-ruh/). Whenever we take in information, we have to first figure out what genre we're working with. If we are going to listen to orchestral music, then we expect woodwinds and stringed instruments and forms like the sonata and the waltz. If electronica, then samplers and mixers and a laser-light show. I like going to the movies to see films in certain genres, like superhero movies or science fiction.

When we are in a certain genre, we expect certain things and not other things. In a comic book, I expect Iron Man. I do not expect the periodic table of elements, though the latter makes sense in a chemistry textbook.

Figuring out what sorts of ideas or actions (e.g. car chases, ghosts, tables of dates) go with each genre is important. It helps us know how to make sense of what is going on. It makes communication clear. The phrase "home run" is meaningless outside of the genre of baseball.

The New Testament, as I said, is a big cabinet of books, as is the whole Bible. Not all of those books are written in the same genre. Acts is a history, but James is not; James is a good, Jewish sermon. Hebrews is also a sermon. Revelation is a fancy genre called apocalyptic. (More on that another time.) Paul's writings, which make up most of the New Testament, are epistles, that is letters. The gospels are not history like Acts is.

Knowing the genre of something, be it some written text, a movie, a song, or any kind of communication, is almost as important for understanding as is knowing the language it is written or spoken in. Genre is important!

Okay, then: I've raised some big questions in this epistle and given few answers. I do have answers, yes. But knowing, trusting, and following Jesus isn't a matter of checking the right boxes. So we will get around to some answers, but me giving you answers doesn't make you better disciples. Nor does having questions--often deep and difficult questions--and carrying those questions around for years and years make you less true disciples of Jesus and beloved sons and heirs of God.

How else do you get wisdom? Why does the Bible encourage us again and again to seek it, to quest for it, to dig and wrestle and search for wisdom? It wouldn't do this if wisdom were easy, or if the goal of being a Christian is to be a questionless drone.

My sons, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, Turning your ears to wisdom and applying your hearts to understanding, And if you call out for insight and cry out for understanding, And if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for buried treasure, Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:1ff)
In the next letter, I hope to do more on the Lord's Prayer, and I hope to have St. Theresa of Avila help me do it.