Asking God the wrong questions

How is it exactly that God’s way our higher than our ways? (Isaiah 55:9)

[The religious leaders, as well as Jesus’ own disciples asked him many questions.] As was so often the case, Jesus didn’t answer their questions directly. Many of the questions we ask God can’t be answered directly, not because God doesn’t know the answers but because our questions don’t make sense. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many of our questions are, from God’s point of view, rather like someone asking, “Is yellow square or round?” or “How many hours are there in a mile?” Jesus gently puts off the question. “It isn’t for you,” he says, “to know the times and periods which the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

– N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 122

The elephant in theology’s living room

This comment a while back from Boar’s Head Tavern fellow The Scylding gets to the heart of my frustration with theology as it is typically discussed.

I worship Christ, not reason. And, contra the [Francis] Schaeffer types, that is NOT a 1-1 correlation. The desire to equate Christianity with reason comes from the surrender to Modernism. When it comes to debates and discussions on truth, tradition, sacramentology, ecclesiology and a mulitude of other and theological ‘ologies, the worship of Reason is the elephant in the room.

Approaches Christian apologetics

My wife was having a discussion with some friends online on how to go about proving the existence of God. One person was playing the devil’s advocate atheist to challenge the others. Many of the first replies were predominately accounts of people’s own life experiences and how they came to faith. The challenger complained that these were all completely subjective and therefore irrelevant. My contribution goes something like this:

I think faith has objective and subjective components. So, because others can’t actually relate to our own experiences (the holy spirit moving in us, Jesus appearing to us in a vision, “burning in the bosom” (the classic Mormon phrase), etc.), then apologetics is limited in it’s ability to turn people’s heart toward the Lord. Maybe you can describe these things in a way that is helpful, or can relate your personal experience to them in a way that is moving, but it’s 1/2 of the mystery of faith that can’t really transfer to the next person so well.

However, I think much of our faith, (the other 1/2 if you will, though it’s not a math problem), actually can be treated objectively. These things appeal to our rationality, logical intellect, and our God-given ability to think things through. So on THAT front, there is much that can be done. Articulating these things can be difficult though, even for people who are strong Christians. People who have had very strong subjective experiences, often don’t feel so much need for their faith to be reinforced (so to speak), but systematic arguments for the existence of God. Or other theology for that matter.

Romans 1:20 is a really good place to start with and one of the key verses here:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

There are a few different ways to approach this to the secular unbeliever. C.S. Lewis goes from the angle of morality. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Well, it had to come from somewhere. It’s built in. God built it in. And so on.

N.T. Wright, in his newer apologetic Simply Christian cuts a wider swath and in addition to morality (the longing for justice), brings up questions of relationships (there is something deep inside us that makes us not want to be alone), and also the desire for beauty (there is something that makes music, art, sunsets, etc. stir something deep within us.) These are “echoes of a voice” – the voice of our creator.

In both cases, the apologists don’t even bring up the idea of Christianity or Jesus until way later in the discussion. We are just trying to establish the possibility that a generic “god” is out there. And not just out there, but actually might care about the race of man on earth.

-1. I think it’s very hard intellectually to be a pure atheist. It’s an exercise in faith against what is hard-wired in our minds.

0. I think most people who “don’t believe in god” are actually agnostic. That’s a lot easier. There maybe is a god, but we can’t possibly figure it out, so it doesn’t matter.

1. The next step up is deism, which believe there probably was some higher power that made everything, but he’s distance and doesn’t actually interact in the affairs of man. He wound up the universe, and maybe it has some kind of purpose, but we can’t do much more than make up stories about what that might be. So again, it doesn’t matter.

2. After that, you start to wonder if this creator actually IS more involved in the actual lives of his creation. And there you have most religions. (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, tribal religions, etc.)

3, 4, 5…Only after all that do you take the step of saying God cared about his creation, and specially about a group of people called the Jews, and that he was directly involved in their history for hundreds of years, eventually incarnating himself in the person of Jesus do you get to Christianity. Whew!

There are a lot of steps of stuff to believe in between agnosticism and that. Good thing we have the Holy Spirit and that subjective experience to jump-start people. Arguing through all that stuff would be tiring!

Merton on our tainted thinking

I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility. The desires of the flesh-and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgment, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.

And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions. There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is in the depths of hell.

The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, P. 205

Excellent, excellent observation. I think it would be silly for me to try and add much else at this point.

Einstein on Intuition

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift
And the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honours the servant
And has forgotten the gift — Albert Einstein

The few things I can do with excellence are all intuitive. I’ve forced myself (or been forced) to learn how to handle many things in life, but even with a lot of time and energy, I’ll never be more than mediocre at them. I have a good ear. In four years of music history at university, I used to blow through listening exams with perfect scores while many of my classmates would struggle. These are the same classmates that were often much more accomplished musicians than I was. Even during the years I practiced the most, I never felt like much more than a hack at my instrument.

Many of the reformers held rationalism in high honor, and yet many of the saints did not see quite so much value in it.

If they do not comprehend doctrines…

A quote from J.C. Ryle (1810-1900), first Anglican bishop of Oxford:

“Humility and love are precisely the graces which the men of the world can understand, if they do not comprehend doctrines…. [The poorest] Christian can every day find occasion for practicing love and humility.”

A fitting quote for where it was noticed, occasionally on the banner of the Boar’s Head Tavern.