Friday, August 14, 2015
I have endeavored to be a student of Church history. This study has led me to one dominant insight which is very helpful in understanding my own behavior and that of others. Namely that the conception a person has of God will determine how he or she understands reality. The clearest examples of this come from people who hate others or even kill because of a specific ideology (tribalism, racism, Marxism, radical environmentalists) or theological beliefs (radical Islamic jihadists and sects within other religious traditions who persecute others to enforce what they believe upon others). In the case of those who would deny any specific category of belief in God there is a belief system which has a binding force upon their mind and allegiance.
The truth of this phenomena is almost too obvious for us to notice. Perhaps we would not note it except that there are those who are so “extreme” in how they interpret and practice their ideology or theology. They are so dedicated to their understanding of God and what they perceive to be God’s will, or understanding of how human life should be, that they will sacrifice their lives in that particular cause. Such persons present themselves as being supremely confident in the rightness of their beliefs and thus they act upon them as they perceive is best to do so. Whatever you or I may think or say about any such persons or their actions the one thing that is crucial to note is that their behavior shows they are committed to what they believe.
The Christian church has long claimed that it has been given, in a way that is unique in the history of the whole world, truth regarding God and God’s will (see 1 Timothy 3:14-16). There are (and always have been) many who certainly did not agree! Today the general mood among most people in the Western world (America, Europe) is dismissive or openly hostile to anyone making absolute truth claims about God. This mood has been called “post-modernism.” This negative critique of human beings ability to accurately perceive reality—ideas of God and everything else fundamental to human experience-- effects the perceptions and expectations of everyone living in this culture. Regardless of one’s religious or “spiritual” beliefs and affiliations one cannot escape the creeping influence of “post-modernism.”
The cultural climate in which we live in the Western world makes the task of discerning truth and consciously developing good theological ideas even more needful. To live today is akin to swimming in a large public pool with no life guard on duty; indeed, the absence of a life guard is an agreed upon condition for being in the pool. For we do not believe in the need for any spiritual guides or any public truth that would be binding upon all; all things are to be kept within the private and subjective vantage point of individuals. If some people find that they believe similar things they might be convinced of the value of gathering together for mutual encouragement. But this gathering is only incidental to the question of truth.
The force and influence of this dominant idea on people’s way of thinking demonstrates why good theology is essential. For since we have the Scriptures and they have been made accessible to us we do need to honor our faithful God by energetically studying them in order to know the truth God has revealed. The consistent lack of interest in the Western world among Christians for knowing God and seriously seeking to learn about his Truth demonstrates the true character of our “spirituality.” For we want God to conform to our privatized and pathetically small perceptions of reality (actually that of our own comfort and self-interest). In order to gain true spiritual health and nurture all the life enriching aspects of truth we must want to know truth as it is found in the living God. And to find the Truth we must seek for it with all of our hearts, according to the means and medium God choose to reveal truth, with the expectation that God will graciously grant to us knowledge of his will (Psalm 119:29).
We who claim the Name of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ face challenges from every angle, perspective and corner of human life and experience. Nothing in the humanly crafted (and demonically oppressed) culture we find ourselves in encourages us to be obedient to the Lord Christ. But we have, should we choose to exercise faith in obedience to God’s Word, the power which raised our Lord up from death inside our very selves. For God has sovreignly granted to believers existential knowledge of himself through the Lord Jesus and deposited this “treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power [to live in righteous hope] belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7, NRSV) To vigorously search out to know and to practice truth lays the ground work for good theological thinking. And good theological thinking is essential to all efforts to discern what God’s will is for in the particulars of our lives, our work and everyday challenges.
Recently I went to do some target shooting with hand guns. This is something I do occasionally with friends or family. While getting set up for the shooting practice someone noted that the use of a scope is not particularly helpful when attempting to hit a target that is close to you. For the scope is designed to assist the person using the firearm to see a target from a distance with clarity and thus be able to hit it. This is the functional usefulness of the optics of the scope. However, the power of the scope to focus on the image works against the shooter if the target is too close because the shooter ends up seeing only one small portion of the target and can easily lose sight of where on the target he or she is aiming the gun. Thus the shooter’s ability to accurately see the target is inhibited rather than enhanced by the use of the scope.
Something like this happens to us humans when we utilize our own rational and emotional intelligence to analyze ourselves or deeply painful experiences (for example, in relationship to others). For we all are afflicted, by birth, with an internal “tunnel vision”. Unless someone (or perhaps the hardness of life circumstances) helps us to learn how to be attentive to and learn from the broader array of phenomena in life we will choose to isolate ourselves. Depending upon how we choose to handle the particulars of our experiences in life determines whether we make avoidance our aim or rather openness to exploring the reality of life in this world. And of course, if we make the avoidance of pain or hardship our aim in life then we will welcome the bondage of addiction to something.
The more money someone has the more likely they can and will retreat into a tightly controlled lifestyle that allows for the filtering out of information about the world as it actually is. And for those who do not have the luxury of self-isolation that wealth affords there is always the attraction of alcohol, drugs, and illicit sexual experience to distract from the personal pain and actual hardships of life. The internal psychological dynamics are the same regardless of differences in social status, wealth, intelligence or any other category one may care to use to distinguish between people.
The 16th century reformer Martin Luther said that human nature is “bent in on itself.” This observation and phrase is both profound and helpful. What he was capturing with this phrase is simply the human dilemma which our internal orientation toward sin and actual choices to sin have formed. We cannot see beyond ourselves and our own self-interest unless somehow we learn to stand up straight and “see” ourselves, God and the world as it actually is. This is where the usefulness of “good theology” meets the existential need of the human heart: We are told by revelation what we would otherwise not know about ourselves (or certainly not admit honestly) and challenged to fundamentally change our perspective and way of life. And the presentation of truth makes us accountable before God when we stand at the final Day.
The Apostle Peter wrote, “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” (1 Peter 1:17, NRSV) This is a statement of practical theology rooted in the teaching of the Scriptures. Peter’s point, it seems to me, is that we need to make good use of the truth we know by living by faith in “reverent fear” of the living God. In contrast, the wicked person has no fear of God (and thus no faith) and thus lives only for him or herself—at the expense of other human beings and even to their harm. But those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ have no right to do this—for they have been bought by the blood of the Lamb for God (Revelation 5:9-10)
There are some things in our life experience that are so plain and obvious that we tend to overlook them entirely. For example, sunsets, rainstorms, flowers, mountains, people walking past on a crowded street, etc. For those who study the Bible the exhortations to practice good theology (truth) are overlooked because we do not want to hear this. Though this is a primary thread woven throughout Scripture how many of us actually hear and heed this teaching? How often do we get lost in the grass, so to speak, of the details of biblical texts (or challenging questions we seek specific answers to in Scripture)?
The practice of truth (1 John 3:18) is rooted in a faith filled response to the revelation given in Scripture. “The way of the LORD is a stronghold for the upright, but destruction for evildoers.” (Proverbs 10:29, NRSV) Truth is given in order for us to live in God every day and every moment of life on earth. To practice the truth necessitates learning to love God and obey God’s voice, and thus be transformed in one’s inner person. The expression of this actually happening will be loving others from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).