Tag Archive | Enlightenment

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

+++++

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

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Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)