Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Basis of Everything That is Important To Me

The following is a selection is from a brief essay by my systematics professor on the influence that the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury had on the twentieth-century German theologian Karl Barth.  It essentially outlines exactly what reading the Bible means to me and is like for me, and by extension describes the process by which I have any knowledge of God at all.  I am learning that theology can be deeply edifying.

"Although Anselm begins with God's remoteness... he does not stop there.  The theologian pores over Scripture in the hope that God will reveal his very Self through the Scriptural medium.  That this may occur is not, in the first instance, due to any inherent power of the biblical words.  The Scriptures, like any other created reality, cannot reveal god.  If God does reveal his very Self it will be an act of grace.  Therefore Anselm begins with prayer.  Anselm prays because he knows that he cannot know God unless God takes form within the written word.  'What is at stake here is not just the right way to seek God, but in addition God's presence, on which the whole grace of Christian knowledge primarily depends, the encounter with him which can never be brought about by all our searching for God however thorough it may be, although it is only to the man who seeks God with a pure heart that this encounter comes.'*  When God reveals himself he does so by taking form within the written Word.  This is an event; it happens from time to time.  In the moment of speaking, God reveals the Word as Scripture.  As the theologian hears this Word, he grasps the underlying intelligibility of Scripture and formulates it in theological statements.  The statements themselves are comprehensible only when they are also illumined by God as revelatory words.  This happens as God the Word binds himself to the biblical work, similar to God the Word having bound himself to the human nature of Christ.  By the communicatio idiomatum, the divine Word was comprehensible as human words.  Similarly, the divine nature, God the Word, becomes comprehensible as the words of Scripture.  In this way real knowledge of God occurs, a knowledge which is known by the categories of the understanding grasping the intelligibility of the biblical words.  This knowledge depends, in the final analysis, on God's grace.  Without grace, Scripture is silent.  The knowledge of God and the faith to believe it 'does not come about without something new encountering us and happening to us from the outside... The seed to be received is the 'Word of God' that is preached and heard; and that it comes to us and that we have the rectitudo volendi to receive it, is grace.'**  In short, Anselm proposed a doctrine of revelation which depended upon God's act, an event in which God took form within the spatial and temporal existence of the believer to reveal his very Self speaking as the biblical words."

~Robert Sanders, "Barth's Encounter with Kant:  Liberalism, Its Rejection, and Anselm"

I wonder if it's really true, as Barth says, that God only reveals himself to those with a pure heart.  It seems to me that God is in the redemptive business of revealing himself to those with wicked hearts and thereby purifying them.  I know that he reached out to me when I was thinking and acting any other way but pure--and that he continues to reach out to me even as I continue to need purifying.

*Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides quarens intellectum, trans. Louise Smith (New York:  Harper and Row, 1962), 38.
**Ibid., 171.

Theology as Therapy

I'm kind of a neurotic person. I try not to let it show; I probably fail. When I'm at my most neurotic I isolate myself because I don't want people to see me that way--twitchy, clammy, socially mal-adapted. I guess that most people who know me know me as a person of faith, but I'm a skeptic first. I am a person of my mind and sometimes its prisoner.

Maybe I can't avoid sounding obnoxious if I describe myself as intelligent, but it's a designation and reality that has been normal for me since I can remember. It's one I think that most of my close friends would agree upon. My mind works fast and intuitively; I enjoy making connections and interpretations, and I'm constantly stitching together the big picture from all the disparate parts. I'm quick to resist other people's interpretations and explanations--unless they jive with my pre-existing framework--a tendency that does not play well with a good many ways of thinking religiously.

I am in some ways a reluctant Christian, faith thrust upon me by Christ-centered spiritual experiences which I can give no account for other than by responding obediently. And though my mind and body kick and scream as my spirit points them heavenward, I routinely return to Peter's exclamation, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

In college, I lived in two worlds which tended to remain unhelpfully separate: secular history and religion classrooms on one hand; biblicist worship meetings and small groups on the other. I'm grateful for both, but over most of the past decade those two strands of thought have met in a chaotic mess on the battlefield of my mind. In the classroom I imbibed more and more the dismal story that is human history (a long tale of Darwinian cruelty, imo) and tortured myself with questions about the socially constructed nature of thought and reality. In Christian community, worship and bible study I could take refuge from these mental torments, but I could not possess intellectually satisfying resolutions--only escape through faithful affirmation that Jesus stands above and will one day save me from the mess.

For many years my main exposure to formal theology came through biblicist Calvinists whose aggressive certainty and investment in the particularity of their various doctrines only seemed to confirm my charismatic-fundamentalist suspicions that most of theology was a distraction from "mere Christianity." This dovetailed nicely with the post-modern suspicion of reason I gained through various classes and conversations in college, leading me to a place where my mind and spirit seemed like they were forever doomed to be reluctant companions.

Recently, some assigned readings in theology have seemed breaths of fresh air to this sordid chaos--it only took two full years of seminary for them to come along.* "To pronounce the name of Jesus Christ means to acknowledge that we are cared for," writes Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics in Outline, "that we are not lost... We do not exist in any kind of gloomy uncertainty; we exist through the God who was gracious to us before we existed at all... God has so acted for our good, does and will so act, that there exists salvation for every lost condition." The phrase "gloomy uncertainty" grabbed my attention as it so aptly described the mental and emotional anguish I am sometimes beset by. It shook me out of my complacency with such quagmire: I realized that I accepted as normative a mental state which does not make sense for someone who believes they belong to and have been rescued by the god of Israel. And I have long accepted it without ever thinking it absurd, but rather felt arrested by the frustration it brings.  His insistence on "salvation for every lost condition" reminded me that I needed to look to Jesus and fight against the chaos.

Barth treats Jesus phenomenologically--his reasoning accepts the historical and contemporary reality of Christ a priori, and he refuses to distance his thought from the person of Jesus through abstraction. This way of thinking is especially appropriate for someone whose adult faith began with a spiritual event which they have had to come to terms with rather than conversion through evangelism, community or some other means.

The other theologian whose words have been soothing salve to my chaotic cerebrum is Richard Hooker. I wish I had read Hooker my first year at seminary, as his Thomist view of law, creational order and wisdom may have settled much of the law-grace perplexity I experienced. "The being of God," he writes in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, "is a kind of law to his working; for that perfection which God is, giveth perfection to that he doth." In other words, God's actions are consistent with his nature--"his most glorious and most abundant virtue." Divine law is not an arbitrary set of commands, nor a merely a redemptive roadblock whereby we are condemned so that we can recognize we need God's mercy. Law has to do with a sacred pattern reflective of God's nature, loving and keeping it the essence of wise human living.

This essentially Thomist perspective establishes a way forward for Christian discipleship and radically undermines common Platonic perversions of Christian thought which see spirit and matter as radically opposed to one another. C.S. Lewis described Hooker's worldview as one "drenched... with deity"--not pantheism, but rather an insistence that ultimately all creation is of and from God, despite the brokenness and sin which come from the fall. A.M. Allchin writes that 

"Above all things [Hooker] is concerned to hold together the glory of God and the true dignity of man. This means that in his controversial writings he finds himself defending the demands of a Calvinism which was already setting the sovereignty of God over against the freedom of man, thinking to exalt God at the expense of his creation. This was never Hooker’s way. He sees God’s wisdom and power shining out in and through all things, in the richness and diversity of the world which God has made, and above all in man whom he has created in his image and likeness."**

I find it to be intellectually healing to read these Christian thinkers talking about God in a way that doesn't require logical and moral gymnastics in order to readily recognize Him as "good," "beautiful," and "merciful."  These are affirmations of a recognizably good person at the center of what can sometimes seem like a veil of nice-sounding God talk that may or may not pan out.  I can be told a hundred times that God is my Father and he loves me and shrug it off.  It's as if by reading these different theological bits I've had someone go beyond telling me I have a loving heavenly Father:  they've actually begun to show me what he looks like.  And God seems less and less like a dream my intense and skeptical mind keeps wanting to wake up from.

*I should note that some readings from Augustine and Aquinas last year on the subject of God and goodness were also helpful, though I think I was too emotionally strained at the time to receive from them all that I could have.

**A.M. Allchin, Participation in God:  A Forgotten Strand in the Anglican Tradition, 7.