Sunday, February 13, 2005

Definitions

This blog isn't about the politics that I've been writing about in the last few posts. Honestly, I can't think of what else to say. If you can help, please post your comments in the comments section of the last entry "Christians in the Polis". I apologize, but once I put the pen down, so to speak, I lost my train of thought.

Anyway.

Today in assembly, the pastor talked about defining grace. He lamented the fact that he, being Reformed, could not think of an adequate definition. He asked us as a congregation how we should do it (in the pastor sort of way that tells you it is genuine, but rhetorical). As per my wont (I talk a lot during sermons), I leaned over towards my wife (Happy Song of Solomon Day, hun!) and said, "You can only define grace through a story." I did figure, though, that we were going to get a systematic definition. I was wrong, the pastor told a story about hobos to illustrate grace. He had to keep adding to the story, though, to get to where he could adequate (to him) define the concept. I wonder, though, should we do this?

When I think of grace (hesed in Hebrew, charis in Greek), I think of the Exodus, I think of the return from Exile, I think of the miracles, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus. All these stories interplay and comment on one another to form my understanding of grace. But I can't define it. I don't think I want to.

Definitions are a way of domestication. When Adam was given a job, his job was definition: taxonomy to be precise. He had to classify, to name, the animals. 'Naming' in Scripture takes on an ownership quality. Whoever names is the superior (or higher) power, to whom we owe our allegiance and faith. God gives Abram a new name. The Pharoah gives Joseph a new name. Nebuchadnezzar gives Daniel and his biz-oys (I'm hip, I'm with it) new names. Being someone (or something) under your naming power puts them under your jurisdiction, your control. It domesticates them.

When CS Lewis talks about Aslan, he is always sure to say that "he is not a tame lion". Can we define God? Can we define his grace? Traditional theology (for the first question Nicea and Chalcedon and for the second the whole corpus of Reformed writings) has sounded an astonding and deafening 'yes'. In one sense, definition is very important. That is how we have foundation cognitively and socially (Torah plays this role in the Bible--I recommend Brueggemann's "The Creative Word" for more on this and related ideas, applied to church education). But, definitions can get stagnant and distorted as time goes by and situations change. The whole Hebrew Bible is a testimony to that. That is when the prophets step in and say, "Yes, we need to know grace, but we can't know it just through definition, we need to know it through embracing it, living our lives as if we are defined by it, not the other way around. All our definitions of God will be seen to be truncated and small, all our definitions of grace will be seen to favor (grace and favor are the same word in Hebrew) our way of living and not the way God has for us to live." God cannot be domesticated.

Who is God, then? All I know is what He has revealed in His Word, but even there I see that my knowledge is partial and cloudy. When I want to know God, I end up (every single time) finding myself drawn into a knowledge of a first-century Jew, whose complexities and idiosyncracies I cannot wrap my head around. When I want to understand grace, I end up being caught up (raptured, if you will) in the stories of Exodus, Exile, and Resurrection--the story of Israel and Jesus. Instead of defining God and grace, I find them ever more defining me.

2 comments:

Jason said...

Good post, Russ.

This makes me think about some of the conversations that pop up during work, since I work with mostly non-believers. They often want to try and pideonhole a particular aspect of Christianity, to box it, to put a tag on it that they can shelve away with the rest of the CDs or books. I can't do it, mostly because I can't give a short and tidy answer for something like, "so, you seriously think men are like puppets or something?"

I'm guessing I not only can't sum things like that up in a quotable synopsis; I don't want to.

Aubrey said...

Nice thoughts. :)

Leave october 15th open -- you and bethany are on my wedding guest list. :)