Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part One

In my mind, one of the most important historical bits of Scripture for my personal life is when Paul says (in Galatians) that after his meeting with Jesus at the Damascus Road, he went to rethink everything for over a decade in Arabia. That passage has caused much consternation over what exactly I should do with the training I have received and nurtured for close to a decade. The more I read of historically-based exegesis, the more troubled I become with the history of Christian interpretation, the history of ecclesial activity (especially the confluence of theology and power), and the basis of present Christian devotion and worship. In many ways, I feel completely outside the pale of this long-standing historic community. I've called it my "postmodern Protestant dilemma" (those interested can look up the link). It is, and will remain, a critique from within -- I am a follower of Israel's Messiah and the Gentiles' Lord. I do not critique out of spite, but out of gratitude for the grace I have received in that Messiah. My writing and thinking revolve around the twin foci of being faithful to God's revealed Word (a faithfulness that does not equal correctness necessarily) and God's redeemed people (both Jew and Gentile who worship the one true God in the Messiah).

My start down the road to Arabia began with a simple premise: the broad outlines of God's mission and work in the world should be comprehensible to all of God's people, even if that comprehension comes from the Spirit rather than 'rationality'. In other words, if an idea/doctrine takes a clergyman to understand, then it probably is there to legitimate power rather than a part of God's revelation. In many ways, I still hold to this premise, but what I have found is that the simplest of things can, upon further investigation, but intricately complex. I understand how a car goes, but I could not tell you the intricacies of a driveshaft, powertrain, or fuel-injection (God bless you if you can). The other premise is that a doctrine or theology must be practical. This one has been harder to hold onto -- many teachings in the history of the Church were practical for that time, but have devolved into abstract, ahistorical concepts now. I learned this, interestingly enough, from pagan philosophy: Plato's battle with the Sophists produced amazingly complex philosophy that was practical in his time, but seems so disconnected now (and has destroyed much theology because of it). These two premises, clarity and simplicity still drive my thought. They have, though, both been chastened. Might I even call them mature?

Even though I teach Bible, I still feel in Arabia. I know I have said things that I do not now agree with: theology must be understood as a human endeavor -- anyone claiming the title of 'mouth of God' perpetuates a dangerous and damaging lie (Let those who have ears hear). The power that comes from the burden (yes, a burden) of teaching the Bible is frightening: I am influencing those for whom the Messiah died. Anyone who teaches that is not scared to death of that should not teach, ever. That fear is a necessary part of my Arabian experience: I have been humbled, and continue to be humbled, but this calling from the Most Holy God. Reading student essays this last semester brought this home to me: are we teaching our students well enough to be independent of their teachers? When erudite non-Christians challenge them on their allegiance to the Messiah, will they be able to stand? I fear the worst.

And so I remain rethinking it all. Some of the conclusions I have come to have rocked my world, so to speak. I have had to hold tightly at points to the resurrection of Jesus as the only fixed point in my faith. In the end, it is not my knowledge that leads me into the life of the age to come; he is my Lord and he holds me in his hands. I mean that in a significantly different way than I did years ago. It is no mere religious trifle or pleasantry, but rather the only way I can speak about my everyday reality: the Messiah loved me and gave his life for me and now the life that I lead must be in the Son of God.


Ian said...

Russ, I didn't know you were in Arabia! We should get together while we're both in town.

sdesocio said...

"If an idea/doctrine takes a clergyman to understand, then it probably is there to legitimate power rather than a part of God's revelation." Thats unfair. Your categories of legitimacy seemed to be heavily influenced by a modern 20th century assumption that everyone can reason on a certain level. The basics of faith are easy enough that they can be understood by all, but so hard that no one entirely comprehends them. In many respects I share your wandering spirit, in part its what caused me to leave the rpcna.

Russ said...

@sam Maybe it is unfair. Maybe not. I do understand that some things are hard to understand and take work, but have yet to see a doctrine that does fit with Biblical revelation that isn't ultimately understandable without the mediation of priest/prelate/pastor.

About being reasonable, Augustine (not 20th century) said that being rational was part in parcel of being created in the image of God. I don't think it is a 20C assumption, but part of being human. Do some make foolish judgement and assumptions? Yes, those are the noetic effects of sin: but sin doesn't eradicate anything that is human, just distorts it.