For Hair-Splitting

“Theological distinctions are fine but not thin. In all the mess of modern thoughtlessness, that still calls itself modern thought, there is perhaps nothing so stupendously stupid as the common saying, “Religion can never depend on minute disputes about doctrine.” It is like saying that life can never depend on minute disputes about medicine. The man who is content to say, “We do not want theologians splitting hairs,” will doubtless be content to go on and say, “We do not want surgeons splitting filaments more delicate than hairs.” It is the fact that many a man would be dead to-day, if his doctors had not debated fine shades about doctoring. It is also the fact that European civilization would be dead to-day, if its doctors of divinity had not debated fine shades about doctrine.”

G. K. Chesterton
[The Resurrection of Rome]

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randonnée refuge du Varan – vue sur le Massif du Mont-Blanc

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Transformative Bible Reading

This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community.  Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either!  When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.

P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”PeterTForsyth

And there is good reason for this.

Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:

“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.”  And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.

And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes.  I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”

So we know it is generationally neglected.  We know it is powerful and transformative.  We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us.  Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations.  And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.

A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.”  In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked.  We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it.  In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,

“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep

my mind dances and leaps in confusion.

I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel

and hide behind the shield of my illusion;

So I continue to continue to pretend

that my life will never end

and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.

In other words:  God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever!  The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality:  GOD.  Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies.  Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”

In other words:  God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life.  Thiselton continues“The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”

God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!

So no wonder we struggle with it.  We’re fallen, fallible and finite.  And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.

We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.

Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”

We nullify the Bible in so many ways.  Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”ludwig

And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.”  For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.

Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton).  For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power.  It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution.  It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”

post01-bonhoeffer-centuryBonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.  If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.  But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me.  That place is the Cross of Christ.  And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires.  This does not correspond to our nature at all.”

We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect.  Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”

It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood.  T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church.  But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew.  It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.

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The Flying Spagetti Monster

Guest Post by Dr David Matcham

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown

One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

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I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it.

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

destruction-of-atlantisSo, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known.

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing.

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.

The strangeness of it all

As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge.  It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?

Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity.  We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion.  Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.”  Of course there is.  This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever.  The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!

It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre.  This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point:  We are where we are because of where we have come from.  Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors.  The point is that they are all of a piece:  a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing.  That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”

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Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 6:  Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.

Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.

Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.

I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.

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The Priest of Ypres

“In World War I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had survived thirty months at the front; he rescued the wounded  – it was his job – under heavy bombardment.  A witness remembered his “rough hewn face that Greco had prefigured” and his “total lack of ecclesiasticism.”  One of the officers serving with him wrote, “Two features of his personality struck you immediately:  courage and humility.”  His regiment’s Tunisian sharpshooters, who were Muslims, used to say rather cryptically that a “spiritual structure” protected him when he plucked bodies from the ground in crossfire.  In battle, he rejoiced in his anonymity and in the front’s exhilaration.  Prescious few men left the Battle of Ypres with a beating heart, let alone a full stomach, let alone exhilaration:

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“Nobody except those who were there will ever have the wonder-laden memory that a man can retain of the plain of Ypres in April 1915, when the air of Flanders stank of chlorine and the shells were tearing down the poplars along by l’Yperle Canal – or, again, of the charred hillsides of Souville, in July 1916, when they held the odour of death. . . . . Those more than human hours impregnate life with a clinging, ineradicable flavour of exaltation and initiation, as though they had been transferred into the absolute.”  The “clinging ineradicable flavour” was perhaps mud – the mud of Ypres in which two hundred thousand British and Commonwealth men died, ninety thousand of them lost in the actual mud.

Action he loved.  His ever increasing belief that God calls people to build and divinize the world, to aid God in redemption, charged every living moment with meaning – precisely why the battlefield gripped him.  “The man at the front is. . . . only secondary his own self.  First and foremost, he is part of a prow of cleaving the waves.”  He dared title an essay “Nostalgia for the Front”:  “All the enchantments of the East, all the spiritual warmth of Paris, are not worth the mud of Douaumont. . . . . How heart-rending it is to find oneself so seldom with a task to be accomplished, one to which the soul feels that it can commit itself unreservedly!”

When he entered the war, he was already a priest.  One dawn in 1918, camped in a forest in the Oise with his Zouave regiment, he had neither bread nor wine to offer at Mass.  He had an idea, however, and he wrote it down.

Five years later, he sat on a camp stool inside a tent by the Ordos desert cliffs west of Peking.  He reworked his old wartime idea on paper.  What God’s priests, if empty-handed, might consecrate at sunrise each day is that one day’s development:  all that the evolving world will gain and produce, and all it will lose in exhaustion and suffering.  These the priest could raise and offer.

In China again, four years later yet, he rode a pony north in the Mongolaian grasslands and traced Quaternary strata.  Everyday still he said to himself what he now called his Mass upon the altar of the world, “to divinize the new day”:  since once more, my Lord, not now in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia, I have neither bread nor wine, nor altar, I shall rise beyond symbols to the pure majesty of the real, and I shall offer you, I your priest, on the altar of the whole earth, the toil and sorrow of the world.”

By Annie Dillard in For The Time Being, (1999), pg. 126-128

 

Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.

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