Life with God

 

milk way

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The ultimate evil of idolatry is the forsaking of God. It’s not merely unauthorized worship or illicit pleasure; it’s the folly of seeking satisfaction in anything other than the fount of all goodness. It is the rebellion of seeking acceptance from anyone other than the Father of all mercies, of seeking protection from anyone other than the Lord’s Christ, of seeking comfort from anyone other than the Paraclete. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. We pursue the gifts rather than the Giver. We settle for the seen rather than seeking the Unseen. Over and over again in the Scriptures, the people of God are warned against contenting themselves with God’s blessings and thus forsaking the true and lasting beatitude of life with God himself.

But let’s be honest: the seen has certain advantages over the unseen. For starters, the seen is, well, seen. It is in right in front of our eyes. It promises immediate gratification. Furthermore, injunctions to move through and beyond the visible world to the invisible God are difficult even to understand. What does it even mean to seek God above everything else? Is it anything more than a pious cliche? Do we even know what we are talking about?

The whole concept of God seems abstract and mystical. This is because, in part, the concept of God is abstract and mystical. To be sure, God has made himself concretely known. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible God has made himself visible to us. The intangible has become tangible. The unseen has become seen. It is precisely through the concrete revelation of God in the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ that God has come near to us and has disclosed to us his true identity.

The incarnation reveals to us the dignity of the created order. It shows us that Christianity can never be a world-denying religion, that redemption is not a flight from creation but a restoration of it. But the purpose of the incarnation is to lead us back to God himself. God became man so that man might become God, as many of the Fathers put it. The goal of incarnation is theosis—union with God himself. This goal reaches its apogee in the life to come and the beatific vision of the glorified saints. But it begins even now in the present life, as believers learn to seek the things above, where Christ is, rather than the things of earth.

Life with God is, then, in a very real sense abstract. It asks us to think beyond the merely physical and concrete. It stretches our minds to consider a being who is beyond being, the source and ground of being. It beckons us to meditate on a God who is utterly independent, timelessly eternal, and absolutely immutable. It requires our greatest intellectual resources to consider the very idea of God.

But, in another sense, life with God is also irreducibly mystical. When we skate beyond the capacities of our reason in our contemplation of God, no more cogitation is advisable, or even possible. All that remains is the experience of God. This is why the mystical writers of the Eastern tradition have sometimes spoken about God as utter darkness. Of course, they were familiar with the Scripture that teaches us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The point being made wasn’t about God’s moral character but about God’s knowability: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). We could even say, the point wasn’t so much about God as it was about us. As creatures, we cannot comprehend God–we cannot traverse his circumference and subject him to our rational measurements. It is not a function of some kind of quantifiable inability. It is the qualitative distinction of the Creator and the creature. This apophatic approach to God has much to commend it when we consider the scriptural teaching about God’s incomprehensibility: “Behold,God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable” (Job 36:36; cf. Psalm 145:3).

So where does this leave us? How are we to avoid the sin of idolatry, of becoming so enamored with the creation that the Creator himself is eclipsed? What does it mean, in the trenches of the battle against sin, to treasure God above all? Perhaps we could seek some help from the mystical writings of Maximus the Confessor. At the risk of oversimplification, we might summarize his contemplative approach as a three-step movement from mediation on the created order to the patterns and principles (logoi) according to which the world was made and finally to God himself. So, the abstract and mystical is not divorced from the concrete and creaturely; they are organically related. God made the world good; he reveals himself to us through it; and he came among us in Jesus Christ in order to restore it. So, he means for us to enjoy the gifts of creation as the gifts that they are. When viewed from within the creation, these gifts are ends in themselves. No one loves anything for what he can get out of it. Otherwise, it would not be love. So marital love, the love of children, the enjoyment of the creation or art—these are ends in themselves when viewed within the system of creaturely goods. But when viewed in light of God, the gifts of creation were meant to led us in contemplation to the mind of God, who so designed and ordered and disposed of these gifts that they reflect the divine reason and benevolence. And beyond these creaturely designs, we are finally led to contemplate God himself—absolute, unqualified, unneeding Blessedness. It takes time and effort and prayer to get to this place. But surely this life with God is what lies behind such biblical cries as “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7) or “one thing I have asked of the LORD, that I will seek after…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4).

The Anointing at Bethany

Today is Wednesday in Holy Week, a day traditionally used to commemorate Mary’s anointing of Jesus at Bethany (John 12:1-8). Mary’s act of breaking the alabaster jar and pouring the ointment on Jesus’ feet is “wasteful” and “useless,” to use Malcolm Guite‘s description, and Judas chastises Mary for exactly that. But, as Guite goes on to point out, following Jesus often results in actions that the world considers a waste.

In my American context, filled to the brim as it is with pragmatism and practicality, I need to hear Jesus’ words in response to Judas – what Mary did was a “beautiful thing.” When Christ calls a woman or man, he bids her or him to come and die, and I think this call to die includes dying to my American cultural pragmatic insistence on tangible results.

What are some examples of this? Guite talks about a mother providing prolonged care for her severely disabled daughter, describing the act as “pouring out every day the unreturnable love and care that so many in society think, like Judas, was a ‘waste,’ but was, somehow, in spite of everything, renewing a beauty and a hope” (The Word in the Wilderness, 162). What comes to my mind is the rush to application in both preaching and theology. What use is a sermon if it isn’t “practical”? What use is a doctrine if it doesn’t provide me with some “practical” skills or steps to improve my life? I often hear, and have in the past asked myself, the latter question with respect to the Trinity. What use is the doctrine of the Trinity?

Of course here we could mention that the doctrine of the Trinity is vital because the goal of theology is to know God. But Judas’ question to Mary (“why wasn’t this sold and the money given to the poor?”) and our questions about the usefulness of theology demand something more than contemplation – we want tangible results! I think the story of Mary reminds us that the contemplative life is a “beautiful thing,” not to be divorced from all Jesus’ calls to action on behalf of others but also not to be jettisoned for the sake of “usefulness.”

 

Is There an Application in this Text?

No.

Or at least, if what we mean by “application” is “something practical,” then the answer is often, “no, not immediately so.”

I was listening to the radio this morning and there was an ad for some kind of art foundation. The tag line was “art works.”

No it doesn’t. Art isn’t supposed to “work.” It’s not supposed to be immediately practical. Neither is theology or the Bible many times, for that matter. That’s because the arts are not supposed to be “practical.” They’re of a higher order, one that’s job (yes I’m using that ironically) is to point us to the true, good, and beautiful or how we’ve rebelled against it.

Of course, the Bible is transformational. Scripture’s purpose is to point us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father, and in seeing the Son we are transformed into his image (see 2 Cor. 3:17-18). In this sense every text is applicable, because every text calls us to respond to Christ in faith, whether for the first time or for our continued sanctification. But this is not the same thing as “practical.”

I’m afraid in our thinking on preaching, theology, art, and a whole host of other issues we have been taken in by that distinctly American philosophy, pragmatism. The truth of something is known through its usefulness and the results it engenders. This just isn’t the same as contemplating God for who he is and being transformed into his image.

None of this is an excuse for theologians to keep their heads in the clouds and ignore their ecclesial-rooted calling and audience. But it is to say that I think that many calls for theology to be made “practical” are many times influenced more by pragmatism than by a proper understanding of the role of theology (and the rest of the arts).

Pietism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Doctrinal Disputes

Over the last 2 weeks – has it really been that long?? – the Trinity discussion/debate/deathmatch has raged like a wildfire through certain corners of the blogosphere. I’ve been heavily invested, as have others. One trend that I do not think has been adequately addressed but that I have repeatedly taken note of is a critique of this entire discussion as unimportant, distracting from our love for God in Christ, “a tempest in a teapot,” etc.

I should say first that, given the tone of the discussion’s beginning, I can understand why some would be put off. When you start throwing heresy bombs, calling people names, using derisive language to describe others’ positions, and the like, it’s difficult for many, including myself, to hear anything except that (IMO poorly chosen) tone. But I am not talking about tone here, I am talking about substance.

Understanding rightly who God is and in light of his revelation to us in his Word is no small matter. In fact, nothing could be more important. There is a strain of pietistic anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism that sees much doctrinal debate as just an academic exercise, divorced from real life and as important as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (actually an important question, btw!). If you are a Christian, though, this is not the attitude the Bible prescribes with respect to knowing God. Yes, God calls for us to love him, but “loving God” is not some emotional enterprise divorced from our intellect. We are whole people, body and spirit, and our minds matter as much as our emotions and our senses and our spirit.

Further, this debate, as with most (all?) doctrinal debates, has application for believers, even if it is in a trickle down manner. But let’s say it doesn’t have any “application,” for the sake of argument – that does not make it unimportant to the life of the average believer. Knowing God is the reason you and I are redeemed through the blood of Christ, and “knowing” doesn’t just mean in an emotional or spiritual sense but also in an intellectual sense, in that we are called to know him rightly. Obviously some have different cognitive abilities, and so we do not want to put the onus on intellect to the neglect of other means of knowing, as Jamie Smith has rightly noted. But each of us are called, to the best of our intellectual abilities, to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37).

Don’t eschew doctrinal rigor as unimportant, unable to produce love for God in Christ, or without a point. The Bible doesn’t; in fact, it commands the opposite.

Jason Hood on Michael Bird (Luke Wisley)

At the beginning of June, Jason Hood posted some reflections on what he learned from Michael Bird as his doctoral supervisor. Jason’s post really resonated with me, so I thought I would repost two of his thoughts with my own reflections.

* MASTER your content; being a GENERALIST, a category I learned about from Michael and something to which I still aspire, does not mean slagging off, nor does it mean ignoring one’s responsibility to become a specialist (a requirement for entering the guild). Michael, like Howard Marshall, put stress on “making the primary sources your mistress” (IHM’s phrase).

Besides the incredible phrase ‘make the primary sources your mistress’ this thought really hits home for me. It is incredibly important as a pastor, scholar, or layperson to really know the primary sources. From the pastoral and scholarly side, a lack of knowledge of the primary sources is reflected in preaching and research that is guided by secondary literature rather than the text. Theological education must stress mastering the text (which inevitably means being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and letting secondary literature expand your exegetical horizons rather than letting it be the ultimate guide.

* KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY, primarily so that you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own limits and tendencies. Not everyone will take a fancy to you, but you’ll probably enjoy life and work more.

I enjoyed this little note from Jason. It’s one that I need to learn. There is a huge temptation to allow the work you are producing to dictate your worth and value. This is followed by the endless temptation of measuring yourself against all the other research students you meet. I’ve found that giving into these temptations makes one miserable. Know yourself, your gifts, and be as faithful as you can to work hard and develop further. That’s all you can do. So I think Jason is right, if you know yourself you’ll enjoy both life and work more.

I encourage you to read the whole post.

C.S. Lewis as a ‘Man of Letters’ rather than Scholar

downloadAs many are quite aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death and there have been various functions in Cambridge to commemorate his life and work since moving here in October. In whatever time has alloted this term, I have been trying to read more Lewis and books about him.

Recently I read Jacqueline Glenny’s short booklet, “C.S. Lewis’s Cambridge” and I came across a quote from John Stevens, one of Lewis’ Magdalene College colleagues at Cambridge. Stevens’ description of Lewis is a healthy reminder to those of us engaged in biblical research.

“…if talk was his play, books were his love. The enthusiasm and relish which C.S.L. brought to his reading, and that not only in the fields where he was acknowledged master, were infectious. He did not regard himself as a scholar, but as a man of letters. The backgrounds of academic controversy, research and criticism were kept rigorously in their place. He spent his time reading texts rather than reading about them.”

See:

Jacqueline Glenny, “C.S. Lewis’s Camridge”, Cambridge: Christian Heritage Press, 2003.

John E. Stevens, ‘In Memoriam: Professor C.S. Lewis’, Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 8, (1963-1964), p.13.

Old Testament Law and Living Biblically

Christopher Wright has an article over at Christianity Today on reading Old Testament law and the Christian life. The starting place for his article are two recent books: A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which show how clueless many of us can be when thinking about how Scripture speaks today. In his article, Wright provides some helpful ways for us to think about how law still functions as Christian Scripture. My favourite line from the article:

The idea that all the imperative statements in the Bible should be taken literally, as if they all apply to me, is a nonsensical way of handling Scripture.

You can read the whole article here.

Maundy Thursday Prayer

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before
he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer (1979 Edition)