Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Wonder of the Incarnation

As I sit here this Christmas Eve, listening to Handel's "Messiah," looking at our decorated and well-photographed Christmas tree, having wrapped my wife's presents in anticipation of tomorrow's gift giving after spending 4 hours at this morning and afternoon's Church festivities, I am struck by something not usually associated with the Christmas season. Maybe others are often struck by this particular truth, but something that happened today drew my attention to the equality that Christ enacted among His New Covenant people.

One of the few things that will bring a tear to my eye at our Church here in Kyiv is when the kids from the children's program — which is held a good 10-minute walk from our Church, and thus is rarely heard or seen — perform before the Church. It's not the cuteness of the dressed up 5-year-olds who can barely recite the lines to their poems or the way the shy 10-year-olds strain their voices to reach notes that their vocal cords aren't practiced enough to reach. These are universals for children's programs. What gets me is one girl in particular. I don't know her name and she may not even have a family member in our Church since our Church provides Sunday school services for about 30 kids whose families don't attend. This girl is unique because she has a severe speech handicap that is likely tied to some other handicap or paralysis. In spite of this handicap, the girl performs almost every time the children are in front of the Church. It moves me that even though she is almost incomprehensible — and in this particular situation, the problem is NOT my fluency level in Russian — she performs, everyone is overjoyed that she has performed, and God is glorified by this little one. The fact that no one, not even the other children, laughs at this girl and that she is proud enough of who she is as a child of God to praise Him in spite of her handicap, does something to my heart that I can't quite explain.

This morning, as the kids walked up the aisle to the front of the Church and were performing, I was worried. Try as I might, I couldn't see her. There were more kids than usual today, which is exciting, but I began to worry about why the girl wasn't there. Between songs, individual kids shared their poems and solos, but the end of the performance came and she hadn't done anything. I thought that maybe, during our time in America, she had stopped going to the Church for some reason or other. And my worry is that, outside of the Church, she will be treated quite badly, which is why I'm always so eager to see her when the kids perform. I don't want to even think about how the soul of this little girl could be crushed by the cruelty of this world. Just knowing that she is in our children's program, where she has a place to feel welcomed, loved and appreciated, reinforces the truth that in Christ handicap, social status, ethnicity and ability are not a factor. She is a child of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit and she is highly valued in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine my relief when, as the children exited, I saw her walking down the aisle. Even though she didn't perform something individually, she was involved, and that is what ended up being so important to me and why I was so worried. While thinking about what was going on inside me this morning, why I was so worried and why this little girl's involvement is such a testimony to me of Kingdom equality, I realized that we wouldn't have such a value without the Incarnation. It would be nice to think that man could have developed such a value with time, even if Christ never came, however, the cultural and social values of Jesus' day and the resistance He met when He confronted those values, doesn't support such a positive assessment of humanity. So, as we celebrate our Lord's coming and the full grandeur of what His coming means, don't forget that part of that grandeur is the equality that allows someone like this little girl from a little Church in Kyiv — and by extension, every one of us — to be loved and included. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Immediacy is an Illusion

So, I've been asked enough times that I guess I should explain why I've titled this blog the way I have. If you know me at all, you know that my greatest hero in the Faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you don't know me, you can see how much I respect the man by the fact that I named my son in honor of him. My relationship with Bonhoeffer began approximately 10 years ago, and my reverence for him only grows and never diminishes, even when I read things with which I disagree or with which I am uncomfortable. Those moments sharpen my critical-thinking skills (we should be thankful for anyone who makes us do that) and I am either reminded that no one thinks the same thing all the time or that even heroes can be wrong.

But Bonhoeffer is rarely wrong when he is talking about how radically Christ has changed His followers. Few authors in the history of the Church have been able to articulate as potently just how demanding is the Christian call to discipleship. And I think we need to be reminded often of the seriousness of that call. Thus, I took the occasion of my son's birth to reread the first Bonhoeffer book I ever read, Discipleship (popularly known as The Cost of Discipleship). The first time I read it, many of the more famous passages of the book stood out to me. The costly grace vs. cheap grace chapter and the ever-powerful line, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die," captured me and entered me into the Bonhoeffer fan club and, more importantly, spurred me on to a deeper and more serious commitment to my Lord and Savior. This read, however, a different idea stood out to me. It had to do with what it really means for Jesus Christ to be our Mediator. And from here, I'll let the much more eloquent Bonhoeffer himself explain:

"It is true, there is something which comes between persons called by Christ and the given circumstances of their natural lives. But it is not someone unhappily contemptuous of life; it is not some law of piety. Instead, it is life and the Gospel itself; it is Christ Himself. In becoming human, He put Himself between me and the given circumstances of the world. I cannot go back. He is in the middle. He has deprived those whom He has called of every immediate connection to those given realities. He wants to be the Medium; everything should happen only through Him. He stands not only between me and God, He also stands between me and the world, between me and other people and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and human persons, but also between person and person, and between person and reality. Because the whole world was created by Him and for Him (John 1:3; I Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:20), He is the sole Mediator in the world. Since Christ there has been no more unmediated relationship for the human person, neither to God nor to the world. Christ intends to be the Mediator. … So people called by Jesus learn that they had lived an illusion in their relationship to the world. The illusion is immediacy. It has blocked faith and obedience. Now they know that there can be no unmediated relationships, even in the most intimate ties of their lives, in the blood ties to father and mother, to children, brothers and sisters, in marital love, in historical responsibilities. Ever since Jesus called, there are no longer natural, historical, or experiential unmediated relationships for His disciples. Christ the Mediator stands between son and father, between husband and wife, between individual and nation, whether they can recognize Him or not. There is no way from us to others than the path through Christ, His Word, and our following Him. Immediacy is a delusion." (pp. 93-95)

As you can see, I've tweaked Bonhoeffer's words a little for the blog title, but the paraphrase sums up just how striking a concept it really is. Every relationship we have, EVERY relationship, is mediated by Jesus Christ. Thus, any immediacy we think we have with someone or something else is an illusion — completely earth shattering! I'll be the first to admit how very infrequently I pay attention to this truth or live out the consequences of it. But my inabilities don’t make it any less true. And the more I pay attention to this reality, the more I will grow in my relationship with my Mediator, the better I will understand Him and the higher He will be exalted by me. I want my life to be as reflective of the fact that Christ is my Mediator and that immediacy is an illusion as was Bonhoeffer's. Naming a blog may not be a big step toward reaching that goal, but it will remind me of that goal every time I log on.

If you haven’t read Discipleship, read the standard Simon & Schuster edition (titled, The Cost of Discipleship). If you have read a standard translation, I recommend trying the Fortress Press, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works edition. It will not only give you new perspective on what you've read before, it will give you a better understanding of what Bonhoeffer actually wrote in German. The standard translations are quite loose. The Fortress Press edition strives for a better balance between the dynamic and the literal. The above quote is from the Fortress Press edition.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Can I Know That I Know What I Know?

Later this week I will participate in a theological discussion group that will entertain certain issues in epistemology (the study of how we attain knowledge). I am definitely interested in such a discussion but I must admit, I'm a little confused about how to formulate any thoughts about this particular subject (hmmm, that's a tad ironic). It would help if I was trained in philosophy or had read more widely in this area. As it stands however, I am an amateur philosopher, if that, with very little competence in epistemological theory. Not a promising start.

But my concept of epistemological truth is fairly simple and I'm wondering why there is such conflict about its nature and just where that conflict lies.

I'll start with a few definitions, acknowledging that it is possible that the conflict revolves around these very definitions. Even if it does, I propose that these simple definitions are accepted by almost everyone, or at least that people fairly consistently live according to them:

Reality: Everything that actually exists and the actual interrelations between existing things.
Truth: Concepts and propositions that correspond to reality.
Belief: Propositions that I think are true, whose reality are sure enough that I place my trust in them.
Knowledge: Beliefs that are actually true and that I have legitimate justification for believing.
Certainty: The level of confidence with which I hold beliefs and with which I have knowledge.

My basic epistemological premise is that each of us, everyday, live our lives according to our beliefs and/or our knowledge. We acquire our beliefs and gain our knowledge by our varying experiences of reality. From these experiences — and they can be as varied as personal interaction with another being or thing, reading a book that contains truth, or our reflection on our own emotions and mental states — we accumulate evidence and justification for the things we believe and know. Our level of certainty about our beliefs and about the knowledge we possess grows and/or diminishes depending on whether our beliefs and knowledge are confirmed or negated by these varying experiences with reality. And, our beliefs and our knowledge are actually true when they, in fact, accurately describe reality.

I think this is all fairly straightforward, however, this premise is hotly debated in academia, especially when it comes to religious realities. For some reason, both the modern and the postmodern mind seem to think that we cannot have genuine knowledge of anything religious. The modern mind thinks that we cannot know the religious because it either doesn't exist or because we cannot reach adequate certainty regarding our knowledge of it, if it does exist. The postmodern mind thinks that we cannot claim to have genuine knowledge of religious reality because we cannot have genuine knowledge of anything or because there is no legitimate way to adjudicate between all the linguistic and/or cultural contradictions between various religious claims. In my limited understanding of the epistemological scene, this is where the conflict lies.

Why do I not see epistemological conflict where the modern and postmodern do? Simply, I think it is because the modern and postmodern fail to apply the basic epistemological theories, which they live out every day, to the religious question. In day-to-day life, we use different methods of evaluating our experiences that correspond to particular situations. When I go to the store to buy the sturdiest bookshelf for my books, I apply a different set of criteria than when I try to discover what we really know about the life and times of Jesus Christ. And I use a still different set of criteria when I evaluate the spiritual interaction that I have with Jesus Christ, as a person, in order to gain knowledge about that relationship. I think that, generally, the modern mind applies scientific, empirical criteria to religious questions and then rejects religion as either non-existent or not a genuine sphere of religious knowledge because it applies the wrong criteria to that particular question. And I think that, generally, the postmodern mind overskeptically rejects religion as a genuine sphere of knowledge because, in reaction to modernism, postmodern thinkers have rejected almost all, if not all, spheres of knowledge. But the postmodern does not live that way. He would still do most of the same things that I would do when going to the store to buy the sturdiest bookshelf for his books and, when we both buy the same bookshelf, we will have both attained genuine knowledge (and a good bookshelf). That we cannot apply legitimate criteria to achieve genuine knowledge about religious reality seems like a choice made so as to avoid that particular question altogether.

I'm not saying that attaining religious knowledge is easy or that we can have absolute certainty regarding all of our religious beliefs and knowledge. It is easier to formulate the belief that I have food poisoning right now, and to certify it as knowledge, than it is to know if and how the Holy Spirit is working within me (and I have to apply completely different criteria). And I currently have much more empirical certainty about the former than the latter. What I am saying is that there are legitimate methods for attaining justified knowledge of our religious beliefs, and that we should practice those methods when it comes to formulating, investigating and certifying such beliefs and knowledge. In this way we can definitely know that we know what we know.

For more on this, read the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries booklet by James Beilby & David K. Clark, Why Bother with Truth? Arriving at Knowledge in a Skeptical Society.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Forgetting the 'Judeo' in our Judeo-Christian Worldview

I just finished reading Thomas Cahill's excellent work, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. I feel simultaneously invigorated and humbled. Invigorated with the sense that one should have after finishing any good book, especially one that helps you better understand God, yourself and your place in His world. Humbled because of how it took Cahill, a non-evangelical and possibly a non-Christian — with quite a skeptical view of Scripture — to remind me of how indebted I am to my Jewish heritage. Being a Gentile, I obviously am not referring to ethnic heritage but to spiritual heritage.

Of course, without the Old Testament there would be no New Testament. The exclusive people of Israel came before the inclusive Church and, as Jesus Himself proclaims, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). But exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity is not Cahill's thesis. In a way, such a thesis is too mild for Cahill. Rather, Cahill explains how the foundations of Western civilization and thought would not be possible without the experience of an unassuming group of Semitic wanderers and the gradual expression of their experience as recorded in the Bible. Without this unique and unlikely change in culture and lifestyle brought about by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and the rest of our Old Testament heroes, we would still be stuck in the cyclical and meaningless worldview of the ancient Sumerians. I'll let Cahill speak for himself:

"The Jews gave us a whole new vocabulary, a whole new Temple of the Spirit, an inner landscape of ideas and feelings that had never been known before. Over many centuries of trauma and suffering they came to believe in one God, the Creator of the universe, whose meaning underlies all his creation and who enters human history to bring his purposes to pass. Because of their unique belief—monotheism—the Jews were able to give us the Great Whole, a unified universe that makes sense and that, because of its evident superiority as a worldview, completely overwhelms the warring and contradictory phenomena of polytheism. … The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside—our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact—new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice—are the gifts of the Jews." (pp. 239-241)

It is one thing to read the Old Testament and see how God reveals Himself there. His creative activity, His love for Israel and His promise of redemption, teach us about Who God is. But it is another thing altogether to realize the distinctiveness of the Old Testament in light of the prevailing culture and worldview of ancient times. What God did in and through Abraham and his descendents changed the entire world, and life today — for you and for me — would not be what it is without this essential change. Humbling and invigorating.

Unfortunately, I would be negatively categorized by Cahill as a "fundamentalist" and a "biblical literalist" since I disagree with him when he says, "it is no longer possible to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by God" (p. 245). That doesn't mean, however, that I can't thank him for his wonderful literary contribution and highly recommend his work to anyone who wants a bigger, better view of God and how He has so radically and graciously acted to redeem mankind.