“Biblical spirituality and our contemporary spirituality are not two variations on the same theme. They are stark alternatives to each other. In the one, God reaches down in grace; in the other the sinner reaches up (or in) in self-sufficiency. These spiritualities belong in different worlds, one moral in its fabric and the other psychological. One thinks in terms of salvation, the other in healing. One results in holiness, the other looks for wholeness. In the one, God’s sovereignty is seen in the establishment of what is spiritual; in the other, a human-seized sovereignty is at work to create its own spirituality. Between these two kinds of spirituality there can be no accord, no peace, no cooperation. The one excludes the other. This is the message we have heard from the apostles. This is the message that was recovered at the time of the Reformation. And this is the message that should be resounding in the church today.” David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, pp.177-178
I am beginning a new series on the different religion that is growing and becoming more vocal throughout much of the church today. It might be because of the increase in internet use, but today most Christians are exposed to a greater level to alternative views of “spirituality” that sounds Christian, but is opposed to Christianity at every point. It is what David Wells refers to as a spirituality from below. In subsequent blog entries I will be addressing issues of leadership in my own denomination that is really a spirituality from below and the stark difference this is to historic Reformed Protestantism.
The great “myth” of this spirituality is the story of Indian origin of the blind men and the elephant. The basic idea of the story is that reality can be viewed differently depending on one’s perspective and what seems to be absolute truth is really only part of the greater “truth”. No one has a complete picture of reality, and so we must be “tolerant” of all views of reality, because they probably have some understanding that we need to hear.
There are certain assumptions of the myth and the view of spirituality from below that must be addressed initially. First, there is a presumption that there is no one that is greater than we are (humans) that reveals anything about reality that we need to know, and if there is, that person is so different from us that we cannot understand. If there were a revelation from God, then the spirituality from below would disintegrate. Secondly, there is an assumption that we “know” that reality is really an elephant and that we are all just hunting around. This is ultimately self-refuting. For the story requires a narrator who knows more than all the blind men that there is more to reality than they can conceive. So too, in a spirituality from below.
Just today I received an email from the PCUSA news organization about a “Bible Study” at the National Elders conference which is a part of the “Big Tent” event happening just down the road from me in Atlanta (my invitation must have been lost in the mail). The title of the report is: Study hall Elders’ task is to help others get into the Bible, Gardner says
The title made me think it was going to be about how to help people realize that they need to spend more time in God’s infallible Word. I thought maybe it would be an encouraging story about the importance of being grounded in God’s infallible Truth. But sadly it was just another bait and switch.
Freda Gardner…hmmm…I remember her. She is a former GA moderator. After the Dirk Ficca (What’s the big deal about Jesus) fiasco, the issue of whether Jesus was the only way to God the Father found itself on the floor of the 2001 General Assembly. During the discussion, she adamantly opposed making any form of exclusive statement, saying, “words can become stumbling blocks”.
Here is a portion of the Presbyterian news article:
…there are no right or wrong answers when approaching scripture. “If our attitude is that there is only one way to interpret scripture then we leave a lot of people out,” she said.
For those called to teach the Bible, as elders are charged to do, part of the task is to help people understand that their interpretations are valid, Gardner concluded. “We want believers to understand that there is a place for their gifts and their ministry in the church.”
I wonder if any interpretations are out of bounds for her? I wonder if someone had interpreted something as excluding women from Christian leadership, if she would have objected? I wonder if their are any interpretive boundaries? I was not there, and I do not know if this report is leaving some things out that would clarify what she was saying, but the report leaves the impression that there are no such boundaries.
Since we as Presbyterians at a minimum are called to state that the Bible is God’s Word to us, then this must assume that God is communicating through the scriptures. If this is so and God is quite powerful (the term omnipotent comes to mind, not to mention omniscient and omnipresent), then would God want to communicate in such a way that he should be interpreted in many ways, even conflicting ways? Does God not want to communicate anything so clearly that nearly all of us can understand the majority of the main idea? We might not exhaust the meaning, but can we not understand the major point? Are there no essentials that God wants to communicate very clearly? What exactly is the point of having our Christian leaders study biblical Hebrew, Greek, hermeneutics, and exegesis, if not so that they can rightly divide the word of Truth? If everybody can interpret a passage however they please based upon their own experiences, then why even have biblically trained Christian leaders?
Maybe, just maybe, what she meant to say is that our culture and experiences can influence the way we read scripture, and we need other Christian believers from around the world to help us reflect on how we sometimes see certain scriptures through cultural eyes and miss out on important aspects. Somehow though I suspect that a leader who was unwilling to support an unambiguous statement that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, would unfortunately concur with the pluralist, wishy-washy, any interpretation goes bend of this article.
Here is a portion of this story:
Sinn, 32, faces three counts each of concealing the body of a child and offering an indignity to a dead human body.
The information also alleges she tried to hide the fact that they had been born by keeping them in a "storage tote box".
As I thought about this particular story, it dawned on me that many in the pro-choice camp would consider this woman to be a hero, if these children were aborted moments before they would have been born. In late-term abortion clinics, these children would simply have been dismantled and their bodies discarded. Yet, this woman is being charged with “offering an indignity to a dead human body.” Does all this seem as incongruous to you as it does to me? In a country like Canada that has extremely progressive abortion policies, if it is shown that these children were aborted, then it is perfectly fine to kill them and discard their remains in whatever manner is most expedient. But if the children were born and breathed for a while, then she will be charged for a felony, just for treating their bodies with indignity. This all seems absolutely insane to me. Eventually it seems to me, all of this is going to lead to the legalization of full infanticide. It must, for our culture of death reach equilibrium.
"As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.” (Ezekiel 33:30-32)
It is common to see the local church as a worshipping or even a caring community. I prefer to think of the church primarily as a learning community, which includes worship and caring as experiences that lead us to deeper learning and spiritual development.
We as leaders/teachers are called to faithfully proclaim God’s Word in a culturally clear and compelling way. We do so with the learner’s development as our outcome, yet our dilemma is often that of Ezekiel. The responses we get seem positive, yet have no real impact on our community of learners.
Ultimately, our call as leaders is faithfulness and not results. This does not diminish our responsibility to be both faithful to God’s Word and culturally compelling, addressing the needs of our people. But ultimately the outcomes and results are accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who is at work through His Word.
Shelby Steele, a very incisive and perceptive writer and researcher on race issues, has written a very important assessment of the Sotomayor nomination. Whatever your political ideology, I think you will find his in-depth assessment instructive.
Consider this comment:
Judge Sotomayor is the archetypal challenger. Challengers see the moral authority that comes from their group’s historic grievance as an entitlement to immediate parity with whites — whether or not their group has actually earned this parity through development. If their group is not yet competitive with whites, the moral authority that comes from their grievance should be allowed to compensate for what they lack in development. This creates a terrible corruption in which the group’s historic grievance is allowed to count as individual merit. And so a perverse incentive is created: Weakness and victimization are rewarded over development. Better to be a troublemaker than to pursue excellence.
Sonia Sotomayor is of the generation of minorities that came of age under the hegemony of this perverse incentive. For this generation, challenging and protesting were careerism itself. This is why middle- and upper middle-class minorities are often more militant than poor and working-class minorities. America’s institutions — universities, government agencies, the media and even corporations — reward their grievance. Minority intellectuals, especially, have been rewarded for theories that justify grievance.
His book titled, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era is a very important book.
Consider also his assessment of the Ricci case in New Hampshire, in which she supported the city’s decision:
And here we come to Judge Sotomayor’s favorite such ingenuity: disparate impact. In the now celebrated Ricci case the city of New Haven, Conn., threw out a paper and pencil test that firefighters were required to take for promotion because so few minorities passed it. In other words, the test had a disparate and negative impact on minorities, so the lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci — a white male with dyslexia who worked 10 hours a day to pass the test at a high level — was effectively denied promotion because he was white. Judge Sotomayor supported the city’s decision to throw out the test undoubtedly because of her commitment to disparate impact — a concept that invariably makes whites accountable for minority mediocrity.
Challengers are essentially team players. Their deepest atavistic connection is to their aggrieved race, ethnicity or gender. Toward the larger society that now often elevates and privileges them, they carry a lingering bad faith — and sometimes a cavalier disregard where whites are concerned, as with Judge Sotomayor in the Ricci case.
“It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal, but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life…. [And] when God becomes weightless as I believe he is so often today, we lose the doctrinal signals that might otherwise warn us that some profound change has taken place – the sorts of signals that once warned us of the threat of heresy. Too often in Our Time there is only peace and quiet. The traditional doctrine of God remains entirely intact whilst its saliency vanishes. The doctrine is believed, defended and affirmed liturgically and in every other way held to be absolutely inviolable but it no longer has the power to shape and to summon that it has had in previous ages…. God has not disappeared in the sense that he has been abducted or overwhelmed. He is not like a child snatched away while its parents were momentarily distracted. No, God is more like a child that has been abandoned within a family, still accorded a place in the house, but not in the home. Because the doctrine is professed, perhaps even routinely in creed or confession, it seems as if all is well. But it is like a house that gives no outward signs of decay even though termites have rendered it structurally unsound” – fractured foundations! And he continues by saying “The consequence of all of this is that what was once transcendent in the doctrine of God has either faded or been relocated to the category of immanent, and then this diminished God has been further reinterpreted to accommodate modern needs. These alterations have drastically changed the whole meaning of Christian faith. They have affected the way we view God in relation to our selves, to life, and to history. They affect the way we think of his love, his goodness, his saving intentions, what his salvation means, how he reveals himself, how his revelation is received, why Christ was incarnate, and what significance this has for other religions. All of this and much more follows the moment that the formal categories of transcendence and immanence within the traditional doctrine of God are unsettled.”David Well’s book God in the Wasteland and No Place for Truth.