Simplification, Subtlety and the Saviour

Generally speaking, we don’t live in a world of nuance. For all the talk in the popular culture for the many shades of grey out there and of the many varieties of truth, when it comes right down to the actual discussions we have, everything seems radically simple.

Socially you’re either conservative or you’re progressive. Politically you’re either right wing or left wing. Spiritually, you’re either “religious” (whatever that means) or secular.

While these labels can have their use in framing a discussion, or at least in avoiding long explanations each and every time people discuss other topics, the fact is that we have moved away from the use of labels to simplify real communication, and moved into using these ad hoc labels and begun to use them as definitions as to what people believe.

The problem is that labels can be useful as long as they’re taken as tentative. When they become definitions, they will often end up making things far more difficult instead of making things easier. People will begin to talk around each other rather than to each other. This has especially become the case when talking about “evangelical Christianity” (so much so that some theologians are confused about whether to cop to the title, at least in North America).

whatcottIn my experience, though, the most troubling development has been the desire to lump Christianity in with some very… not Christian opinions. It’s even worse when it’s not open opponents to Christianity that do this, but people who claim to be Christian. Such is the case of one Bill Whatcott.

Mr. Whatcott is in the habit of attacking homosexuality in our culture, advocating (it seems) the very extreme position that because homosexual practice is unbiblical (a position I agree with), that it should also be illegal (yeah, not so much). The worst part is that in advocating this position, he promulgated flyers which included a parody song winsomely entitled “kill the homosexuals”. He claims (through a lawsuit no less) that this was simply (horribly ill-advised) hyperbole, which he modified by explaining later in the pamphlet that he simply desired that those who practice homosexuality repent and come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

As a Christian I can only agree that people who engage in unbiblical behaviour should repent and come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. As many of my less-theologically-conservative friends lament, I believe that includes homosexual practice, but (much less lamentably, methinks) it also includes advocating the murder of identifiable groups of people. Thus, in my (and I think most evangelical Christians’) understanding of evangelical Christianity, Bill Whatcott needs to repent every bit as much as the most promiscuous homosexual. The problem is that in our age of radical simplification, Whatcott’s hyperbolic opinion is often referred to as “Christian”, even if most Christians would clearly disavow the opinion.

When it comes to what beliefs are “Christian”, the defining characteristic cannot be that many (or even most) Christians believe it, but rather what Christ taught, as revealed in scripture. Indeed, if people take the time to understand Christ’s teaching, I think we’ll find that He provides correction and even open rebuke to many of the things most Christians seem to think and do. While we need to be clear about the message of Christ and its implications, we need to be careful of the tendency to exchange clarity for simplification.

Of course, this does not mean Christianity has no meaning (if you do not believe in Christ, you are not a Christian…. even as if you do not submit to Allah, you are not a Muslim and if you do not seek to follow the enlightened one, you are not a Buddhist). Rather it means that as Christians, lets be careful to limit the beliefs we call “Christian” to those advocated through the one we call the Christ.

Is Brit Hume out of line?

Many people on the blogosphere have been commenting on the statements of Brit Hume on Fox News Sunday, where he said essentially that Tiger Woods should turn to faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, most will recognize that I would agree with that statement (though I might quibble with Hume’s phrasing). I agree that Buddhism is insufficient to provide redemption of a person in the position of Tiger Woods at the moment. Funnily, since Buddhism would advocate the elimination of attachment to worldly (and hence illusory) desires, it seems that some Buddhists would agree. Redemption for a Buddhist, is unnecessary, as the desire for that would be grasping at illusion, and so the wrong move for a Buddhist. I think Buddhism is incorrect, and so would most Christians. Is that a surprise? No. At least not if you have any idea about either Christianity or Buddhism.

The problem that Hume has though, is not the many Buddhists in the world, his problem is actually secularists in the media. As far as I can get the problem, it is that a commentator should not mix their field (providing commentary based on their opinion) with religion. Besides being patent nonsense (religious opinion is opinion, and thus fodder for commentators….. the reason I don’t freak out at Christopher Hitchens slagging my belief… he has a right to his opinion, and I have the right to publicly disagree), the assumption itself seems very hypocritical.

The secularist belief is that religion is best left to the private sphere. Secularists are entitled to that belief, but they should not be surprised when Brit Hume and many other Christians (and many other religionists) disagree with that assumption. The opinion the secularists hold is not universal, so it behooves them to convince others of their position, not simply attempt to bully people into adhering to their (minority) position.  Join the marketplace of ideas, and (as Hunter Baker said on a radio show recently) stop playing the game of public opinion

while simultaneously pretending to be umpires.

Brit Hume is not out of line, but his secularist detractors are.

Loving a Cipher

I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways (Psalm 119:15)

In my reading and experience in counselling, the saddest times are when people realize that what they had called love for someone else had been simply their need to love something, not really a love for the thing loved. In essence, the object of their love is nothing but a cipher; an empty vessel they can pour their affections into.

The result is that while they do nice things for the person, their expressions of love are based on what they themselves desire to give as love, not really what the other person would need to actually be loved. The result is that they then get frustrated when the other person doesn’t react to the love their showing… because all this time there wasn’t love of another person being shown, but the need to love……. something, anything. The other person wasn’t important.

This seems less selfish than at least the habit of humans to love the reflection of themselves in someone else, and hate whatever does not reflect them, but I’m not so sure. At least the “selfish” love actually reacts to something in the object of affection (if only because it reaffirms the lover).

I think this may also be part of what happens to Christians in some ways that they “love” God. C.S. Lewis hits on the point when he says:

“For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather expect the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find their heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand” (C.S. Lewis,”On the reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock, 205)

The reason for this difference is, I think, a simple one. In much devotional literature, there is an assumption that one has a close and real relationship with the God of the universe. However, we read devotional literature in the desire to actually strengthen that relationship, not because the relationship is already strong. Devotional literature often has trouble moving us to worship, because it so rarely moves us beyond the cipher-god of our own creation to a meditation on the real God. Heavy theology does just that, because it is only in the harder to understand ideas and revelations that our self-centered ideas of God and how He should be loved are questioned, and as a result where we can be moved to see God for who He really is.

The result of that vision for a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit, will always be worship.

The Pharisee Culture

“You know how this wine was blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce the subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic on earth…. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel, and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up where the sun shone!”

(C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

I have made the claim previously that the Gospel is always bad news to an unprepared heart, and that there are two major forms of the “unprepared”. In the first case are the despairing, who know that if there is a just God, that He must have profound problems with them. The Gospel for them is that God does indeed love them, and provided a way for them to enjoy Him in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the despairing cannot imagine that this is for them.

Then I said that there is a second group, a more numerous group, for which the Gospel is anything but good news, and I labelled that group the Pharisee.

Now, many will wonder at my calling the most common modern group pharisees, since pharisees are supposed to be religious people, and modern Canada is honestly a quite secular place. So let me explain what I mean by a Pharisee.

A Pharisee is someone who honestly believes that they are the ultimate definition of the moral, and set their lives to hatred of that which they see as immoral. A pharisee is by definition self-righteous. They define what is true and good and moral, and rage incessantly against what they see as “evil” (whatever that evil is, whether ignorance, or meanness, or irreligiousness). They gain their joy, not from the beliefs they hold, or from God, but from the fact that they are right and some other group is wrong. They are happy that they are righteous and they pity or hate those who are not precisely like them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what the main object of your beliefs is. If you think that all Montreal Canadiens fans are evil, and rejoice in their comeuppance, you are in danger of phariseeism. You can be a religious nut who rejoices in the damnation of whatever particular group you do not like (such as atheists, or the gays, or whatever), or you can be an atheist that gains your jollies by laughing at the silliness of those terrible religious people.

In both cases, you are quite assured that you are righteous; that you are a “good” person, and that the world would be much better if everybody else was like you.

Terribly enough, this is the common plight of the modern west. We have spent the last 30-50 years telling our young that they should have “self-esteem”, and that they should be more into expressing themselves than learning to be accurate, or even learning from others from whom they disagree. A necessary corollary of this is that you believe yourself to be the definition of what is good and worthy of expression. You yourself are righteous. Thus we have spent more than a generation telling ourselves that “we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us” (twisted aside: anybody else find it ironic that the comedian that played Stewart Smalley is now a U.S. Senator?), and so telling them that they are righteous in themselves, they SHOULD BE self-righteous. It is good to be a Pharisee.

Of course, its sometimes hidden in “tolerance”, where we are called to tolerate all opinions, save those anachronistic troglodytes that are not tolerant, and the world will be so much better when they stop clinging to god and guns…… Or maybe it’ll all be good when those terrible people who believe in a religion are gone, or those irreligious atheists are gone, or <insert your favourite whipping boy here>….. You can see what I mean.

The gospel to a pharisee is far worse than to a despairing person. For the pharisee, the intimation that they are not actually as good as they imagine (and are in fact evil), since the ultimate definition of goodness isn’t them, but is God. Worse, this good God is actually so good that He really does hate evil, and thus hates our pharisaic tendencies.

The problem we Christians face is that this is a) cultural, so we have trouble catching this evil in ourselves and purging ourselves of it (and so people rightly see many of us as hypocrites) and b) a positive roadblock to the Gospel.

This isn’t helped much since we tend to focus our evangelism on the despairing sinner who knows they need mercy (God loves you), and actually adds strength to the pharisees, who need to know that the God who rules really hates evil, and we really are evil. We place our righteousness in us instead of in Him, and so honestly deserve the just wrath of God.

This is not good news to people who honestly believe they are good, or at least better than that group they hate. So far from seeing their desperate need for mercy, the pharisee culture reacts to the reign of God by demanding what right God has to define righteousness, or by claiming that God is evil, or by imagining that God hates all sin except mine.

The Pharisee is actually the most openly in rebellion to God, and rebels are rarely happy to be told of the rule of that which they rebel against. As a result the good news is very bad to this unprepared heart.

Despair and Sin

After some discussion, I’m finding that I have to explain what I mean when I say that the rarer form of unprepared heart for the Gospel is despairing sin.

Recall that my central understanding of the Gospel is that is at heart about the glory of Jesus Christ and the reign of His kingdom (Matt. 4:23). Jesus Christ rules over all things (Rev. 11:15), and that rule is evidenced both in wrath for sinners, and just mercy on some that was purchased on the cros (Rom. 9:22-23).

The problem for the exceedingly rare despairing sinner is not the conviction that they are sinners. They already have that. The problem for the despairing sinner is that the rule of a just omniscient God comes as bad news to this person. They are in rebellion to such a God, and know that they are, and so upon learning that there is such a God, despair because they cannot hope to measure up.

Unless their hearts are prepared, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for their sins is going to simply be too good to be true. They will prefer to have some mediating priesthood or action, or something, so that they can be sure that God is actually for them and not against them.

Biblically, this is the group Jesus and the apostles had the most success with at the get go. The only thing that the Spirit needs to convince such people is the love of God and the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection for their sins. In societies with a strong basis in an objective morality, the preaching of God’s love through the cross will be effective.

However, this group is very rare in modern culture. In fact, I’ve only ever met a handful of this group. In order to be in this group you have to have enough of a background that would convince you both of the reality of objective morality and that you are in transgression of that. Since the first step is openly denied in modern western culture, it is going to be rare to find people who are convinced that they are in transgression of it. What few that do get past that step, run up against the modern imperial I, and the belief that the objective morality is personally defined (thus everyone is always completely moral, since they define morality).

That is why I believe that Phariseeism is the far more common opposition to the Gospel in modern hearts, and why I believe that the current focus on the truth of God’s love to the exclusion of God’s wrath is probably doomed in modern society.

The Gospel is Never Good News to an Unprepared Heart

Sounds like a bit of an internal contradiction, doesn’t it? After all, Gospel is by definition Good News, that’s what the word means. So why the provocative title?

Well, the simplest answer is that I’ve been doing some pondering while reading a few books. It slows down my reading speed a lot, but I think I get more out of it this way. In the first place, it is because I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel is not primarilly about my salvation, as it is not primarilly about me at all. That sentence is enough to get me pilloried in some circles, but it seems to be quite clear when we realize that the Gospel is centrally about the Glory of Jesus Christ; the Kingdom of God (of which He is king). (see 2 Cor. 4:4)

This meets humans in one of two broad places, both of which see this possibility as very bad news indeed. The first group, the vintage Pharisee, sees this as bad as fundamentally it takes away from him the centrality of the Gospel. The Gospel (or indeed the entire universe) ceases to be about him, and becomes about some man/deity. He no longer can claim to be making god propitious to him, but instead needs to rely on another alien propitiation. He approaches the judgement seat of heaven and finds it already occupied (for the judgement seat is also a throne, and it does not have space for the pharisee). The pharisee cannot see the reign of God in Christ as good news, because in his heart of hearts, he wanted the job, and secretly believes it to have been stolen from him.

The second group, still in a problem situation, are the despairing sinners. These people actually recognize that they have done wrong in the world, and either seek to pretend that there is no justice in the world (so they can get away with it), or that if there is justice in the world, they cannot receive it. For these people, the reign of God fills them with dread, because this very fact means that the things they do, which they know to be wrong, cannot be thought of well by any just king of the universe.

In all people there is a smattering of both, but I believe that the Pharisee is far more common in the modern world than the despairing sinner. I believe that this misunderstood fact is behind both the plethora of bad “missional” theology, and the plethora of bad “dogmatic” theology.

In the end, there is a need to be brought back to the cross of Christ, where the reign of Christ can bring the usurper pharisee to humility, and the despairing sinner to hope. In both cases though, the cross of Christ must be applied to the situation. Without that, and without the preparation of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts, the Gospel as it actually is will be bad news to most.

Note: for the sake of explanation, a bad theology is any theology that differs from God as He is revealed in scripture and in so doing seeks to usurp the glory of Christ. I leave it to the reader to decide if I am guilty of such bad theology.