Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rationalism and humanism, part 2: The theism of Jesus

In the current conversations in our culture, we use the word "theism" to mean a set of beliefs in which people acknowledge the existence of God.  This tepid definition leads to all kinds of interesting debates that create a lot of heat but don't generate much light.

So we get "atheists" who categorically deny the existence of any god, usually on rationalistic grounds.  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others set themselves up as spokespeople to throw rocks at the world's religions because, as they see it, most of the world's evils have been created by misguided, delusional religious people who believe in a god, and this belief makes them do all kinds of irrational things.  The atheists that I have read seem to be advocating one simple thing:  All of us religious people should wake up and realize that we're deluded, disavow our belief in whatever god(s) we accept, and begin to operate strictly from a rationalistic point of view.  I recently waded through the majority of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great.  The ultra-rationalistic Hitchens spends chapter after chapter railing against the evils of religion, setting up row on row of straw men -- Christians, Hindus, Muslims -- and then knocks them over with the mighty wind of his rational wit.  It's painful to read someone so blinded by his own assumptions.

Matt Chandler has said that atheists have two firm doctrinal positions: 1) there is no God, and 2) I hate Him.

On the other hand, you have Christians who have been scarred in the decades of debates over creationism and evolution who, as a kind of under-the-radar tactic to change the argumentative playing field, espouse something called "theistic evolution" or, in its latest incarnation, "intelligent design."  The argument for these positions goes basically like this: "Science has proven the mechanism of evolution, and we accept, by and large, a scientific view of the universe.  But at its foundations, the universe still requires a Creator, an intelligent designer, a God, to make all this work.  It's just too complex to be random."  What these advocates of theistic evolution don't often communicate very well is this:  their assertion that the complexity of the universe requires a designer, a creator (which I believe is a plausible mathematical and scientific argument) does not by any means prove that this creator is in fact the Bible's God.  At best, these arguments -- properly the province of science, not religion -- "prove" that someone is driving the scientific processes we observe around us.  They cannot prove who is in the driver's seat.

The way we use the word "theism" in our cultural conversations, to imply the simple existence of or belief in a god of some kind, is pretty weak.  Yet in many circles, we assume that Christianity is the same as "believing in God."  I can't tell you how many conversations I've had where, when the topic turns to faith, I've heard people say, "Well, I believe in God."  And if I understand them correctly, what they're saying is that this simple assertion of belief -- this cognitive assent -- should settle the question of whether they have faith, whether they're a Christian, whether they should go to heaven when they die. (Because that, in our current cultural conversation, is what believing in God is all about.  Right?)

I suppose it's proper to use "theism" as a simple philosophical category to separate those who speculate that there is a god of some kind from those who speculate that there is not a god of some kind.  It's helpful to be able to put people in categories.  What irks me is when "theism" and "Christianity" get lumped together as if they were one and the same thing.

The theism that we find in Jesus' words and actions is not the simple belief that God exists.  Interestingly enough, Jesus never argued for the existence of God.  Instead, Jesus talked about "the kingdom of God."  When you read the gospels -- if you haven't done that, why are you wasting your time on this blog? -- you find "the kingdom of God" running through Jesus' words and actions as a constant theme.  Take some time and ponder what Jesus was talking about.  As you look at what Jesus seemed to be saying and doing regarding God, you find that this phrase, "kingdom of God," is shorthand for a number of clear theological statements about who God is, what he is up to, and why it's important.  So "the kingdom of God" means, among other things:

  • God not only exists, but he is king.  He is the ruler of this kingdom.  Those who are in the kingdom -- under his rule -- have access to him and the fullness of life that he desires for his creation.  Those who reject God's sovereignty over themselves are outside the kingdom, cut off from the fullness of life God desires for his creation.
  • The kingdom of God is surprising.  It is not what we expect. In the words of Donald Kraybill, it is an "Upside-Down Kingdom."  The values of the kingdom run contrary to the rationalistic, humanistic systems we create.  Study what Jesus says about this kingdom and you begin to get a picture of a God whose values are diametrically opposed to the values we live by.
  • When a person discovers this kingdom, it draws them in.  Jesus repeatedly told stories about people who went out and sold everything they owned, gave up all their worldly treasures, abased themselves, lost their status and dignity, in order to participate in this kingdom.  
  • The kingdom of God is beyond our power.  It grows without our effort and it moves according to the presence and power of the God who reigns supreme in it.  It is not geographic -- it might be more appropriate to call it the "kingship" of God.  
  • The kingdom of God is not a set of rules to live by.  Rather, it is a relationship of abject slaves to their absolute sovereign.  (Yes, I know that's offensive language.  That's because you're a 21st century rationalistic humanist.)  

When we start reading the gospels, we generally read from our own perspective, from our own point of view.  So I read, "love your enemies" and set out to do so.  It's a hard standard, a challenging proposition, a difficult task.  But I can begin to work toward this goal.  The deeper I go, the more I try to do these things, though, the more frustrated I will become.  What does it mean that Jesus says I have to hate father and mother to follow him?  What does he mean that I will never find my life unless I lose it?  What does he mean when he says that apart from him, I have no life in me?

We do not start from a point of really getting what Jesus says.  Instead, we read and hear trying to make sense of these things.  As Jesus' words and actions frustrate us, we may begin to grow more and more able to see things from his perspective.

So when Jesus says that there are two commands at the top of the list -- love God, first, and love your neighbor, second -- I may read these things from a shallow level in which I say, "I will go to worship and sing songs to God about how much I love him; and I will find ways to care for the people around me."  These two goals fit nicely into rationalistic humanism, and I can work toward these goals and feel both challenged and smug.

But when I realize that truly loving a God who is absolutely sovereign over me might mean loving him when I lose my job, or my innocence, or my loved ones, I may find it hard to love him.  I may cry out against him, asking, "How could you do this to me?"  This is not the cry of an abject slave.

When Jesus says, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect," I may become frustrated that God doesn't seem interested in grading on a curve.  I may point to all my goodness, all the neighbor-loving I've done, and cry out, "What about this good stuff I've done?"  That is not the cry of an abject slave.

When I try to make sense of what Jesus tells me, and I realize that Jesus isn't satisfied with my moral conduct; he doesn't agree that my family is highest priority; he refuses to respect my opinions or my experience; he isn't reasonable when it comes to my budget or my time management; at these times, I lash out against Jesus and these demands of absolute sovereignty.  I just want to have a little for myself -- a little time, a little money, a little satisfaction, a little credit.  This is not the attitude of an abject slave.

The slave's cry is, "Yes, sir."

When we gain some distance from our cultural context, we might begin to ask some difficult questions. For example, Jesus calls me to love God and love my neighbor.  What does it mean to love my neighbor?  Better yet, what is love?  Culturally we have enshrined love as the chief and highest value.  We say inane things like, "It's okay as long as you love each other."  Or, "Love is the most important -- any two people who love each other should be allowed to express that love."  But what is love?  Is it a warm feeling?  A commitment to an individual?  A sexual desire?  A craving?  How is love distinguished from happiness?  Is there any relationship between these two words?

Without an external frame of reference, we cannot define love.  So when Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, our first question as finite humans must be, "What does it mean to love?"  Left to ourselves we have no good answer, for (look around if you don't believe this to be true) all of our answers have demonstrated their shallowness, their bankruptcy.  In moral, personal, and romantic terms all our cultural definitions of love have failed over and over again.

Love lies at the heart of Christianity.  It is no wonder our culture struggles to know what it means to follow Jesus.  We are adrift when it comes to love; yet Jesus is the ultimate definition of love, according to the Bible.

And so the assumptions of our cultural context -- individualism, rationalism, humanism -- have gutted Christianity, removing Jesus' identity as "Lord" and promoting in its place Jesus' identity as "Savior."  It's about me and what I need.

When I realize my own status as an abject slave under an absolute sovereign, I begin to see that even my own perception, my own reasoning, my own understanding of the way things are, is suspect.

From 2000 until about 2010, I started reading Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least a dozen times.  Each time I would read the first page and stop cold.  (Finally in 2010 I began to read past the first page.)  The first page includes this quote:

"Man at his origin knows only one thing: God.  It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows other men, of things, and of himself.  He knows all things only in God, and God in all things ... he can know God only if he knows only God.  The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God."

This quote begins to get at what a radical departure Jesus requires.  Jesus does not call us to make sense of his stories or to understand him.  He doesn't call us to belief in the sense of cognitive assent, as in "I believe Jesus rose from the dead."  He calls us to the kind of single-minded existence that says I will know only God, through Jesus who reveals him.  As God sees fit, and only as God sees fit, I will come to know other things, other people, and even (maybe especially) myself.  This is why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Or that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and not lean on our own understanding.

Rationalism and humanism are problematic precisely because they both seek to make sense of the world in terms apart from knowing God through Jesus.

Let's stop there for a while.  There's lots more to be said about this.  Soon we'll begin to describe what biblical faith might look like in the 21st century, and how it applies to some of our cultural conversations.


  1. I see why you stopped "Ethics" after the first page. That was a twister.

    Looking forward to Part III.

  2. Yes, a twister, but so worth thinking about. I'm always amazed at how Bonhoeffer uses lots of little words that I think I understand, but strings them together in ways that make my head hurt. I suspect more and more as I read more and more of his stuff, though, that he gets biblical Christianity in a way that few people do.