Like a cool morning mist, fall is gradually settling on New England. Having been raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it’s a different and enjoyable experience for me to now live in a place that has proper seasons. In New Mexico, summer lingers until about mid-October. The fall leaves are lovely—mostly golden cottonwoods—and the fall temperatures last until almost Christmas. Winter lasts all of two months, if that, and it starts to feel like spring again in February. Continue reading “The Heights and the Depths:” Considering the Seasons of Life
There is one Body, and there is one Church.
There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.
But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.
This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”
Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”
It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.
The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”
While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.
Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.
And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.
And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.
For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.
The Harvest is past, summer is ended and we are not saved. –Jeremiah 8:20
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3
When I was growing up I was always picked to play a shepherd in the manger scene. I’m a red headed, Caucasian male with not a drop of blood tracing back to the Holy Land, but I could stand still and be quiet (more or less) so I was perfect for the part. Luke 2 was a favorite chapter to act out during grade school Christmas programs, and for the past two decades, on every first Sunday of December I’ve watched the lighting of the first candle of Advent. From a young age I’ve performed rituals that cultivate anticipation.
Growing up I sang lots of Christmas carols about the coming of Christ, but never about the four hundred years of silence previous to his arrival. There was an emphasis on preparedness for Christ’s coming into the world, but there is a significant difference between anticipation for the month of December and waiting four hundred years. How long can you anticipate something without an intermittent status report or confirmation? What is it like to live in four centuries of silence?
I imagine my ancient ancestors, who didn’t anticipate a Messiah, were more familiar with silence then I am. I live in a world where expectation is celebrated every year for itself. Every Sunday the church is preaching, teaching, and singing about God’s love, his works, and his promises for the future. What would it be like for it all that to gradually go silent? And how long does it take for silence to encourage doubt—for it to make me rush to something talkative and loud? Israel once begged Moses for God to not speak to them “lest they should die.” But how long does he remain silent before you feel the anticipation of non existence?
Emmanuel –God with us—hasn’t always been a comfortable concept. “God with us” was a terrifying reality when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai. It was probably a distant memory for the anointed King David when he roamed the wilderness as an outlaw. For Ahab it was a rouge curse as Elijah cut the throats of the prophets of Baal in the light of heavenly fire. Emmanuel is a heavy reality—inviting a submission that can’t be volunteered by a hardened heart, and the obedient are always driven by Kings and nations into the wild places of the land. As Spurgeon says “men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.”
Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s remnant is pushed into the margins; sometimes the wilderness or as some exiled minority in a foreign city. When this happened Jerusalem became their orientation—it was the city of the temple, the place where God met with man. Inside the Holy of Holies God’s presence dwelled until it was pushed by disobedience into the tongues of the prophets. They prophesied to the nation and were killed by the nation. Zachariah is killed between the altar and the sanctuary. The reader finishes the fourth chapter of Malachi and then it goes quiet.
Four hundred years, roughly the same amount of time between Joseph and Moses. This would have been similar to the generations of Israelite slaves who slowly forgot the God of Jacob as they sweat under the whips of the Pharaoh. This would be four hundred years of building a nation that isn’t their own and giving birth to slave children threatened by population control. Four hundred years in subjection to Egyptian gods, Egyptian rule, and Egyptian scorn with no word from God.
Malachi stops writing and the situations are similar. Israel never regains sovereignty from foreign nations and is swapped between the Gentile kingdoms of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Four hundred years—the excruciating pause before Incarnation.
From the barren places of the earth God sends a wild man. John the Baptist emerges—the voice of the nation’s remnant. As if the marginalized, abused presence of God in Israel was shaking with impatience John jumps out of the wilderness with a voice loud enough to be heard across the divide of four centuries. A voice so loud and direct that it could be heard through the span of history, from the ears of Moses to Elijah to the Jew under the Romans washing for repentance in the Jordan River. The spirit of the slain righteous shouts the culmination of their prophecies—the flesh blood reality of Emmanuel.
“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”
There he sits. We wait one season at a time as creation groans. We anticipate and suffer in silence. We light the candles and count out the years, knowing that when he comes, it will be exactly at the right time.
Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” has been playing through my mind at odd hours recently. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give the plot away, but it’s built on a premise of fearing the thing which your own fear creates. If you had not feared it in the first place, it would never have been anything to fear.
The fear of never being happy is something akin to that. Not actual unhappiness, mind you, but the state of fearing unhappiness. It is nebulous enough to be the perfect beast in the jungle. Whenever the landscape even slightly begins to resemble a jungle, a stray branch here and there, our hearts turn to look for the beast. Here comes unhappiness. We expect nothing less.
This fear can happen equally in moments of happiness. You’re driving down the freeway in your new car. Your hand rests on the thigh of the spouse of your dreams as you hurtle toward the beautiful city of your ideal job. The promotion you just received at that job is what paid for the car- in cash. You just got accepted to the graduate school of your dreams. Key relationships in your life are on the mend…Where does your mind go? If it’s anything like mine, it goes immediately to the fear of losing it all, or any of it.
British pop star Natasha Beddingfield sings these lyrics in one of my favorite songs: “I see the girl I want to be, riding bareback, carefree, along the shore.” Sure, they’re silly, hip-hop, late teen angst lyrics. So? I’ve been that girl: I’ve ridden bareback, carefree along the shore. Literally. It was glorious. Yet I immediately distrusted my happiness. I can feel the tendency acutely, the automatic, almost assumed, fear: loss of the present good. In that moment of abundance, when our entire lives are almost exactly how we want them to be, we look for the beast.
I’m not even addressing the fleeting joys of material possession. Relational & spiritual statuses are included. We are talking about experiencing a good and real and total kind of happiness, and still fear comes instantaneously. Why do our hearts turn to this doubt of continuance- that what is, won’t endure? Rather than looking for the abundance of God’s love poured out to us in ways that are obvious and tangible and in our native language, we search for the hidden terribleness beneath it all.
This is a not-so-subtle subversion of the Gospel. The tenets of our faith are exactly the opposite: Beneath all the evil we see, the great love of God will triumph. Satan prowls the earth, but Christ holds the keys of hell, and against the gates of heaven the devil will not prevail. Where do these fundamental gospel beliefs go when we stare in the face, not of evil, but of good?
They dissipate. At their base, the subconscious beliefs driving the distrust of present goods stem from bad theology of two kinds. The first is a complete reversal of the belief tenets laid out above: Evil is rampant and God’s goodness is only a break point in a monotonous routine of Satan’s ultimate triumphs. Heaven may be heavenly, but hell is more widespread. When goodness happens, it’s bound to be fleeting.
The second perversion of the truth is more subtle, for it has more of a biblical ring to it: the Lord is Lord of good and evil. If “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” sums up our entire theology, we may as well abandon any auspices of a unique worldview and join the Stoics. The Lord does give and the Lord does take away. One cannot read the entire Bible and not be fully impressed by that fact. But there is a clear hierarchy and a uni-directional timeline.
“For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” the Lord tells the Israelites in Isaiah. Be shocked by the supposedly all-loving Lord’s admittance of desertion, but be aware of the details. Brief moment. Great compassion. The moment of desertion is not greater than the following compassion, nor are they equal. “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Paul tells us in Romans. Not. Worth. Comparing. The language here does not allow the experience of suffering to be isolated, exalted, or equalized with the glory. Lamentations offers a similarly obvious ordering: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion.” The Lord causes grief, no denial there either. But he will have compassion “according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” The flood preceded the rainbow and a new life. The cross led to resurrection. The Babylonian captivity transitioned to the return to Jerusalem. Every ancient biblical story embedded in our culture follows this narrative arc. Moment of grief, then the great compassion. 40 days of flooding–a new population. Death for three days–the path to eternal life. There is reversal of neither order nor apportionment of glory.
There is a great correlation between the man who stands in his soul’s dark night and despairs of God’s presence, and the man who stands in great abundance and despairs of God’s impending absence. The former man fears God will never return; the latter man fears He will soon leave. Both are the renderings of that union with God which Aquinas calls Love. Both are a reversal of the truths described above.
So why do our hearts look for the beast in the jungle to spring? In other words, why do we anticipate in wealth the sudden Job-like stripping of our experience of God’s manifold blessings? The fact that it would be Job-like is not enough to justify such a worry. The belief re-creates narrative lines in the Bible where God performs the role of the feared blessing-stripping. However, Scripture also supports a deeper view that God also, and more ultimately, wants us to experience His blessings. The great and arduous expressions of His love throughout the Bible should make us look for the bountiful feast when we see a jungle, and nothing less. ‘
I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.
I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.
The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the Essay, The Sillingfleet Correspondence.
In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.
If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:
Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.
How did he take us here?
“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”
Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.
For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.
If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.
As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.
But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.
If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.
‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”
Consider Locke’s description of faith.
Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.
Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.
In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?
Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)
Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.
Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘
I read romances during church.
Or so GK Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy, (see my previous post for a overview). When my congregation recites the Apostles’ Creed, we are declaring what Chesterton calls “the best root of energy and sound ethics…’orthodoxy’.” Christian Orthodoxy, he believes, is the root and fount of romance.
Before elaborating on Chesterton’s connection between orthodoxy and romance, I should poke deeper into what Chesterton means by ‘romance’. When he says ‘romance’, he doesn’t mean dinner and a sunset stroll on the beach. Romance is the profound excitement and wonder that springs from being in love—not only sexual love, but in Chesterton’s case, a deep love for earth that is rooted in our love for God: a longing for God that inspires a love of ‘earthy’ things.
Romance is chosen: commitments take intentionality and work. And yet romance is also an accident: thus the phrase ‘love happens’. To a degree, we really do “fall” in love. Chesterton compares the experience to “dropping into poetry.” It is fostered by our freely willed behaviors, and certainly requires consent, but there is no equation for romance, no test tubes bubbling with liquid love. Chesterton rightly acknowledges that romance is both mysterious and absolutely compelling:
The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.
So then we return to the original question: What does Chesterton mean when he says ‘orthodoxy’—which he says “means the Apostles’ Creed”—is romantic?
Romance has elements that make it romance. Consider orthodoxy in light of other particulars: what makes patriotism, marriage, and orthodoxy examples of romance? What do they have in common?
All contain the paradox of being accidental and chosen. We don’t choose the country we were born into or the person we find ourselves in love with. Also, we don’t choose that God the Father “created the heavens and the earth,” that Jesus was incarnated, crucified and resurrected to the right hand of the Father or that the Holy Spirit has established a holy catholic church that promises fellowship, forgiveness and resurrection to eternal life. In other words, we didn’t choose the truths of orthodoxy.
But we do choose to believe them. The beloved accepts the lover’s proposal on the strength of invisible love, has enough affection for her country to question its faults without questioning its existence or has faith in the creed’s unseen truths.
Love is not comprehended, and it isn’t controlled. We can’t prove love—there is no geometric or modus ponens proof. Yet somehow, in a wild and mysterious way, human beings continually find love so certain that we will live (and sometimes die) for a romance. I’ve yet to see a person live or die for a proof.
Orthodoxy takes us outside ourselves and, in so doing–in seeing how small we are in the cosmic scope of God and His creation–we also find our highest significance:
It has been often said, very truely, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. (Chesterton)
The romance of orthodoxy lies in the God that the Creed pronounces—one that Chesterton finds mysterious and transcendent, but also imminent and certain, the foundation of existence. That is not to say Christianity is without evidence…Chesterton just does not believe that experimental evidence is sufficiently persuasive. People need more than logic:
I will not pretend that this curt discussion is my real reason for accepting Christianity… I have another far more solid and central ground… And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one.
The Christian Church lives in Jesus, and in turn, offers the “huge and ragged and romantic rock” of orthodoxy, comprised of powerful and perilous doctrines surpassing understanding, but requiring that we accept the thrilling adventure. We say ‘I do’ in response to a living God, Instructor of the joy of Creation, tragedy of crucifixion and final cosmic comedy of resurrection and eternal life. ‘
I have a bone to pick with G.K. Chesterton about his book Orthodoxy. It took me a ridiculously long time to read. He just had to go and make every sentence so delicious and profound that I was forced to sit back after every line in order to laugh at his wit or furiously scribble notes.
Think I’m making things up? I’ll open the book to three random sections and write down a sentence from each:
“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms: it means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”
“In that sense [that action desires limitation] every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”
“The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.”
Case in point.
Here’s another problem: I read Orthodoxy for the first time less than a year ago, and re-read it this past week, but I could swear Chesterton took it off my shelf and re-wrote it during the interim. I was floored by it then, but I was stunned by the second read with greater potency than the first.
And also, of all of writers, Chesterton would be the one to devise such a prank.
Philip Yancey is spot-on when, in the introduction, he writes that Chesterton “preferred the role of jester.” Chesterton dresses his words in the bright, vivid colors of rollicking wit. This makes it all the more unexpected when, mid chuckle, one realizes that Chesterton just explained a wretchedly abstruse enigma in two sentences…and in a joke, no less!
Chesterton does not tackle the difficult subjects—he blows them over with a hardy “HA!
Orthodoxy is a comedic romance: it recounts the intellectual journey of Chesterton, the self-proclaimed “fool of this story,” through “elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.” The ‘obvious’ is Orthodox Christianity, made “perilous” and “exciting,”, says Chesterton, by a delicate, yet perfect equilibrium between egoism and altruism, materialism and mysticism, determinism and freewill, hate and love, saint and sinner, and so on–all while in pursuit of Christ, the fully Man and fully God.
Orthodoxy is also a book of comparison and contrast. Scientists, Nihilists, Buddhists, Unitarians…none escape Chesterton’s sharp eye and sharper wit.
He brings Orthodoxy against essentially every other possible worldview, faith, and philosophy, only to, with deep respect and good humor, hold them naked to the light of penetrating analysis. He strips pretense from all, demonstrating rationalists to be fantastical and revealing Buddhists as apathetic ‘quietists’. By the close, Chesterton brings his reader to a rich understanding of where he began—Orthodoxy. The perilous, exciting tradition of rational mysticism.
In the second chapter, Chesterton writes:
The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland…If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them…sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.
Orthodoxy has been accused of every excess and every corresponding deficiency. The reason, Chesterton points out, is that Orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” has always maintained a constant course between extremes—taking truth from each and holding them in tension. The ironic result is that Orthodoxy is called extreme by both sides.
No matter who the reader is, Orthodoxy can challenge her to look at the world with new wonder. For me, as one prone to rationalism, reading Chesterton caused me to look at a tree and think, “What a bizarre creation! Wood growing out of the ground—how fantastically absurd!”
For one who leans towards skepticism, Chesterton affirms that “reason is itself a matter of faith,” and free thought “exhaust[s] its own freedom” into weary despair.
I particularly enjoyed his response to libertarians who scorn tradition for the sake of free love and pleasure:
Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once…It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.
Orthodoxy is a fiercely joyful trek through cold mountaintops and scorching deserts to the Christian faith. It is, at the core, the fairy tale of Chesterton’s journey to Christ. Simultaneously, as he says, it is also a “riddle and its answer…solitary and sincere speculations and then…the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.”
Chesterton writes about recognizing Christian truth as if it were akin to waking on the first morning after a long trip and suddenly realizing, “Where am I? Oh, I’m Home!”
In Orthodoxy, he then opens the front door and invites us in for good conversation and a cup of tea, each taken with a good dose of vivacious mirth.
“That’s a cop-out,” I said mockingly, when a friend told me that he prefers to call himself “just a Christian” rather than an evangelical. My rude comment was out-of-place in our amiable discussion and I regret not apologizing at the time (in case he reads this: dude, sorry, really). The vehemence of my remark surprised me and caused me to wonder why I reacted as I did.
I realize now why I acted so irrationally: I’m afraid I’ll be the last person in America to embrace the term “evangelical.”
Naturally, I understand why some of my fellow evangelicals prefer not to be saddled with the label. The negative connotations imbued by both our friends and our enemies have weighted it down with unnecessary baggage. But I don’t think we should drop it altogether, especially for higher-level terms like “Christian.”
Of course to be an evangelical is to be Christian. Yet identifying oneself as a Christian is akin to saying you’re a North American. Globally speaking, North American can be a useful label for identifying the broad community in which you belong. But it is far too imprecise to be of much value if you’re talking to other norteamericanos. The term doesn’t specify whether you’re an American, a Canadian, or a Mexican. It doesn’t clarify if you live on the East Cost or in the Rocky Mountains or in big city or in a small village. It doesn’t give any clues to whether you might be offended by jokes about Newfies or snicker at quips about Aggies.
The reason we have labels like New Yorker or Alaskan or Puerto Rican is because geography often–though not always–says something about us, about our heritage, and about how we view the world. “Labels are useful only if they make legitimate distinctions,” says theologian Richard Mouw. “They serve us well when they are informative, when they tell us something important about the person who chooses a specific label.”
I agree, which is why I self-label with care. For instance, over the past four years I’ve lived in Illinois and Virginia, yet if you ask me where I’m from I’ll say I’m from Texas. Similarly, I go to a non-denominational Bible church and yet, while I haven’t stepped foot into a Baptist church in half a decade, I still consider myself a Southern Baptist (and, in typical SBC fashion, at least a dozen churches still count me on their roles as an “active member”).
Perhaps I cling to my geographic and denominational heritage out of a sense of rootlessness, a condition all-too-common among American evangelicals. I suspect what keeps me near is also what causes so many to leave evangelicalism altogether.
Related: Glenn Lucke has some insightful comments on grad students who reject the evangelical label
I am often baffled by the willingness of some of grad student believers to bend and blur their beliefs and practices in order to fit in. In countless scenarios, I’ve listened while formerly evangelical grad students engaged mightily in what sociologist Erving Goffman termed “impression management.” (See his Presentation of Self In Everyday Life.)
A part, but just a small part, of this pertains to the evangelical label. However, few of the specific ‘post-evangelical’ sophisticates that I’ve personally met call themselves “post-evangelical” because of the difficulties in determining the concept of evangelical. Probing conversation usually reveals that it’s a nervousness about being excluded in the academic environment in which the enculturated dispositions are fairly hostile to evangelicals.
More important than the label is the desire to adjust, bend, distort, and blur beliefs and practices in substantive ways, i.e. about matters of historic orthodoxy. Again, these friends and acquaintances seek to signal to the Powers that, “I’m in the club. I’m not radioactive. I’m not like those freaks.” Never mind that sometimes ‘those freaks’ are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, pastors and college buddies. More bizarrely, those freaks are sometimes people in the sophisticate’s current church, even small group.