Friday, August 20, 2010

i need some meaning i can memorize

I got a hunger and I can't seem to get full/I need some meaning I can memorize/The kind I have always seems to slip my mind - Bright Eyes

How is that a person can image God?  How can we walk as Christ walks and live as He lives even as we continue to reside on this earth?

These are the essential questions I am struggling with the most these days.  And I have found some insight from an unlike source: Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is the among the most unlikely sources of Christian inspiration because he is a well-known atheist, indisputable contrarian, and all-around crank.  But he's brilliant and a great writer.  He's also recently wandered further into the limelight as he was diagnosed with cancer and many evangelicals began to start movements to pray for his death bed conversion to Christianity.

I have recently picked up his book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, mostly because he is a great writer and dogged contrarian, both of which to some degree I also aspire to be.  I was in no way surprised by his skepticism towards the Christian faith as he repeated sneeringly refers to believers as "monotheists."  In his angrier moments, he fires flaming arrows at the heart of the brand of Christian theology as comfortable and worn as an old pair of house slippers.

How much vanity must be concealed--not too effectively at that--in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?  How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one's own sin?  How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to "fit" with the revealed words of ancient man-made dieties?

Not eaxctly the lighter side of atheism.  More the grizzled and vaguely angry veteran, Hitchens' most poignant critique of Christianity is not Niestchke's grand proclamation that God is dead but rather that Christianity itself is a dead religion.  In the same way that Latin as a dead language is incapable of producing any new words, Christianity is vacant intellectually and incapable of producing any new thoughts or insights.
Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago...  We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratched up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.

Is it true?  Are we ready to declare new thoughts about theology and God as impossible?  Are no new formulations of the Christian faith possible?

Regardless of our answer, we live in too many churches that act as if it is.  But if there is nothing left to be done, nothing new to discover about God, no new insight to be gained about His intentions for the world, then what is the point of the Christian life?  In the literal sense, what difference does it make?

What might have been the most startling aspect of the chapter for me was a story that Hitchens recounts about selecting an appropriate scripture to eulogize his father at his funeral in a chapel of the Church of England.  He picked a passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians (chapter 4, verse 8), "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and ifn there be any praise, think on these things."  He then explains his selection by saying,
I chose this because of its haunting and elusive character, which will be with me at the last hour, and for its essentially secular injunction, and because it shone out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.

And with that Christopher Hitchens, the most unlikely of sources, gave me as good of an insight into scripture as I had heard in months.

So why aren't we thinking new thoughts about God?  Why aren't we gaining new insights?  Mostly because of fear.

Don't believe me?  Just watch when someone tries.  Take, for instance, an author such as Rob Bell.  In his book, Velvet Elvis, he questions the centrality of doctrine in building a strong Christian faith by describing the Christian life as a trampoline and doctrines as the springs that hold it together.
This is where the springs on the trampoline come in. When we jump, we begin to see the need for springs. The springs help make sense of these deeper realities that drive how we live every day. The springs aren’t God. The springs aren’t Jesus. The springs are statements and beliefs about our faith that help give words to the depth that we are experiencing in our jumping. I would call these the doctrines of the Christian faith.

They aren’t the point.

They help us understand the point, but they are a means and not an end. We take them seriously, and at the same time we keep them in proper perspective…

In fact, its stretch and flex are what make it so effective. It is firmly attached to the frame and the mat, yet it has room to move. And it has brought a fuller, deeper, richer understanding to the mysterious being who is God. ...

Even his analogy is one that evokes the image of motion and energy.  The converse is a systematic theology built on stagnant doctrine brick by brick saying that a Christian who subscribes this view has quite a differenct experience of the Christian faith, "For him, faith isn't a trampoline; it's a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger."

Brian McLaren relates a similar idea in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy.  For him, orthodoxy is not a set concept that is now and forever incapable of being bent and stretched and questioned and reformed.  It is a set of beliefs that are articulated by a community in the process of living out the Christian faith together.
To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuff, and mounted on the wall...That, to me, is orthodoxy -- a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God.

If you need proof that these ideas are dangerous, divisive, and disfavored, just take a moment to google the names of the previous two authors and see how they are vilified.  For some "conservative" critics, the only new thoughts they ever have are critiques of someone else's thoughts.  As a people, Christians have become more critics than creators.  But in the essential picture of creation, fall, and redemption of the Bible, who is the creative force and who is the critical one?  When we spend all of our time opposing a new way of thinking, just who are we really imitating?

As Galileo put it, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.  I am always drawn to authors with new ideas because they might be able to help me understand a new aspect of the character of God.  Isn't that kind of the point of learning to know him more?  Is that even possible by only simple repetition of everything I have learned before?  If we cannot accept a new concept or the possibility that God might still have something left to reveal to us, then our faith really is as dead as Hitchens would have us believe.

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