So What? 

 

So What?

 “’You like to tell true stories, don’t you?’ he asked, and I answered,

 ‘Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.’ “

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

 

This generation is asking something different than my generation in the 1970’s. Don’t worry—this is not a “bash the young generation by the old geezer” statement. In fact, as opposed to many of my peers, I think this generation, what some folks call the “millennials”, is brilliant, creative, and yes, skeptical. Skeptical in a very good way, but this is also where you are scaring the old folks.

Let me explain. I have taught in the college classroom now for over 30 years. It used to be that we (professors, pastors, teachers, rabbis—authority figures) could get away with this mode of teaching: “I said it; it’s true because I said it. Now you accept it. Test on Friday.” In other words, consume the information and show me you know the information by scoring high on an objective exam. Congratulations, you’re a success!

But we (see above) know that this does not work anymore. Unfortunately, it is much easier to blame the millennials for laziness, apathy, and short attention spans rather than admitting that we just don’t get it. Get you. What I am saying here is that your skepticism is healthy and warranted. In a generation that has grown up flooded with images and screens, you of all people, understand the beauty of images and the emptiness of screens. Images display and reveal and show in ways that words cannot. You know the old cliché, and yes I will spare you.

But you also know that humans use images and screens to manipulate you and sell you and remind you of the impossible dream be it a beach that is paradise or a body that is perfect. You have learned by now that so many are on the take. It seems that everybody wants something from you.

But I am off on a tangent as my students would say, and I am definitely skating on thin ice with so many generalizations.

Why would I say that your skepticism is healthy? And by the way, notice I did not use the word “cynicism.” That’s an entirely different ballgame. A cynic is someone jaded to most everything and everyone in the world and expects nothing good from anyone. The word “cynic” literally means “flesh eater” or “cannibal” if you prefer. But a skeptic. A skeptic is someone who questions and probes and searches and frankly does not listen to authority figures just because, well, they’re authority figures. I remind my students to question everything I say and at all times. I want my students to be skeptical and questioning.

One of the major reasons you are skeptical is because your generation no longer equates religious belief with a priori truth.  A priori truth is universal, timeless, and absolute and, above all, known with certainty by the light reason alone.  The Pythagorean Theorem is an a priori truth, and so is the belief that “5 + 7 = 12,” but, as your generation has come to recognize, claims about the existence of God, eternal life, salvation, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life are not.  Your belief or lack of belief in these kinds of things is the product of your lived-experience, that is, your day-to-day experience of and dealings with a world that is confusing and paradoxical, a world that is beautiful at one moment and, then, tragic and seemingly meaningless or indifferent at the next.  What do we do with the events in our lives that don’t make sense—those swift arrows shattering us and leaving us in chaos and questions? There are no easy answers; and yet, to many of my generation, “truth” should be enough. “All things work together for good.” Really?

As a result, many of you have grown impatient and dissatisfied with priests, pastors, and teachers who base their authority and claims about God in the a priori.  They say, “The truth of God’s existence resides in every human mind.  Humans, then, just need to get in line and live in conformity with the truth.”  But you know that the situation we are in is not so simple, that such insight is not easily attained.  Life and the pursuit of truth are not that simple. My day-to-day existence questions many of the truth claims that I read and hear. This is what I love about your generation. You admit it. And this is why you’re rattling the cages of church and college. You know longer let your priests, pastors, and teachers justify their authority with an appeal to a priori truth.  In fact, your attitude toward the authoritative voices of this age is much like that of the Enlightenment in relation to the early church.[1]

In the not so distant past, truth was based on authority and claims of certainty but not the search for truth and the quest of meaning. But then came along Galileo and Newton and Copernicus and Einstein—those dangerous skeptics who dared question authority. They were either fathers or children of Enlightenment, modern thinking also. Notice the word “light” in Enlightenment. These were individual thinkers who shined a light into the darkness. And what was the darkness? It was the darkness of ignorance.  Galileo is one very famous example here. He taught that the earth revolved around the sun. He observed through his telescopes and scientific calculations that earthlings live in a heliocentric world and not a geocentric world. The official church did not like what Galileo was saying. Why? Because, very simply, there is a verse in the book of Joshua, in the Old Testament, where God holds the sun still while Joshua and his Israelites battle against their enemies. To the authority figures in the church, this was proof that the sun revolved around the earth. To question this “truth” would be a question to the authority of Scripture. Galileo was given a choice. He could deny his scientific findings or suffer severe consequences. He folded. But he did get the last word in. It is said that on his deathbed he took his false confession back.

Of course, you and I know that Galileo was right and the church was wrong. The earth does revolve around the sun. Galileo, one father of the Enlightenment, shined a light into the darkness not only of ignorance, but also, arrogance. The church was arrogant once again because it operated on a priori knowledge, which for them was based on the Bible. According to them, even before science came along, God knew, and the Scripture writers knew that the sun revolved around the earth. The Bible said; that settles it. This is what I mean by arrogance and ironically it was one more deflation of the notion of a priori knowledge. Someone had to be wrong and it wasn’t Galileo. Thus ironically, it was the church that tamped down questions and in turn removed mystery.

I cannot help but think of Pilate’s searing question to Jesus at this point. “What is truth?” For almost 2,000 years we have condemned Pilate for his question. Not so fast. Is this not the most important question we as human beings are asking? What is true? How do I know it’s true?

And this is the question many of your generation are asking:

“Does it matter?”

So when I was in college back in the 70’s and early 80’s we were asking, “What is true?” However, we were taught that we could know absolute truth absolutely without a shadow of doubt. Moreover, I was also taught that correct thinking and behavior would guarantee a successful life. And furthermore, I was taught that to go out into the world to teach the truth by proving the truth. I will speak about this later in the essay, but all of these nice, comfortable “truths” have been shattered by real life. But most millennials are ahead of the game on this one.

Your generation is asking the same question, “What is true,” but in a very different way. And your questions are disturbing the status quo. You’re rocking the old gospel ship. Most of you want to know “Does it speak to me?” Does the Bible have anything to say to my life right now in the present?

Who cares at the end of the day?

So what if Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt over 3,000 years ago. What does this have to do with me in my everyday life? Christ rose from the grave almost 2,000 years ago. What difference does it make? I would venture to say that no matter where you are in your Christian walk, you are probably bored with the Bible. The Bible may be a true story to you, but it’s not a story that is true.

And it’s at this point in the conversation where THE sermon enters. You know the one I’m talking about. The sermon that you need to read your Bible every day, and if you don’t, then God will not bless your life. There’s the guilt, now come the steps to success, i.e. multiple ways of disciplining ourselves.

But hang on here. It has mystified me for years that we have to discipline ourselves to read a book that is supposed to be true and life giving. I mean really. What does it say about Christianity that its practitioners must force themselves to read their sacred texts?

What’s the problem? Where did we lose our way?

I’m out on a limb anyway here so might as well go on out. Not only are most Christians bored with the Bible, but also they are bored with God. And I think one major reason is very simple. We already know God. We think we can actually comprehend God and explain God and even prove God. Remember all the nice things I was saying about the Enlightenment. Now I have something negative. Perhaps the children of the Enlightenment have overreached. In our modern worlds, many of us have made God in our own image, and we walk pleasantly hand-in-hand with a predictable God. The church father Augustine asked this question years ago: “What do I love when I love God?” Even more, “Whom do I love when I love God?” Do I merely love a reflection of myself, or do I love someone untamed and incomprehensible—someone who I definitely not me.

Why are we bored and secretly dissatisfied with God and the Bible? Because the human tendency for millennia has been to construct a God of paved streets with sidewalks, picket fences and green lawns. Nick Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter nails it here in his song “God is in the House.”

We’ve laid the cables and the wires
We’ve split the wood and stoked
the fires
We’ve lit our town so there is no
Place for crime to hide
Our little church is painted white
And in the safety of the night
We all go quiet as a mouse
For the word is out
God is in the house

Or maybe that’s too much my generation. Perhaps for your generation it is a great job with good money and stability and a world free from diminishing resources and escalating conflicts. Either way we need to admit this: we want God to make sense, to be reasonable, to act according to how we think God should act. Most of us have pretty high expectations of God—who God is and how God should act. In other words, most of us want a predictable God. We desire and at times demand a God who meets our expectations. So I think it’s safe to say that many Christians strike a bargain with God. I call it cause and effect theology. If I do A, then God will do B. In many ways, this could be the motto of modern American Christianity. If I give money to the church, then God will bless me financially. If I have my “quiet time” in Scripture, then God will make my day better. If I raise my children right, then surely they will turn out to be good people. In themselves these actions are not bad or wrong; however, we have to ask ourselves, “Do our motives emerge from the desire to understand God, or, rather, is this really a way to make our God predictable, and as a result, make our worlds predictable?”

I know this passion for a guarantee by personal experience. I grew up in the South right in the buckle of the Bible belt in East Tennessee. Everybody in my world was a Christian and a good one too. I was taught young that if you did right then God would do right by you. So I grew up serving God by preaching at the Rescue Mission in Kingsport, TN and teaching Sunday school in church. Then when it was time to enter college I took flight and went to a very conservative school for my education. Once again, if I do right, God will do right, was reinforced. By the time I hit 40 years of age, I had my PhD in Hebrew Bible and was teaching all over the world. And then the bottom fell out. I pretty much lost everything right down to being homeless for 3 months. I will spare us the details, but suffice it to say that I blame no one but myself. But still. I had served God for 35 years and woke up one day with almost nothing and my life in shambles. I had lost my way mostly because my predictable God went down in flames. What happened to God?

The truth is I wanted something in my life that would guarantee me that if I do this, then God is obligated to do such-and-so. My personal tragedies were a reminder that we are out of control. We want guarantees, and conveniently for Christians, we can “invent” a God who gives such a guarantee. In other words, Christians can use the methods and thinking of what I call an assured worldview to project an image of a God who removes questions and doubts. Ironically, our Christian worldview becomes a way of thinking which attempts to tame and reduce God to tidy categories so our worlds will be predictable. If God is predictable, then my world is predictable.

But then life takes a turn and sometimes for the worse. Just as I said previously, we can do most things right and yet all can still go wrong.

And this is where the questions come in. Our life experience does not meet our expectations, our goals and dreams. Put God and the Bible into the mix and the questions are intensified.  We will eventually come to the waters of doubt and questions, chaos and mystery. Questions come upon the scene to remind us that Christianity is the dance of certainty and uncertainty, grace and tragedy, assurance and doubt. The illusion of certainty is just that—an illusion.

So then, to use a slogan from my generation, how do we get back to the Bible? Or perhaps even better, how do we bring the Bible into our lives because it tells stories that are true, not just true stories? One reads the Bible because she should, and one reads the Bible because she wants to. There is a big difference here. It’s all in how we approach the text, or to put it another way—it comes down to my worldview as I approach the Bible.

Let me try to illustrate what I am saying. Everyone has a worldview. We get our worldviews from many places—genetics, family, school, church, and coaches—basically anything that has come into our lives. And all of these factors have impacted and framed our worldview. Therefore, I see the world through a lens that I have been given and one I have constructed. And most importantly here, I approach everything in my world with my worldview. So show me how you watch a movie, and I’ll show you how you approach the world. Show me how you treat other people, and I will see your worldview. Show me how you post on Facebook, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of how you read the Bible. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory or shaming way. All I am saying is that our worldviews drive us and shape us, and it is through our worldviews that we see our worlds. Again, our worldviews permeate everything we do.

Perhaps God reveals himself in mysterious ways that I could never imagine.

These tragic moments in our lives become a downturn in our worldviews, an overturning of the way we see, a radical disruption of the way we think. This is the mission statement of a critical thinking: “Thus says the LORD, ‘My ways are not your ways’.” As humans, we are finite in our thinking, and there is no possible way that we can have a “total” view of reality.

I will never forget a lecture by one of my favorite professors, Richard Averbeck. He was teaching a class of seminary students and began to list his rules for reading the Bible. “Number one,” he began. With pen in hand I was eagerly waiting to hear the first principle of interpretation. “I am wrong, “he said. We all sat there in class staring blankly at him. I was thinking to myself, “OK, get on with it, and let us hear the first principle.” He repeated his statement, “I am wrong.” Then he proceeded to remind us of our human limitations and our propensity to think we know when we actually don’t know. What he was teaching was this of course—when I come to the Bible, the first principle of reading the Bible is… “I am wrong.” Dr. Averbeck went on to explain that we are also right because we can learn and we have worldviews that give us unique insights into the Scriptures, but I have never quite recovered from Rule #1. He was inviting us to live in the tension of being right and wrong in the same moment.

What, though, places us on this path of humility? I would argue partly that tragedy, disruption, and the discovery that I have been blind are the first steps to a relationship with God. The critical, searching reader can usher in a critique or crisis to the confident religious promise that correct doctrine alone will lead to salvation or blessings. I would be the first to say that correct doctrine is essential to the Christian life, but I would also remind us that correct doctrine (thinking) begins not with the assurance that I am right, but with the humility that I am wrong, or perhaps better put, there are many things in life and faith that remain a mystery to me. The German poet Rilke told his young poet “love the questions.” Time and again, I have seen Christians use logic, or the rule of noncontradiction, or “evidences” in the attempt to prove the truth of Christianity.

Fortunately, your generation wants something more than mere evidence. I think you are searching and yearning for relevance. If the Bible is true, but it really does not speak to our daily lives in profound ways then is it really true. I think many of you are asking this and rightly so. If the Bible is irrelevant, so what if it’s true? Yes, the Bible speaks to us, but just as importantly, our minds and lives speak to the Bible. Inquiring minds want to know.

Most importantly though, the searching worldview would say that the certain, confident, assured way of thinking puts an end to mystery by bringing closure to the questions—ending the story. In the end, the extreme of modernism teaches me to hate and take flight from my question. Once again, our Lord said it best. “If we think we see, then we are blind. If we know that we are blind, then we see” (John 9: 39-41). There is an infinite paradox here in these words. True sight does not begin in sight. True sight, the sighting of the truth, begins with the acknowledgment that I am blind.

Therefore, this crisis of vision should not end in nihilism, but instead, lead to the yearning for more, a revelation of the presence of God. Out of the absence of God emerges the yearning for the appearance of God. Disruption, chaos, mystery, deep questions should lead to change. Tragedy is a doorway to redemption, and judgment is a prelude to salvation. My questions, rather than resulting in idleness and despair, should lead me to an intense relationship with God and passionate care for others.   These words recall Jeremiah’s central purpose of his prophetic calling, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). The day-to-day work of a critical worldview is to overthrow the arrogance and narcissism of the self. This newfound humility will compel me to not only search for truth but also to seek the face of God. Our generation easily recognizes the tragedy and emptiness of the twentieth century. But if the American Christian church remains squarely within a modernist theology, essentially turning a blind eye to tragedy because we offer glib answers to deep and disturbing questions, then for the first time in the history of the church we might find ourselves entirely irrelevant.

The search for truth is play and this way of thinking invites us to play with the text and to dance with the God of the text. In our current world, reading the Bible has become a very serious, even dangerous practice.  But when we read the Bible with such seriousness we forget that we are human and fallible. We forget that we are merely pilgrims searching for truth, and we have not arrived at our destination yet. In the end, the certain worldview is a failure to laugh—the refusal to play. Has the modern agenda taken away our ability to play with the text and to take great pleasure in our readings? Have we as Christians surreptitiously rejected the game because we cannot admit that at the end of the day we, like every other human, really don’t understand the game?

In our obsession for truth we have lost the delightful quest for meaning and relevance.

A critical worldview recognizes that mystery is not the death of truth but the playground where truth can swing. Again, listen to Umberto Eco’s words: “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” It was our Lord who said it best: “Truth shall set you free.” Free to read with questions and imagination. Free to reach out to others in love and compassion rather than attempting to prove that we are right. Most Christians are defending truth more than they are dancing with truth.  We already believe in truth, and we will spend our entire lives searching for truth. Then let truth compel us to God and then propel us into the world. We cannot comprehend God. Then let us dance with God. We do not understand the other peoples and cultures. Then let us dance with the others because our truth has set us free. I think Norman Maclean’s father in A River Runs Through It said it best: “You can love completely without complete understanding. That I have known and preached.”

Many of our Christian churches and schools today are experiencing the crisis of irrelevance and at the same time our postmodern culture is forcing us to rethink the educational model of the last century. In the past, Christian education has focused on training the mind to think well, and in so doing learn to read the Bible well. The overarching goal in schools has been one of intellectual assent and comprehension. In other words, if you can demonstrate the right knowledge (proper doctrine), then you are ready to enter the field of ministry or service. But there is an alternative. Schools that embrace some aspects of postmodern thought encourage both knowledge and relationship, for they understand that truth without relationship is irrelevance, and irrelevance is the most insidious error of all. They are beginning to ask the question we must answer in our generation: “So what?”

Let me end where I began. In Norman Maclean’s gorgeous novel, A River Runs Through It, we find Norman the son having a conversation with his Presbyterian father. They are talking about the recent death of Norman’s younger brother, Paul. It is the end of the novel, and father and son are attempting to understand their brother’s violent, tragic death. Even years later, the death of this beautiful young man makes no sense and remains wrapped in questions and mystery. This is the major gap in the story—how is it that such a beautiful fly fisherman could end his life beaten to death and dumped in an alley? Even the solid Presbyterian father searches for answers without landing on a question. The mystery must remain a mystery. But, the father and son know something in the midst of their questions and chaos. Norman can tell the story of his brother. This is where the following quote comes in: “’You like to tell true stories, don’t you?’ he (the father) asked, and I answered, ‘Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.’ “There is a fine distinction here. The father is interested in “true” stories, but the son wants to tell stories that are true.

What is the difference?

One wants to tell a story that is accurate and true, whereas the other wants to tell a story that is true, one that is as old as humanity itself, one that speaks to every human being and brings meaning to our lives. What do we do with the death of a loved one? This is usually the place where the overly religious chime in with an old saw, “All things work together for good.” Or “God knows best.” These are platitudes that quell the questions and terminate our search for meaning. Even worse, these uncritical worldviews diminish the loss of another human being. There are some things in life that will, yes must, remain mysterious. Life and death, God and Word are too complex to be diminished by simple answers. In my thinking, Christianity is not a religion of answers, but a litany of questions probing the questions that cannot be answered. Who do we think we are? God?

What do we do with those places in our lives that remain incomprehensible and muddled in darkness? Norman Maclean seems to say that we tell the story in a way that leaves the mystery alone, and yet, we can find truth and meaning without closing down the questions and diminishing our humanity. If an assured reading at its extreme can result in the triumph of reason over ignorance at best, then a searching worldview can be the invitation to mystery alongside reason and thus the fresh opportunity for understanding the Christian faith in profound, ever-new ways.  As long as we KNOW God and Word absolutely then we not only live in a world of illusion, but we also miss one of the greatest aspects of relationship—that day-to-day search to understand our lover and to be the beloved in one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. And we live in the most boring relationship possible—the predictable relationship. We can know God without fully comprehending God, and we can love God without complete understanding. The result is a daily quest to seek the knowledge and understanding of God, to long for the presence of God without the illusion that we will ever comprehend the glory of the Lord.

 

 

*Many thanks to Christina Camille Hudson and Anya Johnson. You both know why.


[1] Many thanks to Dr. Craig Streetman for his sage advice and expert wording on a priori truth.