Learning to Assess Spiritual Truth with Humility, Balance, and Historical Perspective
“Do you not yet νοειτε (understand)? Do you not remember…? How is it that you fail to νοειτε (perceive)?—Matthew 16:9, 11
Two eras…two kinds of people
Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kinds of things they say.
With these words, C.S. Lewis introduced himself to the British public on the air of the BBC one Wednesday evening in the first week of August of 1941. They are also the words millions of readers since have encountered upon opening to Chapter 1 of Lewis’s immortal classic Mere Christianity, the book that grew out of Lewis’s wartime radio addresses.
These two sentences, and the shrewd sequence of ideas which follow, tell us several extremely interesting things. Most obvious is what they tell us about Lewis himself. They reveal a master, nay, genius, at work, subtly combining profundity and simplicity with devastatingly penetrating insight. For in the pages that follow, Lewis parlays this everyday observation into one of the most incisive arguments for the existence of God ever devised. Philosophically unexcelled, Lewis yet takes his listeners through a series of logical progressions with a clarity and lucidity that anyone can understand. The interweaving of wit and humor provide the icing on the cake. It is simply a remarkable display of perception and communication skill.
Lewis’s opening salvo and what follows also reveals something about the time. Christians and non-Christians alike did follow his train of thought, and many were persuaded by his argument. They followed the logic and were convinced of its truth because absolutes held sway as an undergirding basis for the way people thought. Lewis’s apologetic was based on absolutist thinking. When he adds in the next paragraph, “The other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard,’” Lewis is acknowledging this fact—that absolutes existed in the 1940s as a foundation for logic, dialogue, and reason. This is reinforced by the title of the first series of his talks, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” The words right and wrong meant something. There were, as Lewis goes on to explore, “absolute standards” everyone was aware of.
Seventy years have gone by since. Everything has now changed. Absolute standards in the general secular culture have vanished with the wind. Ours is an age of relativism in every field and discipline. This relativism pervades morals, ethics, politics, logic, personal accountability, finances, entertainment, government, advertising, education, law, justice, relationships…you cannot look at anything in our society without seeing relativism at work.
There remain but a few isolated segments of society where absolutist thinking still has meaning. Some Christians, and those hungry hearts who have begun to perceive the bankruptcy of modernity’s secular relativism, are still able to read Lewis’s argument and absorb its powerful truths. But on the streets of New York, San Francisco, London, Paris or Berlin where moral and ethical relativism reigns supreme, where hearts are too self-absorbed to hunger for God, where absolute concepts like right and wrong no longer contain practical meaning…modern men and women would say, “To hell with your standard.” Whether they could even follow Lewis’s ratiocinations is doubtful. But even if modernists could follow his logic, Lewis’s conclusions would mean nothing to them. Absolute truth in their world is a non-existent mirage.
Christians facing this titanic shift, and the assumptions it brings to modern discourse, are in a precarious position, though most don’t realize it. Because Christians aren’t being taught to think with acumen themselves, these trends have also infiltrated the church like an invisible fog. That is why I said above that some Christians are able to make sense of Lewis’s arguments. Many would not be able to. They are relativist thinkers too. Relativism exists throughout Christendom no less than in the general culture, with equally lethal results.
That is the reason for this book—because the challenge for Christians to equip themselves to think boldly about the precepts of their faith has never been so imperative as at this critical hour.
Having taken a glance back at the imagery Lewis used to begin his treatise on mere Christianity, let us move forward in our discussion of bold Christianity, taking the liberty of borrowing his idea and a few of his words to present a new image. It is one you will recognize as surely as Lewis’s listeners recognized his:
Everyone has stood at a store counter watching a clerk punch buttons so that his or her cash register will automatically tell what change to give you from your $20 bill for a $19.75 sale. It looks funny to see them wait for the .25 on the screen rather than just hand you a quarter, but however it looks I believe we can learn something very important from such incidents that take place all around us.
It is the difference between these two images that we must ponder with insight. People listening to Lewis’s words seventy years ago were able to think. People today can’t. Lewis’s image addressed his listeners’ logic and ability to follow an argument and draw intelligent conclusions. Today’s cash registers are designed to address the fact that people can’t use logic to draw intelligent conclusions. The two images illuminate what we’re up against. The momentum of our times is moving with unstoppable force in the opposite direction from perceptive thought. The moment we try to actually start thinking about things, we will be swimming upstream against our entire culture.
How many times have you encountered a picture or symbol or icon (on a traffic sign, some computer or other electronic instruction, or trying to make sense of the installation sheet—“Some assembly required”—for the cabinet you bought at Wal-Mart) that actually makes it more difficult and less intuitive to understand than had old-fashioned words been used? More than once I’ve sat bewildered in an unfamiliar rental car, staring in perplexity at the controls, unable even to get the thing turned on! Television remotes are the worst for their iconic confusion. Who can make sense of even half the buttons?
(I suppose one might ask who I am to be talking about clear headed thinking when I can’t even turn on a car or use all the features of a remote control! Maybe they have a point!)
In our time, words are no longer used to convey information. They’re too complicated. This is the difference between Lewis’s era and ours. In his time it was assumed that people could read and use their brains. That assumption, like absolutes and right and wrong, is gone with the wind.
Christians are caught in the crosshairs of this decline. Because in large measure they are getting their beliefs and doctrines just like customers get change at a convenience store—from spiritual cash registers. Push the button and out pops the doctrine intact.
We live in a lethally superficial age. Contrary as it seems, in this era of almost superhuman technological achievement, the facility to think judiciously is on the endangered skills list. Our computerized culture has rendered us dependent on machines to do our thinking for us. With a few deft keystrokes, literally the whole world can be brought up on screen in front of our eyes.
It’s called the information age. All the data anyone could ever want is instantly accessible. No need to engage the mind to figure things out, weigh ideas, and arrive at conclusions. Computers and calculators do it for us. Raw knowledge has replaced introspection. Our culture has made a god of this tidal wave of information. People don’t even try to noew anymore. They don’t have to.
This doesn’t mean that modern men and women are any better or worse than the people of other eras, only that influences are changing us in ways we do not recognize. The multiplication tables are a defunct requirement in our schools. Why bother when calculators are allowed when taking tests. It won’t be long before young people no longer have the ability to read a roadmap. Will atlases be the next thing to go, following word-instructions and the multiplication table?
We are losing our little gray cells from atrophy. We are taught (in school and in church) to solve equations by formula…but we are not taught to think for ourselves.
The world is full of intelligent people. The world is full of gifted people. The world is full of knowledgeable people. The world even contains a surprising number of compassionate people. But as Richard Foster clarifies, the desperate need of our time is for deep people. People who can think…Christians who refuse to be content with spoon-fed formulas of belief.
Such cognitively forceful men and women are few and far between. It is a genuine treasure when you discover one. Yet when you do, the religious community eyes his or her bold convictions with suspicion. They would rather have status quo spirituality. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Over a century ago the Dane Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “When a man more powerfully stirred than the rest steps forward in our age, a man who sets the price of being a Christian at only a fifth of the price the gospel puts on it, everyone cries, ‘Look out for that man! Do not read what he writes…do not talk with him…he is a dangerous man.’”
Because of my work with George MacDonald, through the years I have encountered this mindset more than once, including churches and schools where, if not actually banned, the leadership has warned its flock against reading MacDonald’s work. Why? Because he challenged the status quo of 19th century Scottish Calvinism and asked if there was more in God’s heart to accomplish than what was revealed by the formulas of Calvinism’s memorized catechisms. How intriguing that C.S. Lewis’s books have sold 200 million, yet his spiritual mentor, the man he called his “master,” is banned in some circles. That gives you something to think about!
In the hundred and five years since MacDonald’s death, even in the forty-five years since that of C.S. Lewis, the state of affairs has worsened. We have become a generation of Christians almost incapable of the level of brainpower necessary to understand either ourselves or truth on a larger scale. We have succumbed to the same drift and decline as has the culture around us. And because we have allowed ourselves to become shallow non-thinkers, spiritual formulae is very appealing. It eliminates the need to think, or turn the light of self-reflection inward where it is most desperately needed of all.Nowhere has this modern shift away from vigorous thinking caused more misunderstanding about who God is and what are his purposes than in the two almost diametrically opposite wings of the church represented by evangelicalism and Catholicism. Personal inquiry that deviates from the standard model of formula-doctrines is nearly unknown in the ranks of evangelical and Catholic Christendom. Though they are not quite so officially codified, evangelicals have their own learned catechisms as surely as did the rigid Scottish Calvinism of MacDonald’s youth 175 years ago.
Add water and you don’t even have to stir…instant prophecy, instant salvation, instant sanctification. Look it up in a book by your favorite theologian and read “What Evangelicals believe,” or “What Catholics believe.” Learn the formula and voila—a fully intact belief system, no mental work required. No wrestling with ideas, no struggling with doubts, no implicational reasoning, no tireless research to resolve scriptural inconsistencies, no study of apologetics, no humble contemplation to root out one’s own blind spots and immaturities, no intellectually rigorous engaging of the culture around us, no pushing suppositions to logical conclusions.
None of that is necessary. The average Catholic or evangelical believer doesn’t know what the words apologetics and logical conclusions even mean. The Apologetics shelf in many Christian bookstores has been replaced with How-To, Self-Help, and Twelve Step books to meet every need. Christianity Lite.
The creed possesses an answer for everything. Don’t think…just consult the formula. Thus the vicious cycle: Spiritual formulae breeds shallow thought… shallow thought leads to more formulae.
It may be that this dearth of spiritual depth is more than a little responsible for the current wave of interest and conversion into the relatively new “American” expression of ancient Orthodoxy. A friend recently commented to me of his own fascination with this phenomenon: “People are hungry for something deeper with God. I’ve been in the evangelical church for twenty years, but the superficiality is just finally too much. I need more.”
Yet one cannot help but wonder if an expression of the Christian faith so dependent on ritual, and which attaches such significance to a reverence for icons, however justified its reasons for using them to remember the saints of history, can ultimately provide the reality people like my friend are seeking. That it is doing so for many at present is undeniable. Time will tell what will be the long term impact within the church at large.
A facade of intellectualism
We don’t recognize the trap for what it is because the onslaught of information and technology to which we are exposed, like superficial thinking, also breeds formulae, adding to the vicious cycle a subtle masquerade of intellectualism.
Because we know so many scriptural facts about our faith (whether it be Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, or whatever else), and because the seeming scriptural proofs are so apparently convincing, and because their proponents speak with such dignified authority, we assume an intellectualism that isn’t there.
Much of our doctrinal dogma is in fact not intellectually solvent at all, but logically deficient and even scripturally erroneous. Yet those who should be combating such trends most strenuously flatter themselves that they are immune from the problem. Pastors and priests, teachers and evangelists, yes, and even we who author books to enlighten God’s people—all who claim to have the tenets of the canon down cold, who defend them with scriptural precision, and who pass them on with apparent authority…these urgently need liberation from formula-thinking for the sake of those who hang on their every word. Yet it is often those most dependent on the rote recipes of spirituality who remain most unaware that formula, rather than an intellectually integritous exploration of Scripture, undergirds what they call their faith.
How sadly indicting are George MacDonald’s piercing words from his era, warning us to learn what the passage of more than an entire century has failed to teach us: “If those who set themselves to explain the various theories of Christianity had set themselves instead to do the will of the Master, how different would the world be now.” Thus, MacDonald goes on, “Theologians have done more to hide the Gospel of Christ than any of its adversaries.”
The result has been extreme…and invisibly ruinous to Christianity’s witness. Behind a facade of prosperity, vibrancy, church expansion, political clout, and exuberant liveliness, Christians have lost sight of the necessity to think. And the world recognizes this atrophy of intellectual muscle, even if we do not. Evangelicals see Left Behind advertised on network television and given a few seconds of air time on “60 Minutes,” or see The Prayer of Jabez or The Purpose Driven Life or The Shack on secular bestseller lists, and flatter themselves that the world is listening, that a “witness” is going out.
We don’t stop to consider what the world thinks about it. Nor do we pause to consider the horrendous implications against our witness and the cause of Christ if the messages contained within such publications, as three examples among many, aren’t accurate indicators of self-denying Christlike discipleship.
How much damage to the cause of truth and to the cause of Jesus Christ will we have done by allowing and encouraging such phenomena without pausing to subject them to truth on a larger scale? How great will be the stumbling blocks in the way of truth from the circulation throughout the world of hundreds of million of books of formula-doctrines…if their foundations are faulty!
Catholics flatter themselves with equal shortsightedness to see how the whole world revered Pope John Paul II and paid tribute to his life after his passing, and assume a vibrancy and reality to Catholicism as a whole that doesn’t exist at all. Sadly, the discipleship-faith of the humble man known as John Paul is not being lived by 99% of his ardent admirers. Nor are the uncompromising standards voiced by Pope Benedict admired and embraced by Catholicism as a whole. Thank God for the 1%! But Catholics must not be naïve any more than evangelicals about the cancerous superficiality of its overall programme and focus.
In light of such trends in evangelicalism, and perhaps the emptiness of the average lifelong Catholic’s rote response to ritual, the current wave of interest in Orthodoxy is understandable. To be honest, I found far more reality of commitment to gospel truth, even with icons surrounding me, in a recent visit with a group of converted Orthodox Christians, than I see in evangelicalism’s worship of its Left Behind and Jabez icons of false doctrine. We might as well call it The Purpose Driven Shack and we might be closer to the truth. Better a silent revered image on the wall of a saint of old who gave his or her life for the faith than a truth-poisoning image in the heart of a false god of Mammon or a false christ returning to bring a man-invented vengeance to the world.
A crippling dependence on formula
The mindset caused by modernity’s worship of knowledge, formula, easy answers, add-water-and-stir religion, and dependence on ritual, doctrine, and dogma has created a generation of Christians content to sit in church and accept what they are told, go through their exercises of worship, and peruse their favorite books and devotional aids with the same mentality they bring to their computers—mindlessly absorbing input from others without thinking about where truth is represented and where it is not. Spirituality is no longer viewed as an energetic life of growth of heart and mind—probing and questioning, pondering and praying in fresh and ever deeper ways, even occasionally saying to the naked theological Emperor, “Hey, hold on a minute,”—but rather the process of accumulating more and more data to add to one’s so-called storehouse of wisdom whereby to bolster the precepts of the formulae.
More than ever what we call belief in this computer age is comprised of scriptural lists, memorized prayer-promises, theologic recipes, prophetic timetables, and doctrinal clichés, supported by proof texts, outlining the correct hermeneutical view concerning every aspect of spirituality. This policy can be seen among Christians of every brand and stripe. These prescriptions are passed on from week to week in pulpits across the land, and reinforced in Bible studies and books and conferences and television programs, all accomplishing for the faithful believer just what the computer does—dishing out the information, defining the parameters of dogma, memorizing the verses that support the model, while discouraging the need to think and reflect and question.
Free thinking has become the most serious taboo of all. It might cause you to step outside the formula. Take what you are taught, therefore, memorize it, catalog the proof texts with which to combat falsehood, heresy, and liberalism (if you are an evangelical), or fundamentalism (if you are a Catholic)…but never, never, say the gurus of formula, question the doctrine.
Prayerfully probing the heart and purposes of God—starting not with a file of learned axioms with which to dispense spiritual quandaries with a wave of the hand, but rather with an approach to the throne of grace on bended knee, with mind awake, heart open, and senses eager to stretch the boundaries of one’s concept of God—is sadly not a priority that is stressed much these days.
We have changed Jesus’ words to the synagogue ruler in Mark 5 from, “Don’t fear, only believe,” to, Don’t think…only believe.
The gospel of experience and worship (of many varieties) is alive and well. But the gospel of dynamic intellectual vigor, and unpretentious critical engagement with the world, absent pomposity, has almost entirely disappeared from Christendom’s programme.
When did you last hear your minister or priest say: “I’m not going to give you an answer this time. Go to the Scriptures and find out for yourself. Don’t just read the surface words or pick up a book and automatically accept what someone says. God gave you a mind—you can think as well as a theologian, bishop, abbot, or cardinal. Therefore, probe the limitations of the traditional explanation. It may not offer as thorough a biblical solution to the conundrum as you suppose. Do so not to challenge or debunk, but to find truth. Don’t merely dredge up what you have been taught. The Holy Spirit invites you to approach God’s Word with an open mentality and a large view of the Father’s purposes. Be not afraid of honest interrogation. Fear of question is not to be found in the New Testament. Jesus encouraged spiritual inquiry. So dig and think for yourself, even if in the end you come to a different conclusion than someone else, or even a variant view from mine. Diversity of opinion is healthy—it forces us to think. We’ll talk about what you find next week.”
I’m not sure about you, but I do not recall ever hearing such a charge from the pulpit. Instead, preachers, priests, and teachers outline every detail to make sure no one falls into the dreaded pit of scriptural error. They seldom encourage you to think for yourself. Take notes, get the formula down, make sure you know the verses clearly that prove the conclusion. But don’t probe too deeply. The Bible commands us to noeo, but you don’t have to worry about that.
And because we possess such an abundance of information, so many books and Bibles and devotional tools and manuals and cathechismic guides, all read and re-read and underlined—we are unquestionably the most knowledgeable generation of Christians that has ever lived—we delude ourselves into thinking that such formulae is intellectually robust. In fact it is shallow, fat, and lazy.
It has even come to the point where most new Bibles coming out now do your thinking for you. The new generation of “marginal notes” are not intended to encourage you to dig for yourself, but rather to tell you what the Scriptures mean.
Doctrinal formulae…the lifeblood of evangelicalism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and of Protestantism. It has bred anything but the sort of Christianity that turned the first century world upside down.
Removing the straightjacket of superficiality
Modern men and women are sophisticated enough to recognize superficiality when they see it, and they want no part of it. The world is hungry for vitality and reality. The world is hungry to see spirituality harmonized with life as we experience it. The world is not closed to faith as many suppose. In some ways the world has never been more open to spiritual things. But the world is closed to dogma without life. And everywhere, it seems, that’s exactly what religion is dishing out. What many within it don’t realize is that seemingly “vibrant” Christianity is dishing out dogma and formula too.
These days the world isn’t observing Christians like C.S. Lewis on the cover of Time magazine. For the last thirty years of the twentieth century as the previous millennium drew to a close, it saw instead men like Jerry Falwell and Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn and other evangelical spokesmen making their regular appearances on the round of television talk shows, repeating back the formulae of fundamentalism, with its accompanying political, prophetic, and social thrust. Whatever the question, whatever the topic, a predictable response was at the ready. At the same time Catholicism took a terrible beating from one priesthood scandal after another, calling into question (in the world’s eyes) the repute and future of the entire historic edifice. John Paul and Benedict, men of stature as they were and are, were unable singlehandedly to stem the negative tide. No wonder, as the third millennium a.d. moves into its second decade, many are heralding Christianity’s decline. From both sides of the spectrum, it seems that influence is slipping away. And now all the world is talking about Obama’s declaration that the U.S. is no longer a Christian nation. For a man who claims to be a Christian, he didn’t waste much time relegating Christianity to secondary status in his vision of a new world order.
The world is hungry for real people, deep people, changed people. But where are today’s Francis Schaeffers, George MacDonalds, C.S. Lewises, and Dietrich Bonhoeffers, who took their Christianity into the world with boldness, meekness, honesty…and without formula? To be sure, there are a handful who are trying to challenge Christians to think outside the formulae of churchy platitudes. But they are voices crying in the wilderness. How many hear them? Their books hardly sell. They are not invited to speak. Their voices grow silent. No one cares, because no one wants to think. It is more comfortable being spoon fed by our priests.
An invisible straightjacket has enclosed itself about Christendom’s self-satisfied and inward-focused culture, squeezing and narrowing its theological focus, ever more tightly defining what comprises “doctrinal correctness.”
Thus, the gospel we present to a world hungry for meaty spirituality is an incomplete gospel. It is a true gospel, but not a whole one, offering an experiential interaction with Christ or the church, but in the way of ideas presenting little but a re-marketed tradition of the elders.
In his sermon entitled, Salvation From Sin” George MacDonald wrote, “The message of the good news has not been truly delivered.” Little has changed in a hundred years. It is not that the church has grown entirely ineffective. The gospel contains a power that its adherents can never completely dilute because of the centrality of Jesus Christ himself—whose very being and character will always keep the gospel alive with life-changing potency.
So some, of course, continue to listen. But a constricted formularistic version of the truth is not what the Son of God died to bring the world.
The point is…we have a problem. What do we do about it? I can only speak for myself. And in my case, I came to the point in my walk with God when I recognized that good honest thought—even fresh, bold, formula-challenging thought—was not a spiritual bogeyman. God had given me brains, and he expected me to use them. The questions I asked of God were attempts to liberate myself from formula-thinking. I did not engage in this process to prove this view or that opinion wrong. I was simply hungry for truth in those areas where I discovered the precepts and elder-traditions wanting.
Humbly discovering the balance
A foundation, therefore, of getting at truth must be wisely laid. Its building blocks are boldness of prayerful inquiry, scriptural truth, and historical perspective. The mortar of such foundations is mixed with a combination of balance and humility.
Boldness…humility? Inquiry into the new…respect for the old?
Do such seeming opposites really go together? They must. It is what the balance of truth is all about.
Our own sons have discovered deeper spiritual reality in formal and traditional expressions of Christianity in which the authority of the church and its leadership are foundational. Though rigid structural formality does not particularly feed my spiritual being any more than does loose Pentecostalism or hip worldly evangelicalism, I admire their respective spiritual sojourns as highlighting the required balance in one’s search for meaning between the individual and corporate, between “thinking for oneself” and taking what you are taught by those in spiritual authority over you “in faith.”
The pastorate, the priesthood, and the so-called professional ministry has not traditionally attracted through the years the wisest, most balanced, most unbiased, most selfless seekers after truth. That it has attracted many such, and continues to in every era, given the tremendous inertia of its structure and orthodoxy, is one of the wonders of God’s church. We count a number of humble pastoral seekers after truth among our dear friends and our admiration for them is great. But such men of truth are sadly in a great minority, and face an uphill struggle in a church full, rather, of leaders, pastors, priests, and spokespersons pushing their own agendas and opinions rather than the Will and perspectives of God.
So how does one know when to trust a received teaching and take it “in faith” as true, and when, on the other hand, to launch out and seek deeper truth from God himself rather than from his would-be spokespersons? It is a delicate and difficult balance to find, and one in which one must walk humbly, always humbly.
To step out from under the umbrella of “accepted church orthodoxy,” and say, “God, what truth do you have to show me?” is an exercise in which we must engage with prayerful and humble caution. And yet…if that umbrella of teaching is riddled with holes from tradition, doctrinal rigidity, theologically erroneous interpretation, misreading God’s character, ambiguity, and scriptural inconsistency…what else can we do?
It has then become no umbrella at all but a false covering which allows ideas of untruth to rain into our lives without the protection truth is meant to afford.
My own first steps in such directions were tentative. Breaking free from that bondage was no easy task. Yet what should I discover but that thinking through matters of faith for myself did not send me into doubt, despair, unbelief, or off the edge of the one-dimensional theological world into heresy.
Just the opposite. I discovered the Father more omnipotent and intimate, the Son more relevant and alive, and the Bible more precious, practical, and true than ever before. My entire framework of belief, far from weakening, has been immeasurably strengthened by this inner pilgrimage of heart and mind, thinking and praying through the tenets of faith for myself, not because someone told me what I was supposed to believe.
Therefore we can be both cautious and bold, fearless to humbly search for more truth, even as we revere the tradition of the church as a conduit for God’s life through the ages.
And thus do we discover the delicate balance: Thinking for oneself with bold humility in an environment of respect and honor for what has come before.