Big Questions – why are we wrestling?

Only the best of free online stock photography for my blog.

Only the best of free online stock photography for my blog.

Having had a number of Question Nights at my church, I’ve learned a little about how and why people ask questions.

Asking questions of faith is important and good.  But we’re not really thinking about simply information-seeking questions.  What people are normally chewing are the Big Questions.  Like, how can I reconcile God’s goodness with suffering in the world?  Or, how free is our human will?  For someone who has some familiarity with the Biblical story made they’ve asked:  How could God apparently command the slaughter of Canaanites?

These are big questions that are not to be lightly skipped past.  They’re serious and they matter.  Every serious person of faith, or reader of the Bible, has probably wrestled at least a bit with ones like them.  But as we ask our question, let’s ask ourselves, why are we wrestling?

Sometimes we wrestle because we want an answer we don’t have.  Some things are really unknown.  We can be wrestling in order to make sense of something.  Like how can God be good and permit/allow/ordain suffering?  (That question is super old, by the way, so no points for originality).  There are things to discover about that issue, and sometimes they take a lot of wrestling.

But…

Sometimes we wrestle because we have an apparent answer that we don’t like.  A lot of wrestling with big questions is, after it all, is just this.  God really does appear to command the slaughter of Canaanites.  That is not that obscure.  Like previously, there are things to discover about that that could help us in our wrestling.  But the question comes back to us:  Do you like the answers?

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The Answer is Always Jesus – Christ in every part of Scripture

Pick a page, any page, Jesus will be there.

Pick a page, any page, Jesus will be there.

It’s a cliche that if you doze off in the midst of a Bible study, and the leader asks you a question (that you didn’t quite hear), just blurt out “Jesus” and you’ll be ok.

My daughters opt for a similar tactic when we read the Bible and pray before bed.

But there is something to the idea that Jesus is always the answer to the question.  <insert Karl Barth joke here>  If what Christ says is true, that all the Scriptures bear witness to him, and that all the Scriptures (Moses and the Prophets) can be interpreted in light of him, then we should expect to see Jesus pop out of the pages.

This is especially helpful when we look at the Old Testament and harder passages to understand.  John Calvin was a master at finding the Christ focus in every story, law, and prophecy of the Old Testament.

Therefore, when you hear the gospel presenting you Jesus Christ in whom all the promises and gifts of God have been accomplished, remember this:

He [Christ] is Isaac, the beloved Son of the Father who was offered as a sacrifice, but nevertheless did not succumb to the power of death. He is Jacob the watchful shepherd, who has such great care for the sheep which he guards. He is the good and compassionate brother Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to acknowledge his brothers, however lowly and abject their condition. He is the great sacrificer and bishop Melchizedek who has offered an eternal sacrifice once for all. He is the sovereign lawgiver Moses, writing his law on the tables of  our hearts by his Spirit. He is the faithful captain and guide Joshua, to lead us to the Promised Land. He is the victorious and noble king David, bringing by his hand all rebellious power to subjection. He is the magnificent and triumphant king Solomon governing his kingdom in peace and prosperity. He is the strong and powerful Samson who by his death has overwhelmed all his enemies.

John Calvin, Commentaries

No God? No meaning?

Hitchens - meaningWe can all get what the late Christopher Hitchens is complaining about here.  The claim that without God, life has no meaning.  There was certainly a lot in his life that must have given him meaning.  There’s a lot in all our lives, regardless of what we believe, that gives meaning.  We ought to be careful not to denigrate what others find makes their lives worth living.

But is that what is meant when we, as believers, say that without God there is no meaning to life?  No, it’s not.  Finding satisfaction in friendships, experience of love, good books doesn’t require belief in God for us.  If you believe that scoring more touchdowns than anyone else gives your life meaning, then it can give someone subjective meaning to their lives.  If you score more touchdowns than anybody, it will indeed give you meaning.  Subjective meaning, though.  That is, the meaning that we ourselves give to our lives.

But without God, that’s the only type of meaning we’ll ever have.  To have objective meaning, you need something outside, larger, and greater than yourself.  Without God, the only meaning or purpose in the universe in that which we assign it ourselves.  Without God, our lives are puffs of vapour that will only have the meaning we attach to them.  Without God, our world and all history is not – can not – be headed in any direction.  Without God, we’re left making good things (friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature, music, battling for the liberation of others…) into ultimate things.

And it’s in that way, that without God – objective meaning evades us.

 

“…there is actually no such thing as atheism… Everybody worships…”

David Foster WallaceI’ve been trying to read through Infinite Jest, David’s Foster Wallace’s influential novel.  (I say trying because it’s nearly 1000 pages and, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make it through.)  The insights he had though, before his tragic suicide, were very important for understanding ourselves and our faith or lack thereof.

Wallace was not a person of faith.  But he many helpful things to say about the nature of faith.  Maybe most importantly, is that he contends that is no such thing as “no faith”.  This may be surprising because we’re hearing about “nones” all the time, those who claim to have no faith or religious beliefs.  We may meet people who say they don’t believe in God or say they are atheist.

But is there really such a thing?  Wallace pushes back on supposed lack of belief.  In an influential commencement address he challenged the grads to look at what they truly worship in their lives.  Far from being godless, we all have ‘gods’ – those things that we choose to place our hope in and worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.  

(spoken at Kenyon College commencement, 2006 – whole thing here)

So everyone worships.  Everyone casts their trust, hope, desire onto something.  The only question is what it is.  In our secular age, some of us may think we’re free but that’s where Wallace’s warning is so important.  If we have no faith (supposedly), what we worship will be undetected by us and we won’t even realize.

I don’t know the state of Wallace’s faith or understanding of God.  The challenge he offers, though, is important for those who have faith or claim no faith.  In a certain sense, we’ve all got faith.  IT’s just a matter of what (or who) we have it in.  We’ll slip into worship of money, power, success, intellect, sex – and we’ll always risk being destroyed by them.  There is an alternative.  To worship some thing that does not destroy but will give us new life.  A True God.

Experience Needed

cat by tailMark Twain once said:  He who carries a cat by the tail, learns something he can learn in no other way.

The point?  Experience counts in a way that other types of learning don’t.  Experience is not the only way to learn.  Books, ideas, theories matter a great deal.  But a cat scratch leaves an impression that the idea of a cat scratch can not.  We learn by our experiences.

No one is going to argue that carrying a cat by the tail is a good idea – either for the cat or for the carrier – but we need to learn by experience in other, more profitable ways.

When it comes to God, the principle holds just as true.  Books, ideas, theories matter a great deal.  (if you think they don’t, you’re wrong)  But experience of God leaves an impression that the idea of God can not.

To those wary of books, doctrines, theologies, ideas of God I would say that they are absolutely necessary for cultivating a life that grows closer to God.  Everyone is going to form ideas about God, and they’ll either be good or bad, so it is the opposite of humble to assume we ought to go at such formation alone.

But to those wary of the search for experience of God, I say that God Himself invites us to seek in this way.  Taste and see – that’s an invite to experience – that the LORD is good – that’s an objective fact about His nature. (Psalm 34:8)   Taste and then see.  He who tastes and sees God’s goodness, learns something that he can learn in no other way.