Who says? Retrospective

This question became THE QUESTION for me in my twenties. Any time a claim was made, in my head I thought “Who says?” While it might seem like a belligerent stance, it was more about a desire to know the source of these claims. This desire came from the realization that my own conclusions and claims were limited and not to be trusted. This was a search for authority because I knew I had none.

Now, the first place that this question started popping up was in the context of claims made in the media and elsewhere regarding science. Investigating just a little showed that the authority of these claims was weak, and often those doing the research were not even making such claims. Once I started reading about quantum physics, and the inability to observe a phenomena without affecting it, it started to click. We really don’t know nearly as much as we think we know, and the more we learn, the more obvious this is. Those that claim they know with the most certainty are the least trustworthy. I know this is somewhat a generational attitude, and I think that many probably share my questioning stance.

Fast forward a little, and I started applying the same magnifying glass to another area of “certainty”: my own faith. Who says the Bible is inerrant? Most responses I found relied on the Bible itself. Ok, so how did the Bible come to be the Bible? Holy inspiration of many writers was not enough detail. How did the New Testament make self-referential claims when the New Testament was not even compiled yet? Who said that The Word referred to in the beginning of the Gospel of John was the Bible? Who said that this grouping of books was so transcendent that there could be no conflicts or errors of perspective in it? Who said it was only 66 books?

The answers to some of these questions and others started to make me realize that much of what I thought was certain was not. Sometimes it was just one man that claimed authority for a particular view, but then someone else makes a contradictory claim with the same authority. Many leaned on the supposed authority of those who had gone before them, but those they leaned on often had very little support themselves. In the end, it seemed to me that much of the systematic theology that I grew up with was an academic exercise with one ego floating atop another. Some of the conclusions may have been helpful, but the certainty of correctness seemed arrogant and dangerous. To add to the pot, so many authorities disagreed, and used the same text and techniques to “prove” their stance. Everyone was right in his own eyes, but if everyone is right… everyone is wrong.  The Church was a discordant throng of self-certain popes, all claiming to know the mind of God. The worst thing you could be as a Christian was uncertain.

So I pushed some of those things away, keeping sola scriptura, biblical inerrancy, and all manner of scriptural “proofs” at arm’s length. I could not flat-out deny them, for what authority did I have? But the basis for some of these doctrines was entirely too human for me to trust. So with these core tenets pushed away, I realized that I did not have much certainty at all. I had become a Christian Agnostic. I was not denying Christ, but I was rejecting the authority of the narrative I had been told. I was not denying the value of the scriptures, but I was rejecting the narrative that had been built upon them. I was not denying the existence of God, but I was seeking Him outside of the Evangelical narrative I had grown up with. I embraced unknowing and doubt. I am sure to some that sounds like I was rejecting my faith, but to me, it felt like the beginning of finding it.

Religion as culture

For the last four years our church experience has been orthodox. For the two years or so prior to that, we were not going to church at all, and before that, we were showing up on Sundays, but fighting our urge to run away (since HS, I think). For a long time we thought that the things that kept us from fully engaging church was the particulars of the specific church we were attending. At some point we realized that while churches have issues, we were the problem. The churches were probably doing a pretty good job in their context, but we were out of context. We had a hard time adapting to church culture. This realization did two things for us. First, it relieved a lot of angst toward church in general because we could let all the churches just do what they were doing. Second, it made us aware of the cultural aspects of “church”, and we could shift our perspective a bit, and reuse some of our cross-cultural experience to move our spiritual journey forward.

Now, I know that the term culture is very broad, but the definition that I am working with here is “the knowledge and values shared by a society”. There are corporate cultures, family cultures, sub-cultures, etc., and there are also religious cultures. We realized that our quibbles with church were partly quibbles with American culture. We have chosen to “opt-out” of much of American culture (TV, consumerism, affluence), and going to church was when we were faced with that culture the most. Our choice to “opt-out” was spiritually motivated, so to go to church for fellowship and worship and feel thrown back into an environment that we have come to view as spiritually damaging for ourselves was difficult. So we stopped going. We tried to maintain our own spiritual culture at home, and in some ways succeeded. Five years ago we decided to make an effort to keep Christmas focused on giving and the Nativity. We failed. Christmas was twisted, as usual. This is what motivated a search for a church culture that would encourage us in the right direction.

That is when we started at the Orthodox Church. It is like visiting a foreign country, a cross-cultural experience. That is what made it familiar to us. It was still awkward because of the different-ness, but we did not have to fight American cultural values while trying to enter into worship. We could start as observers, and because those in the parish knew we were foreigners to this culture, they did not try to engage us in a way that would shock us. Similar to starting out in a new culture, it takes a while to get your bearings, and just be OK with how things work. This particular parish does not have many pews, but has rugs, and most stand for the entire service. So, we started off sitting on the pews, and eventually stood with everyone else. There was incense and icons, and all the speaking parts were chanted, including the reading of scripture. People were kissing icons, and anything the priest held in front of them. Everyone made the sign of the cross at certain times. Entire families were in the sanctuary for the whole service, chattering and fussing toddlers and all. The colors of the priest’s clothing and other decorative pieces changed regularly without explanation. Not a sigle musical instrument. Candles burned everywhere. Approaching it as a culture, and keeping an eye out for the subtle patterns and nuances of routine helped us know what questions to ask.

But aside from the utility of viewing a new church as a cross-cultural experience, it was the actual culture that we were engaging that attracted us. This was a culture that was informed and molded by a deep and ancient tradition of interaction and communion with God. This was not new and exciting, nor was it novel. This was not people trying too hard to be relevant. This was not somebody’s platform for selfish ambition, nor a self-help support group. This was the eternally relevant worship of the Church. We were entering into something not dependent on us, celebrated eternally. Our place as individuals, as bearers of the image and likeness of God, became more clear. This is a culture that gives the Christian a home. The Kingdom of God. It was the first time we had felt at home, even if still foreigners. As TCKs, feeling at home was a big deal. No place was ever home. And this new foreign church felt like home.

From the Idiomelon of the Ninth Hour of Nativity

Today is born of a Virgin, he who holds creation in the hollow of his hand.
As a mortal he is wrapped in swaddling rags, he who in his being cannot be handled.
God lies in a manger, who of old established the heavens in the beginning.
He is nourished with milk from the breast, he who rained Manna on the People in the desert.
He summons Magi, the Bridegroom of the Church.
He accepts their gifts, the Son of the Virgin.
We worship your birth, O Christ.
Show us also your divine Epiphany.

(Idiomelon is a hymn that uses a unique melody rather than one of the standard 8 tones.  It may still be related to one of the tones, as in this case it is listed as being in the 6th tone, but it does not strictly follow it.)

Provocation #22

We humans have ingeniously turned God into a humbug. We talk about the fact that God is love, that we love God (who does not love God, what “Christian” does not love God, etc.) and even rely on him, and yet we refuse to see that our relationship to him is purely and simply a natural egotism, the kind of love which consists of loving oneself. We try to get this loving God’s assistance, but only to lead a right cozy, enjoyably religious life.

Think of a father. There is something he wishes his child to do (the child knows what it is); so the father has a plan: I will come up with something that will really please my child and give it to him. Then, I am sure, he will love me in return. The father believes that his child will now do what he asks. But the child takes his father’s gift and does not do what he wills. Oh, the child thanks him again and again and exclaims: “He is such an affectionate father”; but he continues to get his own way.

And so it is with us Christians in relationship to God. Because God is love, we turn to him for help but then go our own way. Although we dance before him and clap our hands and blow the horn and with tears in our eyes exclaim, “God is love!” we go on our merry way doing what it is that we want.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #19

Christianity is not so much related to transforming the intellect – but to transforming the will. But this transformation is the most painful of all operations, comparable to a vivisection. And because it is so appalling, to become a Christian was changed long ago. Now it is only a matter of remodeling the intellect.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #18

The illusion of a Christian nation, a Christian “people,” masses of Christians, is no doubt due to the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. And yet how many are able to say of their Christian acquaintances that they are truly Christians in the New Testament sense, or that their lives are even close to resembling those of the first disciples. But when there are thousands upon thousands who confess to being Christian, one becomes easily confused. Perhaps we are all Christians after all. Why be so harsh?

This brings to mind a ridiculous story about an innkeeper. It is said that this innkeeper sold his beer by the bottle for a cent less than it cost him. When a certain man said to him, “How does that balance the account? You’re losing money,” he replied, “No, my friend, it’s the big number that counts.”

When you have finished laughing at this story, you would do well to take its lesson to heart, which warns against the power that numbers exercise over the imagination. No doubt this innkeeper knew very well that one bottle of beer at 3 cents meant a loss of 1 cent since it cost him 4 cents. And, no doubt, he realized that selling 10 bottles also meant a loss. But 100,000 bottles! Here the big number stirs the imagination. The innkeeper becomes dazed. It’s a profit, he says, for the big number does it. So also with every calculation that arrives at a Christian nation, and dare I also say at a church, by adding up units which are not Christian, getting impressed with the results by means of the notion that it is the big number that counts!

Numbers are the most dangerous of all illusions. Inasmuch as Christianity is spirit, the honesty of eternity, there is nothing its detective eye is so suspicious of as of Christian states, Christian lands, Christian endeavors, Christian movements, a Christian people, and (how marvelous!) a Christian world. Even if there were something true in this talk about Christian peoples and cultures, everything this world has up to this point seen in the way of criminal affairs is a mere nursery rhyme in comparison with this crime.

Christ requires followers and defines precisely what he means by this. They are to be salt, willing to be sacrificed. But to be salt and to be sacrificed is not something that the thousands naturally go for, still less millions, or (still less!) countries, kingdoms, states, and (absolutely not!) the whole world. On the other hand, if it is a question of size, mediocrity, and of lots of talk, then the possibility of the thing begins; then bring on the thousands, increase them to the millions – no, go forth and make the world Christian.

The New Testament alone, not numbers, settles what Christianity is, leaving it to eternity to pass judgment upon us. It is simply impossible to define faith on the basis of what people in general like best and prefer to call Christianity. As soon as we do this, Christianity is automatically done away with. There are, in the end, only two ways open to us: to honestly and honorably make an admission of how far we are from the Christianity of the New Testament, or to perform skillful tricks to conceal the true situation, tricks to conjure up a forgery whereby Christianity is the prevailing religion in the land.

If the human race would rise in rebellion against God and cast Christianity away from it, it would not be nearly so dangerous as this clever way of making Christians of everybody and giving this activity the appearance of zeal for the truth. This is nothing but a scoffing at God by offering him thanks for bestowing his blessing upon the progress that Christianity was making.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #17

Scripture says that, “Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Now, if obedience directly followed suffering, it would be easy to learn. But learning obedience is not that easy. Humanly viewed, suffering is dangerous. But even more terrible is failing to learn obedience! Yes, suffering is a dangerous schooling, but only if you do not learn obedience – ah, then it is terrible, just as when the most powerful medicine has the wrong reaction. In this danger a person needs God’s help; otherwise he does not learn obedience. And if he does not learn this, then he may learn what is most corrupting: to learn craven despondency, learn to quench the spirit, learn to deaden any noble fervor in it, learn defiance and despair.

Because the schooling of suffering is so dangerous, it is right to say that this school educates for eternity. This danger does not exist in any other school, but then there is not the gain either: the eternal. Of course, a person can learn a great deal without ever coming to know the eternal. He may learn how to cope outwardly, he may achieve amazing things in his suffering, encompass a mass of knowledge, understanding himself or his destiny. If in suffering you do not learn obedience, you will continue to be a riddle to yourself.

Suffering seeks to turn a person inward. If this happens, the school of suffering begins. You will not in despair mount a resistance, or seek to drown yourself and forget the suffering in the world’s distractions, in amazing enterprises or in indifferent knowledge. Admittedly, suffering often comes from the outside, but it is not until you take the suffering into your inner being that the schooling begins. Many sufferings can assault a person, and worldly sagacity knows many remedies in defense. But all these remedies have the dismal quality that they save the body but kill the soul. They invigorate the body but deaden the spirit. Only inwardness, only in surrender can the eternal be gained.

Only when a person suffers and wills to learn from what he suffers does he come to know something about himself and about his relationship to God. This is the sign that he is being educated for eternity. Through suffering a person can come to know a great deal about the world – how deceitful and treacherous it is – but all this knowledge is not the schooling of suffering. No, just as we speak of a child being weaned from his mother’s breast, so also, in the most profound sense, a person must be weaned by suffering, weaned from the things of this world, from loving it and from being embittered by it, in order to learn for eternity. For this reason, the school of suffering consists in a dying to – a dying to the world and to yourself. And in this school the lessons are always quiet. Here the attention is not dispersed by many subjects. No, here only one thing, the essential thing, is needful. Only one thing is learned: obedience.

Without suffering you cannot really learn obedience. Suffering is the very guarantee that obedience is not self-willfulness. Ordinarily we say that we must learn to obey in order to learn to be master, and this is indeed true. But we learn something even more glorious by learning obedience in the school of suffering. When this happens we learn to let God be master, to let God rule. And where else is this to be learned except in the school of suffering, where the child is weaned and self-willfulness dies and we learn the difficult lesson that it is indeed God who still rules, despite the suffering.

This is the key to finding rest in your suffering. There is only one way in which rest is to be found: to let God rule in everything. Whatever else you might come to learn only pertains to how God has willed to rule. But as soon as unrest begins, the cause for it is due to your unwillingness to obey, your unwillingness to surrender yourself to God.

When there is suffering, but also obedience in suffering, then you are being educated for eternity. Then there will be no impatient hankering in your soul, no restlessness, neither of sin nor of sorrow. If you will but let it, suffering is the guardian angel who keeps you from slipping out into the fragmentariness of the world; the fragmentariness that seeks to rip apart the soul. And for this reason, suffering keeps you in school – this dangerous schooling – so that you may be properly educated for eternity.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Provocation #16

It is the Spirit who gives life. The life-giving Spirit is not a direct heightening of our natural powers – what blasphemy! How horrible to understand the Spirit in this way! Christ brings new life! A new life, yes, and this is no platitude such as we use every time something new begins to stir in us. No, it is a new life, literally a new life – because, mark this well, death goes in between life and the new life on the other side of death. Yes, that is a new life.

Christianity teaches that you must die. Your power must be dismantled. And the life-giving Spirit is the very one who slays you. The first thing this Spirit says is that you must enter into death, you must die to yourself. The life-giving Spirit – that is the invitation. Who would not willingly take hold of it? But die first – there’s the rub!

You must first die to every earthly hope, to every merely human confidence. You must die to your selfishness, and to the world, because it is only through your selfishness that the world has power over you. Naturally there is nothing a human being hangs on to so firmly – indeed, with his whole self – as to his selfishness! Ah, the separation of soul and body at the hour of death is not as painful as being forced to be separated from our flesh when we are alive! Yes, we human beings do not hang on to this physical life as firmly as we do to our selfishness!

What, exactly, does it mean to die to yourself? It is more than not seeing your wish fulfilled or to be deprived of the one that is dearest to you. True, this is painful enough, and selfishness is wounded. But it does not follow that you are dying. No, but personally to shatter your own fulfilled desire, personally to deprive yourself of the dearly desired one who is now your own: this is what it means to wound selfishness at the root, as it was with Abraham when God demanded that he sacrifice Isaac. Christianity is not what we are all too eager to make it. It is not a quack doctor who is promptly at your service and immediately applies the remedy but then bungles everything. Christianity waits before it applies its remedy. This is Christianity’s severity. It demands a great sacrifice, one which we often despair of making and can only later see why it was necessary to hold out and wait.

Surely you have experienced, as I have, that when you begin to moan, and say, “I can’t take any more,” that on the next day you discover that you could. Consider a team of horses that groan and pant, feel exhausted, and feel that a handful of oats is just what is needed. However, they also don’t realize that with only a momentary halt the heavily loaded wagon will roll back down the hill and plunge them and driver and everything into the abyss. Is it cruel of the driver that the lashes fall more dreadfully than ever before, especially on this team of horses who are as dear to him as the apple of his eye – is this cruel or is it kind? Is the driver cruel when the lashing is finally the only thing that can save the horses from ruin and help them pull through?

So it is with dying to yourself and to the world. But then, my listener, remember that then comes the life-giving Spirit. When? When you are dead to everything else. When does the Comforter come? Not until you have died to your selfishness and come to the end of your own strength. Not until you in love to God have learned to hate yourself, even your ability, not until then can there be talk of the Spirit, of life, of new life.

Once upon a time there was a rich man. He purchased a team of entirely splendid horses, which he wanted for his own pleasure and the pleasure of driving them himself. A year or two passed by. If anyone who had known these horses earlier now saw him driving them, he would not be able to recognize them. Their eyes were now dull and drowsy, their gait lacked style and precision, they had no staying power, no endurance. Moreover, they had acquired all sorts of bad habits, and though they had plenty of feed, they grew thinner and thinner as each day passed by.

So he called in the royal coachman. The royal coachman drove them for a month. In the whole countryside there was not a team of horses that carried their heads so proudly, whose eyes were so fiery, whose gait was so beautiful. There wasn’t a team that could hold out running as they did, even thirty miles in a stretch without stopping. How did this happen? It is easy to see: the owner, not being a coachman, drove the horses according to the horses’ understanding of what it is to drive. The royal coachman, by contrast, drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive.

So it is with us human beings. When I think of myself and the countless people I have come to know, I must confess that here are capacities and talents and qualifications enough, but the coachman is lacking. We humans have been, if I may put it this way (in order to carry on with the metaphor), driven according to the horses’ (i.e., our) understanding of driving. We are governed, educated, and brought up according to the world’s conception of what it means to be human. See, because of this we lack vitality and are unable to endure the sacrifice. We are impatient and impulsively use the means of the moment and, in turn, want instantly to see the reward for our work, which for that very reason is not very good.

Things were different once. There was a time when it pleased the Spirit himself to be the coachman. He drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive. Oh, what a human being was capable of then! Ponder this! There sat twelve disciples, all of whom were of but a common social class. Their task, however, was to transform the world, and on the most appalling scale. And when the Spirit descended, the transformation indeed was set in motion.

They carried Christianity through. They were men just like us, but they were driven well! Yes, indeed, that they were! They were like that team of horses when the royal coachman drove them. Never has a human being lifted his head as high as did the first Christians in humility before God! And just as that team of horses could run if need be thirty miles without pausing to catch their wind, so also did they run; they ran seventy years at a stretch without getting out of the harness, without stopping anywhere. No, proud as they were in their humility before God, they exclaimed, “It is not for us to hold back and dawdle along the way. We will not stop – until eternity.” They were driven well, yes, that they were!

Oh Holy Spirit, you who give new life, we pray for ourselves but also for all people. Here there is no want of capabilities, nor of education, nor of sagacity – indeed, there may rather be too much. But what is lacking is that you take away that which is corrupting us, that you take away our power and grant us new life. Certainly a person experiences a shudder like death’s shudder when you, in order to become the power in him, take power away from him. So, help us also to die, to die to ourselves. If even the horses came to realize how good it was for them that the royal coachman took the reins, although it surely made them shudder at first and they at first rebelled, but in vain, should not we who are created in your image quickly come to understand what a blessing it is that you have the power and give life! Oh Holy Spirit, take the reigns of our lives and rule us. May it be you that has the power.

Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard