I had the opportunity to sit with my friend Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries and chat for a while. You can find the interview here.
You can fake wisdom, in some settings. It’s relatively easy for a smart young adult to memorize the doctrinal reflections of their elders in the tradition. Memorize the system, and you have an answer for more or less everything. To the uninitiated, this looks pretty good.
A more discerning audience quickly sees through it. Book-smarts without experience has a brittle quality to it that’s easy to recognize once you have a bit of life under your belt. Memorizing a couple fat books worth of content is nothing to sneeze at; it takes a ready mind and is an achievement in its own right…but it’s not wisdom. It took wisdom to write the books in the first place; memorizing them takes a lot less than that. Memorizing other people’s wisdom is not the same thing as having some yourself.
The young’un in question is usually not trying to fake anything; there’s no intent to deceive. It’s just that he (or she) really, honestly believes that the book-smarts are more useful than they really are. How do I know? I was that kid.
When you managed to make it a decent way into your education as the smartest person in the room, you want to believe that being smart will carry you the rest of the way. But it isn’t true. Outside the artificial world of the classroom, nobody cares how smart you are; they care what you can do. If the smarts don’t translate into service, they don’t matter. In ministry, that means that your mastery of a system of doctrine only matters to the extent that you can cash it out in practice, and that takes, well, practice.
These are the things you can’t fake, the things where reading fat books won’t help you much. You either actually show up and love actual humans over the long term or you don’t. You move the dead washing machine, rock the screaming baby so mom can get a shower, bring food and medicine when they’re sick, take the 2 am call when they’re 7 days sober and maybe not gonna make it. Sometimes they don’t, and you show up for the funeral. Sometimes they make it, and you celebrate. Sometimes they make it, but their brother, or sister, or kid doesn’t, and you hold them while they sob til they puke. You show up because Jesus called you to. You show up because Jesus is already there, and He wants you to be His hands and feet and voice.
In those moments, your ability to win a classroom debate is nothing. You either bring Jesus or you bring nothing at all.
Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?
See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?
But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.
Modern man has just forgotten how.
Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.
Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.
Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.
With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.
Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.
The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.
We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.
Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.
Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world.
Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now.
We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg.
You can’t season mashed potatoes by adding another potato. You also can’t season mashed potatoes by having salt in a saltshaker in your cupboard. Two things are necessary: you have to have something different from the food, and you have to bring that different thing into contact with the food.
You are the salt of the earth. Discuss.
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1-2)
What does God’s idea of “one mind” actually look like? In an age of ideology, we look for the wrong thing. We look for someone to parrot the party line, to have no “unapproved” thoughts, no unexpected questions. If we’re impatient, we punish anyone who deviates from expectations with whatever label our community uses to mark out Something You Can’t Say (i.e., blasphemy): “heretical,” “problematic,” or the ever-popular “racist” or “sexist.”
But God is not an ideologue, and we are not Unitarians. We are trinitarian, and that means we expect to hear the truth in multiple complementary voices. Our proverbs have two lines. We don’t all sing the same note; we believe in harmony. We even believe in discord: Jesus died on a tree. That was a hell of a note, but it’s not the end of the song.
On a walk recently, the Lady Wife and I were talking about the relationships where we have one-mindedness, and what characterizes those relationships. There’s certainly a lot of agreement, but that’s not the thing. We disagree too, and not just temporarily. I often find myself “holding hands across the fence” with someone who on paper holds a view on the other side of the ideological bright line, but has the same heart I do, and we are nearer to one another than we are to other people who *on paper* are on “our” respective sides.
Where we disagree, we find — Kimberly’s words here — “a place of peace where we’re not sinning” against each other, we’re not mad about it, and the work God’s called us to can go forward. We’re not all singing the same note, but there’s harmony. Even discord doesn’t in itself mean we’ve lost one-mindedness; it just means we’re doing jazz — if you keep playing, it wasn’t a mistake, and it will come to resolution in time.
Of course, as our more ideological brothers will be quick to point out, there is such a thing as intractable discord, and that really does create problems. Part of maintaining unity is discernment and discipline.
But the ideologues are good at discipline and no good at discernment, and as a result, they have conformity, but not unity. They don’t know what they’re missing.
We are Christians. We must seek to obey Scripture. We must particularly obey those passages which seem “hard” to us. There are two kinds of hard obedience, and two corresponding kinds of resistance.
The first kind of hard obedience is pretty well understood: we all know what to do and why to do it, but it’s just difficult. For example, a lot of Christians have a problem with drunkenness. Even when they decide to get sober, it is usually a significant struggle. In this kind of hard obedience, everybody understands very clearly why a good Christian needs to be sober. The hard part comes in the day-by-day slog of doing it.
The common resistance to this kind of hard obedience stems from laziness and/or despair. The drunk doesn’t believe he has the strength to really do it. Lacking hope, the whole thing seems impossibly hard. If he gets on the wagon anyway, he’ll start to build some hope…and that’s where the laziness often gets him. Staying sober is just so much work. So he slacks off, goes dry drunk, and then relapses.
But there’s a second kind of hard obedience that is not primarily about the difficulty of doing it. For example, we’re told three times in the New Testament to sing Psalms. Do we obey? Mostly, no. Why not?
Is it because it’s very hard to find tunes and singable settings and so forth? Not really. First of all, if you bother to really look, all that stuff is out there. Second, even if it weren’t, we have a multi-million dollar Christian music industry devoted to solving the logistical problems of generating and delivering Christian music to the end user. Hundreds of songs are written, recorded, and broadcast every year. Most of you reading this routinely learn new (or at least new to you) songs in church already, not to mention what you pick up off the radio. If our problems with Psalm-singing were merely logistical, we’d be well on our way to obedience in a couple months. (And don’t blame the music-industrial complex for our disobedience; they’re producing what we’re willing to buy. If we wanted albums full of Psalms, rest assured, they’d be delivering.)
It’s not hard for us because there’s anything especially difficult about doing it. In this case, the matter is hard for us because we don’t see why we should. We already have songs we like. The psalms are so long. They don’t fit our musical culture. They talk about things that you can’t sing about on Christian radio. And what about all that “slay my enemies” talk?
In other words, we are so far gone, we can’t even see the sense in obeying. We have been so disobedient for so long that the disobedience has become normal to us, and obedience has become impossibly weird. Why would anyone even want to do that? This is exactly what the author of Hebrews called “being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
And there’s only one thing to do at that point: a practice I call “mere obedience.” Just do the thing. Obey, however ineptly to start with. Settle in for the long haul. Get better at it as you go. Trust that in due time, your obedience will bear fruit, and the reasons for the command will become very clear. It has been my experience that this is the case.
I can tell you now a bunch of reasons why we should sing Psalms. But I didn’t know any of those reasons when I started singing Psalms. I just started singing because the New Testament said I should. It was awkward at first and I had no idea what I was doing. But God was kind, and I grew, and the blessings began to roll in. In hindsight it all seems so inevitable…but only in hindsight.
I began praying the Lord’s Prayer seriously out of mere obedience too (“When you pray, say…” from Luke 11:2). And literally speaking blessing to people I meet (Luke 10:5). And a host of other things that I didn’t know the benefits for until I had been doing them a while. They’ve all proven fruitful.
So what obedience is God setting before you?
Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.
First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness
Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.
The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.
A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.
Second piece: Original participation
Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.
Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world. Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.
Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.
But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.
Third Piece: The Twofold Cord
Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.
- Differentiate matter and spirit.
- Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
- Come to believe that only matter is real.
- Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.
The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.
The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.
The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.
Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West).
Fourth Piece: Final Participation
Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area.
The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.
Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them.
Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him.
If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.
Now when [Jesus] had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
Jesus could have made the graveclothes disappear, could He not? So why didn’t He? Is He lazy? Inattentive to detail? Surely not.
Jesus involved the community in His miracle. By the power of His spoken word (“Lazarus, come forth!”), Jesus brought Lazarus to life–an impressive feat that no one else present was prepared to do. But as he shuffled forth from the grave, Lazarus was alive, but not free: he was still bound hand and foot. So Jesus spoke another word: “Loose him, and let him go.”
This word was not like the first. It did not accomplish what it signified: the graveclothes did not magically slip off. Rather, it was a word of command to those who stood by and had seen the miracle. Jesus commissioned them to set the newly alive man free. It was their job.
And so it is.
Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.
Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….
If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.
The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.
This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding.
Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.
What do you do then?
Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.
If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)
Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.
This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?