Note from CM: This week we will be exploring some themes related to the idea of “ordinary Christianity” or “quiet Christianity” — what Michael called here, “Christian humanism.” This essay will provide a good introduction to the week.
- Interesting column on the paradoxes of Calvinism.
- Udo Middleman on “The Islamization of Christianity.”
* * *
This post is, without a doubt, an experiment in exploration and articulation. Many won’t care for where it goes, but I think a basic question must be answered, not just for the sake of answering atheists, but for understanding our own faith as “Christian humanism.”
A Facebook friend just asked me if I wanted to become a “fan” of Jonathan Edwards.
Too bad there’s isn’t a “NOT a fan” option, because I’m not a fan.
One of my consistent critics- who is also a respected friend- called to mind a statement I’d made in the past about the problem of being “too God-centered.” He was obviously wondering it, with time and reflection, I’d thought better of that phrase and wanted to repent.
Answer: No. It still concerns me. Not whether all things are centered in, related to, dependent on, destined for and exist to glorify God, but whether some expressions of Christianity can become so God-focused that the significance of what is not God- including all things in human experience- are devalued and even distorted to the point of confusion in the minds of God loving/God believing people.
I’ve sensed, as long as I have been around my intensely theological Protestant (mostly reformed and evangelical) brothers and sisters, a kind of clumsiness with the subject of the significance of anything in human experience. By clumsiness I mean that these matters are handled, but the constant pressure to be singularly God centered and God focused makes it difficult to handle both God and human life at once without one overwhelming the other.
I have felt this clumsiness and awkwardness throughout my life. For example, as a young Christian, I found myself at a post-citywide crusade prayer meeting with people involved in a James Robison crusade. Robison was speaking about the kind of prayer needed to bring revival to our city. He used a very dramatic illustration of having a vision of an open grave, where God asked him if he were willing to give the life of his child in order for revival to come. In highly emotional terms, Robison enacted this prayer where he laid his daughter in this grave, thereby signaling his willingness to sacrifice for revival.
I bring this up after reading, just today, an account of a sincere, God-loving Christian processing an incredible tragedy involving the loss of a child, and seeing the significance of the child’s death as a necessary requirement for God to bring the Gospel to many people who would otherwise not hear.
These incidents- and many more that I could tell you- seem to be clumsy, awkward, painful attempts to hold together the glory of God and the realities of human life: love, family, loss.
Regular IM readers will have heard me express my admiration for the book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer. Bouyer was a Lutheran convert to Catholicism. His assessment of Protestantism is amazingly generous, being founded on the idea that what Protestants value most is best expressed in Catholicism.
Bouyer commends the solas of Protestantism and especially the idea of soli deo gloria, but then he begins a detailed examination of Calvin and Calvinism’s focus on the singular significance of the glory of God as compared to anything else. Bouyer finds that Calvin’s focus on the glory of God reduced worship to a shred of its Catholic self, eliminated the significance of the eucharist, replaced everything in worship with scripture alone and made the significance of human life consisting solely of eternal worship. Following this track, Bouyer suggested, the glory of God becomes the only kind of significance that “weighs” anything in the experience of these Christians.
I was deeply affected by this insight, and I feel its impact in my own experience of evangelicalism.
For example, were it not for the work of N.T. Wright on eschatology (see Surprised by Hope), I would be approaching a point of despair with the evangelical “eternal praise and worship concert” view of the afterlife. Wright’s recovery of the doctrine of the resurrection and the connection of this world with the new world to come has been a sanity saver and a faith expander.
As I listen to evangelicals discuss the significance of the church, I can sense the exact process Bouyer described. More and more churches are now nothing but music and Bible teaching. Discussions of other forms of the church that embody community, encourage incarnational ministry or embrace servanthood are under deep suspicion among the heirs of Calvin. Why? Because the glory of God is at stake, the Bible is not being given enough emphasis and there are too many dangers in these human-level activities.
Many Evangelicals see a frightening and dark world. They are suspicious of art, music, literature and the imagination. Books are dangerous. Culture- be it high or low- is of little value. Those evangelicals who are not of that mindset know full well what the arguments are: How is this serving the glory of God? What is the value of this activity as compared to theology or worship? What is any of this when compared to God?
The reformed doctrines of depravity and corruption are applied to everything, and the only answer is God. But can the world of being human gain and keep its significance in and through the glory of God, or must it give way to the glory of God? That discussion seems to be going on in many different ways and places, with varying levels of helpfulness.
I am sad to say this, but there is a point at which the relentless God-centeredness of some believers makes them into the adversaries and almost the enemies of much that is good in human life. They become the enemies of normal, especially in the lives of young people, creative people and people who feel that life in this world is good and shouldn’t be devalued by religion. My recent experiences regarding the rosary at solamom.net are a perfect example. Soli deo gloria was the only reason anyone can have for anything at all, and that is not to GIVE significance, freedom, liberty and beauty, but to question the purpose for anything other than the constant study of God, God and more God.
Christianity bears a weight in this area, and not all forms of it have handled that challenge equally well. Bouyer would have some questions from me about celibacy and many other aspects of Catholic practice (especially the marriage of Joseph and Mary,) but I get his point.
I see the erosion of significance in endeavor after endeavor, area after area of evangelicalism. I see artists and servants being hounded. Standards becoming meaningless. Beauty and heritage tossed in the trash. Theological abstractions set up higher and higher as the goal of any genuine Christian.
I find myself wondering how Jesus lived a God-centered, God-glorifying life, and was fully, wonderfully, completely, healthily, human?
I see that humanity and love of God in the lives of many people, both past and present, but in the articulation and proclamation of the church, there’s the clumsiness; the disconnect. There is, sometimes, the outright adversarial attitude towards whatever is not God and God Alone.
What Bach was able to sign at the end of each piece of music….can it be signed on all of human life? Even what is not religious? What is ordinary? Normal? Merely human? When Piper says we can drink Orange juice to the glory of God, is he opening the door to finding a way for God-centered theologians and preachers to relax about people who want to do dozens and dozens of other things, in their own simple, human way, to the glory of God?
My thoughts are incomplete, but important to me at this point in my journey. I believe the glory of God preserves and fills human life with meaning and significance. I do not believe that meaning and significance only comes when we overtly, consciously allow our sense of God to make all things meaningless compared to Him.
Is our humanity validated? Or obliterated?
Something is wrong and I feel it. Perhaps my friend is right and I need to repent of what I’ve thought, felt and written. Or perhaps, as is so often true in these pages, I’m far from being the only one who’s noticed.