Escape from Heresy (I)

fish-jumping-from-boulI had barely turned ten when I heard that there was such a thing as a heretic. In my neck of the woods, the biggest heretic was a wederdoper (re-baptizer). A group of them was a sekte, and they were to be avoided like the Bubonic plague.

There were also other sects: Pentecostals, JWs, SDAs, Mormons, and so on. They were all equally dangerous, and equally lost. That was the consensus at the time, as we all understood it, and it lasted well into my high school years.

Until one morning, during a compulsory Sunday School class before the church service, when our dominee revealed a somewhat more open-minded approach. He took a piece of chalk and drew two large circles on the blackboard. Like the Audi rings, they overlapped, but barely. He pointed to the left circle.

“That’s us.”

He pointed to the other circle.

“That’s them – the Pentecostals.”

His finger slid to the minute overlap, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the eye of a needle.

“It is possible that there are true believers amongst them, and they will be found here.”

Not long after that, my older brother, who had recently become a “born-again” Christian, forced me (literally) to accompany him to a Pentecostal church service. I was surprised to discover that these folks were nothing like the treacherous apostates I had been warned against. The singing was great and the love was tangible. I ended up staying.

One of the first things I learned was that the real heretics were the gereformeerde people. They baptized infants and did not believe in the gifts of the Spirit. The Bible differed with them on both accounts, and that settled the matter. “We are the oldest denomination on earth,” the Pentecostals said. “We trace our roots back to the church of Acts.”

It was a relief to learn that I had not become a heretic, but that I had in fact escaped from them. The downside was that it seemed that my entire Reformed family had suddenly lost their salvation, and were in desperate need of redemption.

The passion that I found amongst the Pentecostals led me all the way to seminary. I wanted to be the best pastor ever, and gave it my everything. But in my final year something happened that would alter the course of my spiritual pilgrimage yet again: I stumbled upon John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos, and devoured it.

I was a heretic, after all. A vile and horrid one. MacArthur’s book made sense, and clarified a number of things that I had become uncomfortable with in our denomination. Chief amongst them was the outbreak of the so-called Toronto Blessing – the laughing revival that had been exported to the USA by South Africa’s Rodney Howard Brown, and that had returned to our shores thirty times stronger. Phenomena like this were all just over-the-top fanaticism, MacArthur taught me. Like the Pentecostal lady who taught her dog to bark in tongues.

MacArthur represented a new hybrid of Christian. He was the best of both my former worlds: Someone who understood repentance and baptism, but was wary of fanaticism – a type of Reformed Evangelical. I began reading everything by him that I could lay my hands on, and even distributed a copy of Charismatic Chaos amongst my Pentecostal congregants. (By now I was an ordained minister.)

The Senior Pastor was not amused, to say the least.

Needless to say, the cognitive dissonance soon became unbearable. After a number of ministerial years in my Pentecostal denomination, I resigned and became a Baptist. That was the closest thing to a MacArthur denomination that one could find here in South Africa.

However, I soon learned that not all Baptists could be trusted. Some of them were not like MacArthur at all, I was told. They were Arminians. Arminians were people who misunderstood grace. And yes, you guessed it. Arminians were heretics.

Sigh…

The good news was that there existed an antidote to Arminianism: Calvinism. That was MacArthur’s secret, and it left me with no choice. I quickly gravitated towards the non-Arminian Calvinistic fraternity within my new denomination, only to discover that they had the habit of fraternalising with non-Arminian Calvinists from other denominations, many of whom were passionately committed to the doctrine of infant baptism.

My passion for purity had made me delirious, it seemed. Like a lost soul in the desert, my ecclesiastical wanderings had taken me full circle to where I had begun. I was now attending conferences with paedobaptists (the fancy name for people who baptize babies) who believed that Pentecostals were heretics. It all seemed too familiar.

At one of these conferences I managed to corner Joel Beeke, one of the most respected Reformed theologians in the world, a renowned expositor of John Calvin’s writings, and an all-round nice, godly guy. I told him about the church of my youth, and he used the term “hyper-covenantalism” to explain how my old dominee’s theology differed from his.

I liked Beeke, so I decided that I was also going to become a non-hypercovenantalist. But before I had time to consider whether this label would suffice to put a distance between me and the heretical religion of my youth, a friend stuck a book in my hand. “It’s a gift,” he said.

The book was Dave Hunt’s What Love Is This? I started reading, and it did not take long to get the message: Calvinists were heretics. All of them, regardless of their levels of covenantalism.

The cognitive dissonance was back, with a vengeance.

I soon realized that the only way to rid myself of it was to write the inevitable Dear John letter to Calvin, although my ultimate decision to do so involved significantly more than what I had learned from Hunt’s book.

Let me pause for a moment and explain this. It is a maxim amongst Calvinists that non-Calvinists are non-Calvinists because they do not understand Calvinism, and that Dave Hunt, especially, does not understand it. This is quite befuddling, as Hunt spent more time studying it than just about anyone on the planet. But that’s besides the point. You never critique Calvinism based on a mere reading of Hunt. NEVER. Unless you enjoy evoking the Calvinistic stare that comes with recognizing a theological fruitcake (a mixture of horror and pity).

The reason, I suspect, has to do with the fact that Hunt’s book speaks more to the heart than the head. That makes it beautiful, and more than convincing for any sensitive soul, but it also also makes it inadmissible as evidence in the courts of Calvinism. Calvinism, as you may have heard, is severely left-brained. Humanitarian considerations are not at the top of their list, which is why early Calvinists had no problem to drown, torture or fry people who disagreed with their theology. As a result, I had to think hard and deep before making my exit. (I spoke about it here.)

Back to the story…

So who was Dave Hunt? My bridges were now burning ferociously behind me, and I was eager to find a resting place for a rapidly wearying soul. At this point my effort to escape from heresy had been going on for well over two decades.

Hunt was difficult to pin down, which made him interesting. He could probably be best described as an ex-Charismatic (although not Cessationist) with Brethren tendencies (he grew up in a Plymouth Brethren family.)

Now here was an interesting group of people: The Brethren. I liked their severe dislike of denominationalism, but disagreed with their end times theories. These they got from one of their founding members, John Nelson Darby, the man known as the father of Dispensationalism and Futurism. Another Brethren writer, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, popularized Darby’s eschatology with his reference Bible that remains a sensation to this day, especially amongst Independent Fundamentalist Baptists.

Did I mention that I once explored the IFB in my desperation to settle down in a church family? This was during my early Baptist days, before I tried to be a Calvinist. One night a good brother from the United States looked me straight in the eyes and said in a no-nonsense voice: “The litmus test of Christian orthodoxy is your Bible translation!” He was, of course, referring to the KJV 1611 Authorized Version. I was using another translation. I was a heretic. That settled it.

And so, during my flirtations with the IFB, Darby’s eschatology was everywhere. They regarded the doctrine of the “rapture” (in the sense of it being a distinct and separate event from the second coming of Christ) as almost on the same par as the KJV issue. But I remained unconvinced, especially after reading Hendriksen’s More Than Conquerers, Greer’s The Momentous Event, Robertson’s The Israel of God (all of them Calvinists, for some or other painful reason), and so on.

Now rapture views were popping up once again – this time round in Brethren literature. Did this make them heretics? I decided that it did not. It was an honest mistake, and could be forgiven. (My wife also believes in the rapture, which contributed to my decision. Who wants to be married to a heretic?)

However, even though the Brethren started off well and their eschatology was forgivable, they ended up stepping into the very trap that they were speaking out against. They became progressively exclusive and elitist, and eventually split into two factions – the “Exclusive” and the “Open” Brethren – each firmly convinced that the other had succumbed to the spirit of…heresy.

Double sigh…

My ecclesiastical wanderings sort of fizzled out at this point, and were replaced with an exploration of everything non- (or post-) institutional, house-churchy, organic, relational, simple, and so on. Throughout, I remained passionately committed to the belief that somewhere, some day, I would stumble upon that non-heretical group of Christians who had been eluding me since infancy.

Sadly, I discovered that the non-institutional church world was oftentimes just a microcosm of the one I had fled from, with its own gurus, schisms, weird beliefs, rituals, claims of exclusivity, and so on. In fact, I learned that for every denominational atrocity under the sun there existed a myriad of spawns who perpetuated the atrocity somewhere in a house under the guise of being a purer or restored version of whatever it was that birthed the original movement in the first place.

And, of course, they all fled the mother ship with one express purpose: To get away from… the heretics.

At this point I ran out of sighs.

Yet I was not ready to give up. I could not shake the feeling that there was something disturbingly familiar about the observation that the passion to escape from heresy seems to lead to the inevitable dissemination of heresy. We were all too much like the delirious man who got quarantined for Jungle Fever – along with his fellow travellers who all picked up the deadly disease – and then decided to get away from them as he no longer wanted to associate with a bunch of people who were clearly not well. His escape provided him with the illusion of freedom and normality that he so earnestly craved, but his only real accomplishment was to spread the dreaded disease wherever he went.

I thought deeply about this, and then I remembered something that I haven’t told you, and found my answer:

Each group that I had ever explored in my yearning to escape from heresy was spectacularly shattered into its own bits and pieces.

When I encountered the Pentecostals In the 80’s, they were split into the middle-of-the-road Charismatics like the Hatfield Baptist Church of the Ed Roebert era, the Brook House guys next door (that story would fill a book), the Word Faith Churches like Rhema, the SA Vernuwingsbeweging with their churches, the Tent Revival Meeting styled classical Pentecostals like Nicky van der Westhuizen (no relation), and official denominations like the PPC (Pentecostal Protestants), AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission), FCC (Full Gospel Church), AoG (Assemblies of God) and the Spade Reën churches.

I visited all of them. Sometimes I joined them. I attended their conferences, read their literature and listened to their tapes. I studied them. I experienced them to the full. I made friends in them. I got to know a number of their leaders.

And, of course, I always managed to find out why each of these streams was regarded as heretical by someone, somewhere.

When I joined the Calvinists, I witnessed the same phenomenon. And I witnessed it amongst the Fundamentalists. And the Baptists. And…and…and…

And then I thought of an old joke…

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

…and an old cartoon…

Saji

… and I finally got it.

I am a slow learner. It took me over three decades to smell the rat. Clearly what I was looking for did not exist. The moment I realized this, I realized that there was something dreadfully wrong with the way in which I had been defining the word heretic.

More about that in the next post.

(PS: I made a promise to write a third post in the series The Church of No Anticipation during 2018. I have not forgotten, but I am still thinking through that one.)

 

A Political Alternative

symbolicons-iconLegislative_509729_7Elections are around the corner here in South Africa. As always, there is a lot of conversation and even debate amongst Christians regarding the church’s political role and responsibility in addressing, influencing and even giving direction to a secular government.

I recently sent an e-mail response to a believing friend who asked a question along these lines, which may be of interest for those who are pondering this issue. If you have been tuned in to the local discussions in the Christian media and on the airwaves, you will note that the view below is a minority one:

“…The question is whether it is a government’s responsibility to acknowledge God. It appears from Scripture that a government’s role is to bear the sword, collect taxes, punish wrongdoers, and so on. In this they are “God’s servant,” according to Romans 13. When we pray for them, we should pray that they should govern well so that we may live “peaceful lives” (E.g. pothole and crime-free in SA), as Paul told Timothy. This does not necessitate any acknowledgment of God or Jesus or the principles of Scripture on the government’s side. It necessitates doing the job well. When I flew to Thailand last month, I could not care less whether the pilot was a Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. I wanted him only to be a pilot!

The Bible clearly distinguishes between 3 forms of justice: The justice of the gentiles, the justice of Old Testament Judaism, and the justice of Christ. The first applies to all governments worldwide, and has characterised them since the dawn of civilisation. The Babylonians and Egyptians are prime examples. There is a National Geographic (History edition) on the shelves at the moment that has dedicated a huge section to the justice system of the ancient Egyptians. If you page through it you get a crystal clear picture of the justice elements that constitute the responsibilities of a government, and they are remarkably similar throughout the history of the nations. According to Romans 2, these principles are written on the hearts of the gentiles!

I am of the opinion that John Calvin and the other Reformers undermined the Reformation with their belief that the justice system of a government should be expanded to include the Christian idea of justice. You cannot marry darkness and light. You cannot expect unregenerate people to function outside their calling. But you can expect them to govern well. When you try and forge some alliance between government and church, you end up with atrocities such as the old SA government’s marriage to the Dutch Reformed Church, where they justified their governmental injustices with an appeal to Scripture. It could be argued that they should have received guidance from other governments at the time (such as the USA), rather than from their local DRC leaders. The Biblical jargon confused the issue (most of it traceable right back to Calvin & Augustine), rather than clarified it.

Secular governance is a type of temporal governance allowed and sanctioned by God for the sake of the nations during this dispensation while the spiritual aspect of God’s Kingdom is being established in the hearts of regenerate people. When you mix the two you give the church a type of power that it was never supposed to have, and you give the state a sense of spirituality that it was never supposed to have. This is why Anabaptist historians call Luther and Calvin’s Reformation “neo-Constantiniasm.” They simply carried on what Constantine established in the 300s, and that eventually gave us Catholicism with its papal worship, government-subsidised priesthood and severe persecution of those who disagreed with their doctrine. (Wow, we can make it a capital crime to be baptised as an adult, and punishable with death!)

This does not mean that the church should be silent when a government goes off the rails, but it is a fine line to distinguish between governmental “sin” and “sin” as defined in the body of Christ. To use the pilot analogy again: If the pilot gets drunk I can and should address him, but this is not because I believe drinking is sin or because I am a fundamentalist teetotaller or because I believe that Jesus turned water into grape juice or because of any other doctrinal conviction. It is because drunk pilots are bad pilots. Also, I do not need to be a Christian to discern or address this. His co-pilot can also do it, and would perhaps do it even better as he is acquainted with the formal do’s and don’ts of drinking and flying as contained in whatever code it is that pilots live and fly by…”

In closing: Of course there are fuzzies in this debate, such as the abortion issue and the myriad of social injustices perpetrated by governments worldwide, especially against women and children. But we need to remind ourselves that we cannot expect people who are unregenerate to think about the sanctity of life in the same way that believers do. While we may work to address and rectify these issues for the sake of those at the receiving end, we always do it as citizens and never as a special type of Christian Crusader. We do it for the purpose of establishing the type of governance that God expects from the nations, never to impose a type of Kingdom ethic on the world, as though they are supposed to share in our understanding in exchange for us sharing in their authority.

As Stanley Hauerwas has quipped: “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”

The Wisdom of the Little People

Potato-Eaters-Poor-Peasant-People-Eating-Dinner-Painting

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:4

 …For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Matthew 18:20

It has been very quite on this blog, mainly for two reasons.

Firstly, Revien and I bought a school a little over a year ago. To say that I have never been busier in my life is an understatement.

There is an amazing back-story to how it all came about, which I may share here some day. Also, we have a sense where this could be going and why God sent it across our paths. If we are correct, that will be part of the story. But at the moment we are simply…busy.

Secondly, I have been involved in a personal research project that has left me somewhat dumbstruck, and that keeps on reminding me of Aquinas’ famous words to his secretary and friend, Reginald: “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”

I am obviously still writing, but I do struggle to find words to convey what I have recently come to believe regarding certain fundamental matters of our faith. It is as though my senses need to adjust themselves to an intricate and unimaginable beauty that they never knew existed. To try and explain it through the medium of mere written words would be a bit like using smoke signals to discuss deep philosophy. The form can never do justice to the content.

A Tug of War

This reminds me of an age old problem that dates back to the Garden of Eden, namely the war between two types of knowing. Where is the eternal spring of knowledge? Is it within a person, or without? Who and what introduced the notion of subjective knowledge. Was it the Tree of Life or the serpent? When knowledge is discovered, can it be conveyed with words, or does it require an encounter of sorts on the part of the recipient – a type of enlightenment or illumination?

Study church history and you will soon find that people have murdered one another in the name of Christ because they could not see eye-to-eye on this matter. The battle continues to this day, albeit in a slightly more sophisticated manner.

Interestingly, on the side of the “absolute truth” theorists, the ecclesiastical canons are usually fired at words and connotation terms that are endowed with suspicion because their existence and content allegedly derive from the dark world of secular philosophy or even witchcraft. Dare to suggest that true meaning can only be discovered when accompanied by some form of personal experience and you have instantaneously distinguished yourself as one of the ideological offspring of that cursed race known as the existentialists. Or you are a mystic, which is almost like a gnostic, which is perilously close to an ancient form of paganism obsessed with penetrating the mysterious non-material realm of the gods and spirits in order to trip the light fantastic – a dubious goal which again links you to the anti-establishmentarianism of the sixties and the period’s obsession with everything Eastern. You are also a post-modernist, which means that you subscribe to chaos theory in some or other form, and that you have betrayed the cool, calm and collected world of enlightenment rationality by exchanging it for the pale counterfeit of subjectivism and relativism and a host of other isms that will certainly damage your immortal soul irreparably.

Is all of this true? I think not. I think a great part of the church suffers from an ecclesiastical version of what we used to call “combat neurosis,” or the “Nam syndrome,” or “bossies” here in South Africa (“little bushes” in Afrikaans, referring to the “bush war” of the seventies and eighties), and that is now more often referred to as PTSD or at least one of its derivatives.

As they say: “He has left the war, but the war has not left him.” This simply means that the coping mechanisms associated with defense and survival have eventually become a greater source of security than the absence of the war itself. Thus, I have to preserve the illusion of attack in order to justify the application of my defense system in order to keep my wayward emotions in check. For my apologetic system to remain intact, the heretics need to remain heretics, in other words. I wrote extensively about this elsewhere, and do not wish to repeat myself here.

The point is that there were indeed times when the church succumbed to gnostic tendencies, and Greek ideas of wisdom and ascendance, and dreams and visions that came from below and not above, and so on. Yet none of these qualify as irrefutable proof that God prefers to speak from without and not within. The abuse does not abolish the use, as they say, nor does it justify a retreat into the safe haven of protectionism.

Would the written code have been necessary if our ancestors chose to feast from the other tree? Again, I think not. The Scriptures tell us that life comes with its own light: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Partake of life, and share in the awareness that is unique to it. This is a knowing that transcends the intellect, a covenant knowledge that ensues when two lives blend together as one and share in each other’s consciousness. “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and bore a son.”

This knowing is different to the knowledge of good and evil in the sense that it is deeply intuitive and relational, and can never be reduced to a series of propositional statements that can be “taught” in the way that I have been explaining the secret life of atoms and molecules to my Chemistry students over the past few years.

The knowledge of good and evil is very much like those lectures – a type of knowing that relies on a classification of sorts, a binary distinction between irreconcilable opposites: Positive and negative, protons and electrons, on and off, one and zero, chaos and order, yin and yang, right and wrong, and so on.

The seduction of this knowledge lies in the illusion of control that it imparts, the seeming ability to run the program at will, the insidious pride that comes with the awareness of wisdom: “I know that I know.”

This type of double-knowing sets the knower apart from the knowledge, as though standing outside of it. To know good and evil is to become clinically detached from good and evil, to force a divide between subject and object. Here there is no encounter with life, no knowing from within. All that remains is the cold objectivity of the outsider, and the ensuing ideology that attaches itself like a leech to the knower.

Here the religious dilemma arises: “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” I construct a dogma of goodness, but goodness itself evades me. My creed masquerades as enlightenment, blinding me to my blindness.

A Personal Reflection

Reflecting on the above, I am reminded of a question that has been nagging me for some time: Why have I lost my taste for so much of my previous Christian experience?

On the one hand, it is a worrying thought. Much of what I had deemed essential for momentum and eventfulness in my Christian life have simply gone stale. I look at those allegiances now as I look at the box of old toys that survived my childhood, my children’s childhoods and decades of storage in between. They represent a lot of things: Precious memories, nostalgia, perhaps a bit of money (some rare Dinky Toys from the Sixties), and so on. But one thing evades me: The exhilaration of playing with them. Try as I may, I simply cannot conjure up the magic that once kept me spellbound for hours on end.

The worrying part is the realisation that a great part of my early Christianity has gone the same route, that there is no way of rekindling it, and that my faith is heading the way of the Dinosaurs if that is all there is to it. I flip through the Christian channels and I see talking heads. I see advertisements of revival meetings with Christian celebrity names splattered all over them and my disinterest startles me. I skip the Christian publications when I browse through the magazine racks at the bookshops and supermarkets. I send prophetic end-time emails to the trash without opening them.

On the other hand, I marvel at the blossoming of new romances in my life. I have always loved the Scriptures, but they have become more astoundingly alive in the past few years than ever. I seem more pathetic if I fail to pray regularly, and so my prayers have become as vital to me as breathing, and my neglect of them as suffocating as death itself.

But perhaps most surprising of all is the enchantment of face-to-face fellowship with mere brothers and sisters; non-extraordinary Christians who do not have testimonies of signs and wonders and miraculous breakthroughs and financial blessings and astounding visions and maximizations of potential.

When we meet there is no “there,” no elusive destiny or some or other anticipated happening that will authenticate God’s worthwhileness and provide a raison d’etre for our togetherness. We are not bound together by any common goal or holy place or name or teaching, but by a shared participation in the divine nature.

Aside from Ephesians 4’s maturing of the bride and Romans 8’s ushering in of the age to come, no one is waiting for anything. There is no lusting after any anticipated dramas or breakthrough occurrences. The consensus is that God in Christ has broken through to humanity, and that our challenge is to discover and celebrate what is instead of yearning for what is not.

Remarkably, the dumbstruckness that I referred to at the beginning of this writing has evaded me in these settings. It has been no problem to share the unshareable in the presence of my brothers and sisters and Christ. And so I have become increasingly intrigued by the notion that truth seems to flourish in a relational atmosphere, that this is God’s chosen context for its conveyance, and that it’s life-giving properties are rapidly diminished when individuals unknown to us channel them through the airways, the printed page or the screen. Why else would the greatest preachers of this age not have the same effect on me as the sincerely spoken words of the littlest Christian sitting at my table – words that seem like life to my soul?

And of course I am not saying that we should discard all records of words spoken for Christ’s cause by people whom we have not met. Only that they can never compare with the miracle that happens when two or three of us meet in his name and his word manifests itself as his living presence in our midst.

Is this not why we have a collection of passionate letters written to flesh and blood individuals – people known to the authors – as the sole legacy of the apostles, and not The Institutes of Paul? These letters are extensions of relational bonds and not clinical codes of conduct, or, as Berkhof put it, formulations of a “complex system constructed for their own entertainment by scholars in the quiet retreat of ivory towers.”

And so I can carry on, but of course I am also a stranger to many who are reading this. I will have to borrow John’s words: Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

In Conclusion

I have a sense that I am not alone in this. There seems to be a growing revolt against the notion that theological insight resides in some or other punditocracy, that is, an elite inner circle of enlightened individuals who possess knowledge not accessible to the masses.

Just this morning I happen to read Walter Brueggemann on distributive justice:

“This justice recognizes that social goods and social power are unequally and destructively distributed in Israel’s world (and derivatively in any social context), and that the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have too much, for the sake of those who have not enough.”

I took my pencil and wrote “and knowledge” behind “power.” Is it not time that we broaden our understanding of justice to include the most precious of all commodities, that of wisdom and knowledge? But to do so would necessitate a break with our preciously held belief that some people are more eligible than others as custodians of God’s truth. It would be a call to relinquish that most subtle power of all, namely religious ideology.

I foresee a return to the wisdom of the little people, emboldened and enlivened by the presence of Christ in their midst, when they meet in twos or threes or more. I see a hunger for truth that is true in the moment of relational encounter, never contrary to one jot or tittle from Scripture, but always as the pouring forth of that life that breathed out Scripture in the first place. And I see a collective disenchantment with the formulations of the super-apostles and religious ideologues and denomination-makers, the manna of yesteryear, the searching and categorizing of the Scriptures apart from Christ’s presence in our midst.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. 

Jeremiah 31:33-34

 

 

 

Dear John Calvin

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(I originally posted this in 2016. The first part contained a mysterious parable that may have caused some readers to skip the post, so I’m reposting without the parable.)

It’s winter here in South Africa. A friend gave Revien and I a truckload of wood last week, and so the two of us spent the best part of Saturday sipping Cappucinos and listening to the crackling of a blazing fireplace and some great music.

That was the nice part.

But then I began to fiddle on my Ipad, and stumbled onto a five year old Classic iMonk post with almost three hundred comments. The Calvinists and Arminians were at it again, and of course I felt obliged to follow the whole thing and ride it out. Right to its very end.

But it left me feeling strangely empty and fatigued. And wondering what on earth the point was of it all, and what Paul and Peter and John and the others would have had to say about it.

To make matters worse, I spent the previous Thursday doing research for a project that involved tracing the origins of Calvinism’s famous TULIP acronym, only to be reminded that it never existed before the twentieth century.

For those who are interested: Its first known use was in 1905, when the American Presbyterian minister and hymn writer, Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee, was heard using it at the Presbyterian Union Of Newark New Jersey.

And even then it was not fully developed. McAfee’s “U” stood for Universal Sovereignty, not Unconditional Election.

Of course it is said that the so-called Five Points are much older than that, dating from 1619 and the famous Synod of Dordt, where they were stated in response to the Five Articles of the Arminian Remonstrants. But even that does not solve the problem of TULIP’s relative late arrival at the Calvinistic party. Not all Calvinists are wildly excited about the acronym, or convinced that it faithfully represents Dordt. As Kenneth Stewart put it in The Points of Calvinism: Retrospect and Prospect:

There is the striking fact that twentieth-century writing on behalf of TULIP has only very infrequently engaged with the actual Canons of Dordt of which the acronym purports to be a paraphrase or summary. This meant, and means that writers have been implying the fidelity of the acronym as a rendering of Dordt’s meaning without ever being pressed to demonstrate that this fidelity exists in fact. To call the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a ‘broad brush’ approach, is arguably too kind! Why has there been no inquiry as to whether there is actually a true correspondence between this alleged paraphrase of Dordt, and the actual intention of the Canons – widely available in English? We may well be overdue for a revisiting of the Canons of Dordt themselves – even to the point of quoting them, or making a fresh compressed summary of their actual contents.

That explains something I have often wondered about, namely why many Dutch Reformed dominees here in South Africa have never even heard of TULIP.

Thinking of all this, my cheery Saturday morning mood dampened, and in its place memories arose from over a decade ago. That was my post-Pentecostal period, during which I, too, earnestly tried to become a Calvinist.

The thing that I could not wrap my head around at the time (perhaps I should say heart) was double predestination, a term derived from John Calvin’s assertion that the decree of election is symmetrical with the decree of reprobation. In plain English, it means that the God whom I had come to know as the ultimate source of love had chosen to damn some to the very extent that he had chosen to save others.

Some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes iii, xxi, 5)

To make matters worse, the “eternally damned” weren’t mere stats on some theological pie chart, but a significant portion of the very broken children, teens and widows that I had been ministering to for years as a pastor and shepherd. God chose the majority of them to be damned forever and no one shall stand in his way? Has God then become my opponent in the ministry? Was Jesus even aware of this? Would he be angry if he found out?

These were the crazy thoughts that haunted me. And so I devised a plan: I would become a four-point Calvinist. I would not limit the atonement, and my acronym would simply be TUIP. That would allow me to have the best of both worlds. I could still listen to MacArthur, and distribute recordings of Sproul’s The Insanity of Luther, and read Piper’s The Pleasures of God, and introduce a younger generation to Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy, and collect Pink’s books, and dislike TBN.

I could have all of this without the nagging thought that there was something darkly terrifying about God, that perhaps he did not love my children as much as I did but hated them, that perhaps the whole unfolding nightmare would drive me to a place of such insanity that I would want to escape from this terrifying God, revealing myself to be one of the reprobate after all, and ultimately suffer the inevitable fate of joining the rest of them in a cosmic concentration camp where we would suffer forever without the merciful prospect of death by gassing or gun or suffocating under a pile of corpses – all of this so that God’s perfect sovereignty and justice would prevail.

I figured that I would never have to worry about any of this again. Calvin’s reference to a “secret decree” under the guise of God’s loving exterior would never give me another sleepless night, and I would never even have to wonder whether the decree was still secret after Calvin caused it to leak out.

All of this would magically vanish through a simple subtraction!

Which brings me to the flashback. I had to test my plan, and so I presented it to one of the brethren of my newfound Reformed community. The man had a formidable intellect, and was regarded as one of the more mature men in the group. I told him that I had made peace with the fact that I am a four-point Calvinist, and asked him for his opinion. His response was immediate and to the point: “We have a name for four-point Calvinists. We call them…ARMINIANS!”

Pop. That was it. There was no way out.

During that time another brother, whom I had grown to respect and love, proved to be somewhat more gentle in his approach. He used the term “inescapable conclusion” in reference to TULIP’s L.

And then there was the discussion where all of this was applied to the hopeless fate of non-elect children dying in infancy, which was perhaps the single most disturbing experience of them all.

I’ll spare you the rest. In the end, it all became too much and my effort to morph into a follower of a dead Frenchman by the name of Jehan Cauvin failed spectacularly. Which, in the long run, turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

I put it all behind me, and conceded that my reasons for wanting to become a Calvinist (Cauvinist?) were infinitely stupid in the first place. It really had nothing to do with a desire to rethink my view of God, grace, election, free will, the atonement or anything else. These questions had been settled in my heart and mind years before, as a result of the teaching of the Bible, prayer, study, contemplation, fellowship, and simply walking with Jesus Christ through the thick and thin of life for two decades.

No, the reasons why I was attracted to Calvinism were all circumstantial. I can list them, but it is really unnecessary as the late Michael Spencer himself has already done a wonderful job in another one of his classic posts: Why Calvin is cool: An infomercial for Calvinism.

Note that Spencer starts the updated post with the words “Even though I am no longer a Calvinist, a lot of this essay is still true…”

Here’s some extracts from the post, providing us with a synopsis of Spencer’s reasons for calling Calvin cool, and perhaps providing some penetrating insights into the real reasons for Calvinism’s recent resurgence. Ironically, none of them has anything to do with the stuff that almost drove me batty over a decade ago, and ALL of them are to be found in other expressions of Christianity. (If one would only look!)

Calvinists have their problems, but going the openness route or denying the authority of Scripture are not dangers in the near future…Calvinism is fired up about missions…Calvinism is the strongest resistance to the excesses and errors of the church growth movement…Calvinism is warmly God-centered…Calvinism is contending for the Gospel…Calvinism is evangelistic, when practiced and not just debated… Calvinism has a wonderful reverence for history… Calvinism has the best approach to cultural issues… Calvinism isn’t detoured into fads (Jabez, Left Behind etc.)… Calvinists are great apologists… Calvinists aren’t on television…

Those things were all true, and wonderful, and available without having to become a double predestinationist! (or whatever it is called).

And so, in the end, I was happy to write a dear John letter to Mr. Cauvin. The whole thing was just a bad affair. I was attracted to him for the wrong reasons, which blinded me to his dark side and simultaneously ruined any possibility of other, more wholesome relationships.

These were the memories that surfaced on Saturday. And then, for a moment, I felt like phoning my old friend who had trashed my dreams of becoming a four-point Calvinist. I wanted to ask him: “How could you? How could you use a novel and questionable doctrinal construct, not a century old at the time and a babe in comparison with the doctrine of the rapture that you so despise, to bully people into a category of your own making and subject them to a ridiculous stereotype that flatly ignores their personal histories of following the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching of Scripture to the best of their abilities?”

But of course it would be useless. I realized how little effect humanitarian considerations have on Calvinists when I read John Piper’s response to Thomas Talbott’s On Predestination, Reprobation, and the Love of God: A Polemic.

In fact, I reread it just now, and experienced a near irresistible temptation to get back in the fight and tell the whole world why Piper is wrong, and how both Scripture and common sense contradict him at every point, and why it is not okay to pray for your children thinking that they may be reprobates, and…

But then I’ll just go back there, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Bye bye, John…

The Church of No Anticipation (Part 2)

MonkeyThe price for the exhilaration of anticipation is a high one. When we indulge our desires by creating a Jesus that promises to fulfill some or other expectation, we do so at the expense of our commitment to the real Jesus. We pay for banana fever with lettuce leaves.

The reason for the trade-off is simple: The rush that we experience has nothing to do with the divine nature of God, or the power of the Spirit, and everything with the strong emotions that accompany expectations. As such it is not a valid portrayal of the life-giving capacity of the object or ideal that we are focused on, but an entirely subjective emotion forged by our belief that it will impart life.

The Anatomy of False Faith

This explains why the enchantment of anticipation offers such a viable alternative to real faith. Anticipation is, in fact, a form of faith, and here lies the subtlety. It sounds like faith, it looks like faith and it feels like faith. To make matters worse, it is globally proclaimed as faith.

But of course it is not faith, at least not as the Bible defines it. This should be obvious from the very emotions that we are discussing. True faith does not produce sensual feelings, for its object cannot be detected by the senses. As such it is wholly indifferent to that which appeals to the senses. It is moved by reliance on God alone, regardless of any experience (or lack of it). In fact, the Greek word for faith, pistis, can be better translated as “trust,” i.e. a strong reliance on the person and character of God, rather than mere “belief” which carries the connotation of simply believing in the existence of God.

Faith means I believe without having to see, smell or taste. It means I trust before I partake. The character of God is primary, the experience secondary. It is only the believing who get to be nourished in the end. The rest are disqualified.

And so, for faith to remain faith, its experience must of necessity be wholly different to the experience afforded by images that stir up the sensuality of desire and anticipation. Faith is the only antidote for the human irresistibility to desire, for it is in fact unfallen desire – desire pure and uncontaminated. Faith is desire under the governance of trust. It endears the believer to the Giver, not to his gifts. Faith is desire as love, not as lust.

False faith is something entirely different. It tells us that the lettuce will turn into bananas if we believe hard enough. It is an extension of our own delusions, not the antidote. It feeds on and furthers the greed that got us into our predicament in the first place, rather than challenges it. It reduces God to the status of a cosmic genie whose powers can be harnessed if we follow the correct formula.

To use Bonhoeffer’s term, false faith is a “wish dream.”

With the above in mind, it becomes clear why the banana trick is counterproductive. When we use the charm of sensual excitement as a means to motivate people for God, we are in fact messing with their perceptions. Faith is then no longer seeing the unseen, in the sense of that which is invisible to the naked eye, but seeing the unobtained, namely that which is visible in other people’s lives but invisible in mine.

This explains the trade-off. When we sensitise people to that which is visible and tangible, we desensitise them to that which is spiritual. When we teach them to live by banana excitement, we rob them of their capacity to live by lettuce. Sensual desire and faith are like God and Mammon. You cannot have both. They are mutually exclusive.

Mediation, all over again…

When we try and engineer the excitement of religious commitment, we are in fact suggesting that there is some experience that eludes our hearers. The only way we can make people lust after life is to question the validity of the life presently available to them.

The irony is that once we stir up desire and anticipation, we effectively create a gap between life and its partakers, for how can we desire and anticipate something unless it is first established that we do not have it? By promising that God is going to show up, we suggest that he is not present at the moment, and so we undermine the very essence of what the New Covenant is all about.

Our obsession with experience is nothing but a new type of mediation, and we are every bit as enslaved to it as our forebears were with priests murmuring in Latin. The packaging has changed, but it is the same old content. It is still guruism, albeit in a postmodern form. And here lies the difference: The new gurus are the guys who can best stir up expectation.

A simple visit to the Bestsellers section of your local Christian bookstore should reveal this quite clearly. Note how many of those books follow the famous formula of the television commercial:

  1. This is where you are.
  2. This is where you want to be.
  3. This is how you can get there.

The relief and bliss that one experience when reading these types of books have little to do with God, his power or his peace, and much with the absence of unwanted emotions – emotions that are temporarily suppressed by the intrusion of expectation.

Like a big drug company, our business has become the tranquilisation of the masses. The problem is that we have created a generation of addicts – people who no longer know how to use their primary resources to cope with the disillusionments that are so much part of this world. Our faith is no longer resource based, it has become vision based. And here I am not talking about the resurrection and the new earth.

The way in which this has come about is all too clear. The quickest and most efficient way to deal with a grumpy monkey is to repeat the banana trick – to use a new round of anticipation as therapy for the disillusioned and disenchanted, or, if we are really clever, for the potentially disillusioned, that is, to repeat the trick before reality hits home. We tell them that 2018 is the year of breakthrough before they have had a chance to wonder why the breakthrough eluded them in 2017.

The point is that the wish dream has penetrated our churches at an alarming rate, and that the masses have become enslaved to a type of enchantment that is entirely reliant on expectation. This year is the year of breakthrough. The revival is around the corner. God is doing a new thing. We are about to enter the realm of the miraculous.

On and on it goes. Where it will stop, nobody knows…

The Cost of it All

Again, all of this comes with a price. As Proverbs grimly reminds us, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick. There are limits to our capacity for anticipatory excitement. Sooner or later we realize that we are on a fast train heading nowhere, and that swopping stations makes no difference. Inevitably, the day will arrive when we will have not only lost our taste for lettuce, but also our capacity to dream about bananas.

It has been my experience, both as a professional pastor for many years and in my present post-institutional Christian life, that hearts sickened by deferred hope is the new epidemic that is sweeping the ecclesiastical landscape like the Bubonic plague. Its victims are countless, and their final words before breathing their last always follow this line in some or other way: Why didn’t it work out like I was promised?

We are, it seems, picking up the tab for the hysteria that we have been inducing with our vain promises over the past few decades.

Some of us have been wondering about the new type of Christianity for a long time, and have finally reached a point where we make every effort to stay out of its way. It has, in fact, become entirely impossible for us to derive any comfort whatsoever from any form of Christian prediction, except that God knows what we need and that he will provide it as and when he wishes to (terms and conditions apply), that the believing dead will be raised incorruptibly and that this beautiful earth will be restored in all of its splendor.

So did Jesus ever say anything about all of this stuff? In Part 3 we will address this question.

(PS: For a number of reasons I have put that one on hold, but I’ll post when the time is right.)

The Church of No Anticipation (Part 1)

MonkeyIn the late 1920’s, a researcher with a name reminiscent of a character from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale – Otto Tinklepaugh – conducted a series of experiments at the University of California at Berkeley. Tinklepaugh’s subjects were macaque monkeys. He wanted to see what they would “learn” in a variety of settings.

In one experiment, a monkey was put on a chair. A piece of lettuce was placed under one of two empty cups on the floor while the monkey was watching. The monkey was removed from the room. After a few minutes, it was returned and released.

Here is an excerpt from Tinklepaugh’s notes:

Subject rushes to proper cup and picks it up. Seizes lettuce. Rushes away with lettuce in his mouth, paying no attention to other cup or to setting. Time, 3-4 seconds.

Tinklepaugh repeated the experiment using bananas, with the same result. There was a difference, though: The monkeys showed greater enthusiasm when uncovering the banana.

It should come as no surprise that monkeys love lettuce, but that they love bananas even more. Most people know this. What is surprising is the monkeys’ response to a slight alteration of the banana version of the experiment. Once the monkey was removed from the room, Tinklepaugh did something sinister: He exchanged the banana with a piece of lettuce.

Here is his record of what happened next:

Subject rushes to proper cup and picks it up. Extends hand towards lettuce. Stops. Looks around on floor. Looks in, under, around cup. Glances at other cup. Looks back at screen. Looks under and around self. Looks and shrieks at any observer present. Walks away, leaving lettuce untouched on floor. Time, 10-33 seconds.

A Life Lesson

Tinklepaugh’s experiment reveals something disturbing about the dark enchantment of anticipation, which is insightful for those of us who are interested in the present state of Christianity.

Note the setting of this experiment: A creature of God is exposed to the life that comes from God alone, and then given access to it – a life that is intended to fill, satisfy, nourish and sustain the creature.

But note something else: The single factor that has the potential of seriously undermining a perfectly natural and organic process, is the prospect of a type of life that is more appealing than the provided life. Furthermore, when the anticipated “higher” life fails to appear, the effect of the resulting disappointment is so intense that it overrides the creature’s normal appetite for life sources that appear less exhilarating, no matter how accessible or nutritious they may be.

Thus, there is a correlation between the excitement stirred up by anticipation (I’m gonna get me a banana!) and the eventual absence of life (Lettuce sucks!). The irony is obvious: Those who are most passionate about receiving life are oftentimes those who go away most hungry.

Note that that the only thing that trumps that which is most valuable and desired, is an improved version of the same thing – not another thing altogether. This explains why Satan does not appear to his minions as a red horned goat-man with a sulphurous body odour, but as an “angel” (or “messenger”) of light.

If it is life that we seek, then the greatest temptation is not to discard life, but to become greedy for it – to want more of it than that which is proper, available and timeous. Satan knows this, which is why he uses it so effectively to deceive people who are looking for God.

None of this should come as a surprise. The first three chapters of Genesis reads like a version of Tinklepaugh’s experiment, except that the subjects are human: Life provided, life eclipsed by higher life, life lost.

The very thing that God intended for his creation, conformity to his image and likeness, was flashed by Satan: “…you will be like God.” The appeal offered a shortcut to the destination that they were heading to, yet without the disciplinary restraint of the growth process and its comparatively humdrum nutritional requirements. The result, according to the Genesis author, was “desire”[1] – a sense of anticipation gone out of control, a feverish enchantment stirred up by the prospect of arrival without sacrifice.

The New Testament authors understood this dark magic well, and identified it as the core problem of humanity. According to them, both the “old self” and the “world” are corrupt because of one reason only: Deceitful desire.[2]

Furthermore, they understood the gospel and cross of Christ as uniquely designed to counter this force. Paul tells us that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,[3] and that they are uniquely free to live a life void of the momentum generated by desire and anticipation.

They live by faith, which means they are immune to the lusts of the eyes. They trust in the provision of their master, and bananas no longer mesmerise them. They understand that life comes from above, and stones turning into bread seem boring in comparison.

Our Present State

If we understand this, we would rightfully become suspicious of life-offerings that are out of reach, but that promise to become accessible based on some or other precondition. We would be skeptical of any form of energy, excitement or momentum that is generated as a result of anticipation. We would understand that idolatry has very little to do with the objects of our desires, and everything with the rule of desire in our hearts. We would understand that the single greatest potential idol in all of the world is Jesus Christ, and that he becomes so when commitment to him (along with its benefits) is presented as some or other ideal to be fulfilled, rather than as an immediately accessible reality through faith, regardless of whether it is accompanied by bells and whistles.

In short, we will stop believing in the type of Christianity that requires words like “dream,” “vision,” “destiny” and “best life” to sell itself, for we shall see it for what it is: A cheap trick designed to make Christ desirable to people who have never been liberated from the governance of desire in the first place.

The problem is that the desirable Jesus is never there when we get to him, and he has not been for there two thousand years. The even bigger problem is that we have responded to his absence not by questioning whether his anticipated form was real to begin with, but by creating a church machine designed to deal with grumpy monkeys.

Our counseling rooms are emergency wards for the disappointed. Our prayers are pleas for the evasive breakthrough to manifest. Our revival services are designed to churn out newer and better versions of the banana Jesus, forever hoping to maintain the levels of excitement that were stirred up by our initial idolatrous depictions of him. Our worship services are choreographed to incite anticipation. Our evangelism strategies are aimed at the needs of the seekers. Our books are saturated with jargon that promises deliverance, healing, prosperity, a better tomorrow and everything conceivable that we do not have but want.

And, of course, all of it is cloaked in religious rhetoric. We truly believe we have turned from the world to Christ.

We have created a monster, and we are working feverishly for him, thinking that we are working for God.

(End of Part 1. Part 2 will deal with the solution to our predicament.)

[1] Genesis 3:6

[2] See Ephesians 4:22 and 2 Peter 1:4

[3] Galatians 5:24

Who Are We?

FingerprintOne of my favourite smart people in all the world is a fellow by the name of George Lakoff. I like Lakoff for a number of reasons, but mostly because of his knack to trace ideas and opinions back to their origins – origins that most of us are blissfully unaware of.

In his 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (I blogged about it here) Lakoff refers to American politics and makes the point that the real difference between “conservatives” and “liberals” has to with their understanding of morality: Conservatives hold to a “Strict Father” morality and liberals to a “Nurturing Parent” morality. Everything else is commentary.

One logical conclusion (there are many others) of Lakoff’s insights is that we bring our ideas to the party of our choice – a choice that has first been made based on those very ideas. Thus, our ideas are not shaped by our party, but amplified by it. Politics becomes an extension of our ego. This explains why so many of us are willing to lay down our lives for the party’s cause.

What we learn from experience…

C S Lewis relates a fascinating story in his 1947 book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves… If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy that excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”

Lewis is not alone in his observations. Demosthenes said: “Nothing is easier than self deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.” Aquinas pointed out that “we construe the world according to the principles of our own constitution.” Aldous Huxley confessed: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.”

As the old adage goes, we see the world not as it is, but as we are.

We See Jesus…

All of this becomes rather scary when we apply it to the realm of the Christian religion. In short: We see Jesus not as he is but as we are.

According to Rastafarians, Christ was a black man. The flower children thought of him as the first Hippie. Cuban freedom fighters drew paintings of him holding an AK 47. John Avanzini and the proponents of the prosperity movement teach that Jesus was a wealthy man who wore designer clothes and lived in a mansion. The Ascetics saw him as the great mystic. The Zealots wanted to turn him into their political liberator. The Pharisees expected him to be a Pharisee.

The list goes on and on: Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, Jesus the travelling sage, Jesus the inspired Rabbi. It seems as if everyone who has ever been excited about anything, has also, in the process, enlisted Christ as an apologist for their cause.

As William Blake wrote:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s greatest enemy:

Thine has a great hook nose like thine,

Mine has a snub nose like to mine….

Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou read’st black where I read white.

The Heart of the Matter…

This brings me back to Lakoff. If we dig a bit we will see that the great and seemingly complicated schisms of the Christian faith can be traced to a few basic presuppositions that are at odds with each other.

This is a book in itself, and we cannot explore it here. Suffice it to say that our doctrinal idiosyncrasies are oftentimes nothing but vehicles for a basic and rudimentary self-expression. The theology that resonates best with us is the theology that we most want to hear, and we most want to hear it because it best expresses who we are and where we see ourselves going.

This means that denominationalism is a social/cultural phenomenon rather than an ecclesiastical one. Jesus said: “There will be one flock with one shepherd,” (John 10:16). We say: “Birds of a feather flock together.”

But note the words preceding Jesus’ statement: “They will listen to my voice…” Here is the crux of the matter. Only when we listen to his voice will we be delivered from the dominating influence of those convictions and assumptions that we have been adopting and nurturing since early childhood – all in the hope of constructing the semblance of a real and lasting identity.

Of course this is what idolatry is all about, and the totem pole with its carved images is its perfect metaphor. But note: The price that we have to pay for this adventure is the inevitable dissociation from those who identify with a different series of images. As we learn from both the Babel story and the history of the church: It is the yearning for an identity and a name, expressed in a monument, that underlies all division, factionalism and partisanship.

To listen to his voice is the beginning of real and lasting fellowship. It is to depart from the traditions and opinions of men, even those ideas that are so profoundly and eloquently stated that they leave the hearer in awe.

To listen to his voice is to die to your own, and a good place to start is to acknowledge your own as but an echo of the voices of others. It is to step out of the constructs of human scheming and ingenuity into the glorious freedom of God’s thoughts, the fullness of which is found in Christ.

Are we liberals or conservatives? Calvinists or Arminians? Reformed or Orthodox? Pentecostals or Cessationists? The list goes on and on, with each category expressing allegiance to some or other formulation in space and time of that mystery which can only be grasped in union with Christ.

And so we are none of these, and we do not need them as categories for self-identification.

No, our identity begins and ends with Jesus Christ, the perfect expression and representation of the One True God.