One 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.