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.

6 thoughts on “Who Are We?

  1. philipthewolff November 22, 2017 / 4:40 pm

    and His question is always…”who do YOU say that I am”….
    the Kingdom Party

      • philipthewolff December 8, 2017 / 1:00 pm

        always… and only… do wish it hadn’t taken me so long to discover that… totally changed how I “did things”…. 🙂

  2. minussie November 23, 2017 / 8:44 pm

    As much as I love CS Lewis – and I am one of the definitive Narnia fans – this is one of the few areas where I think he is oversimplifying the issue. I am currently wrestling with the implications of Bertrand Russel’s celestial teapot – a proposition that I find at least reasonable if not totally fair to a being that transcends matter and space. Lewis seems to imply (and I am choosing my words very carefully because I hold him in the utmost respect and I understand that it is very probable that I am simply misreading him) that an a priory philosophy that includes the supernatural is an appropriate and completely reasonable alternative to one based on experience. What interests me is that Lewis acknowledges that he has only met one person in his entire life who has ever seen a ghost thereby acknowledging that it is utterly improbable for a person to ever see a ghost. And so the only question then becomes “what is the nature of hallucinations and is it possible for an otherwise mentally healthy person to have one and then carry on normally as if nothing happened?”. I suppose the part of me that constantly wants “a miraculous sign from Jesus (and not the sign of Jonah)” wants Lewis to admit that it is difficult to silence the voices of doubt just because the supernatural explanation makes the most logical sense – yes it makes the most logical sense but it is also the most improbable according to experience. I agree with Bertrand Russel that the burden of prove is with the person who makes the improbable assertion but I agree with Lewis that “the supernatural” should at least be added to the list as a “possible explanation”. So we can follow up by asking whether or not the extremely improbable based on past experience of never seeing a ghost and not knowing anybody who has seen a ghost can still outweigh the extremely improbable having a hallucination for thirty minutes and then carrying on with a perfectly normal brain as if nothing happened and never having another hallucination ever again. When I started looking for proof of the existence of God as an antidote to the desire to kill myself I admitted very early in the endeavor that my reasons for believing in God was, and still is, entirely selfish. I needed to believe in God because my natural state of melancholy would not allow me to believe that any amount of hedonism would be worth my inevitable death / non existence. Ironically my wrestle has always been with the existence of God and not with “who is the right God” (Well this is not entirely true – I did butt heads for a few years with Calvinism when I was looking for assurance of my salvation). I understand intuitively that Jesus is the only one that offers me what I really want for myself: a life of meaning that is not ultimately vanity. But man did I fall head over heals in love with this concept of my imagination that I could not possibly have come up with by myself. It was through Max Lucado, I now admit with only a bit of embarrassment, that I discovered in my third year of university that the Jesus in which I had no problems believing in, at that particular point in my life, actually cared deeply about me just the way that I am and the desire to change me came from a completely unselfish desire for me to live life to the full and for which the work to accomplish said change was already a done deal and a certainty if I would only appropriate it by faith. I grabbed onto that Gospel which was the best news I had ever heard and sure enough I can honestly say that the next three years was the best of my life. And then entered my EXPERIENCE of my own sin. Before I knew it I had been involved in the death of my first child to be, my marriage that I was sure was from God was, to the best of my awareness, in utter shambles; the security of my house had been temporarily handed over to violent criminals, I was persecuted by church and state alike, had succumbed to my old pornography addiction and tried to hand myself over to the police for the inability to keep domestic violence out of my house. There is absolutely nothing in my experience that affirms the hypothesis: “if any man is in Christ he is a new creation; the old things have passed and all have become new”. And yet here I am. I am still in a ever growing relationship with my wife and my kids, believe it or not, are actually not afraid of me – at least not in that sense. I have no right to be here and I have no right to even be remotely happy. At the moment I have no certain ‘vision of Jesus’ but I suppose I am better off for it. But I sure wish I could hear his voice…because I am too skeptical to affirm that even at the height of my “spiritual walk” : the voice that I heard was the voice of Jesus. I don’t know what it is. It may have been a Ghost for all I know. But then a part of me does not care if it is a Ghost (it still fits my theology 🙂 ) because the view is beautiful enough to captivate me and keep me from staying down despite having cried out so many times for the pain to stop. My Jesus is an arsehole who cannot be trusted with my interpretations of his promises to me but I have no better alternative and for entirely selfish reasons I need him to give my life meaning.

    Thanks for taking the time to write Tobie.

    Your blog is one of the few places on the internet that I can go and simply ponder on Grace without “bringing down the standard”. I really need it. And if you ask very nicely I promise not to worship you :-).

  3. Tobie November 24, 2017 / 9:39 am

    Haha – thanks for that. You know what I believe. The real issue is not the stuff that the praying Pharisee raved about – his seeming ability to get his moral ducks in a row, which coincidentally provided him with that blissful and evasive thing that we have dubbed “assurance of salvation.” No, the real issue was the creepy awareness in the chest-beating tax collector’s heart ( the knot, if you wish) that there simply was no way in which he was going to make it. It seems that one of the points of this story is that our coveted assurance can actually work against the very salvation, and its unfolding in our lives, of which it is seemingly testifying. Thus, I have to conclude that true assurance of salvation is in fact to be found in its own absence, that is, in that place where you hold on and stick around, outside the security of the temple, for a reason that is truly absurd from the vantage point of the confident devotees within the temple. That reason cannot be articulated, for it has no basis in what we call reality. As such it can also not be mimicked. It is in fact a cessation of reason and a form of desperate trust (Kierkegaard’s leap, if you wish), which ironically leads to the bliss so familiar to a bankrupt man who realises that he has nothing left to loose. It is a surety that is reserved for those at the bottom of the barrel – who have run out of options and now say “Lord, where shall we go? You have the words of life.” Those who left, in this story in John 6, seemed to have done so because they had been motivated all along by something other than nothingness, thus proving themselves to be sitting ducks for religious disillusionment. God loves you way too much to allow you to be tranquillised into that state, and so he sends you home justified without telling you about it (clearly he’s trying to keep you out of the temple :)). The beautiful thing of that story is that he’ll tell others about your justification. And, of course, he may just allow them to run into you from time to time…

  4. errollmulder December 8, 2017 / 9:22 am

    Yep, Brian Zahnd says the modern ‘gospel’ we preach provides no ‘astonishment’ or sense of wonder. We want to explain everything rationally and pragmatically.

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