… 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.
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.