Christians, the Cross, and Culture
As is my custom I’ve been spending a good deal of time on Holy Week contemplating all that happened during that momentous week. I know that many of my evangelical/baptistic friends worry that too much Holy Week meditation sounds a tad too liturgical but I’ve found it to be a blessing.
This year, as often in the past, much of my thinking has gone to Silent Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection. From our point of view we can say that this one day interval is no big deal. We look back to the cross knowing that everything was going to be OK, indeed much more than OK. But to the disciples and other Jesus-followers, from the minute that Jesus breathed his last on the cross until they saw the empty tomb, it was a disaster; the most horrible, hope-dashing, thing that could have happened.
All this has me meditating on the reality that, while by no means as bad, we’ve all had similar horrible experiences. We go along dumb and happy and then one day something slaps us in the face. A cancer diagnosis, the sudden death of a dearly loved one, the loss of a job, a serious car accident, etc. hits us and we are devastated. We too find ourselves saying something like “Why did God let this happen?”
While that question goes all the way back to Job and other Old Testament passages something has changed in the way we ask it. People today are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than in times past. This is because our confidence in the power of our intellect has radically changed. In the past, people never assumed that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment of an infinite God, and what God might be up to. Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God. As Tim Keller says:
“There is, then, a significant amount of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. It is assumed, not proved, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist…but it wasn’t true that their reasoning had undermined their faith. Instead it was that a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and ability to comprehend the depths of things, had displaced an older, more self-effacing kind of faith.”
Keller is right. The assumption that our human reason can demand satisfactory answers from God is an act of faith, not reason. We simply shift our faith from God to our own intellect. It is at this point that I and many of my fellow evangelicals are ready to congratulate ourselves that we aren’t like that; that we have not succumbed to the allure of placing our own reasoning powers as the judge of all. We can be like the Pharisee proudly declaring “I am not like this man.”
Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we have actually, to some degree, placed our faith in our own reasoning. Perhaps it is that we are just clever enough to give this faith a new name – systematic theology. We collect verses from across the Bible, many of them ripped from their context, and assemble a belief that satisfies us on a host of issues, including the devastating problem of why disaster strikes. We overlook that it is our reasoning that assembles these verses, not the Bible itself.
I’ve always thought it was a nuisance that God didn’t, in one clear passage, simply tell us in unmistakable terms what to believe. It is clear that, no matter how much fun, and how helpful, systematic theology is it has never led the church to uniformity on many issues. I am aware of this now because next week our Bible study group is going to turn to II Peter 2: 20&21. Our “once saved, always saved” members are going to have to struggle with verses that seem, if taken literally, to imply some can lose their salvation. They will have to explain to our lone, smiling, Arminian, why we believe that “of course they were not actually saved, they just thought they were.”
Lest you think I am picking on the TULIP lovers in my group I know that there are verses that can turn the table and let them be the ones sitting smugly. This problem continues on many issues because, gasp, we too have put our faith in human reason; in our ability to properly assemble the “right” systematic theology.
How galling it is to admit that our own intellect is so flawed. How uncomfortable it is that, when faced with unexplained and painful happenings, and Bible verses we can’t figure out, that we are forced to simply live in the assurance that God is in control; to live each day trusting that the Gospel is true. We are forced to live each day and be glad in it, to lay down our sin and rely totally on Jesus, even when we can’t figure him out. We have to live each day determined to be joyful in Jesus, knowing that, should something radically change tomorrow, the Lord is our God and our only refuge. How hard it is to admit that, more often than we’d wish, we are clueless.