“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus

 

We ought to imitate Jesus.  What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”?  Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.

So what do I mean?  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself.  Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself.  The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.

 

White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are.  The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it.  The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1  Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is.  Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do.  It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do.  I call this ethical montage.

Ethical Montage
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole.  It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition.  By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.

A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue.  In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull.  Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world.  Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed.  The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity.  This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices.  So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.

The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter.  This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces.  The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day.  It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity.  The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership.  SHE makes a difference.”  That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2

The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues.  Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning.  Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull.  Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.

It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners.  While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement.  By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded.  It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement.  Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together.  Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull.  A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.”  One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful.  By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place.  So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality.  The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another.  It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3

When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage.  To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person.  One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address.  The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization.  Words are not their etymologies, they are their use.  Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic.  This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community.  The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker.  To separate them is to falsify them.

The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy.  We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.

It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context.  You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing.  Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event.  It’s used figuratively here and technically there.  We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that.  But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words.  A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it.  We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning.  It has no meaning apart from the sentence.

In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning.  That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness.  He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action.  That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.

To illustrate, consider women who dress differently.  One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex.  I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.”  Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.”  Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too.  Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.”  The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it.  One cannot know unless one knows the person.  Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things.  One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.”  Another means, “I feel confident.”  Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.”  The same action means different things depending upon who performs it.  While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all.  We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context.  We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context.  We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so.  But are we sure that meaning is universal?  Likely not.  Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.

The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears.  That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context.  Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors.  Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition.  The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.

“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language.  In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin.  Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’  But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life.  The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches.  In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’.  The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4

So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad.  The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.”  Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.

But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor?  The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason.  “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent.  Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5

Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals.  “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic.  Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6  That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing.  He needs only to be rational.

This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.

Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it.  In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?”  If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth.  If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.

It will, of course, be easy to raise objections.  The reason is that most people are not well established liars.  They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue.  As such we live on a continuum between the two.  For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.

Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison.  During a riot the alarm goes.  It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm.  She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates.  He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity.  The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute.  She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?).  She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.”  She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire.  The power goes out and the alarm continues.  The man says, “See?  I told you.  Blue.”  She then turns to the fellow and berates him.

This is a very clever move.  The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer.  When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.”  But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What?  It’s not my fault.  I told you the truth.”  Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive.  Remember, words are their use.  If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth?  It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling.  We cannot judge his speech apart from him.

Another example comes from the Lion King.  As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.”  That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different.  Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  Scar, however, means exactly the opposite.  He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard.  I have a trap set for you.”  And that is exactly what Simba does.  Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use.  He intends to trap and deceive.  It cannot, therefore, be called truth.  Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie.  When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth.  I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.

We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life.  Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years.  The last 15 years have been miserable.  They hardly talk.  They sleep in different beds.  And who could blame them?  She is intensely critical.  He is distant emotionally, and often geographically.  He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family.  But, the couple stays together “for the kids.”  Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage.  That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses.  The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash.  We might be tempted to say, “How rude!”  But can we blame her?  The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse.  Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context.  The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick.  How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation?  For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation?  Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade?  He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one.  Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude.  Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified.  He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention.  Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love.  Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful.  The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else.  The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.

Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents.  Even if its the exact same message.  This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use.  Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control.  Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children.  Are they really telling the truth?  Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control?  Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family.  The same is true between spouses.  There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created.  Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way.  The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker.  The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me.  My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.

The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison.  Most of us have better marriages than the one described above.  We are ambiguous people.  This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth.  If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying.  But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure.  So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt.  We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth.  Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth.  It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.

How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion.  Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?  Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves.  And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.”  Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways.  Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context  we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness.  We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible.  As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant.  We think God is nice.

It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means.  Love means the cross.  Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others.  Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another.  It also means that love is confrontational.  The cross is not a sentimental gesture.  The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict.  Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins.  He died to fight against our sins.  He died to defeat them.  He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him.  Love is not “nice.”  Love is not “tolerant.”  Love is full of conflict.  But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself.  Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person.  And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell.  Or so it seems.  Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone.  In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.”  And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too.  It’s the perfect invention.  Meanness masquerading as Christianity.

It’s difficult to object.  It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus.  It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too.  But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so.  Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character.  Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself.  And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact.  The cross is the central expression of who he is.

What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard?  Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after?  I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat.  Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness.  When they speak, people listen.  If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word.  And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace.  There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion.  Whatever they say means, “I care about you.”  Whatever they say is fitting.  Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).

“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by.  Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7

That is the love of Jesus.  We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him.  They are only good because they come from him.  Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life.  We cannot have it any other way.  If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different.  I would mean, “I want to destroy you.”  Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.”  And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus.  The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.

Learning to Speak Christian: Apologetics Without Apology

 

In my previous article I talked about my ongoing education in learning to tell the truth, specifically when it comes to talking about God.  It would seem as if the approach I offered would rule out any sort of apologetics, or preclude the possibility of speaking to anyone who does not already have faith in God.  If we are to believe in order to understand, how are we to speak to those who neither believe nor understand?  When I wrote that article I was aware of these possible objections but I did not think it appropriate to address them at that time.  Since that publication a dear friend shrewdly raised these very questions, so I have thought it necessary to say something about a thoroughly Christian apologetics, an apologetics without apology.

The Position and the Problem
The God who is Trinity, the God we meet in Jesus Christ, is not the God we could have guessed.  There is no way, apart from revelation, to determine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we were to meet an unbeliever and articulate an argument for God beginning with such facts as the existence of the world, Man’s rationality, or Man’s conscience, we may be able to convince them of a sort of Higher Power, but that ambiguous Higher Power would not be the God of the Bible.

Further, when one sets out on the task of argumentation he must make every step sure.  If his foundation is shaky then whatever he erects upon that foundation will easily crumble.  Now, if God exists that would make him the determinative reality, not Man.  This means that we could not know what creation is, who we are, or even what it means to be human without him.  As a result, if God exists, then to begin with creation or Man, apart from God, would be to begin with creation/Man misunderstood.  As such, the foundation upon which we built our further argumentation would be shaky.  Whatever our conclusions from these misunderstood premises, they cannot help but be skewed.  In order even to understand the premises that would prove God–like Man and creation–one must begin with God or else his “facts” are misunderstood. “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.”1  So, it would seem that in order to have firm premises we must assume that very thing which we are trying to prove, and that is circular reasoning.  What, then, is a Christian to do?  Does he forfeit apologetics all together?  Does he abandon the unbeliever?  If not, what apologetics could there be without apology?

The Logician and the Mystic
The problem with unbelief, it turns out, is not that it is unreasonable.  A false thing may still be a reasonable thing.  Imagine coming upon a man with an odd sort of iron box.  Upon inquiry you find out that the box is sound proof and, to your horror, you also learn that there is a cat inside.  Because you cannot hear the cat inside you ask the man whether the cat is alive, to which he responds, “I don’t know.”  The important thing to note here is that the ideas of a living cat inside the box and a dead cat inside the box are both reasonable.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in either idea.  But only one can be true.  The cat is either alive or dead.  But the false idea, whichever it happens to be, is still reasonable.

When you discuss things with an unbeliever you will find a reasonableness about him.  I have never been able to offer an objection to an intelligent unbeliever that he could not answer.  You will find that the instructed unbeliever is imminently reasonable.  But if he is so reasonable, what went wrong?  Why does he not believe?  It is time to consider that the problem is not with the reason.  Perhaps it is something else.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “[R]eason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.  Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”2  If this is true, and I believe it is, then a healthy imagination is the necessary pre-condition for knowing truth.  Reason, too, is necessary, but without proper imagination it will run round in a very reasonable but very narrow circle and thereby exclude the truth which stands outside of it.

G.K. Chesterton pictures it this way:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.  Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.  If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do.  His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.  Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do.  Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large … Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.”3

So it is that the problem is not with the reason. Therefore, to try to overcome the unbeliever by reason is to aim at the wrong target. That is not where the problem lies. Chesterton continues, “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health … A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”4 Of course Chesterton believes that the Christian is reasonable and not irrational, but its grounds are more than that. “[I]t can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”5 And with the appeal to aesthetics we have an appeal to the imagination.  Chesterton, like Lewis, also considers a healthy imagination a necessary pre-condition for the apprehension of truth.

C. Stephen Evans is an expert on the thought of Soren Kierkegaard. On one occasion he summarizes Kierkegaard, again pointing to the imagination, “Religious faith has declined among intellectuals, not because they’re so smart, but because their imaginations are so weak and their emotional lives are so impoverished. If it’s true that many intellectuals don’t believe in God it’s either because they don’t want to believe or else it is because the natural human capacities that ought to allow them to recognize God at work in their lives have atrophied, they’re no longer working properly.”6

If we play the logic game we are bound to go round and round in circles. While Christianity is reasonable we will find atheists to be just as reasonable, though with a peculiar dryness. Perhaps it’s time to learn to play a different game. Given the choice between being a logician or a mystic, always be a mystic. “Mysticism keeps men sane.”7

A Story That Will Make You Believe in God
The book Life of Pi by Yann Martel offers itself as “a story that will make you believe in God.”8 That is a significant claim in itself. It is not an argument to make you believe in God, or a proof, but a story, and stories breed imagination.  Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Patel, or Pi.  He is a young boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, a French colonial settlement, where his family owned and operated a zoo.  He is raised a Hindu but quickly embraces Christianity as well as Islam.  As he recounts his interest in each of these religions you find that he was not “convinced” of any of them by argument.  It was the story, the practice, and the imagination of these religions which drew him in.  He liked them all so much that he refused to pick just one.

Despite his intensely religious character, Pi is able to sympathize with the atheist.  It is the agnostic which he despises most.  He says of them, “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love!  My God!’–and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”9

Pi’s father eventually decides to sell the animals and move to Canada. En route to Canada they find themselves and the animals aboard the Tsimtsum which sinks soon after departure.  The majority of the book recounts Pi’s survival at sea in a small life raft in the company of a rat, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a full grown Bengal tiger. And that’s not even the most fantastic part of the story. During his sea voyage he lives for a time upon a floating island full of meerkats, an island which turns acidic and carnivorous at night. In the end Pi reaches land. As he recovers in the hospital from emaciation he is interrogated by two men from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport about the sinking of the Tsimtsum.

Pi tells his story in great detail, complete with zoo animals and mysterious carnivorous floating islands.  The men find his story quite laughable.  They refuse to believe that he existed so long at sea with a Bengal tiger.  Pi then says, “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.  Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.  God is hard to believe, ask any believer.  What is your problem with hard to believe.”  “We’re just being reasonable”, they say, to which Pi responds, “So am I!  I applied my reason at every moment.  Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter.  Reason is the very best tool kit.  Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away.  But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”10

The inspectors continue to plead with him to be “reasonable.” To give them “just the facts.” After which follows this beautiful exchange:

Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”
“What really happened?”
“Yes.”
“So you want another story?”
“Uhh … no. We would like to know what really happened.”
“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
“Uhh … perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.”
“Isn’t telling about something–using words, English or Japanese–already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
“Uhh …”
“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”
Mr. Chiba: [In Japanese] “What is he talking about?”
[In Japanese] “I have no idea.”
Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”
“Yes.”
“Words that do not contradict reality?”
“Exactly.”
“But tigers don’t contradict reality.”
“Oh please, no more tigers.”
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”
“Uhh …”
“You want a story without animals.”
“Yes!”11

Pi proceeds to re-narrate the story. Most of the elements are the same. The chief difference is that all references to animals are replaced with people. Those things which happened to the animals now happen to people. The animals that die are now people that die. What the animals did, now the people do. After this retelling of the story the inspectors are no nearer to understanding what contributed to the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Convinced that the interview is fruitless they prepare to leave. Just then Pi takes the opportunity to ask them a question.

“But before you go, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Yes?”
The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”
“Yes.”
“And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human survivor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”
“That’s right.”
“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“That’s right.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“That’s true.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: [In Japanese] “Yes.” [Now in English] “The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”12

No matter which way Pi narrates the story they are both impeccably reasonable. There is no internal contradiction in either story. One, however, consists of “dry, yeastless factuality” while the other is undoubtedly the “better story.” The appeal, then, comes not from its reasonableness but from its beauty. This, I believe, is what C.S. Lewis experienced as he began to read George MacDonald and other imaginative Christians, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. By which he concluded, in a reinvention of a line from The Song of Roland, “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”13 Pi’s inspectors and Lewis were both gripped by the aesthetic of the stories before ever they wanted to consider their “reasonableness.” The stories, of course, are logically coherent, and that is important, but that moved them neither here nor there. What they really wanted–dare I say what they needed–was first a feast for the imagination.

Apologetics Without Apology
Stanley Hauerwas said, “The best apologetics is a good dogmatics.”14 This invites the question, “What would it look like if Christians did not think their duty to the world was to defend God but rather to be witnesses to the truth about God?” Instead of embroiling ourselves in “apologetic” conversations which are framed by talk of “nature” or “values”, which cannot be right because they are supposed to exist without reference to God, what if we simply told the truth about God? God is the creator become Man in Christ Jesus who empowers us by his Holy Spirit, not to be people of godless values, but to be people of holiness. That’s far more interesting. And that’s the rub.

When we forfeit the unique contours of the Christian Story we forfeit all of its beauty. Who wants to talk about nature and its endless recurrence of cause and effect? There’s nothing interesting about that. But what about a world that does not exist necessarily? What about a world that is dependent upon the God who made it? Life is no longer a necessity. Life is, in fact, not a “right” but a gift, and that’s exciting! Every day I am the recipient of a gift from a gracious God who would rather I exist than not to exist. The God who gives me life draws me into his own life by becoming one like me in Jesus Christ. Now that’s interesting indeed.

What makes statues interesting is that they have a definite shape. The curves go thusly and it is proportioned just so. If it were to relinquish its particular shape it would lose its beauty.  It would be a shapeless boulder, a mere blob of rock.  Definite shape and beauty are bound up together. When we forfeit the particular language of Christianity and adopt the language of the world by using their terms, terms like “religion”, “values”, “social contract”, “inalienable rights” and so on, we forfeit the particular shape of Christianity and with it all of its beauty. And it is that beauty which makes it attractive! Without distinctly Christian language we are left with “dry, yeastless factuality.” But Christianity is undoubtedly the “better story.” And so, what is necessary is an apologetics which is quintessentially Christian. What is needed is an apologetics without apology. It needs no defense. Its particular shape is its beauty and its beauty is its own argument. When we pronounce the True Story of the world, a story like no other, it exercises the imagination of those that would grasp it. And if that is where the weakness lies, in the imagination, then such an exercise of imagination is what strengthens the necessary organ of meaning, the pre-condition of truth. By meeting God in the truth he exercises the imagination and rehabilitates the atrophied muscle of imagination.  As unbelievers wrestle with the particular contours which constitute the inherent beauty of Christianity it sparks their imaginations and, by the grace of God, that spark can be fanned into the flame of full belief. If indeed we trust that God is the primary actor, and not us, then witnessing to the truth is what is necessary.  God is mediated through his word, not our apologetic inventions, and so acts upon the heart of the hearer.  The task before Christians is not to learn to speak the language of the world. To speak their language is to hoist the white flag of surrender. The beauty of Christianity cannot be separated from its distinct shape. Our best apologetics is a good dogmatics. If the church is to tell the truth, we must learn to speak Christian.15 Why would the world want to listen unless we are a people with something interesting to say? This means that apologetics cannot be separated from ethics. And when it comes to ethics, telling the truth is a good place to start.

©M. Benfield 2017


1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 46.
2. C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes, available at: http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf ; accessed 5 June 2017.
3. Chesterton, 34-35.
4. Ibid, 37.
5. Ibid, 38.
6. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can Know There is a God Without Proofs”, a lecture delivered on behalf of The Institute for Faith & Learning at Baylor University. Available at: https://vimeo.com/129558415 ; accessed 30 May 2017.
7. Chesterton, 46.
8. Yann Martel, Life of Pi, (Orlando, Fl: Harcourt Publishing Co., 2001), p.x.
9. Ibid, 64.
10. Ibid, 297-298.
11. Ibid, 302-303.
12. Ibid, 316-317.
13. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy/The Four Loves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 186.
14. Jonathan Lett gives this form of the quotation as he heard it in a class he took with Hauerwas himself. The paper is available here: https://www.academia.edu/8862455/Dogmatics_as_Apologetics_Theology_with_Barth_and_Hauerwas ;accessed 5 June 2017. This seems to be a form of Karl Barth’s quotation, “Respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics” as quoted in Hauerwas’ Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church, (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), p.xiv.
15. I have taken the phrase “learn to speak Christian” from the title of Stanley Hauerwas’ book, Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

Part 1 made the case that truth is not simple.  This article explains why acknowledging complexity is important.

First, it needs to be said that understanding complexity is different from acknowledging that it exists.  Whereas I think acknowledging complexity is important for everyone, understanding it is not.  If we recall, C.S. Lewis admits this as well.  “A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.”1  Many people are content to stop “there”, i.e. at simplicity.  And I admit that in most cases that is all that is necessary.  For example, a person does not need to understand alternative numbering systems or why we have settled upon Base-10 in order to learn basic arithmetic.  They may be content to be told, “We use 10 digits and here they are.”  And for the general population that is all they need to know to balance their check book, to invent a budget, or figure sales tax.  But.  There are some people who must acknowledge and understand the complexity latent in numbering systems.  A person cannot get far in certain technology fields without understanding binary notation which is a Base-2 numbering system.  If a person refused to admit that there were alternative ways of counting and insisted upon Base-10 as “the right way” or perhaps “the simple way,” and if he refused to use binary because it was “too complicated”, I imagine he would be looking for another job.

Again, I readily admit that most people do not need to know that different planets spin on their axis at different rates and that the rate of their  rotation stands in a different relationship to their orbits around the sun than does the earth.  Most people are content to know that there are 24 hours in an (earth) day and that there are 365 days in an (earth) year.2 There are, however, some for whom the former is not only interesting but necessary. Those who are responsible for landing probes on Mars will need to know that Mars moves differently than the Earth. If a calculator at NASA refused to acknowledge that “years” are not always 365(.25) days and that “days” are not always 24 hours, because it was “too complicated” and it made his head spin, then he would not be of much use to NASA.

The same can be said when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  What a person “has to know”3 in order to be a faithful Christian appears simple, and it will remain simple for most people. But inevitably there will arise circumstances for certain individuals and for certain congregations that step outside of the norm. On these occasions “simple” just will not do. I offer one example here but anyone with an “inside” view of Churches of Christ will know that these examples could be multiplied. I feel confident in saying that the most common musical experience an outsider would have when worshipping with a Church of Christ would be a cappella singing lead by an individual man. Supposing an outsider asked why we do it this way, and precluding the opportunity for a more in depth answer4, we might say, “We sing a capella because instruments were not used by churches in the New Testament. A man leads because women are not to usurp authority over men.” A single sentence answer for each of the two curiosities inherent in male lead a capella worship. Now, a person might hear that and be satisfied. Maybe. But this simplicity only hides the latent complexity which will arise in different circumstances.

I have had the grand opportunity of doing extensive mission work in Brazil. On one occasion I even had the privilege of living with a Brazilian family for 2 months. While our worship services were much the same they sometimes differed on this point. In a smaller gathering it was still most common to see worship lead just like it is here, one man leading the church in a capella singing. A larger church, however, often did things differently. They had two men leading worship. When I first saw this I was a little startled. It was certainly different. But I thought very little of it. An even bigger group saw three men leading together. A still bigger group saw six men all standing in front of the congregation leading us in song. When I inquired as to why they did it this way they responded that often younger boys feel too timid to stand alone in front of the church. Being surrounded by their family and friends helps them to over come that fear. It turned out that this was their way of discipling worship leaders, and an effective one at that. Upon return home I continued to reflect upon the practice. I heard so much about the sin of “Praise Teams.” They were simply “unauthorized.” I began to wonder, “What was the difference in that group of men leading worship in Brazil and a Praise Team in Mississippi?” More questions began to arise. “What constitutes a ‘team’? Were they a ‘team’ when they were two? Or did it take as many as six to make them a ‘team’?” I further questioned, “Which one of them was leading? Were they all leading? Is it possible to have more than one leader? If everyone lead does it mean anything to call them leaders? Can a leader be a leader if he has no followers? Then what about certain devotionals where no one stands in front but any one is free to lead at any time? Is there really a leader? Are there really followers?” My questioning didn’t stop. “What if there is a mixed group of men and women up front but they were all subordinate to a leader? Does that mean that the women are usurping authority over the men in the pews even though they are subordinate to the man leading the praise team? What is different when these women are seated in the pews in contrast to when they stand behind a man on stage?” These questions were overwhelming. Then I landed at this one, “Where in the New Testament do we find an example of even one man standing in front of the congregation to lead the church? Where did I get the idea of song leaders in the first place?” If a person is satisfied with a simple answer then they need not worry about these problems. But what happens when a young man, recently baptized, wants to lead songs but is too shy to do it without his father? Are they both allowed to stand in front to lead the church? And if two may lead then why not three? And if three then why not six? And if we can have a team, why can we not have women?  I am not here advocating Praise Teams or women worship leaders. All of this is merely illustration to prove a point. Our simple answers “work” most of the time. But our simple answers are not suitable for every circumstance. Exceptional circumstances are unavoidable. In such cases we need leaders who are willing to grapple with the complicated realities that so evidently describe our lives. One who refuses to accept the complexity of truth is not willing to do that. And that is problem #1. For most Christians simple answers satisfy. Others, specifically leaders, will have to be prepared for that which is not simple. The leader who is not willing to entertain complex answers to irregular situations is not prepared for the irregularities of ministry.

Second, another problem with believing that truth is simple is that it changes what I think of other people. It leaves only two opinions about those who disagree with me.  They are either bad or brainless.  They can be wicked or they can be wacky.  But they cannot be genuine and genius at the same time.

I have recently begun to substitute at the local schools. Every class is a mixed bag. I have some children who are special ed and some who are just special. If I were to teach a basic mathematics class and a young man insisted that 2+2 was 11 I could react a number of different ways. If I refused to admit the possibility of alternate numbering systems and insisted upon Base-10 being “the right way”, then I could only think two things about this fellow. One possibility is that something has gone wrong with his education. He has not learned to count, and that is a sad situation indeed. But it is, at least, a situation with a remedy. I need only sit the young man down and return to the number line. The other possibility, however, is much more distressing. It is possible that the young man is being intentionally obstinate and disruptive. In this case he is intelligent enough to see that 2+2 is 4 but he chooses not to admit it for his own twisted amusement. If I were to meet this sort of thing in an adult I might wonder if he had some other motive. Perhaps insisting that 2+2=11 is an odd sort of wish fulfillment. Maybe he wishes to work two two-hour days and get paid for 11 hours of labor. Whatever his motive is it is surely a bad one. The problem is not the man’s head, it is his heart. And if that is the problem then no amount of education will save him. I should not waste my time trying to teach him. I should spend my time praying for his soul.

But. What if I was willing to admit that even the simplest of equations has a number of correct answers? This admits a new possibility. It is not that my student is dorky or deficient. Perhaps he is neither puerile or pernicious … he is quite possibly precocious. Maybe he sees some disability or clumsiness in our Base-10 numbering system that I am unable to see. Yes, he’s well aware that 2+2=4 the way that I reckon it. But maybe he has a reason for preferring to reckon it otherwise. If I were to crush his spirit I could be crushing another Einstein. If I decided to prove my authority by inspiring fear I could be inspiring another Sandy Hook. All because I insisted upon a much “simpler” and “traditional” way of reckoning numbers.

The same could be said for the length of days and years. If a young lady insisted that days were longer than years I could think that she was intellectually puny or that she was morally pugnacious. But, if I’m willing to entertain the possibility of complexity, I may entertain the possibility of a Perelandrian.5 And I would regret it if I forfeit the opportunity to introduce myself to a visitor from Venus.

These same responses fit matters of doctrine. Most often our initial response to those with whom we disagree is to assume that something has gone wrong with their education. We try to school them in elementary principles and bring them up to speed. If disagreement persists we do not assume that the trouble is with the topic. We do not assume that an educated fellow could genuinely disagree with us. Instead we assume that he must not want to know the truth. Documentation of these phenomena would be necessary if they weren’t so frequent. A duck inside a mainstream Church of Christ, a short listen to an online sermon, or a quick perusal of the many Facebook groups headed by members of the Church of Christ will be evidence enough. We are quick to say things like, “They decided to follow Man instead of the Bible.” “Some people just want their ears tickled.” “That man is a liar and a false prophet.” “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “I remember the days when the simple gospel was enough for people. Now days all they’re interested in are fancy auditoriums and youth groups.” Still, overlooking the unlikelihood of an insider being unacquainted with such remarks, I share a personal experience where this attitude is evident.

While I was in school I once had an instructor who proudly confessed that he would be willing to volunteer any of our graduates to debate the students of any university, regardless of their erudition. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, no matter. We would defeat their liberalism with plain simple truth. If they disagreed with us they were either less intelligent or less sincere.  Either way they are “less.”  This assured him of our victory.  At the time I contributed my “Amen” to the chorus of the class. Now I feel fairly confident that we would be whipped in debate. What’s worse, we would be whipped and walk away thinking we had won.

This should not be surprising. If truth is really as simple as we insist then what option do we have? Either they are too ignorant to see what is plain or they are too stubborn to submit to God’s power. What other explanation is there for an intelligent man to disagree with us? He must not want to agree with us. The only thing that allows me to view my dissenters as good and intelligent is the belief that the thing about which we disagree is difficult to agree upon. If we are wrestling with a complex problem I should expect well meaning and gifted men to disagree with me. But if we are arguing about the color of the carpet he is either carnal or color blind (or maybe I am).

This is an important lesson for everyone to learn, not just the religious. Those who have taken it upon themselves to comment on politics would also do well to admit the complexity of the problems they debate. If determining the goodness of our president is as easy as comparing photos of the inauguration then there is only one explanation as to why people should think Trump a better choice than Obama. They are either bad or brainless. But if a president’s quality is more complex than paralleling polaroids then I might have to do the hard work of listening to those who think differently than I do.

If my presidential choices are defined by whether or not I support “killing babies” then there is only one way to explain why my neighbor would vote for Hillary. She is either wicked or wacky. But if electing our leader isn’t reducible to one issue then I may have to swallow my pride and have a conversation with my neighbor.

If my policy on refugees is as simple as defending against terrorism then there are only two reasons not to support my president’s temporary immigration ban: either I don’t understand terrorism, or I am a terrorist. But if immigration and harboring refugees is about more than terrorism then I might want safety for my friends and safety for the strangers.

The way that I view Truth and the way that I view Man are connected. If I am to leave room for love I must leave room for mystery. Being zealous for simplicity may mean being over zealous for prejudice. But when I make room in my head for the Sphinx, I make room in my heart for the foe.

Conclusion
It is not at all necessary for a person to understand all of the nuances of truth in order to be a good person or to be a faithful Christian.  When a child asks why Mommy’s belly is so big an acceptable answer would be, “Mommy is growing another baby in her tummy.”  It tells the truth but not all the truth.  In order to fully explain it we would have to say something about love, intimacy, marriage, sex, and embryology.  Of course, most of it would be meaningless to the little one and therefore unnecessary.  But when it comes to our own daughters having babies, we certainly want them to understand something about love, intimacy, marriage, and sex.  We may even want her to know a bit about embryology.  When it comes to the OBGYN we certainly want him/her to know something about it.

Some Christians are “new borns” or “children” in the faith.  Whether that is because they are recently converted or because they have failed to grow, “children” is an apt description.  In such cases they cannot stomach the food of the mature Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1, 2; Heb. 5:11-14).  They need a simple presentation of complex truth.  It would be silly of me to deny this.  But it would be just as silly to think that my simple explanation has exhausted all there is to say.  If I fail to recognize this I dishonor the truth.  In addition, if I do not acknowledge the mysteries of the truth then it is only natural for me to think less of those who do not see what I see.  I do not have to see it all, but I must admit that there is more to be seen.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40.
2. Even this is a little too simplified. There are in fact 365.25 days in a year. This is the reason for Leap Year. Every four years we must add an extra day to the year in order to stay on track.
3. Even this, by the way, cannot be agreed upon amongst my brethren. Why then do we insist that it’s continue to insist that it’s simple?
4. The very fact that a more “in depth” study would be desirable should indicate again that this is not a simple issue.
5. “Perelandra” is the native name of the planet Venus in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel by the same title.

Hacksaw Ridge: Teaching Us to Hear One Another

 

Let me begin by saying that at this moment I have no settled convictions about pacifism.  I have my thoughts and concerns, of course, but this article is not an argument for or against pacifism.  This is about urging us to listen to one another.

In person, on Facebook, and on Instagram I often see disagreements take place where the participants fail to listen to each other.  It appears–I say “appears” because I cannot be certain of the motive–that participants have preprogrammed responses to certain words and phrases which serve as triggers.  Things like “religion”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”, “redneck”, “hick”, “racism”, “Christian”, “feminist”, “slut”, “player”, “constitution”, “rights”, “peace”, “war”, “terrorism”, “Muslim”, “gay”, “environmentalist”, “hippy”, “sexist”, “guns”, “gun control”, “evolution”, “second amendment”, and others.  The hearer/reader, without listening, then takes the things which he/she associates with those triggers and attributes them to the speaker, regardless of the speakers objection, “That’s not what I’m saying.”  And, as an observer (and occasional participant) of the conversation, I often agree.  That’s not what the speaker was trying to say at all.  On such occasions I have tried my best to facilitate conversation between both sides, and this is one such occasion.  I want to encourage readers to see the upcoming film Hacksaw Ridge (you can watch the trailer here) and to “hear” what the film has to say.  It is the true story of Private first class Desmond T. Doss.  As a devout Seventh-Day Adventist he believed he could not touch a gun, much less take another’s life.  Still, he served in WWII as a medic and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after successfully saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers.  I believe this film helps to overcome two common associations I witness in regard to the triggers “pacifist” and “non-violence.”

First, as pictured in Hacksaw Ridge, some associate non-violence with cowardice. One of Doss’ fellow soldiers says to him, “I don’t think this is a question of religion. I think this is cowardice.” In his excellent lecture “Why I Am Not a Pacficist”, which can be read with benefit regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement, C.S. Lewis also suggests that pacifism (he suspects) may be motivated by cowardice.  He makes the suggestion gingerly, even indicting himself, not wishing to insult his hearers. “Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself.  But let me also say that there is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.”1  He goes on to give one of the most succinct and vivid accounts of war anywhere written:

 

“All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service.  Like sickness, it threatens pain and death.  Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger.  Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule.  Like exile, it separates you from all you love.  Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions.  It threatens every temporal evil–every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”2

 

If pacifism did in fact call men to avoid that which threatened the realities described above then we would be right to consider whether or not our “conviction” was inspired by a personal wish to avoid such horrors.  We find, however, that Lewis’ picture of pacifism is not nuanced enough.  He goes on to say, “[I]t is certainly a fact that Pacifism threatens you with almost nothing.”3  Whereas this may be the case with some pacifists (I have not known any) it is not the case with all.  If we take the time to listen we will discover that this is so.  In fact, some shirk the label “pacifism” all together believing it to be too “passive” (though this mistakes the meaning of the word).  They instead prefer the term “non-violent resistance” indicating their commitment to fight evil.4  This sort of pacifism is quite the opposite of what Lewis specifically describes as “nonresistance.”5 This sort of pacifism is that sort pictured in Hacksaw Ridge. Private Doss, nicknamed “Doss the Coward,” proves to be quite courageous. In one scene an officer says to him, “Private Doss, you are free to run into the hell fire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.” I feel safe saying that it would seem to take less courage to run into battle with a weapon than without one. Whereas there may be forms of pacifism which cater to cowards we ought not to hear “pacifism” or “non-violence” and simply assume the person advocating non-violence is thereby advocating cowardice. Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge will help train us to really hear one another, to listen to those who think differently than we do, and to learn to consider other ways, other perspectives. It does so here by showing that pacifists need not be cowards.

Second, in conversations I have had in regard to the topics of war, peace, non-violence, and nationalism some have objected on the grounds that pacifism somehow disrespects the soldiers that have fought and died to secure our freedom. It is believed that the suggestion of pacifism somehow belittles the courage and sacrifice of past and present soldiers. It should be noted briefly that though this objection may win a crowd rhetorically it is no accurate measure of truth. There are a great many truths labeled disrespectful regardless of how respectfully they are expressed. Even so, Hacksaw Ridge once again shows that associating disrespect with pacifism is unnecessary. Doss showed great respect for his fellow soldiers as well as his country. He respected others so much, in fact, that he could not simply send others to make a sacrifice on his behalf. He says, “I can’t stay here while all them go fight for me.” We make a mistake when we make people equal to ideas. The result is that when I disagree with a person’s belief that I am somehow perceived as being unjust towards that person. That is not the case. A person may disagree with the use of violent force without insulting or disrespecting those who support violent force. Again, Desmond Doss leads the way.

If our preconceived ideas about pacifism can so successfully be exploded, what other things might have been misunderstood?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood gun control or Just War Theory?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood evolutionary science as well as fundamentalist Christians?  Is it possible that we have misunderstood the Democratic party as well as the Republican party?  Could it be that we have misunderstood Islam and atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus?  Some of these things I agree with and others I do not.  But I do not want to make the mistake of disagreeing without first understanding.  I do not want my prejudices and my fears to make me ignore a differing view.  Sometimes a film comes a long that makes us take stock of our assumptions and question our beliefs.  Maybe Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films.  I believe that it is.

I am hopeful that Hacksaw Ridge will receive a wide viewership. I am further hopeful that we will not view the movie as simply entertainment or “about” pacifism. My hope is that this movie will do much more. I hope that Hacksaw Ridge will cause us to reflect upon all perspectives which may differ from our own. It is my wish that we will learn that those who think differently than we do are not necessarily our enemies, indeed they may be our dearest friends in time of need. I hope this film will help us learn to hear one another–to slow down, listen, and give others fair consideration. This is a Christian virtue (James 1:19), not to mention basic human decency. So join me in being simply human. Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “What I Am Not a Pacficst” (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 88.
2. Ibid, 89.
3. Ibid.
4. Preston Sprinkle actually entitles his book on non-violence Fight to reflect this commitment. See Fight (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2013), 25, 29, 30, 35.
5. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 85.