Why Pray the Lord’s Prayer?

 

In the tradition of the Churches of Christ it is not common for us to pray the Lord’s Prayer either individually or communally.  I want to encourage us, however, to reconsider the practice.

The Lord’s Prayer Allows Jesus to Teach Us to Pray
Beginners may not now what to pray.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer relieves the pressure of having to come up with the words.  The words have been given to us as a gift.  Beginners need only pray the words of scripture and they have the assurance that Jesus will be pleased. “This the Lord’s Prayer is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, ‘I have prayed, but who knows if it pleased Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?'”1

This prayer, however, is not just for the beginner.  The disciples were all of them Jews.  As such, they would have been in the habit of praying daily.2  Still, they come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1ff).  Their request to Jesus does not indicate that they did not know how to pray.  Rather, they wanted to learn to pray like Jesus prayed.

It would be a mistake if we thought that Jesus intended them to pray only “in the spirit” of his prayer instead of the very words that he gave them.  We cannot merely do something “in the spirit” of another and expect the same result.  Form can rarely (if ever) be divorced from content.  Dallas Willard relates this story.  “Some time back my wife and I visited the haunts of St. Francis of Assisi.  I noticed that the people there in charge of his remembrances were not doing the things that he did.  They did what we might call acts ‘symbolic’ of Francis, but not what he did.  How odd!  It is not odd, however, that they fail to have his inner life and his outer effects.”3 When we pray the very prayer that Jesus granted us as a gift, we are doing his acts after him. Works which are merely “symbolic” of Jesus will not have the same effect. We pray this prayer because it is his gift to us, and so we learn to be like him.

Further, the Lord’s Prayer encompasses all others.  When Augustine of Hippo reflected upon this prayer he remarked, “Run through all the words of the holy prayers, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.”4

It Helps to Form the Habit of Prayer
Martin Luther took the fact that we are to pray for our “daily” bread as an indication that we ought to pray this prayer daily.5 The Didache, a kind of ancient catechism (2nd century) commands to pray it thrice daily.6 Praying the prayer verbatim will help to establish prayer as a habit. This is exceptionally important because whereas prayer ought to be the habit of the Christian “experience teaches us that it is a habit easily broken.”7

Some may object to the repetition citing Jesus’ condemnation of “vain repetitions” (Mat. 6:7). First, it should be noted that the rest of the verse gives Jesus’ meaning. Pagans use “vain repetitions” because “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” That is, the pagan prayers could be long because they thought that they were thereby meriting their gods’ attention. The prophets of Baal, for example, cried to him from morning until noon attempting to get his attention (2 Kings 18:26). The Christian need not pray such long prayers because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mat. 6:8). Second, repetition is not inherently vain. Ask any athlete how many times he has practiced his golf swing or jump shot, or how many laps she has run around the track or how many laps she has swam around the pool. They would all admit to having repeated those exercises over and over again. But they would not consider any one of those laps or any of those golf swings to have been in vain. The repetition formed them into the people they have become. This is what the repetition of the prayer does for us. So Luther rightly says, “While mindless and unthinking repetition presents a problem, repeating the same prayer throughout one’s life does not.”8

It is a Means of Discipleship
First, it teaches us how to order our loves. Thomas Aquinas said, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers … In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired.”9 As we said previously, the form cannot be separated from the content. The very fact that the prayer begins and ends with God teaches us that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Our lives are from him, through him, and to him. We do not, we cannot, stand upon our own, nor can this prayer. Like bookends on each side God holds up our personal petitions which are found in the middle. This is itself necessary instruction. “‘Deliver us from evil’ comes last. We tend to put it first. The child puts it first; his first prayer is usually, ‘God help me!’ This is a perfectly good prayer, and even the greatest saints never outgrow it; but they outgrow putting it first.”10

Second, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to obey the Greatest Commands, to love God and our neighbors. “The structure of this prayer is parallel to the structure of the Ten Commandments because both follow the structure of reality. Both are divided into two parts: God first, man second. And both are concerned above all with love. The first three commandments tell us how to love God, and the last seven how to love our neighbor. The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer also tell us how to love God: how to adore and worship and praise him. The other four tell us how to love our neighbor, since they tell us to pray for ‘our’ primary needs, not just ‘my’ needs. Intercessory prayer has no separate petition here because the whole second half of the prayer is equally for neighbor and for self.”11 While we may not involve ourselves in corporate worship every day, we pray this prayer and so express our love for God. This fulfills the greatest command. While we may not be able to feed and clothe the poor everyday, we can and should pray for his need. This a way of fulfilling the second greatest command. “My prayers, ascending like mist today, will descend like rain at another time and place, wherever God directs it, where thirsty soil needs it. My prayers can help feed souls far removed from me in space and time, just as truly as my work or money can help feed their bodies.”12

Third, it teaches me to trust God. In it I trust God to know my daily needs better than I do. “It gives God a ‘blank check’–‘our daily bread’ means ‘whatever you see we really need … So when we do not get what we ask for, we know that that is not our ‘daily bread’, not what we need this day. Either God or we are mistaken about what we need. Which is most likely?”13 So we learn to trust that God is better able to distinguish between our wants and needs than we are. If we find than we have less than we asked for then we learn that we needed less than we asked.

Fourth, it teaches me to forgive. The significance of the petition in regard to forgiveness is that both halves are connected by the word “as.” We beg God would forgive us “as” we forgive others. “If we think carefully about it, we realize that Christ is commanding us to pray for our own damnation if we do not forgive all the sins of all who sin against us.”14

Fifth, it teaches me to confess my weakness and my constant dependence upon God’s strength. When we pray that God would not lead us into temptation, we do not mean that he would not tempt us to sin. God never does that (cf. James 1:13). Rather, we mean that God would not lead us into trials. “It would be arrogant to ask God for trials, thinking we are strong enough to endure them. It is God’s business, not ours, to decide each person’s quantity of trials. It is our business to avoid them when possible and endure them in faith when it is not. Even Christ asked, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me.’ Only then did he add, ‘If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Mt 26:39, 42). We are not to pretend to be stronger or holier than Christ!”15

It is Powerful
James reminds us that “the fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in its working” (5:16). Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” As such, we should not neglect the prayer which sums up the whole of the Christian life when we have confidence in its power, or, more precisely, when we have confidence in the God who has promised to answer.

“[T]he Lord’s Prayer, if honestly meant, is sacramental: it effects what it signifies. When we say ‘Our Father’, this faith ratifies our sonship (Rom 8:15-16). When we pray ‘Hallowed be thy name’, we are by that act actually hallowing it. When we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, we are making it come, since the kingdom exists first of all in the praying heart. When we pray ‘Thy will be done’, the very desire is its own fulfillment, for that is his will: that we pray and mean ‘Thy will be done.’ When we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, we are already receiving our daily bread, the food of our souls, which is prayer. When we pray ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, we are forgiving others, for we are praying for our own damnation if we are not. When we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, we are escaping temptation by placing ourselves in the presence of God. And when we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’, we are effecting that deliverance by holding up our sins and our needs into the burning light of God, against which no darkness can stand.”16

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 101.
2. Traditionally they prayed three times a day. An explanation of the tradition can be found here: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682091/jewish/The-Three-Daily-Prayers.htm .
3. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 115.
4. St. Augustine of Hippo, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 391.
5. Luther, 101.
6. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), VIII.3.
7. Luther, 97.
8. Ibid.
9. St. Thomas Aquinas, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, 391.
10. Kreeft, 401.
11. Ibid, 395.
12. Ibid, 392.
13. Ibid, 397-398.
14. Ibid, 399.
15. Ibid, 400.
16. Ibid, 402-403.

You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me

 

 

The exposition of the Decalogue in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism gives much attention to the first commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3).  He does so because, he says, “where the heart is rightly set toward God … and this commandment is observed, all other commandments follow.”1 He points to the heart and then adds to the affection of the heart the conception of the mind. “It is most important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.”2

What Does It Mean to Have a God?
So, we proceed by way of Luther to ask of the first commandment, as he does, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: a god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol … Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”3 Later he puts it this way, “Everyone has set up as his special god whatever he looked to for blessings, help, and comfort.”4 He also notes the etymological relationship in German (which exists also in English) between the words “God” and “good”, saying, “So, I think, we Germans from ancient times name God (more elegantly and appropriately than any other language) from the word Good. It is as though He were an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good. And from that fountain flows forth all that is and is called good.”5

This is helpful because we are prone to think that idolatry does not exist today.  This is so because we consider idols as those things which we worship and we construe worship as restricted to prayers and hymns.  Luther’s conception of what it means to have a god challenges us to ask ourselves, from what do we “expect all good” and in what do we “take refuge in all distress”?  When we answer that question then we have identified our God(s).

Some expect money to be the fountain of all good, others, power.  Some run to drugs and alcohol in their distress, others, sex.  Some turn to things a bit more benign.  They turn to work for the source of their good and to family for refuge in all distress.  The question facing us is: when life gets hard, what do I turn to to save me?  Or in other words, what do I turn to in order to make me feel better?  When we ask it this way we find that idolatry is alive and well.  What’s worse, we may find that we are idolaters.

A Caution Against Dualism
While Luther helps us to identify our idols, it is just here that we must be careful to guard against any sort of dualism which might pit God’s creation against himself.  God gifted his creation to man to be enjoyed (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). Luther is aware of this danger and is careful to protect his readers from any such false step.  He instructs us as to how we might find comfort in God alone without rejecting the world all together.

Receive from God, Not from Ourselves
First, we must ask if the things to which we turn for comfort are enjoyed within the boundaries set by God himself. They must be appropriate objects and enjoyed in appropriate degree. Food is an appropriate object of pleasure, recreational drugs are not. Food sufficient for the belly is an appropriate amount, gluttony is not. Only when we share in the pleasures God has given can we be said to have turned to God for our comfort, otherwise we have turned only to our own will and so to idols. “So no one should expect to take or give anything except what God has commanded. Then it may be acknowledged as God’s gift, and thanks may be rendered to Him for it, as this commandment requires. For this reason also, the ways we receive good gifts through creatures are not to be rejected. Nor should we arrogantly seek other ways and means than what God has commanded. For that would not be receiving from God, but seeking for ourselves.”6

This seems to be the very thing Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesian church. Just before he equates greed with idolatry (5:5) he lists a number of sins which ought to be avoided. “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” (5:3, 4a). Paul then contrasts these sins with virtue. We would expect Paul to contrast fornication and impurity with chastity. We would expect him to contrast greed with contentment, and obscene talk with pure speech. But that is not what he does. In place of all this he says, “but instead, let there be thanksgiving” (5:4b). He does this, I believe, because virtuous actions are pleasurable deeds that we can receive as God’s gifts and thereby render thanks unto him.  As a result, thanksgiving becomes the opposite of vice because thanksgiving may only be rendered to God on account of virtue. While sex in itself is a gift of God, fornication, i.e. sex outside of marriage, is not. We cannot thank God for that which he did not give. Such “gifts” are those gifts which we would give ourselves. Talk is another gift from the Lord. Conversation binds together the hearts of those who share in it and strengthens the bonds of community. Obscene talk, and vulgar speech, however, do not. They are not gifts but poisons. And so we cannot thank God for them because he did not give them.  They reside outside of his command. If we are to have no other God but the LORD then we may only enjoy such gifts as he gives, anything else is from idols; We may only enjoy those things for which we are able to thank him in all good conscience.  Thanks for anything else is sacrifice to idol gods.

Recognize the Giver in the Gift
Second, even those things which God approves are potential idols. It is not that finding refuge in family or work is inherently bad.  They are not idols in themselves.  On the contrary, they are part of God’s good creation and they are offered to us for our pleasure.  They are intended to offer comfort.  They become idols only when they are rent from the hand of God and enjoyed as ends in themselves.  But, if we remember that they are gifts, if we remember that God is the fountain of all good (cf. James 1:17), then these things are not idols but blessings; They are instruments of God’s goodness.  “Even though we experience much good from other people, whatever we receive by God’s command or arrangement is all received from God.  For our parents and all rulers and everyone else, with respect to his neighbor, have received from God the command that they should do us all kinds of good.  So we receive these blessings not from them, but through them, from God.  For creatures are only the hands, channels, and means by which God gives all things.”7

Conclusion: Worship Defends Against Idolatry
So long as those acts and objects to which we turn in distress are good in themselves, that is, they are approved channels of God’s blessing and in accordance with his command, then there is no reason why we should not enjoy them. Finding comfort in God does not necessitate hermetic isolation and mystic contemplation (though there may be a time for that too). It does, however, require appreciating them as gifts and it requires recognizing God in them. To ensure that we turn to God-through-them and not to the things in themselves, we must give thanks for them as blessings.

“Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.  When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.  He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.  Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own and have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today”(Deu. 8:11-18; cf. 1 Tim. 4:3-5).

When we worship God for our gifts it strips those gifts of any pretense to deity. By recognizing them as gift we recognize them as dependent and therefore not as gods. It may then seem like a tautology to say that worshiping the true God defends against idolatry, but as it turns out it is a truth which bears repeating.  And so God says to us all, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 24, sec. 47.
2. Ibid, 22, sec. 31. Because his comments here lean heavily upon the right conception of God we may be tempted to disagree with Luther and protest that we are not what we believe, rather, we are what we love. We must be careful, however, to obey the eighth commandment as expounded by Luther in favor of Luther: “It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor” (p. 70, sec. 289). We must “put the best construction” upon Luther, and while he most often speaks of the right conception of God he does not neglect the affect all together. Indeed, on occasion conception and affection seem for Luther to intertwine. “Instead, to ‘have’ Him [God] means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust Him entirely.” (p.19, secs. 14, 15). Further, Luther was an Augustinian monk and would have been well acquainted with Augustine’s concept of well ordered love.
3. Ibid, 18, secs.1-3.
4. Ibid, 20, sec.17.
5. Ibid, 21, sec.25.
6. Ibid, 21, sec.27.
7. Ibid, 21, sec.26.

The No-True-God Fallacy: A Blind Man’s Confession

 

 

Having reviewed my own work in the previous article about who God is and what sort of God he is, I realize that it is an easy article to contest.  One might easily say that I have committed the No-True-Scotsman fallacy.  This fallacy is an after-the-fact attempt to rescue an argument from refutation.  It is so called the No-True-Scotsman fallacy for the illustrations that are often used to explain it.

Smith:  All Scotsmen are loyal and brave.
Jones: But McDougal over there is a Scotsman, and he was arrested by his commanding officer for running from the enemy.
Smith: Well, if that’s right, it just shows that McDougal wasn’t a TRUE Scotsman.1

Or another form, which was my first introduction to the idea and still the one which first comes to mind, goes like this:

Person A: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B: But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.
Person A: Ah yes, but not true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.2

One might say this is the sort of thing I have done.  I have asserted that God exists.  Then, when someone points out that there is suffering in the world, I simply respond by saying, “Ah yes, but the sort of God that is disproved thereby is not the God of the Bible.  The true God is not disproved by suffering.”  One might say that in the face of any evidence which would refute God I simply say, “The God you have refuted is not the true God.”  One might say that this is “simply a dogmatic refusal to face up to the possibility of being wrong.”3 Is this what I have done? Have I committed the No-True-God Fallacy?

Have I failed to make God intelligible?  What am I to do?  Should I recant all that I have said?  I find myself in the position of the blind man by the pool of Siloam.  And so, consider this a blind man’s confession.

The Unbelievers Who “Know” God, and the Believer Who Doesn’t
In John 9 Jesus and his disciples come across “a man blind from birth” (9:1).  Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).  then he went and washed and came back able to see” (9:6, 7).  It is undeniable that this man had been changed by Jesus, so much so that even those who knew him were not sure that he was the same person.  “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’  Some were saying, ‘It is he.”  Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’  He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'” (9:8, 9).

The most interesting thing about the encounter is the man’s agnosticism.  Whenever he is asked for an explanation as to how he came to see all he can tell is what happened to him, but as to who Jesus is, where he came from, or how we was able to perform the miracle, he repeats over and over, “I don’t know.”  “But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’  He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’  They said to him, ‘Where is he?’  He said, ‘I do not know.'”

In contrast, those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah are quite sure that they know what sort of man Jesus is.  “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.’  Some of the Pharisees said ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.'” (9:13-16a).  Whereas the healed man did not know where Jesus was, certain the Pharisees knew where he was not from.  They were certain that he was not from God.  Others, however, were more cautious.  “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And they were divided.” (9:16b).

They turn to the formerly blind man and ask him again to explain the man who healed him.  This time he ventures beyond his agnostic position to say simply, “He is a prophet” (9:17).  The Jews who interrogated him were not even sure that the man was born blind or whether he was making it up.  After calling his parents to witness to the truth of the matter they turn again to the man and say, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24).  Again, those who reject Jesus are the one’s that make the strongest claims to know him.  They know that he is a sinner.  The blind man continues his cautious and agnostic approach about the nature of Jesus.  “He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see'” (9:25).

After the blind man’s expulsion he has another encounter with Jesus.  “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’  He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’  And he worshiped him” (9:35-38).  How ironic that it is the life-long blind man who “sees” Jesus (9:37).

As so often happens in scripture, Jesus explains his actions to those around him as a kind of enacted parable.  “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.'” (9:39-41).  The blind man knew well that he was blind, not only physically but spiritually.  He did not presume to know who Jesus was, and thereby he was able to accept Jesus as coming from God.  It was this “blind” man who has his sins forgiven.  The mistake lies with those who were so sure that they could see, both physically and spiritually.  They “knew” who Jesus was and what sort of man he was.  It is that claim to knowledge that made them unable to accept Jesus.  It is because they said “We see” that their “sin remains” (9:41).

We Do Not Make God Intelligible, He Makes Us Intelligible
All those who are sure that they know what sort of God the God of the Bible is find themselves in the place of the Jews who opposed him.  They had read the Bible, they were sure that they “knew” what the Messiah would look like, how prophets would act, and what sort of God they served.  It was that “knowledge” of God which caused them to refuse Jesus.  As it turns out, the God they rejected was not the God they met in Jesus Christ.  So it is with so many unbelievers.  They have perhaps read the Bible and maybe even some philosophy.  They are then sure that they know what sort of God the Christian God is and that is the very thing which stops them from being able to accept him.

But if they are the Pharisees then that leaves me in the place of the blind man.  Often the best that I can do when asked about God is to say, “I don’t know.”  Still, given that it turned out well for the blind man, I don’t think that’s a bad place to be.  “Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say ‘God.’  This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word ‘God’ only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit.  Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.”4 Because this is the case, it is likely misguided to try and defend God or explain him. Even believers are often not quite sure what to say about God.   And when they are “sure” they are often wrong.  But I think that is because God does not gain his intelligibility from us, rather we get ours from him. We do not explain him, he explains us. The blind man put it so well. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He could not make sense of who had healed him. But the only explanation for the blind man’s sight was that someone had healed him. He could not explain Jesus, but only Jesus could explain him. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says something about this dynamic when he says, “John’s designation of Christ as the Logos points to the fact that the evangelist envisions him as fulfilling the role of cosmic reason, in the Greeks’ and in Philo’s sense as that which grants all things their intelligibility.”5

The Church that Only God Could Make
Mortimer Adler once described his attempt at apologetics using the works of Thomas Aquinas.

“One year–in 1936, I believe–that seminar began with the ‘Treatise on God.’  I announced that I would not move a page beyond Question 2 until I had succeeded in persuading every member of the class that the existence of God could be demonstrated by one or another of the proofs advanced by Aquinas.  One by one they gave in, either from some measure of conviction or, more likely, from weariness and boredom with the protracted process; but one, Charles Adams, indomitably held out.  Finally, my professorial colleague, Malcolm Sharp, called a halt to the proceedings and suggested that, instead of sticking to my guns with Adams, I tell the class about the life and work of Aquinas.  I did so, stressing the shortness of his career as a teacher and writer (a little more than twenty years) in which, under the austerities of monastic life, with no libraries, typewriters, in ordinary-sized volumes, would occupy many shelves; and, I added, most of these works were filled with quotations from Sacred Scripture, from the philosophers of antiquity, from the Fathers of the Church, and from his immediate predecessors in the 11th and 12th centuries–all this without having the convenience of a well-stocked library or an adequate filing system.  When I had finished, Adams spoke up.  He rebuked me for not having started out by telling the class what I had just finished reporting.  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Because,’ said Adams, ‘if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God’s existence.  Aquinas could not have done what he did without God’s help.”6

Whereas, for Adams, Aquinas had failed to make God intelligible, he was sure that only God could make Aquinas intelligible.  It may be that the church’s best apologetics is being the church.  Stanley Hauerwas tells of a woman who served as his priest for some time, “Susan would often begin her sermons by observing that she could not ‘think the church up.’  She could not imagine an Aldersgate, but God can and does.  What a wonderful way to put it.”7 Our response to the living Christ is not to explain him but to live lives which only he could explain. This is a hard call to answer because so often Christians have severed their theology from the way that they live. Christianity has become formal knowledge of a private creed instead of discipleship to a living Christ. “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”8

It is time for the church to be the church.  It could very well be it is our lives, not our arguments, which need conversion.  There is a story often told of G.K. Chesterton.  He was asked if there was any irrefutable argument for Christianity.  He said, “Yes. Christians.”  Immediately following he was asked if there was any really good argument against Christianity to which he answered, “Yes.  Christians.”

I may not be able to make God intelligible.  The church may not be able to make God intelligible.  But the church can be a body which only God makes intelligible.  Let’s get about being the church that only God could make.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#NoTrueScotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017. There it is noted that the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy is a different way of naming what is called an Ad Hoc Rescue.
2. This is the first form given on Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017.
3. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ad Hoc Rescue.” Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHoc Rescue ; accessed 7 July, 2017.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2012), 236.
5. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 54.
6. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan, (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 22-23.
7. Hauerwas, 222.
8. Ibid, 159.

Jesus the Word of God

 

In the previous article I made the point that one’s actions may not be judged apart from him.  We cannot know what actions mean apart from a personal context any more than we can know what words mean apart from their use in a sentence.  Just so, apart from who God is, we cannot know what God means when he speaks.  God’s most explicit word to Man is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  As such, Christ is our beginning and ending if we are to understand what God means.  “It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples.  They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ.”1

The Lord of the Sabbath
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-12:8)

This is one of many places where the place that Torah had in the life of the Jews is replaced with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish tradition likely extending back before the time of Christ, says, “R[abbi] Nehunya b[en] Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of [Torah], from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom [i.e. the troubles suffered at the hands of those in power] and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of [Torah], upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”2 Instead of inviting people to the yoke of Torah Jesus invites them to take up his yoke.  I do not think it is necessary to say that Jesus stands above the Torah.  What would that mean?  How does one stand above his own word?  We must not see him as above Torah but we must see Torah in relation to him. The Torah had been ripped away from God and placed into the uncareful hands of Man.  By inviting the people to take his yoke upon them he forces them to see that Torah does not exist apart from the God who gave it.  If we do not see Torah as the word of God then we do not see it at all.  Torah is only the word of God insofar as it is the Word of God.  If we interpret it to express anything other than the will of Jesus then we have not understood it.  Like any action, any speech, it is only intelligible when understood in relation to the person.  God in Jesus defines what is meant by Torah.  If Torah is rent from Jesus it means something that he never meant.  It becomes a burden instead of a delight (cf. Isa. 58:13).

As Jesus traveled his disciples became hungry and began to eat.  The Pharisees then take what Torah had said and separate it from what God meant.  They thereby accuse his disciples of doing what is unlawful.  They took the sabbath to mean something which would be a burden to Man, when in fact the sabbath is supposed to be a delight.  In Mark’s parallel account he reminds them that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  The sabbath is not the Lord of Man but his servant.  Any other way of seeing sabbath is to misunderstand what God means by sabbath.  So Jesus points to another scripture which they no doubt knew, though they did not know what it meant, as Jesus again makes clear.  “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7).  They knew what scripture said, but they did not know what it meant.  And they did not know what it meant because they had separated the word from the speaker.  Had they really known God they would have known that whatever God meant by “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” he did not mean “You must starve.”  And so Jesus reminds them that Torah does not exist on its own.  It is an expression of the will of a person.  There is no Torah without its Lord and “the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8).  We may not separate one from the other.

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord so Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver the word of God.  After blessing all of those who had joined themselves to him he affirms his union with Torah.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:17-19).  While he calls his disciples to obedience, he does not leave open the option of obeying the Law apart from him.  We saw above what sort of righteousness the Pharisees produced when they wrested the law of sabbath from the hands of Jesus.  And so he calls us all to a righteousness which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  The righteousness which exceeds is precisely the righteousness of Christ.  It is the Law of Christ, for there is no Law apart from him.

Six times Jesus points to the Law and six times he joins it to himself.  “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”  We may not separate Jesus’ word–for that is what Torah is–from Jesus.  When we separate the word from the Word we get an inferior righteousness and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).  Jesus insists that the word is the word of God.  It is therefore an expression of himself.  We may not read the word of God without remembering the God who spoke it, the God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:44).  And so we realize that God’s word is no word if it is severed from himself.  It is what it is only insofar as it seen as an expression of Christ who is himself an expression of the will of God.  So the word of God and the Word of God call us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Listen to Him
The disciples would need to learn this lesson again and again.  The words of Moses and Elijah are no words at all unless they are seen as the very words of Christ.  “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ ” (17:1-8).  It is not that Moses and Elijah and Jesus present different voices.  They all speak the word of God, but only Jesus is the Word of God.  This lesson they had to learn.  They had to learn that to read Moses was to read the word’s of the Beloved Son.  They had to learn that to hear Elijah was to hear Jesus.  Whenever they listen to Moses and Elijah they are to listen to Jesus.  “Listen to him” said the voice from the cloud.  And the disciples “saw no one except Jesus.”  There is no other to see.  All words are to be seen as the Word.  There is no one else.

Jesus the Word of God
If we want to know the word of God we are not permitted to listen to any other voice than Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).  Whatever God said, Jesus is always what he meant.  “He is the self-expression of the Father–what the Father has to say.  And there never was a time when He was not saying it.”3

Walk to Emmaus
After the incarnation we may not read the Old Testament in any way other than Christologically.  Jesus made this clear to two disciples on a walk they shared to Emmaus.  After they expressed their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion he said to them, “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).  This is not to say that Jesus picked out a bit of scripture from Moses here and a bit from the prophets there and said, “Yes, these are prophecies of me.”  Rather, he shows that it is all about him, from beginning to end.  How could it be otherwise?  He is the Word of God.  There is no word without Jesus in it.  We may not separate the scriptures from Jesus else we fall under his condemnation.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39a).  No!  There is no life at all in the scripture unless we see that they are connected to him who has life in himself (cf. 5:26).  “And it is they that testify of me”, he says.  “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39b-40).  It is in Jesus that we find life.  And so, scripture apart from Jesus is no life at all.  If we separate the word of God from the Word of God we make it a dead letter.  It can only kill.  But if in the word of God we see Jesus and listen to him we find that we have life, and that which is life indeed.

All Things In Him, Through Him, and For Him
The incarnation did not only transform the way we see and hear the Old Testament.  It must by necessity transform the way that we see and hear the world.  Just as we do not know what the Old Testament means apart from Jesus so we do not know what the world means apart from him.  Because as the incarnate Word he is the mediator between God and Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), he is also the mediator between Man and the world.  “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).  We no longer have immediate access to the world.  To have such immediate access is to abuse it, to see it askew.  To attempt to grasp the world apart from Christ is violence and deception.  The world must be shaped by him and reinterpreted through him.  There is no world apart from him.

“We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.  But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation he has come between man and his natural life.  There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way.  By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world.  He wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass.  He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.  He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality.  Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1.3; 1 Cor. 8.6; Heb. 1.2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.  Since his coming man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator … There can only be a complete breach with the immediacies of life: the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator … For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ.  What is not given us through the incarnate Son is not given us by God.”4

We may no longer see the poor, we must see Christ. We may no longer see our enemies, we can only see Jesus. We cannot see our rights but only God’s gifts. We do not see our families, instead we see the Church, which is Christ’s body. We may not see the world unless in it we see the glory of Christ and his handiwork, otherwise we are blind and there is no health in us. We must all be able to say, “I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see [him], but because by [him] I see everything else.”5

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 123.
2. Herbert Danby, Trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.5, p.450. Another occasion where Jesus places himself in the place of the Torah is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” vis a vis Mishnah, Aboth, 3.6, “R. Halafta b. Dosa of Kefar Hanania said: If ten men sit togehter and occupy themselves in [Torah], the Divine Presence [The Shekinah] rests among them, for it is written God standeth in the congregation of God … And whence [do you learn this] even of two [people]? Because it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard.”
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 173-174.
4. Bonhoeffer, 95-97.
5. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”, (New York: Harper Colloins, 2001), 140.

“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.

Simplicity and Ethics (Part 3)

 

Minimalism is more than just a selfish endeavor to help make my life better.  It also helps the wider world.  Two areas where simplicity makes a big difference are ecology and human rights.  And the two simplicity principles which will guide this conversation are: 1. Buy less.  2. Pay more.

Ecology
Annie Leonard, in her now famous 20 minute video “The Story of Stuff,”1 discusses the impact the materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal) has on our environment.  Recycling is good and she praises its virtues.  But she also points out that recycling is not enough.  Partly because some things are just non-recyclable, or at least very difficult to recycle (K-Cups for example).2 The answer to the problem?  Buy less.  Pay more (if necessary).

First, buy less.   “The Story of Stuff” discusses “perceived obsolescence.”  This means that certain things are designed so that they will be perceived as obsolete, even though they are not.  When the world around us changes so quickly it doesn’t take long before the stuff we buy easily becomes dated.  But dated doesn’t mean worthless.  Our clothes, our computers, our phones may work just fine but we often get rid of them because they don’t look like every one else’s.  This is no accident.  It was engineered that way.  In fact, it was engineered over 60 years ago.  In the 1955 Journal of Retailing Victor Lebow (mentioned in “The Story of Stuff”) wrote, “The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to … accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”3 The point is, we often buy stuff when we don’t need to. We buy stuff to “fit in.” But is fitting in worth neglecting our moral obligation to care for God’s good creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15)? Of course not.  So what do we do?  The equation is simple: Less Stuff=Less Waste. Therefore, buy less.

Second, pay more (if necessary). I say “if necessary” because sometimes wasting less is cheaper. Sometimes we pay high prices for convenience, not quality. If we are willing to put in a tad more work then we can get the same effect for less money. E.g. the refillable K-Cup is actually more cost efficient than the convenient single use cups which are difficult to recycle. But sometimes, paying more is necessary. Just like perceived obsolescence, there is also planned obsolescence. Manufacturers sometimes actually make things which are intended to break/wear out easily so that you’ll be required to buy more. “But,” we think, “it’s cheap.” Is it? See, you may get a shirt for $5, but how long will it last? And do you really want it?  Cheap prices encourage us to “take a change” on buying something that we don’t really want because if we getting rid of it then we’re only out a few bucks, so no big deal.  In fact, according to Annie Leonard’s findings, we only keep 1% of the things we buy longer than six months. But lets assume that you do keep it until it wears out. How long will that be? Sometimes cheap things are cheap both economically and qualitatively.  So before long you return to buy another $5 shirt. Granted, that’s not much. But eventually it all adds up. If you buy 7 shirts at $5 each that’s $35. Not so cheap any more is it? So instead of buying 7 cheap shirts why not take the exact same amount of money and buy something durable, sustainable, and eco-friendly?4 This creates less waste (those shirts you toss out have to go somewhere) and it decreases the likelihood that you’ll get tired of the shirt. If you are going to spend $35 on a shirt you are more likely to think of it as an investment and less like to buy it on impulse. Since you can’t drop big bucks on an expensive piece of clothing every time you need one you are more likely to consider whether or not this is something that you want to wear over and over again. You are making a commitment up front not to toss it out. Who has the money to constantly replace expensive clothing? Paying more lowers the likelihood of impulse buys that end up in the trash, or worse, never worn at all.

We’ve only focused upon “stuff”, and mainly clothes.  But living simply helps the environment in other ways.  If you have less stuff you need less space and if you need less space that means you can live in a smaller house (much smaller than you think)5 and if you live in a smaller house that means you use less energy heating, cooling, and lighting it.  The gains of living simply compound, especially in regard to protecting our environment.

Economy and Human Rights
Have you ever walked into a mega-store to buy something and asked yourself, “How in the world is this so cheap?”  If you haven’t then maybe you should.  And if you have then chances are we should ask that question more often (myself included).  In the end there is only one way we get things so cheap on our end: someone must be paying for it on their end.  This creates a human rights dilemma.  So, what’s the solution?  It’s too complex an issue to offer the solution but we can at least do this: Buy less, pay more.

First, buy less.  If we buy a lot we either earn more or pay less.  Most of us are not earning more which means that in order to buy more we must pay less.  So buying a lot means getting it cheap.  But if our stuff is cheap we need to ask, “Why is it so cheap?”  Chances are the people who make our stuff are not getting paid fair wages.

Eighty percent of the workers in the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh were women between 18-20.  The common working shift was 13-14.5 hours per day.  That’s 90-100 hours a week with only 2 days off per month.  Entry level earned 12 cents an hour, second tier workers earned  22 cents an hour, and the seniors workers earned 24 cents per hour.  This plaza housed a factory responsible for making clothing for the US, Canada, and Europe.  So, how did we get such cheap things on our end?  Because they paid for it on their end.  But on this occasion, they paid not just with their cheap labor.  They paid with their lives.  On April 24, 2013 about 3,639 workers refused to go to work because of the threatening cracks which had appeared in the walls.  The owner of the plaza then hired professional thugs to beat the people in order to force them back to work.  Just 45 minutes later the building collapsed.  There were 1,137 confirmed dead and 200 remain missing to this day.6  You do not have to have a degree in economy to understand supply and demand.  If we don’t want the stuff companies don’t make the stuff.  We created the demand that created Rana Plaza.  Somewhere someone (maybe even me) is wearing a shirt that was sewn in that factory.  How would you feel if you knew of an absolute certainty that the shirt you bought today would contribute to someone’s death tomorrow?  We asked how we get things so cheap.  This is the answer.

Second, pay more.  If we have done the first  (bought less) then we retain more money.  This allows us to pay more for what we buy and ensure that those making our clothes are getting paid a fair wage for their work.  But how do we ensure that happens?  Someone may say, “Make sure it is made in the US.”  And I say, that’s a good idea.  It’s true that US companies often move business off shore so that they can pay their workers less there and sell it for less here.7  But the label “Made in the US” doesn’t solve this problem.  As Heather Franzese points out in her TED Talk, “Changing How You Think About Clothes,”8 being made in the USA only means that “substantial transformation happened here in the USA.”  But, she asks, “Where did they come before that?”  Where did the fabric and dye come from?  We have worded our definition of “Made in the USA” in such a way that it is possible to have a pair of jeans “Made in the USA” using “cotton grown with forced child labor in Uzbekistan and yarn dyed in China … The country of origin doesn’t always tell you what the conditions were like in the manufacturing.”  Franzese suggests that we ask questions where we shop.  She insists that we have a right to know where and how our clothes are being made.  She challenges us to “vote with our dollars and ask for fair and sustainable clothing.”

She also challenges us to investigate our priorities.  Is it most important to us that our clothes be made in the US or that the workers are being treated well and paid fairly regardless of where the clothes were made (including the US).  As much as I would love to see more business done in the US most of our clothes are currently made overseas.  So what do we do?  We can look for the labels (which, admittedly, often do not exist) that indicate it has complied with fair trade standards.  “Fair trade is a third party certification and membership process that assures a business is meeting strict labor, environmental, and developmental standards,” as Benjamin Conard discusses in his talk, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.”9

I have mostly focused on clothes here but much of what was said can apply to other goods: appliances, produce, coffee, chocolate etc.10 Now buying fair trade goods means paying more because it is the only way to ensure that the farmers, harvesters, manufacturers, and other workers get paid what is just. But the alternative is fueling tragedies like the Rana Plaza. So ask yourself, “Is my cheap shirt/banana/chocolate/coffee worth the enslavement/poverty/death of another person?” I think the answer is obvious.

Conclusion:
Simplicity helps because one of the characteristics of simple living is buying/having less which runs counter to “American” living.  The guiding principles of much American living are “Buy more, pay less.”  These principles are related because the only way we can buy so much is if we buy what is cheap.  But cheap ruins the environment and enslaves people across the world.  This is the “high cost” of being cheap.  And it is not worth paying.  So we invert the principles.  Instead of “Buy more, pay less” we say, “Buy less, pay more.”  This minimizes our environmental foot-print and maximizes the quality of life for those on whose backs our nation is founded.  Being human means being created in God’s image and our original vocation as his image is taking care of God’s good world through love and creativity.  This way of life encourages both.  So, buy less, pay more.  It’s human because it’s humane.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff.” Available at http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
2. K-Cup creator, John Sylvan, expresses some regret for creating the single-serve pods. You can read about it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/the-abominable-k-cup-coffee-pod-environment-problem/386501/ ; While the cups are now recyclable it is unlikely that consumers will do so because of the special device required to separate the plastic, aluminium, paper, and organic material. You can find information about this device, the Recycle A Cup© cutter, here: https://www.recycleacup.com/faqs/ ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017. Also, reusable K-Cups, which I use, are available online and through certain retailers, e.g. Bed Bath & Beyond.
3. Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955”, Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955. Available at http://www.gcafh.org/edlab/Lebow.pdf ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
4. Linen, wool, and cotton are all sustainable and eco-friendly. These are exceptionally important because, as Maxine Bédat points out in her talk “The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion”, apparel is now the second leading polluting industry. Her talk is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r8V4QWwxf0 ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
5. Among the Tiny House Movement there is not an agreed upon definition as to what constitutes a Tiny House but one blog considers Tiny Houses to be under 500 square feet. Available at http://www.tinyhousetown.net/p/about-blog.html ; Internet; Accessed 12 January 2017.
6. “Rana Plaza: A Look Back and Forward”, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Available at: http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-bangladesh ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
7. Ted Fishman, “Why the Jobs Are Going Over There”, USA Today. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-05-17-Multinationals-send-jobs-overseas_n.htm ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017; Alex Lach, “5 Facts About Overseas Outsourcing”, Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2012/07/09/11898/5-facts-about-overseas-outsourcing/ ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
8. Heather Franzese, “Changing How You Think About Clothes.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rbUQj81dFY; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
9. Benjamin Conard, “Fair Trade: A Just World Starts with You.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT6TQSxlDOY ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.
10. Jason Garman, “Ethical Consumerism and the Power of Having a Choice/Voice.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAG-t-kXcqE ; Internet; Accessed 16 January 2017.