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.

“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).

Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching

 

 

At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2


1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.

How to Simplify Your Life (Part 5)

 

After discussing the benefits and challenges of simple living we finally ask the most practical question: “How do I simplify my life?”  Mostly I’ll point you to others which much more experience than I have, but we’ll discuss three areas: 1. Your clothes 2. Your kitchen 3. And everything else.

 

Clothes
There is something called The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.  Originally described by Vilfredo Pareto (for whom it is named) in reference to economics, it has now been applied in various fields.  In business, for example, they might say that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.  And when it comes to clothes you’ll find that you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.  The other clothes you use the other 20% of the time are likely seasonal items like rain boots or a heavy jacket.  In the end, we tend to wear the same clothes over and over again.  So why not get rid of the ones that you don’t?  Here’s how:

The Reverse-Reverse.  Go into your closet and turn all of your hangers around the wrong way.  Through out the year turn the hanger around the right way whenever you wear a piece of clothing.  At the end of the year take the clothes you didn’t wear and donate them.  If you haven’t worn it in a year is it likely that you’re going to wear it any time soon?  Chances are if you didn’t wear it you probably forgot it even exists.  Benefit someone else by giving them to a charitable organization.  I’ve done this several times in my life and I’m in the process of doing it again.  It always feels like a weight off of my shoulders.

Consider a Capsule Wardrobe/Uniform.  Nobody knows capsule wardrobes like Courtney Carver.  Her Project 333 is increasingly popular.  A number of minimalists have simple wardrobes as well as men like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.  You can read about their wardrobes and reasons here.  But why would you want to wear the same things over and over?  Well, Joshua Becker gives you 8 reasons here.  So, how do you do it?  In addition to Courtney Carver’s website, Jessica Dang‘s article is also helpful.  Neutral colors, layers, and multi-functionality are your friends.  And if a capsule wardrobe seems too stressful you could always consider a uniform.  Aja Nicole Edmond offers great advice, and Ryan Nicodemus of theminimalists.com can almost always be found in a black t-shirt and jeans.  Don’t knock it til you try it.

 

Kitchen
My way of simplifying my kitchen is very similar to the Reverse-Reverse mentioned above.  I took everything–and I mean everything–out of my kitchen and stored it my pantry.  Every bowl.  Every fork.  Every pot.  Every pan.  Everything.  Then I took it out of the pantry as I needed it.  After a year about 80% of it was still in my pantry.  The Pareto Principle strikes again.  How did I end up with that many glasses?  Where did I get 15 spatulas?  Who knows?  They can be successfully regifted or donated to the less fortunate.  Again, if you haven’t used it within a year are you likely to use it next year?  Probably not.  Chances are you need a lot less gadgetry than you think.  Take a look at Jessica Dang’s minimalist kitchen here.

Everything Else
So far I’ve mentioned our closets and kitchens.  I mention those because they so easily get overcrowded.  But once you’ve experienced the freedom of paring down you’ll likely want to extend the practice to everything else.  Here are two things to consider once you’re ready to do that:

Reverse-Reverse EVERYTHING.  Remember the backwards hanger trick?  It can be modified to apply to everything.  I did it with my kitchen.  You can do it with your bathroom.  Or your office.  Or, if you’re super-human, you can do it with your entire house.  That’s what Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus did.  They literally packed up their entire house and only unpacked what they needed as they needed it.  They recorded their 21 day journey into minimalism.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Maybe you’re not ready to go all out, and that’s fine.  You can do one room at a time.  Or even one room a year.  First you closet, then your kitchen, then your office, and so on.  The most important thing is that you start.

The Joy Test.  It’s been called different things but the bottom line is the same.  If something–it doesn’t matter what it is–doesn’t spark joy in your life then chances are you don’t need it.  If it doesn’t make you say “Wow”, if you don’t put on a shirt and think, “I LOVE this shirt!”, if instead you look at it and say, “Eh“,  then chances are it’s just cluttering up your life.  In the end, when everything else has gone, you will be surrounded by only your favorite things.  Could you imagine living in a house where you love everything you see and everything you wear?  That’s a fantastic life.  And think of all the people that you get to help by donating the excess stuff you no longer need.  Just because it doesn’t make you say “Wow” doesn’t mean that it can’t do that for someone else.

Remember, 80/20.  We don’t need most of our stuff.  And with all the poverty in the world, can we really afford to hold on to things that we don’t need?  With all of the stress related illnesses, can we really afford to worry over things that don’t really matter?  Less.  That’s the greatest secret to productivity that no one is talking about.  It will help you put first things first.  And we need little reminder as to how important that is.  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).

 

©M. Benfield 2017

Who Am I? (Part 1)

 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is fond of saying that there are three questions which every reflective person eventually asks: 1. Who am I?  2. Why am I here?  3. How then shall I live?  This article begins a series of articles which seek to answer theses questions, the first of which is, “Who am I?”

There are a number of phrases floating around which one hears here and there that attempt to give an answer to this question.  One says, “You are what you think.”  Another says, “You are what you believe.  Still another suggests, “You are not a body which has a soul.  You are a soul which has a body.”  All of these indicate a common conception about the nature of man.  They both conceive Man as being primarily an immaterial thing.  They all admit that we have a material part, we have bodies, but they reject that as being our essence.  In these conceptions of what it means to be a human being we are first immaterial creatures and second we are embodied creatures.

The other available option to us is that we are primarily embodied creatures.  This idea suggests that while we have an immaterial part, call it mind or soul or whatever, that is not at the core of our identity.  We are earthy first and spirit-ish second.

But how do we decide which of these options is the right one?  Neither conception denies the existence of both material and immaterial parts.  The question is simply which one is nearer to the center of what it means to be human.  We can answer this question by asking which part “runs things” most of the time.

When we speak of these two “parts” of us we list things like thinking, believing, and reasoning under the control of the immaterial part, the mind.  Things like love, hate, fear, desire, lust, and imagination are more visceral and hence are under the control of the material part, the body.  Even though we might be tempted to think of imagination as more of a thing that happens in the mind, imagination does not deal in abstraction but in pictures thus appealing to the senses and therefore more related to the body than the mind.  James K.A. Smith likens this to the difference in reading a textbook and reading a poem.  “Both have content, but they activate very different comportments to the world, drawing on different parts of us, as it were.”1

Now let’s consider exactly how much of our day we actually think about. Most of what we actually do we do without thinking.  In fact, we often find thinking to be a hindrance, not a help.  When we first learned to drive we had to think about checking the mirrors, using one foot (not two) for the gas and brake, shifting from Park to Drive then to Reverse and back again.  It was a nightmare.  It was only when the things we “knew” worked their way down into our bodies that we were able to drive smoothly.  The same goes for most skills.  Typing, playing piano or guitar, speaking another language, riding a bike, dancing or doing martial arts, all are done poorly when we have to think about them.  It is our bodies that makes those things happen, not our minds.  Actually, our bodies do these things so well that some times we do them without even knowing that we are.  Who among us has not had the experience of hopping in the car and then arriving at our destination without remembering the drive?  We don’t think our way through our lives, we “feel” our way around them.  All of this suggests that our bodies are primary, not our minds.  So to the question, “Who am I?”  We answer, “I am an embodied creature.”

This explains why we so often find ourselves doing things that we “know” we shouldn’t do.  Consider the man recently in love.  Even though he knows that he ought to go to sleep so that he will be well rested for his early morning meeting he stays up until 2am to talk to the woman he loves.  This irrationality is what Rumi described when he said, “Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absentminded.  Someone sober will worry about things going badly.  Let the lover be.”2 In cases like this, when the cognitive part and the non-cognitive affective part of us clash, it is most often the affective part which wins.

Related to the above, this also helps explain the phenomenon of temptation.  Temptation inherently assumes that our bodies are moving us to do something that our minds say we ought not to do.  If our mind did not tell us that we ought not to do it then we would not consider it temptation.  Also, if we know that we ought not to do it, and our bodies do not want to do it, then we do not consider ourselves to be tempted.  Temptation means that the mind says “no” while the desire says “yes” (cf. James 1:14).  If our minds ruled the day then we would rarely sin, except when our minds were mistaken about the difference in right and wrong.  It is because we are more moved by our passions than we are by our convictions that we find ourselves so often bogged down in sin.

But “So what?”, right?  Why does this matter?  For this reason: “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.”3 In other words, our ideas about how to teach people are dependent upon our conception of what sort of thing Man is. If who we are is determined by what we think/believe then the way to help a man be who he is supposed to be is to fill him up with all of the right ideas.  In many schools, universities, and even churches this is the common practice.  However, if our identities are dependent more upon our bodies then we need a conception of education (and discipleship) which addresses the body, the non-cognitive and affective part of Man.  We need education which teaches us to love, not just what to believe.  This is sadly lacking in many Christian traditions (mine included).  As we continue to learn more about what it means to be embodied creatures we will “flesh out” (pun intended) how this should affect our education, worship, and discipleship.  For now remember this: being human means being in a body.  As embodied creatures if we want to change we have to aim our efforts at the body as well as the mind.  Instead of trying to convince our minds to conquer our bodies (as happens too often), we ought to try and enlist our bodies so that they fight on the same side.  Trying to conquer the body is, in essence, to attempt to dis-embody ourselves.  But that is to be less than fully human.  We are bodies.  So join me in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 28, n.11.
2. Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, “The Ache and Confusion” (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 60.
3. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 27.