Connecting with the East

At age 11 Ruth Weigle wrote, “I pause now to look back over my childhood days before passing into the dim, shadowy regions of the future.” She composed those words in 1933, little aware that within a decade the entire world would descend into total war. She herself would face unimagined challenges as a young adult.

But there was still some time to make the transition from youthful freedom to responsibility. Growing up in New Haven in the 20s and 30s, she had many advantages: excellent schools, a safe neighborhood, the intellectual climate surrounding Yale University and particularly the Divinity School.

Ruth would later recall an impressive visitor to her childhood home on Cold Spring Street – the great poet-sage of Bengal and India, Rabindranath Tagore. At the funeral of a loved one she would reflect long upon these words which he wrote: Continue reading “Connecting with the East”

Change of Plans

Kate Smallwood accepted Billy Guyton’s proposal of marriage in 1908 and almost immediately left Mississippi for a 5-year term as a Methodist missionary to Suzhou, China. A few months before leaving Suzhou to return home she wrote to her sister, who was also engaged,

You wanted to know Billy’s and my plans. He writes me that he is going home this summer and when you see him, ask him to tell you, because his plans are my plans, and what he does or what he wants me to do, you will find me trying my best to do. I am glad you are in love. I hope you love Mr. Johnson as much as I love Billy, but I doubt it. Maybe you will someday.

I asked Aunt Ruth, Kate’s daughter, if her mother was a changed person when she returned to Mississippi from Suzhou. My intent was to know if she had changed philosophically or religiously. Continue reading “Change of Plans”

Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom

We considered 3 questions at the beginning of the previous blog: (1) Can wisdom go wrong when it is possessed rather than lived? (2) Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire? (3) Does world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?

The first question led to consideration of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Words contained in it. These objects came to function as idols for the ancient people of Judah. God’s words came to be viewed as a possession and a source of power rather than a guide for practice and obedience.

Let’s consider now the second question:

Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire?

From what I have witnessed, my evangelical friends find life-changing inspiration in the powerful call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength.” I find myself in awe and envy of their desire to glorify God.

But how does a person glorify God?

One answer is to say that strength of conviction glorifies God. For what can we possibly bring to the altar to please God except the intensity of our desire to please Him?

A follow-up question becomes how best to express our strength of conviction. Among a multitude of ways to respond are these, which I have arranged in something of an escalating order:

  • We should be clear and certain in our beliefs.
  • We should share our beliefs with others.
  • All should share the same beliefs.
  • We should seek to know God’s truth, which is absolute truth, and not some relativistic kind of human truth.
  • We should be clear and certain in our understanding of God’s truth.
  • Everyone should share the clear and certain understanding of God’s truth.
  • We should despise any human understanding that contradicts God’s truth.
  • We should oppose any human attempt to borrow or steal the glory of God’s truth.
  • We should oppose those who have different beliefs.
  • We must defend God’s truth, thereby glorifying God.
  • Those who contradict the truth of our God must be evil, since God is good.
  • We must separate ourselves from and sometimes fight against those who oppose God.

With how many of these points do you agree?

I might raise a bit of concern with one small word that appears 3 times in the list above. The word is “our” – our beliefs, our understanding, our God. “Our” may signify commitment, but in ordinary terms it signifies possession. The boundary between commitment and possession is perilously narrow. Of course, I’m sure that people like myself who sing praise songs extolling “our God” don’t really claim to own God, but sometimes it sounds that way.

The key problem with the list of imperatives shown above is that they follow from a false initial goal. Loving God is not about focusing on the intensity of our desire to please Him. That puts the focus on us and not on God, no matter how sincerely it springs from a desire to glorify God. That kind of focus, expressed with ever increasing commitment, moves from prideful strength of conviction to certainty in possessing the truth, to the crushing of every form of error, and finally to separation from people who must be evil because they oppose us.

Let me never come to God or to the Bible with a primary goal of expressing my strength of conviction. That makes the story about me instead of God or the Bible.

I want the Bible to speak for itself. I want the Bible to respond to my real questions, born of my doubts and not of presuppositions somebody else tells me I have.

Our third question is, “Does the world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?” In terms of logic, or at least human logic, the notion of the absolute sovereignty of God can be interpreted to mean that God alone chooses.

It is a curious fact that every group of people who emphasize the sovereignty of God, expressed in the pages of a sacred text, have found themselves to be favored by God above other people.

That kind of assumed favor seems to apply universally to groups of people, but not necessarily to individual people. In fact, I can think of a few times I have met individual people who thought themselves cursed by God. One was a man who had claimed a miraculous healing from small cell lung cancer, helped a little by a new research treatment. My wife and I were attending a charismatic church at the time. I met the man who claimed the miraculous healing shortly after his cancer returned. He had no doubts about God’s power and grace, he said, but he himself had sinned grievously by falsely claiming a healing. And God cursed him. We told him God still loved him, laid hands on him, and prayed for another healing.

I’ve come across a few other people in various settings who also expressed a feeling of being cursed by God. Sometimes we tried to help, and sometimes we deemed them simply delusional.

My father-in-law Ralph Storm grew up on a citrus and watermelon farm near the south Texas town of Premont. His family’s land bordered the King Ranch, reputed to be the largest and wealthiest ranch in the world, and that was before the oil wells were drilled. On one of my visits to Premont, I learned a tip from my in-laws. Don’t ever shoot across the fence line at a deer on King Ranch property. They shoot back.

Whatever their theology, farmers understand the feeling of being out of favor with God, at least in this life. Ralph described it with this story:

If old man Ezra ever had any luck, it was bad luck. His crop was just about ready for harvest when a turrible storm blew in and ruined it.  It looked like hungry times ahead. Now the farmer went out on his tractor trying to salvage something from the broken, muddy plants. As he rode along the rutted road beside the field, the tractor slipped on that south Texas gumbo soil and fell into a 4 foot ditch, pinning the poor farmer. A black cloud came up in the sky just above him, and he cried out, “Oh God, what have I done to deserve this?” And a voice came from the cloud, saying “I can’t rightly tell you how, Ezra, but there’s just something about you ticks me off.”

It’s just a joke, I know, country humor, but there is usually a bit of truth in anything that makes us smile. If we learn that favor and doom are dispensed arbitrarily, maybe it would be better to believe in nothing.

If God is absolutely sovereign, then whatever God chooses, happens. At least that is the human understanding of it. Some theologians insist that God’s absolute rule over all events and the human ability to choose involve no contradiction. Other theologians seem to have proposed that human decision really amounts to nothing more than a gradual recognition of the fate God chose for each of us, to be blessed or damned.

Our pastor left for Haiti on mission early this Sunday morning. A beloved former associate pastor filled in and preached a short sermon in his familiar style. In the sermon he declared himself a follower of Arminius rather than Calvin, that is, a believer in human free will and not a believer in the doctrine of undiluted election by God. Yet he has also expressed often his belief in the absolute sovereignty of God. It’s a paradox, he says, and not one that needs resolving in this life.

Then where shall we put the emphasis? I’ll side with Arminius. I shall emphasize human free will, although even when considered in itself, apart from the conflict with God’s sovereignty, free will is terribly hard to comprehend.

As for the absolute sovereignty of God, how can I as a human say anything about it? If it involves timelessness and First Cause, how can my human mind grasp those conditions? Sometimes I think it’s better to suspend trying to understand it.

Could one consider freedom a greater gift from God than eternal bliss? Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet of the early 20th century and a God-believer though not a Christian, said, “I am able to love my God because He gives me freedom to deny Him.”[1]

How often it’s hard to justify bad things that happen to us, and even worse when we recognize how we hurt others. We look for clear and certain answers. There are many peddlers of clear answers, and their pitch is often the same, “It makes sense, because nothing else makes sense.” In other words, it’s better than nothing. In the end, that’s how I think about fundamentalism. If I can’t make any sense out of what’s happening in my life and our lives together on this earth, if this halting search for GSOT ultimately fails, then I guess I’ll become a fundamentalist.

These last few blogs have critiqued some Christian evangelical and fundamentalist “presuppositions” in a far more one-sided manner than I have any right to assume. I have neglected the immense value that Christian belief and practice add to my life and others’ lives, which I well recognize. What shall I do? Take it all back?

No. Just let me say with Job, “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further. I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”


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Deer photograph © Bruce Macqueen. From Fotolia.

[1] Tagore, R. Fireflies, 1928.