Authentic Living in a World of Imitation Games and Fictional Lives?

Are you living your own life, or is it being lived for you by some other force? From where did you get the script for your life? Do you know who cast you in the role you are playing? Are the passions and thoughts and goals that drive you through life based on reality, or are they elements of fictional story-world? Most people never ask such questions. They just live as they are told to live. They seek what others seek, love and fear what others love and fear. They worry about what concerns others. Most of us are simply personifications of the values, loves, and dreams of the society in which we live. We are the hosts within which live society’s demons. There is nothing inside. There is no substance to us. Take away our masks, costumes, and memorized lines, and nothing remains. And this is not my pessimism speaking; it’s the clear-eyed teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus warned his disciples that their mission to preach the good news would not meet with complete success. He speaks of four different reactions they will receive. The third one strikes me as highly relevant to our situation:

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.

The seed of God’s word can impart truth and authentic life. As it enlightens and enlivens us we become “fruitful,” that is to say, we begin to live the life we were meant to live and become what we were meant to be. But if we focus on “this life” we will grow anxious about what might harm us. We are deceived into a false sense of security by wealth. We are driven by our animal passions to seek immediate pleasure and by our human passions toward envy, jealously, anger, and hatred. With our minds full of other things, we can’t think about the life that exists in God.

And of course we must listen to John when he urges us:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

“Love” in this text does not mean “unselfish self-giving to another.” It means desire for something as if it were the source of life and joy. When we seek our true lives in the world, we lose them completely. The world is driven by the irrational desire for pleasure, unbridled curiosity, and overweening pride, which is a feeling of self-generated, comparative worth based on falsehood.

Let’s now ask an even deeper question: What would it mean to live your own life? Where does one find the script for the real world? How do we get out of the fictional story-world into light of reality?

Popular culture recognizes to some degree the problem I’ve been describing. Its solution sounds simple: write your own script, cast yourself in the role of your choice, in defiance, live your own life! The problem with this advice is that it is but one more subtle and deceptive way the world’s demons colonize our minds. From where do you get the storyline for your script, and on what basis do you choose your role? How can you live you own life, if you don’t know in what your own life consists? The “do your own thing” approach to life always ends up living according to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” These things may feel like our true selves because they move us from within and are always with us, but this too is a deception. And when we live according to these feelings we are doing what everyone else is doing! The differences are superficial.

But Jesus said,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

If you want to live your own life and not be colonized by the world and driven by irrational passions toward death and unhappiness, you must live according to truth. Authentic living is not about merely existing as a thing or in our automatic animal processes. It’s about acting to achieve goals, about becoming in actuality what we are potentially, and about embracing and enjoying good things. It’s about freedom. But apart from the truth about what goals are worth achieving, what we are meant to become, and what things are truly good, we cannot truly live. Apart from truth, freedom is an illusion.

Jesus is the truth, the truth about God and the truth about human life. We usually think of truth as a quality of an assertion; it is the perfect fit between how the assertion describes reality and reality itself. Jesus is the truth because he is the reality of God manifested in the reality of a human life. He is the truth not merely in the words of an assertion but in the reality of a life, and for that reason he is also the way to the Father.

If you want to live your own life, stop imitating others and give up attempting to write your own life script. Follow in the way of Jesus, let yourself be guided by the truth who is Jesus, and you will find yourself living your own life. Only the God the Creator knows the goal of human life, only God knows the way life must be lived, and only God can give us a life that is truly ours. And only in Jesus can we begin to live that life as our own free act.

 

God, Time, and 2 x 3 x 11

It’s my birthday, my 2 x 3 x 11 birthday! June 1 has always been a special day to me. It symbolizes the gifts of life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. Of all the days of the year, it’s the time when I reflect most on my life, what I owe, what I have accomplished, where I have failed, and what I should do with the time remaining. I remember that I owe more than I can repay, have accomplished less than I could have, and have failed more often than I wish to recall. And I still wonder what I should do with my life.

We don’t exist in time. Time is the way we exist. To ask, “What should I do with my time?” is the same as asking, “What should I do with my existence, with myself?” How can I know when I am wasting it? Should I continue to do what I have been doing or should I make a change? Is it best to act boldly or cautiously?

How can we enjoy peace while reflecting honestly on our lives? Such small successes! Such immense failures! A burdened present borders an uncertain future! Come to think of it, how can we achieve a perspective from which to assess our lives? We either exaggerate our strengths and minimize our weaknesses or inflate our failures and shrink our successes. And can I really know what I should do with my time until the moment arrives when I must act?

I find no comfort, no joy, and no hope other than in this thought: God gives me life, time, opportunity, and responsibility. God’s eternity spans and encompasses my time from beginning to end. God knows why he gave me time; for my life was his project long before it was mine. My project will unfold as a mixture of success and failure. I stumble into the future not knowing where I am going or what to do when I arrive. But God’s project will not fail. God works through our “failures” as efficiently as through our “successes,” and for God, our staggering steps make a straight line to glory.

So, on this 2 x 3 x 11 birthday, I will not allow the weight of past failures, or the pride of past successes, or the darkness of a future unknown keep me from thanking God for his gifts of life and time, or placing my life at his disposal, or looking ahead to glory. And I pray that this day will find you in the same frame of mind.

Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.

The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

Congregational Autonomy—Fact, Fiction and Myth

Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell Movement), Baptists, Mennonites and other churches that govern themselves according to a congregational rather than a presbyterian or episcopal order often describe their model as “congregational autonomy.” These churches were born during the 16th and 17th centuries in resistance state churches and later in protest of centralized denominations that restricted the freedom of local bodies to control their internal affairs.

For this essay I will assume the basic soundness of the congregational model and deal with what I consider its abuses.  Even in episcopal-type churches local congregations and their ministers, priests or bishops are allowed some say-so in the way they administer their local congregations. But congregational churches insist on more control to the point that it can be called autonomy. What are scope and limits of local church autonomy?

Congregational autonomy cannot be unlimited. Every local church claims to be a manifestation of the universal church of Christ founded by the Lord and his apostles. A local body possesses the right to make this claim only if it binds itself to uphold the faith and essential qualities of the original and universal church. No local authority has the right to eliminate or change the essential characteristics of the universal church. Not even the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church claims this right! In fact, his main responsibility is to protect this faith. If a group makes these changes it forfeits its claim to manifest the universal Church. And other local congregations are under no sacred obligation to recognize it as a Christian church.

Most Protestant churches whether congregational, presbyterian or episcopal in organization make at least the implicit claim to adhere to the common faith held by the early post-apostolic and patristic church through at least the 5th century and embodied in the Rule of faith and Ecumenical Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed (381).  This common faith includes among others the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the extent and limits of the New Testament canon. No local authority—or for that matter no denominational body—has the right to change the New Testament cannon or any other ecumenical doctrine while at the same time claiming to represent the ecumenical church as defined by the Rule of faith and the ecumenical Creeds.

What about the limits of congregational autonomy within a denomination, a fellowship or a tradition, that is, some sort of collective of local bodies that claim a common identity? It should go without saying that a local body that presents itself as Baptist or Church of Christ or Menonite, implicitly binds itself to embody and teach the essential marks of those associations. If a local congregation of one of these fellowships decides to abandon those marks, it possesses the authority to do so only in the sense that there is no extra congregational legal authority to stop it. Since it has not bound itself legally to the association, the association cannot depose the local leaders or confiscate a congregation’s property. However, if a local congregation abandons the essential marks and teaching of the Baptist, Church of Christ or the Menonite fellowship, it should cease to present itself as a manifestation of those fellowships. Truthfulness demands it. Nor does a local church have the right to determine autonomously what it means to be Baptist, Church of Christ or Menonite. That question is for the whole fellowship to decide in whatever way it decides things. And other congregations of this fellowship are under no obligation to recognize a rogue congregation as one of their own simply because it claims “congregational autonomy.”

What, then, is the role of local leaders within congregationally organized churches? There are indeed internal matters that are best controlled locally, decisions about property, ministers, salaries, selection of teachers, administration of funds and others. However in matters of doctrine local leaders have the responsibility of discernment but not of legislation. They may act on doctrinal matters only in sincere consultation with the wider circles of the original and universal church as described in the New Testament, the ecumenical teaching on the central teachings about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship which they claim to represent.

Every local church should attempt to remain in communication and fellowship with the original church, the living ecumenical church and with the fellowship that gave it birth and gives it a specific identity. At every level it should endeavor to embody truly what it represents itself to be. And the local church’s “autonomy” consists in its right to give itself to these tasks.

Science Marches On…In the Streets

My Sunday morning newspaper placed on the front page a picture of Saturday’s “march for science” in downtown Los Angeles. As I read the story I said to myself, “There is something strange about people protesting in the name of science.” Science presents itself as a disinterested search for truth. But protest is a political act for the sake of justice; this is a march for science. What does that mean? While I am a great lover of modern natural science I am somewhat suspicious of taking its cause to the streets. It raises the question of the nature and limits of science and its enmeshment within culture and politics. Since I wrote about this in The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (pp. 166-168), allow me to respond to the march for science by quoting myself:

“Modern natural science is greatly valued in our culture and scientists are held in high esteem. Why? Clearly, the main reason for science’s social prestige is that science has produced technology that people desire. Human beings want to enjoy health and long life, wealth, exciting entertainment, comfort and leisure, and, of course, military power. Some people are curious about the world and for that reason are interested in what science discovers. Others mistakenly think science will confirm their metaphysical or religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly science is valued for its material benefits. In their most idealistic moments, scientists may attempt to convince themselves that they pursue science for knowledge alone. Whatever the scientist thinks, however, the culture has another end in mind. There is no other way to account for the vast sums of money governments and businesses spend on research and development and individuals spend on technology. People today do not crave salvation or concern themselves with their God-relation. For many people science has replaced God as the source of well-being and the scientist has replaced the priest as the means of access to the source of good. A kind of mindless worldliness and thoughtless sensuality pervades the consumer culture the scientist serves.

“Natural science possesses no natural birthright to the cultural power it holds today. As I indicated, science is held in esteem because people want the things science provides. But science cannot provide everything people need. Science cannot tell you what is right or wrong or make you wise or good. Science cannot endow your life with meaning or make you happy. It cannot give you love or show you how to love. Science cannot forgive your sins or give you hope for eternal life. It cannot give you contentment in life. It cannot give you a genuine identity. It can’t tell you whether there is a God or what God thinks of you or what God wants of you. It has no comforting words to prepare you for death. It cannot change the laws of nature or control the future. Science must remain silent or speak foolishly in relation to the existential dimension of humanity. Science is not God. Science is human through and through; it derives from the power of our reason to figure out the laws of nature and use them for our ends. It gives the impression of being superhuman for the same reason that governments give that impression: it is a communal undertaking transcending the individual in power and longevity, but it does not transcend humanity as such. Science possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity in an exaggerated form. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of science, it must be said that natural science cannot answer a single one of the top five or ten most important questions we ask or achieve anything of lasting significance. At the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant gave his list of three most important questions pressing on human existence: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” One could extend that list a long way before one gets to “What is the atomic weight of Iron?” Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) concluded, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ).

“We must consider one more extra scientific factor when evaluating science. The scientist is an existing human being. The scientist is not a machine completely absorbed in the objective world of nature. She/he is a subject, a body, an individual, fallible, mortal and needy, anxious, jealous, hopeful or despairing, optimistic or pessimistic. Science exists only in the minds of scientists. Science can’t do scientific research. In addition to being founded on metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions and directed toward social and political ends, science is conditioned by the subjectivity scientists bring to their task. A person can be driven to engage in science by curiosity, love of discovery, love of beauty, desire to serve God, desire to benefit humanity, adherence to a philosophy of nature, desire for wealth or fame, hatred and envy, pride or shame, and many other human motivations. Scientists can be virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, caring or cruel. This is true not only because scientists sometimes falsify data or take short cuts or plagiarize but because these subjective factors affect what presuppositions they favor and to what ends they direct their research. Even at the levels of observation and interpretation subjective factors play a part, for good or ill.

“As these observations make clear, even if the inner workings and the material findings of modern natural science are strictly limited to the empirical, these empirical findings do not stand alone or interpret themselves or put themselves to use. Because science is nestled between epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions and cultural ends and is conducted by subjects, there is plenty of room for conflict and dialogue between what scientists claim as the significance of their empirical findings and other interpretations of reality.”

How Do I Handle it When Someone Won’t Forgive Me?

Recently a friend, whom I will call Samuel, asked me to address a dilemma he faces. He is now a Christian, but formerly he lived a life in which he offended and hurt many people. In relating to those whom he hurt in the past, he finds that they want him to express remorse, but when he does, they don’t trust him to be sincere and want him to demonstrate remorse in unspecified ways. Samuel finds this situation very painful and is tempted to withdraw and keep silent. I think Samuel’s dilemma may not be unique, so I wanted to share the gist of what I said to him:

“Sadly, this is a common human response, Sam, and from a Christian viewpoint, its mere humanity is what is wrong with it. When people are wronged they naturally want revenge, and when they ask you to prove your remorse, they are saying that their desire for revenge has not been satisfied. They want to see you suffer. Desire for revenge is the root of bitterness from which springs all sorts of violence. Jesus tells us that we are obligated to forgive whoever asks us for forgiveness even if they sin and come back 70 times 7 times (Matthew 18:21-22)! He did not add a qualification that allows us to ask them to “prove” they are sorry. Nor did Jesus allow us to say “No” for any reason. In forgiving, we are not so much trusting the petitioner’s sincerity as we are trusting Jesus. We cannot know the hearts of other people—nor our own!—but we know the heart of Jesus! Petitioners can never do enough to prove that they are sorry to people who do not understand that they need forgiveness as much as the petitioners do. If we know that we have been forgiven a great debt, we will not hesitate to forgive others. Your point from Romans 5:8—that Christ died for us while we were sinners and enemies—was spot on target! God said “Yes” to us before we had even asked!!! I am amazed and completely humbled by his grace. All this reminds me of Jesus’ story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). We all ought to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” and have nothing to say to God or others about our goodness.

“But you asked about your dilemma and not the offended party’s dilemma. I simply thought considering the obligation we have to forgive others when they ask for mercy would help us think clearer about the petitioner’s dilemma. If we are required to forgive those who ask us without knowing for sure that they are sincere, aren’t we—the offending party—also required to ask for forgiveness even when we cannot know that someone will extend it? Even if we are sure that they will not forgive? After we’ve faced our sin in God’s presence and have accepted his forgiveness, if possible, we should express remorse and ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. If someone doesn’t trust our remorse or grant our request for forgiveness, even though it is hurtful to us, in the spirit of Jesus we should in our hearts forgive them for not forgiving us. For they are in the wrong and need God’s grace and help. We should pray for them to come to know their forgiveness in Christ! And as we pray for our self-made enemy, God may grant us healing from the hurt of rejection. Indeed, I believe he will. It may be your remorse and requested forgiveness that finally confronts them—the supposedly innocent party—with their sin of not believing in the forgiveness of sins. Your costly remorse and their reaction could be means of their awakening and redemption.”