Tag Archives: Lord

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

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Questions and Answers on Fear and Freedom, God and Providence, Faith and Scholarship: A Written Interview

For this week’s entry I’ve reprinted a written interview just posted on Pepperdine University’s “Research News” page. You can see the original interview by following the link pasted below:

http://www.pepperdine.edu/research/news/2013/ron_highfield.htm

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book [God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (IVP, 2013)] finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a “me-centered culture” and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is “me-centered” I don’t mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The “me-centered” culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God “the Creator” of the world and “Lord and Governor” of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the “science and the Bible” debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the “God-creature” relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the “God-creature” relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education (“the academy”) seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. “Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth. End of interview.

How would it affect the way we approach theology and church life if, instead of thinking exclusively about pressing issues and short-term goals, we extended our horizon a hundred years to 2113? Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Are we pursuing practical goals and working on theological issues now in ways that will contribute to the preservation of faith for our great, great grand children? Or will the trajectories we are following in the present make it less likely that 2113 will greet future generations with the word of faith? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth in 2113?

Until next week…

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.