Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

A tension…

by , on
Mar 7, 2010

Winding down my time in Fresno, I’m sitting, waiting for my flight.  Fresno, increasingly represents this schizophrenic division that I see in me and all of us, every time I’m here.  The place, of course, reminds me of my youth, and the marvelous times I had, especially in high school.  Life was full and good, with a solid self esteem that came from my involvement in the music world, and a few good friends with whom I’d play tennis, eat pizza, and just generally have fun.  There were ice-hockey games, where I played in a little jazz band (we didn’t get paid, but got free entrance for ourselves and a date, and the owner took us all out for pizza about every other game), and the Fresno Philharmonic.  There were trips to the mountains and the coast for parades and Giants baseball.  This was my whole world, my home, and I was pretty thick into all of it.

It’s not just these reminders though, that I encounter in Fresno.  My mom’s 90 and the trip from her room to the car takes about 20 minutes (better than you’ll do probably, or me, if we even last that long!).  My uncle, the guy who turned me on to the joys of studying and teaching the Bible, is 91, or 92; I’ve lost count.  Even my own cousins, my peers are talking about retirement.  One of my best friends from high school is finishing his career and ready to start something new for the 2nd half.  All these people feel, increasingly, disconnected from the present, more like sojourners than citizens.

Which is right, as it applies to our calling in Christ?  Are we to be deeply involved in the structures and systems of this world, or putting our hope fully in a future that will only be consummated by the return and reign of Christ?  Yes, of course – it’s both/and.  Living this way though, fully present and invested without placing our hopes in this world and life, is challenging.  It’s easy to disengage from things here and place our hope fully in Christ and his return.  It’s easy to jump in with both foot and seek to be a blessing here, hoping that by being the presence of Christ we’ll make a difference in the power structures, families, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, bands, and sports teams where we live our lives.  But it’s tough to do both, at least for me.

The band “Iona” has a marvelous song who’s refrain talks about the colors of the dawn, and the light streaming through the trees, and the staggering love of ‘these lives we live.’  Most days I agree with that assessment.  Whether it’s the sunrise over the Sierra’s yesterday morning at my motel in Fresno, the taste of a good meal, laughter with friends, or a moment of intimacy with family, I’m pierced by the richness and beauty of this life.  The song goes on though and says, over and over again, “We really cannot stay – We really cannot stay – We really cannot stay”   In the midst of this, I know and believe that we’re called to serve, bless, and be the presence of hope.  But none of it will last; not our calling, or our health, or even this world.  “We really cannot stay”

It’s true of course.  A child dies early.  There’s an earthquake.  A bomb in Iraq shatters my naive illusions that the world is a good place.  These shattering realities, whether they’re global or personal, create in us a longing for home, a sort of “Maranatha” moment when our heart aches for the fulness that will only come when Jesus is running the whole show.

Do we need to flip flop back and forth between this sense of rootedness and feeling like aliens, or is there a way to live out the reality of both mindsets simultaneously?  The reality is that both are true… glory and suffering, home and passing through, life and dying — all the time.

Off to the plane… and I welcome your thoughts.



The Paralysis of Polarity

by , on
Mar 2, 2010

After spending a glorious Sunday afternoon watching the best Ice Hockey game ever (and I’ve seen many), I posted a tongue and cheek comment on my facebook page, indicating that Canada had both the gold medal and health care.  The comments that ensued were a reminder that Christians are as deeply divided and entrenched on this issue as everyone else.  We’re red Christians and blue Christians – big government Christians, and small government Christians, and we’re good at pushing each other’s buttons.  I’m pretty certain though, when the comments were done being posted, nobody had changed their minds, or changed anyone else’s mind either.  Perhaps the only thing that happened was a little bit of grace and charity was lost.  All this leaves me wondering if there’s value in the dialogues between blue and red Christians.  I think there can be, but only to the extent we hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. No party or system has all the answers.  I’m well beyond suspicious that our systems won’t save us:  I know our systems won’t save us, because Salvation, in the fullest sense of the word, is found only in Christ.  He alone will restore justice, and the environment, and heal bodies, and bring peace, at least if the words of Isaiah are true, as Jesus himself indicated they were.  Because of this, our conversations about political matters need to be kept in perspective, and when Jim Wallace or Glenn Beck tell me that their party is God’s party, it makes me want to stop listening to them.

2. We have a 2nd, and truer, passport: I don’t lose sleep over who’s in power, or whether my political convictions are being adequately represented, because when the day is done, my calling isn’t to change American government; it’s to embody the reign of Christ in my life, my home, and my faith community, offering an alternative to the ways of this world.  And I’m called to do this no matter who’s in power.

Throughout history, that posture has taken countless different forms; Jews sheltered in WWII by Christians, those dying of the plague taken in by Christians in the 2nd century both come to mind.  Today, Jesus is on the front lines in Haiti through World Vision, and He’s healing the uninsured through clinics in many major cities in America.  I have my convictions on health care, and health, and food, and energy, but my calling is ultimately to live those convictions out in how I use my time and money.

3. We should vote our convictions.  William Wilberforce wanted to expand the influence of government by ending slavery in England.  MLK Jr wanted to expand the influence of government by granting equal rights to African Americans.  Evangelicals have long wanted to expand the influence of government by defining marriage and protecting life in the womb.  And, at various times, we’ve wanted to shrink the role of government too, either to balance the budget or for other reasons.  So we vote.  Yet our 2nd passport is the one that counts, and we’re ultimately called to live out our convictions regardless of who’s in power and where things are headed.  I hope this as liberating for you as it is for me.  If not, perhaps Psalm 62:5-8 will be helpful here.  I read it this morning and could feel the peace of Christ wash over me.

4. We need to give each other grace.  There are things that seem pretty obvious to me as a result of my faith in Christ:  life in the womb is sacred; both families and governments shouldn’t spend more than they have; and war should, at the very least, be seen as a last resort, along the lines of ‘just war theory’.  Beyond this though, there are big questions about the role of government in regulating business, and the definition of ‘basics’ that constitute government responsibility.  This is where we who share the same faith will divide, and why I am independent.

As one who has travelled the world and been in places lacking a public health department to regulate rural areas, I’ve seen people eating undercooked food on plates washed out back in cold and dirty tap water.  I’ve had friends eat off such plates and get violently ill.  This makes me think that it’s a good thing for the government to get involved in regulating the quality of food service in a country.  I’ve also seen Europeans, in a highly regulated and taxed culture, follow their hearts and become aerobics instructors, farmers, baristas without worrying about what will happen to their family if one of them gets sick, and this makes me think their system has some merit.  These people love Jesus just like we do, pray and serve in the communities, and favor a larger government.   I also have friends, both in my church and across the country who strongly disagree with that vision, feeling that it puts too much power in the hands of the government and, at the very least, runs the risk of eroding one’s sense of personal responsibility.  They also pray, love Jesus, and read their Bibles.

Who is more spiritual?   I don’t think we should even ask the question, let alone hazard an answer.

I hope we who disagree on such matters can give each other grace because, when the day is done, we love the same Jesus, hold the same passport, and place our hope in the same King.

WWJE? Eschatology and Food

by , on
Feb 25, 2010

If you’re one of those “it’s all going to burn up anyway” Christians,  there’s a good chance you’ll be eating a big slab of meat tonight, cooked over a fire, complemented by a pesticide laced salad, enhanced by an Italian Red,  and washed down with coffee that was utterly affordable thanks to the rainforest that was cleared to increase the crop size.  If I thought it was all going to burn up, especially in the near term (as I’ve been told it will, any day now, for the past 35 years), I’d join you.

Instead, I’ll be having a slab of meat, a salad, red wine, and coffee, just like you, except utterly different.  My meat will be grass fed, my salad organic and local, my wine from a local winery, and my coffee shade grown.  That is, at least, what I’ll be eating when my food choices match my view of the end times.  Believing that God’s people are called to make God’s good reign visible here and now in some small measure means that I need to make choices that exalt health, justice, and ecology (among other things) in all areas of my life, including “what’s for dinner?”

Concerned about the state of environment and the horrible carbon footprint of the beef industry, I’d always believed that vegetarians were on to something, but could never manage to get there myself because when I tried, I’d be continually hungry and sick (not to mention that truth that I enjoy only about 1/2 the vegetables available).  A recent read called “The Vegetarian Myth”  (see intro here), written by a left wing activist former vegetarian, opened my eyes to the realities that the real culprit isn’t meat or not meat; it’s industrial agriculture.  Monocrops require heavy pesticides (oil), deplete the topsoil, which then requires heavy fertilization (oil), so that the crops can be maximized and then harvested by machine (oil), to then be shipped to warehousing locations (oil), where they’ll either become something else (twinkies, made from oil), and/or shipped yet again to stores (more oil).  The problem is that this is our world, whether we’re vegetarians are meat eaters, if we just run down to the supermarket and buy the cheapest beef and spinach on the market.

The food that comes out of this system is destructive to the human body, the earth, and industrial pork and cattle that inhabit it.  Why are we doing this?  Maximum profit of course, and cheap products.  Do we really think, even if Jesus were returning tomorrow, that He doesn’t care about us trashing his planet, compromising our bodies, and torturing his animals like this?

On the other hand, if I buy, organic vegetables, and grass fed animal products, and as local as possible, several things happen:

1. I participate in a sustainable model that actually builds topsoil, rather than destroying it.

2. I dramatically lower my carbon footprint, by consuming things that required relatively small amounts of energy to produce.

3. I ennoble small farming and local economies, both of which are far healthier and more resilient than ADM, supermarket to the world.

4. I declare by my choices that monocrops and the forced migration of small farmers to the urban centers, a destructive global trend, is wrong.

5. I gain a healthy ratio of Omega 3- Omega 6 fats in my diet, and enjoy lower good heart health, and the taste of real, rather than industrial food.  I’m sick less, sleep better, and just generally feel more alive.

I’m as guilty as anyone regarding my food choices, even more so because I now know better and still choose cost and convenience way too often.  This conversation, if we take it seriously, is a portal to many other topics.  Since we who can afford to eat this way don’t, how can we ever expect those with neither the means nor understanding to freely choose these healthy alternatives?  Is it enough to live ‘alternatively’, or is activism appropriate?  And if activism is appropriate (as I sometimes sense is the case), why do I feel like I’m wasting my time?  Wouldn’t it be better to just grab a Big Mac and get on with handing out Bibles?

I welcome your thoughts!

Rule of Life: Sustaining your faith for the distance

by , on
Feb 21, 2010

There’s a new category tag on this blog and it’s called “Rule of Life”.  Each posting I offer that will help equip people for developing the disciplines to sustain and enliven their faith will be tagged “rule of life”.  For those interested the the “why” of rule of life, I’ll suggest listening to the teaching from my church on February 21st, 2010.

I’ll open this category with two things:

1. Resource – for a quick overview of what a rule of life is, and it’s significance, I’ll refer you to this link.  Bethany’s rule of life booklet will soon available on this website as well.  Check back.

2. If you have questions or comments about ‘rule of life’ as you begin this journey, please post them on this entry, and I’ll work to respond to them, both here online, and in the equipping we offer for spiritual disciplines and discipleship at Bethany Community Church.

At a time approaching spiritual burnout, I discovered the ‘rule of life’ concept over a decade ago, and have found the practices contained therein to be life giving, rather than a choking constraint.  I hope you’ll join us in this journey, not by talking about rule of life or studying it – but  by actually developing your own rule of life.  This morning, as I sat under the redwood tree in silence, and then prayed, I was grateful for these practices that bring integration and wholeness to my life.  Let the adventure begin.

breaking the stress barrier…

by , on
Feb 19, 2010

This past Sunday I preached on ‘glorying in our tribulations’.  Starting on Monday, it’s been lab work on the same subject.  The convergence zone of too many obligations, with some fresh new challenges tossed in, and obligations ‘out’ every night, conspired with some weighty and important decisions that need to be made.  Toss in a shortage of sleep (from too much too do, too much thinking, and not enough exercise), and the whole mixture becomes a sort of toxic ‘stress soup’.  Do you know of it?  Have you tasted it?

I’ve good news.  Sometimes it’s the very toxicity that motivates us to seek the remedy, which is Christ’s strength, peace, truth, and wisdom.  Yes, I know we say we’re dependent on Christ all the time, but the truth of it is that many of us have plenty of ‘self-sufficiency’ because it’s built into our genetic make-up to live on our own, without help.  As a result we fall into the trap of believing that with enough self-discipline, sleep, vitamins, schedule management, and leadership techniques, we can cope with life well.  Maybe we can, maybe not, but we’ll never be fruitful because Jesus said ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’

Thank God for those weeks when there’s an avalanche of stress, so much so that all the technique and management skills in the world won’t enable us to live well.  Thank God for the weeks when we feel ourselves sinking under the massive weight of responsibility, decisions, challenges, and obligations.  Thank God.  Those are the weeks when we’re brought to our knees, which is where we should have been all along, except we were too busy living with our illusions of competence and control.

“The Control Barrier” is what I call it, and the only way to break through it, like the sound barrier, is to be overwhelmed.  When I am existentially overwhelmed, I stop, breath, pray, turn to silence and the ancient paths of the saints, finding once again the peace in the midst of the storm, a peace which really is beyond understanding because nothings changed except my awareness that ‘all manner of things shall be well’.  And that’s enough.

Have you been silent lately?  Heard the birds?  Prayed for the peace of Christ to fill you?  If not, maybe it’s because life’s not hard enough yet.  Don’t worry… your day will come.  When it does, ‘rejoice’!  Peace is just around the corner for all who turn to Him.

The need for Lament…

by , on
Feb 10, 2010

Survey the landscape of American Christianity on any given Sunday and you’ll find plenty of evidence that God is on the throne, we’re walking in victory, and Satan’s utterly crushed.  There are lots of praise choruses about our victory and God’s goodness, along with clapping and shouting “praise the Lord”.   It’s the winning team for certain, at least if noise and bravado is any indicator.

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Have you seen the movies from the Youth Rallies during the reign of the Reich?  The singing and enthusiasm would make most Pentecostals appear as stoic Lutherans in comparison.  Singing slogans about victory doesn’t make them true, and the sad fact of the matter is that for many of the people singing, the words of victory ring hollow to them.  They sing about triumph over sin, but are mired in addiction.  They sing about God’s power in the world, while their spouse is in the last stages of cancer.  They sing about peace, while their neighbor’s kid lost his leg in Iraq.   For millions the words, if the singers stop to ponder them, seem hollow at best, perhaps even a lie.

I’ll go on record as being for praise music.  I like it, and play it on my ipod sometimes in the car when I’m driving alone.  But if the Psalms offers the full range of emotions, I’m wondering if it doesn’t also offer a decent example of the proper proportion between praise and lament.  If it does, then we’re way too heavy on the praise side of things.   By minimizing lament, we’re teaching people to process the real world in a different way than the saints who’ve gone before us, teaching them to plaster over their grief with a dose of loud singing, or snappy ‘feel good’ songs.  The distance between these pleasant tunes and the emotions of a heart that’s broken, or fearful, is large enough to stretch someone’s faith to the breaking point.

In contrast, a look at church history shows us that those who take their complaints, fears, failures, and doubts to God, will find real answers, real transformation.  Abraham:  “What will you give me, since I’m childless?“,  Moses:  “...please kill me at once“, David, “How long O Lord?”, Paul, “we despaired even of life.” I could go on with Jeremiah, Job, John the Baptist, and many more, but you get the point.  For every dance on the far side of the Red Sea, there’s a question, a weariness, a complaint.  There are, to hearken back to this past Sunday’s teaching, honest to God questions and struggles, wrestlings that in the end might well leave us wrung out, but intimate.

The problem is that few were told about the ‘wrung out’ part when they came to faith.  This is because too often we’ve sold people on some sort of hybrid Jesus.  There’s the real Jesus part having to do with his death on the cross and then there’s Jesus CEO, enabling us to climb the success leader, or Jesus Therapist, assuring us of successful marriages, or Jesus CFO, assuring us of wealth, Dr. Jesus, assuring us of great health, or Jesus military commander, protecting us from IED’s.  These ‘add ons’ speak more to our desires for health, wealth, and happiness than our calling as disciples, because the reality is that stuff happens – to Christians.

When it does, I hope the struggling saints don’t walk into a worship service three weeks in a row without hearing, somewhere in the gathering, that those who mourn are blessed, or a song of longing, or a prayer of waiting and crying out.  Lacking that, they’ll eventually presume that this well dressed, clear eyed, upwardly mobile Jesus doesn’t have much to say to them.  They’d be right, but they’d only be rejecting the success Jesus of American dreams.  The real one was called the man of sorrows.  I just hope there’s still room for him in church.

I welcome your thoughts.

The Dilemma of Pluralism

by , on
Feb 3, 2010

This morning’s BBC report discloses that the French government has refused to grant citizenship to man because he is forcing his wife to wear the ‘full veil’.  Because she is not free to ‘come and go with her face uncovered’, this man’s values place him a category of person to whom the French government denies citizenship.  It is recommended by the French government that anyone showing signs of “radical religious practice” be refused citizenship.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this subject so I’ll just toss some questions out:

1. The phrase ‘radical religious practice’ seems ambiguous.  Isn’t ‘eating the flesh and drinking the blood’ (see John 6, or your weekly communion table) also radical?  Or living in community?  What are the risks that this ruling becomes precedent setting for all manner of religious persecution?  On the other hand, isn’t the state obligated to protect the powerless (Romans 13), and isn’t this woman being rendered powerless?  But what if she wants the full covering?

2. This man’s patriarchy no doubt offends the sensibilities of most of us reading this.  But would France also refuse to grant citizenship to a person who believed that a woman shouldn’t work outside the home while raising children?  The bigger question than the particular ruling is, in this case, how wide this ruling opens the door.

3. We live in a pluralist world, where different belief systems bump up against each other.  France is trying to understand how to be pluralist without sacrificing it’s own cultural distinctives, and this is where the rub comes.  How can we be embracing of other cultures, while maintaining our own cultural identity?  This issue is a raging river in Europe, even more so than the United States, but it’s an issue everywhere, and an important one.

Pluralism and tolerance are terribly politically correct, but we all have our limits.  You can’t be a pedophile, you can’t steal other people’s stuff; on these we all agree.  Keep talking about ethics though, and you soon come to multiple forks in the road.  If we aren’t careful, we’re going to end up using these forks to stab each other.

What are your thoughts?

The Great Divorce: read it, see it, live it.

by , on
Feb 2, 2010

Taproot Theater is presently offering a marvelous production of CS Lewis’ classic book, “The Great Divorce” on their mainstage.   After watching a play or movie derived from a book, I usually come away with a heavy preference for the book; things are left out; the visuals are other than what I’d imagined.  I go back to reading.  In this case the opposite proved to be true.  Taproot’s production is so brilliantly crafted and executed, that I left with a more profound appreciation for the book rather than less.  If you’re in the Seattle area (and for you students from Montana and Canada that are coming) I’d suggest you see it soon, because it’s slated to run only through the end of this month.

Having praised the production, I’ll quickly add that you’ll probably appreciate it best if you’ve read the book, because it’s dealing with some themes that are best digested with a little forethought.  For this reason, I’ve shopped the internet and found this review, which I think gives a good synopsis.   Love for the light, beauty, humility, joy, and strength of the redeemed becomes the main theme of the play.  I left with a deeper love for Jesus and where history is heading.

But this is a play about heaven and hell, as the review link above states.  It might surprise you to know that, among people who believe that Jesus is the single door through which we must enter if we’re going to know God, there are a wide variety of views regarding the afterlife.  This post, also shopped on the internet, offers a catalog of these views.  Some will be loathe to consider anything except view one because it is the most popular view, carrying the weight of history and orthodoxy in its favor.  All of us must rightly be suspicious of any view that deviates from orthodoxy, being slow to overturn centuries of history simply because we find some other view more appealing.  And yet…

We must also have a willing openness to re-ordering, not because a view is ‘appealing’ or unappealing, but because the scriptures themselves might offer a challenge to conventional wisdom.  When it comes to matters of heaven and hell, we need to weigh the prevailing view in light of these questions:

1. What does Matthew 11:21 mean, where Jesus indicates that Tyre would have repented had they received the light of Christ?

2. What does Philippians 2:11 mean, when Paul indicates that ‘every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father?”  I know the conventional view is that the unsaved will confess after death, under duress.  Still, is there some reason Romans 10:9 (the promise that if we confess Jesus as Lord, we’ll be saved) won’t apply to them?

3. Is there anyone in hell, in the end, against their will?  Lewis’ thesis is ‘no’.  Does this fit with Jesus’ teaching in Luke 16:19-31.  I think it does, because the tormented man doesn’t ask to get out of his hell, only to be comforted in his hell.

In the end, I believe we need to deal with two realities:  1) There is a place of judgement, and there are people in it.  God’s love is infinite and relentless.  2) Provision has been made for everyone to receive the cure for the deathly disease of sin, a cure which includes a confession (Romans 10:9), a confession which all will make (Philippians 2:10,11).

In Tim Keller’s marvelous article on the importance of hell he writes, “Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God’s active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.” This, it seems to me, is the central message of Lewis’ work as well.

Lewis’ said that “Divorce” wasn’t theology, or even speculation.  But the themes reflect the beliefs of his literary mentor, George MacDonald, who ultimately believes that God’s character as ‘consuming fire’ will ultimately destroy every last vestige of rebellion in every last human.

There are other themes two in “Divorce” especially regarding the role of the human will in choosing the offer of God’s cure, but I won’t go down that road in this post.  Instead I’ll recommend that you see the play, write down some questions, and we’ll set a date for a hearty discussion of the play and the doctrines it address… coming soon to a Bethany near you!

Finally: Corporations are People too!

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Jan 29, 2010

There were many in the evangelical world of my youth (read: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et. al.) who decried the ‘liberal courts’ for overstepping their bounds by using the court as means of legislating, rather than limiting their responsibilities to ‘upholding the constitution according intent of its framers’. They viewed Roe v Wade as an example of, not merely ruling on a case, but of using a case to create and impose a new ethos that was far beyond the scope of the case at hand. How dare those liberals do that!  If only conservatives ruled the court things would be different, right?

Apparently not. The court used the case of “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” as a means for overturning a century of campaign finance laws, ushering in an era whereby corporations (both American, and foreign ones with US subsidiaries) are granted the same freedom of speech rights as individual Americans. The McCain/Feingold law that sought to limit the degree to which companies could influence elections (and thereby, influence elected officials) was overturned with this ruling.

So, as Stephen Colbert mockingly said last night: “Now my bank, “Morgan Stanley” has the same rights to contribute their voice to policy making in Washington as my barber, “Stanley Morgan”. Each one can donates hundreds of millions to campaigns and then, by virtue of their generosity, have access to, and influence over, the policy makers. It’s a fair battle. And may the best man win.”

All sarcasm excluded, isn’t it obvious to everyone that granting free speech rights to multi-national corporations is 1) far beyond the intent of our founding father’s intent, 2) dangerous in it’s opening that will now grant foreign companies influence over American campaigns, 3) marginalizing to common citizens, who will never be able to match the scope and wealth of large corporate spending and influence, and 4) the very kind of ‘legislative over-reach’ that conservatives have been angry about for years.

This is precisely why there’s so much anger and cynicism towards American politics. Apparently the religious right, and political conservatives weren’t really angry about the Supreme Court’s over-reach in the 70’s, but angry that the over-reach didn’t favor their ideology.  As Dobson himself has written:  “tyranny by judicial fiat is destructive to our democratic institutions.”    Now that the recent court and ruling is in line with their goals, the right has fallen strangely silent about “the intent of the framers and the tyranny of judicial fiat”.  I guess it all depends on the ruling.

When the rhetoric dies down over this ruling, the thing that will have changed is this: corporations can buy as much time to exercise ‘free speech’ and thus influence the vote, as you and I can. This isn’t good news for salmon or eagles, people who use banks and have loans, water tables, topsoil, small farmers around the world, or the artic wildlife refuge.

But it’s good news for multi-national corporations because now, when we appeal to our constitutional rights by declaring, ‘we the people’, they can spend 150 million dollars crying back: “I’m a person too!”

Modernity, Post-Modernity, and the Limits of Knowing

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Jan 27, 2010

The question on the table is this:  How can we step outside of our own context fully enough to objectively assess the faith? This is the question post-modernity brings to the table.  Rather than decrying post-modernity for critiquing the arrogant declarations of certainty that have come from people of faith down through the centuries, I’d suggest at the outset, that there are things to learn from the post-modern problem:

1. They’ve pointed out the elephant in the room:  we don’t KNOW (in the same way we know that we’re reading a blog right now) the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and the Bible.  There’s evidence; good evidence, but we don’t KNOW.

2. The reality is that our belief systems ARE shaped by our culture and upbringing in many ways.  That’s why more children grow up to become Muslims  in Iran than in Kansas.  What are we to make of this?  Do we simply declare that little kids growing up in Iran are running from the truth and those in Kansas are enlightened?  This seems a little arrogant, and a little small minded as well.  The reality is that we embrace the narrative of our culture more often than not, and this is formative in our faith declarations.

The crisis of “knowing” and the questions about objectivity and culture are valuable.  To be too quickly dismissive would be to miss some things of value.  Still, the post-modern dilemma remains:

1. Though, as the post-modern declares, I can never fully remove myself from my own context in order to objectively determine truth, I still need to believe something, and that creates a problem, because the post-modern is hesitant to believe anything at all.  However (how weird is this?), the reality is that even the claim:  “I can’t believe anything” is a belief system.  So in the end, the post-modern is faced with the dilemma of an unsustainable position because he/she, wanting to hold all belief systems at arms length, makes ‘holding-all-belief-systems-at-arms-length” their belief system.  In other words:  everybody needs to believe something!

2. If I must believe something, then the question once again becomes, “How will I decide what to believe” and it is here that I think we should embrace the humility of post-modernism by changing our language regarding truth claims from “I know” to “I believe”.  After all, this is historically how we declared our faith:  “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”   Recently though, it seems that in some circles the objective has been to provide bombproof evidence regarding our truth claims so that we don’t need to say “I believe” any more.  We can say, “I know”.    To become people obsessed with providing evidence at just the moment in history when the enlightenment’s certitude is taking it’s last breath is terribly misguided.  We should instead say, “Here’s the evidence I see… and based on it, I believe.”  That’s more honest, and even in keeping with the life to which we’re called.

And what of those whose faith story is different than our own, not because of overt rejection of Christ, but because of being raised in a different environment.  I completely believe that Jesus words are true:  “I am the way the truth and the life – no man comes to the Father but through me” – how does that apply to the little kid in Iran?  I’ll save that post for another time.