Sunday, December 05, 2010

God Looks on the Heart 3

Previous post is here.
This line of thought leads us to the question of absolute truth.  Does the pragmatic, Wesleyan tradition believe in absolute truth?  Do you mean, do we believe in truth, definite truths?  Well, of course.  What's the point of trying to communicate if there is no such thing as truth?

The question is more about how accurate or precise our systems of thought are.  The great thing about systematizing our thoughts is that it helps us process things.  Systems of thought help us grasp complex things and remember them.  Systems of thought help us see potential inconsistencies in the way we think.

Other traditions today have a clear penchant toward what we might call the Platonic.  Plato thought that truth was a matter of ideas and that the things we see around us are only imperfect shadows of the truths we can only access with our minds.  So many Christians who use code words like "worldview" have a tendency to think that everything we see and do around us is simply the outworking of some system of ideas in our heads. They might spend a great deal of time trying to get your ideas straight, thinking that if we can only get the system of ideas in your head right, then the rest--how you live--will take care of itself.

This way of thinking has a lot of problems.  For one, the vast majority of people do not live from day to day playing out their ideas.  The sentiment that "right insight leads to right action" sounds noble, and is a great ideal toward which to aspire. [1]  It just is not how most of us will ever operate.  Most people will change sooner if they work with God's help to change their habits, their physical actions.  According to most psychologists, this path is actually more effective in changing the way people think.  So the "get the ideas straight and the actions will follow" only proves to be true for a small number of us.  For most of us, the pattern is "get the habits straight and the ideas will follow."

Indeed, the Bible itself does not lay out some neat system of ideas.  It is deeply ironic on the highest level that the vast majority of biblical texts are not theoretical, but contextual.  Romans is not a "compendium of systematic theology," as Luther's systematizer, Melanchthon, once said.  Romans is more systematic than Paul's other letters, but its argument and train of thought still have everything to do with a situation where Paul is introducing himself to a group that might potentially have heard bad things of him from his opponents.  If one wants to complain about Wesley writing sermons rather than a systematic theology, one might first start by complaining about the apostle Paul and, indeed, every book in the Bible.

So we see that the idea of a "biblical worldview," as helpful as it can be, has as much or more to do with the Christian thinkers who "find" it in the Bible as it does with the Bible itself.  The briefest look at how many different systems of thinking Christians have put together over the centuries shows this dynamic very quickly.  Since none of the books of the Bible themselves present a system of thought, such systems require not a little glue from those who construct them.  Such glue, thankfully, usually comes from a hefty dose of common Christian tradition--glue that the Holy Spirit has helped the Christians of the ages apply to the biblical texts.  But of course individual thinkers also are bound to mistake their own personalities and the perspectives of their situations for "Scripture alone."

This is not the place to unpack what really is involved in determining what "the Bible says."  First we have the meanings of individual texts, which we have no choice but to define according to the definitions and categories we know.  Even on this smallest of levels we are more likely to find meanings familiar to us rather than those of the original audiences to whom the biblical texts were literally written.  Then there is the matter of how we connect individual texts together.  Since they usually do not tell us how to fit them together, this is a process we must do.  We have no other choice.

So we prioritize them in terms of the meanings we have already given them.  We designate texts familiar to us as "clear" and those that seem strange to us as "unclear."  If the first meaning that suggests itself to us does not make sense to us or does not fit with our sense of what the Bible can say, we might reinterpret its meaning as best we can.  I am assuming throughout these last few paragraphs that the reader in question sincerely wants to hear what God has to say and submits to God's authority in Scripture.

The notion of "biblical worldview" as often as not leads a person to run roughshod over the biblical text.  It is one thing to find common themes throughout the Bible.  Love of God and neighbor, for example, pops up continually throughout the biblical texts.  It is another to mistake a Christian system of thinking for what the biblical texts themselves actually say.

For one thing, such systems usually undersell God's brilliance. When I think of how to illustrate what I mean, science often comes to mind.  If a person takes a high school or college science class, we often learn simple rules to start off.  We learn that objects fall at the same rate, no matter how heavy they are.  We learn that it takes so long to get across a certain distance moving at a certain speed.

But if we stay with science long enough, things get complicated.  Those things falling--we talked about them as points because in reality, air and wind get in the way.  Those things getting from A to B in a certain time--we learn that time slows down as an object approaches the speed of light.  Indeed, a lot of "real life" calculations require what are called statistical models.  Scientists see how most things behave because reality is too complicated to come up with a neat equation or rule to describe the situation.

Similarly, I am convinced that those of us who think we have neat little systems of theology to describe the truth of the Bible--let alone God--are going to be incredibly embarrassed in the kingdom of God.  The problem with systems of theology, in my opinion, is that I can understand them.  I do not think I would be able to understand God, at least not on a literal level.  After all, I have trouble understanding Einstein's theory of relativity.  Surely God is a bit more advanced still!  Surely his revelation to us is baby talk, "goo-goo ga-ga" that I can just get the gist of, even if I really am only getting the general impression.

The bottom line here is that I revel in the fact that God looks on the heart.  I have to think that those who are more oriented around the head are going to be very embarrassed for the first few moments of the kingdom.  And after all, if God is primarily interested in our heads, why does he not set us all straight?  We know each other too well to think that all the most spiritual people are Wesleyans or Baptists or Lutherans or Catholics or Reformed or Quakers.  There are equally spiritual, equally open, equally intelligent individuals in all denominations.  Correcting the finer points of our ideas just does not seem to be high on God's agenda.

And look at how long God took to send Christ.  Even those whose interpretation of Genesis leads them to believe in a young earth see God waiting thousands of years before Christ came, and even the staunchest Protestant will have to deal with God waiting over a thousand years to send Martin Luther to get things back on track.  Other Christians will see God waiting millions or even billions of years just to bring humanity into the world, let alone to redeem us!

In short, no likely understanding of God sees correcting our understanding as God's first order of business. God just has not moved that quickly in history.  And thus it is that while ideas matter to Wesleyans, the state of your heart and the state of your life are much more important.  Are you a Seventh-Day Adventist who worships on Saturday, believes our souls sleep before the resurrection, and maybe even stays away from pork?  Wesleyans would join almost all other Christians in thinking you probably have emphasized the wrong biblical passages.  But as Wesley said, "if your heart is as my heart... then put your hand in mine." [2]

[1] Plato's reporting of Socrates' philosophy.

[2] From his sermon, "On a Catholic Spirit."


::athada:: said...

why aren't you teaching World Changers, or at least in charge of the curriculum?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I believe that different people have different reasons for their behavior or "good works". And some do respond for reasons of principle, while others respond for more pragmatic reasons, personal interests.

'God looks on the heart" can only be those that "mind their own business", as these are the only ones that are not comparing themselves, and feeling "puffed up" (like a 'god") or "cast down" (like a second class citizen).

There is surely no reason to justify what one does to another by justifying the "intent" of the heart, because we all must come to our own convictions about what is important in life. And no one else can or should determine that for you. Otherwise, we justify tyranny. And certainly, Christians wouldn't want to be guilty of tyranny, would they?

JRS said...

So what affect does getting the habits right have on encouraging legalism? Legalism, as I've observed it, seems to say if your actions are right your heart is right. That doesn't seem right to me.

Ken Schenck said...

Legalism is a potential pitfall. Every approach has its extreme, but they can be avoided too.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think the difference is when the individual makes the choice to build certain habits. When others pre-determine what habits are to be "expected", then it becomes standardized, and performance oriented. This is legalism.

JohnM said...

I think of systems as a way to connect the dots. Not everybody forms exactly the same picture. Fun, if we all maintain some humility about it :)
Question though, how do you know which habits to cultivate without the ideas?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You said, "Fun, if we all maintain some humility about it :)"

Systems is the way we understand what is to be expected. The Constitution is such a system. But, as we all know, people will disagree as to how the Constitution should be interpreted, or whether it can/should/will be amended. Some parts of the Constitution are not interpretive, but mandantory in a free society. These we should not compromise on, as it protects equality under law.

It is best if we agree to disagree, and embrace liberty as to the things that are irrelavant, or unimportant. And those things that are important, we decide what we can and cannot live with/without and go our separate ways. People do this all the time. Peace does not necessarily mean reconcilliation. But, it does mean knowing how to disagree amicabily/civilly.

Ken Schenck said...

I'm not against ideas at all. I just thing in reality ideas congeal in families and in continuity far more than in self-contained systems. But I'm not even saying self contained systems of ideas cannot exist. I'm having a hard time on the spot coming up with one. My first thought was numbers (and I think someone may have received a Nobel Prize for proving what I'm about to question), but I wonder whether even numbers are largely an abstraction of the concrete world (at least real numbers ;-)

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, you raise a good question. Does the Constitution constitute an ideological system? I'm thinking. I'm thinking. This may actually be a good example of what I'm saying. The Constitution is largely a set of concrete entities, power relationships between those entities, and rules for those entities.

Is it an ideological system? There are ideas, values, and principles associated with the structures and rules but they are largely abstractions from the Constitution. But it is a fascinating parallel, for a lot of Americans can't tell the difference between this concrete document itself and the theoretical system they incorporate it into in their minds.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

What you are saying is that humans are "bound within their frames of sense perception" and the 'realities that frame them', aren't you?

Everyone can understand the word, "life", as it is the primitive "root" of experience, our physical being. But, "liberty" may be more abstract, in that, one cannot grab onto that "idea" as solidly, as it describes experience alone, but it can be understood in concrete terms by government systems. And yet, the other idea, "the pursuit of happiness" is even more abstract, as it is purely subjective in its definition. This is where a great divide happens in political philosophy. How is a government that is to provide liberty to individual lives to perform its duties in allowing the "pursuit of happiness"?

The divide in our country is contrasted by the Democrat and Republican party platforms. Libertarians diverge from platforms and purse the "idea" of liberty, as the ideal above all systems.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am taking the "pursuit of happiness" as a point of contention.

Christians don't believe in happiness, for the most part, because they have been taught that life is a struggle against and in the world. And that life is to be in the "pursuit of God alone". God is to be the only avenue of our happiness ("...heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee....Augustine). Their faith is to be defined in ways that are different from the world (Whoever loves the world and the things in the world, etc.....) Therefore, the pursuit of happiness cannot be equated with "the things of the world", that is power, position, knowledge or money. But, this is wrong thinking. It is not these things that are innately wrong, but can become wrong if they destroy more important aspects of one's life. And then, is it government, other Christians, or God's duty to judge, rectify, intervene in what is considered destructive? And where are the limits to government intervention? This is what is happening with the banning of "bad food choices", bake sales at schools, etc. in our government right now. Freedom of speech is in the headlines as to what will or will not be allowed in our public discourse....etc.

The problems do start with the family, as the family is the foundation of any society and the child's first and foremost teacher of values, and norms. Our society has undermined family values because we pursue a higher standard of living at the expense of our children. All of us struggle to give our children the best we know how, but most of us do not know what is the best...How are we to change this? Do we change divorce laws? Do we change school systems? What do we change and how can we accommadate the changes that are facing our families?

JohnM said...

Angie, The starting point for Christians would be "God Is" followed by immediate recognition that "I'm not God, God is somebody who is not me". That alone is reason enough to value God above all else, including self, since whatever/whoever is God is by definition above all else.
Granted, merely acknowledging God as ultimate reality would be dry at best if we didn't also believe God to be good. Not to preach a sermon on that point though, the
point is, none of us get to choose "what it is".

Where does Christianity connect with Libertarianism? Perhaps at the point where I recognize government is one of those things "not God" and the point where I object to anyone other than God trying to be God.

JohnM said...

Mind you, that's not to say there's no space between Libertarianism and Christianity. Partly depends on the variety of the former.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is not reasonable in my experience to continue to believe that "God cares". What use is God if he isn't personal? if there is only "subjectivity" in understanding transcendence? And what is the use for transcendence (escapism), if one has the liberty to live his life to the fullest? Isn't the usefulness for/to theology for those who are oppressed? Wouldn't giving political liberty be more imperative to the oppressed? It really doesn't seem to make much difference whether one is a believer or an unbeliever when it comes to character. Character is not "belief" sensitive.

God is not worthy, if I am not worthy. If I am not worhty, then others are not worthy. "Self" has to be affirmed if I am to give "self" away. If I am only a cog in someone's wheel, to make the world a better place, then, I cease to believe, because that is NOT love. It is oppression. It depersonalizes me. It is beauracratic determination. It means to me that God could care less about my "separateness", He only cares about HIS Purpose (which is really the Christian and/or political powerbase). It is someone's idea of love, at best, and a "means" to their personal goals at worst. But, it is "meant" to work "character" in me. The specific character that they deem important for their "work". Because these think they know what "the greater good"/alturism is/should be/should look like. OR they think they know what God wants and therefore, impose their view on others. This is not libertarian, it is legalism/behaviorism. And it is social death for the "outsider", as social psychologist would say. It is justifed to/by the "in-group".

I value our Constitutional Republic because people can find their place, and their way without any outside source in determining their "place". I believe that society should do without as much "law" as possible and still remain open, and ordered.

Isn't it funny that the "Tea Party" people are the ones that say that they will "take back America". They will be the ones to 'lead and make change and demand that their Constitutional rights be defended, and, yet, they would turn around and ....deny others representation/voice in this government, just as they feel it has been denied to them? But, it has worked both ways, both sides are defensive and polarized.

We, in America, are as diverse as there are people. And this is as it should is our strength, IF we allow it to be.

JohnM said...

Angie, I don't want get carried away playing ping pong with this one, but I will make a one more post, for clarification (that may or may not be needed).

When you asked "What use is God if he isn't personal?" I'm not sure what you meant by personal. Of course I affirm God is a personal being, if there was any misunderstanding about that. But I don't gather that's what you meant. I also note, whatever God is God is whether I affirm it or not, and whether I find it useful or not. All will have their "gods" - whatever is held highest or most imperative. However, whatever is contigent upon my affirmation, perception, preference, or anything about me, by definition cannot really be God.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"God" is a projection of one's personal understanding of the "ideal". Whatever that "ideal" is, or might mean.

Christians have understood the ideals of life (God is the giver of life), liberty (God gives liberty) and the pursuit of happiness (God as the grantor and blessor of life). These are also values that our Founders valued.

Today, when "collectivism" has swayed public opinion such that the public and private spheres are questioned, one wonders how religious liberty will survive, if any liberty at all.

One cannot demand worship of whatever "God" if one also values liberty of conscience. And liberty of conscience is one of the very foundations of our Republic.