Did this world make itself? Maybe – but hardly. Did I go through this illness alone? Perhaps – but in the midst of the depression of it, something outside myself sustained me, nevertheless. Has my hard life been without joy? Not completely – and sometimes, in the midst of the worst of it, I have known peace and strength greater than my own making. Have I never known the presence of God? No, in fact I have sometimes known it with consuming awareness.
Joan Chittister, Essential Writings, 101.
What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all. The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
– Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 29.
Re-reading Christian Wiman’s reflections on faith and doubt, My Bright Abyss. The fragments of the book are dense and worthy of much pondering. One could spend a year on it. (more…)
But this is a quibble. Good books leave you knowing more than you did to start with, and feeling less complacent about what you believed.
David Free, in Saturday’s Australian reviewing John Kampfner’s The Rich. He’s onto something, when it comes to books about ideas. Complacency is the default for beliefs. For years, it feels I’ve been undergoing a long, continual shedding of complacency, to the point that almost every belief I hold feels either hard-won or tentative. Start doing that too much and the complacency of others seems criminal. But of course, there are probably worse things than complacency.
It’s exposure to contrary viewpoints which sheds complacency. It’s critically examining the details, not just the brushstrokes. (You can spin anything to seem credible; you can squint at it, and pretend it’s not what it is.) It’s reading books you don’t agree with, not just to disagree with them, but to truly consider their arguments.
But I’m riffing on Free’s point, which is actually about what “ideas books” can or should do – and that is to complicate our beliefs. You think rich people are all this, or all that? Examine the details, and your generalisations turn out to need more nuance.
Yoder is rewarding because he never says quite what I expect, or how I would expect it to be said. But is he right when he calls the church to missionary arrogance? My trajectory has been away from anything which smacks of that. Here is what he writes, back in 1963, collected in the new book of popular writings, Radical Christian Discipleship:
I do not intend to challenge the need for growth in modesty and cultural perspective, but I do intend to challenge the tendency to make a hobby out of a corrective. Today’s more urgent need is no longer perspective and modesty. What today’s world and church need most is a recovery of the missionary arrogance of the New Testament church. To arrogate (the verb from which we get the unpopular adjective arrogant) means to make claims for oneself or for one cause. If the claims we make are for ourselves, then it is understandable why we need to overcome our arrogance. But if the cause for which we are making claims is the cause of the one true God, then anything short of absolute demands is unfaithfulness. (p. 45)
I’ve met too many arrogant Christians arrogant about different things. Yet in the time since he wrote, surely he would only insist more strongly that the urgent need is ‘no longer perspective and modesty’? But which things to be arrogant about? Or maybe not ‘arrogant’ at all, in its normal usage – he is reclaiming the word, as he does so often. Instead, ‘make claims’ for the ’cause’: proclaim the kingdom without apologising.
(He was speaking to a Mennonite audience at Goshen. Would he have given the same address to an audience of conservative evangelicals? Maybe not, although I’m certain he would have given it to an audience of liberals for whom it would have been a hard saying.)
I need to digest this some more.
The problem of the delay of the parousia is a modern myth. The problem is caused by liberal Christianity’s no longer believing in the resurrection, which means that the weight of God’s activity is pushed forward in time. There’s not much evidence that the early church was anxious about this. First-century Christianity didn’t see itself so much as living in the last days, waiting for the parousia, as living in the first days of God’s new world.
We are still awaiting the final outworking of what God accomplished in Jesus, but there are all kinds of signs to show that, though the situation is often bleak, we are in fact on the right road.
I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which… is at home at the moment.
– Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible
I’ve been listening to The Poisonwood Bible in the car. I didn’t read it when it came out; I was biased against it because it was a book club favourite. But two tapes in, I’m finding it an enthralling novel. A Southern Baptist family move to the Congo to live as missionaries there in the 1950s; Nathan Price, the father, is a harsh and stubborn man, not willing to learn from the Africans – or his wife, from whom this quote comes.
Jesus is tender sometimes, but is just as often harsh, especially with hypocrites. But still her quote resonates with me. Faith asks us to live out a particular way of life, at odds with the world. And we have do that without certainty. We shouldn’t think of salvation as ‘life insurance’ – yet often we do, and if it doesn’t pay out, then we have just been given a life sentence.