Friday, 30 November 2007

Knowing, Believing and John's Gospel

I read again during the week that 'knowledge about God is insufficient compared with knowledge of God'. The writer was trying to show that a personal relationship with God can't be generated by knowing a lot of facts about God.

I have no quarrel with this per se. But it tends towards the view that ignorance is an excellent way to know God, and that knowledge about God gets in the way of knowing God. And I know more than one person who exults in their limited knowledge as a kind of badge of spiritual honour. It's a cute position because there is no argument against it. You can't even engage with it; if you do, you demonstrate knowledge and so are obviously spiritually inferior and not worth listening to.

Having spent a chunk of time this week looking at how knowledge functions in John's Gospel, I am more convinced that ever that this view is neither helpful nor particularly Christian. In fact, I'm beginning to think its sheer laziness masquerading as spiritual righteousness. I have long thought that the self-righteousness produced by this position is an indication that it can't be a good position to hold, but saw it more as a means of self-protection by those who held it. I am beginning to discard this caveat, however. And I'm beginning to discard it because of how knowledge seems to work in John's Gospel.

Knowledge is of vital importance in John's Gospel. I think we see it most clearly in the way it works in people's lives throughout the Gospel. There are two key groups who give us a good indication of the importance of knowledge. There are those with some knowledge, and those whose knowledge grows before our eyes as the Gospel unfolds. In both cases, knowledge is of critical importance to how a person responds to Jesus. And so, knowledge is critical to a person's salvation. It doesn't get more significant than that.

In the first case, where there is some knowledge, that knowledge is used and filled out by Jesus to demonstrate who he is and generate belief. I think we see this most clearly in the woman at the well (ch 4) and in Martha's confession (ch 11). Both the woman at the well and Martha say "I know that..." and then include a piece of important, genuine knowledge about God. With the woman at the well, it is that the Messiah is coming and will reveal all; with Martha it is that God will give to Jesus all that he asks and that the dead will be raised on the last day. In both cases, Jesus then takes the important information they have provided and shows how he fits and exceeds the category. With the woman at the well, he so fulfills the category of Messiah (revealing all) that she runs off to bear witness to him to her township; with Martha, Jesus shows her that the knowledge she has of God as the God who will resurrect and who knows and honours Jesus, his Son is true to an extent that she hadn't imagined prior to this. So, she learns that Jesus is not merely an agent of the resurrection, but is himself both life and resurrection. He embodies it, showing that he is the true God of life with the power to resurrect: the God of the last day standing before her.

In both cases, knowledge which is genuine and valid is used to reveal Jesus to these women. He does not negate their knowledge. Their knowledge is not an impediment to belief but has established good and right categories in their thinking which Jesus enlightens. Knowledge is good for these women in their relationship with Jesus.

On the contrary, the prolonged argument with the Jewish leaders which peppers the entire book continually brings up the issue of their knowledge (and lack of it). So, they don't know where Jesus is from (9:29) and this impedes their ability to listen to him, let alone believe what he is saying. Or they know that salvation is found in the Scriptures but don't know that Jesus fulfills the Scriptures and so don't believe. Their lack of knowledge (and incorrect knowledge in other places) stumbles them to the extent that they reject Jesus completely and teach others to do likewise. Their lack of knowledge cuts them off from believing in Jesus.

The other group who show us the importance of knowledge are the disciples. Their growth in knowledge is important in their relationship with Jesus. From their earliest confessions in chapter 1, through to their post-resurrection realisations (for example: 2: 21-22), their knowledge of who Jesus is continues to grow. The critical moments seem to be in Simon Peter's confession (6:68-69), where Peter confesses not only that Jesus is the Holy One of God but that he alone has words of eternal life. The second moment seems to be the disciples' realisation in the Farewell Discourse (16:30), where they state that they now know that Jesus has come from God. This is particularly significant because in the following chapter Jesus uses this confession as proof of their genuine belief in his prayer (17:8). This is not their position at the beginning of the Gospel, but one which they have reached on the basis of hearing and watching Jesus. They believe because they know.

Far from knowledge stunting their growth as followers of Jesus, it is on the basis of knowledge that the disciples come to a fuller, deeper trust of Jesus and a belief that is not even toppled by the crucifixion event. They believe in Jesus, because they have remained with him (as he invited them to do in chapter 1), and so have seen for themselves who he is and what he has done. Certainly, part of this knowledge is relational kind of knowledge, but that is not the knowledge they speak of when writing their Gospels. In the Gospels they report what happened: what Jesus did, what he said, how he responded to things and so forth. This is the kind of knowledge that they provide us with in order for us to believe, which is their goal in writing their Gospels. The relational knowledge is no doubt there and no doubt significant, but the basis for the belief they call us to is found in the actions and words of Jesus: 'factual' knowledge.

In John's Gospel, Jesus is establishing them as witnesses, not only to those in their generation, but even to us today. And they would be useless witnesses if their belief was based on a sentimental attachment to Jesus which had no solid basis. We rely on their testimony: on what they saw and handled and touched. Our knowledge is dependent on their knowledge. If all they had to report was a collection of vague notions or feelings which could not be known, their witness would be severely limited. Instead, they tell us what they know to be true: what happened, what was said, what is meant by what was said and the reactions of others (good and bad).

It is on the basis of this knowledge that we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, sent by God to redeem the world. We need a rock-solid knowledge base to believe something as grand as that. We need knowledge that is based in historical activity and speech, that is based on reliable and trustworthy sources. Only this is substantial enough to stand the test of life, with all its difficulties and with all its transient emotions. Believing because we know takes the limelight away from us (our knowledge is outside ourselves after all), and demonstrates that we depend on God and his word to know him through his Son. There is no room for the swollen pride of the ignoramus here.

Friday, 23 November 2007

God's Justice and Our Self-Deception

One of the most striking things about the passage in I Kings 13 is the way the younger and older prophets are treated by God.

It seems so unfair! The older prophet deliberately deceives the younger prophet in order to tell whether the prophecy he brings will come about. The younger prophet, with a good Israelite sense of respect for his elders believes the older prophet, and so is deceived. God speaks to him and tells him that he will surely die for his disobedience. Sure enough, on the way home the younger prophet dies: he is mauled by a lion who does not seem to be all that hungry: it neither eats him nor it seems does it even have an appetite for his donkey (who is no doubt traumatized by the event, though the passage is strangely unconcerned with the donkey’s state of mind). The older prophet hears nothing and is not punished at all.

God speaks clearly to the younger prophet, who is concerned to obey God in all the detail he is given. The relationship is obviously one of a God-fearing, bold prophet with a God who makes his purposes and desires known and is utterly faithful to those purposes he’s made known. On the other hand, the older prophet has no such relationship with God. By the end of the chapter we doubt that he is even a ‘prophet’. God never speaks to him (even when God tells the younger prophet he will die, no word is given to the older prophet who has masterminded this situation to the detriment of the younger prophet). The old prophet does not trust God’s word: God has already given a sign that the events the young prophet speaks of will come about in the destruction of Jeroboam’s altar. Yet the older prophet sets up the younger prophet for death in order to check whether he is genuinely a prophet, which he himself appears not to be. It would hard to argue that he feared God. God certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. The closest he gets to any kind of relationship with God is to be buried with the bones of the younger prophet. He rejects God’s word to cultivate for himself a sign which satisfies him, and in doing so rejects God.

Yet, it is by no means certain that he thinks he rejects God. He doesn’t have contempt for the younger prophet when he finds out that he is a genuine prophet. Instead, he wants to be connected with him: he gathers up his bones and insists on being buried with them, which demonstrates a real respect for and desire for kinship with this younger prophet. It matters to him that this prophet was a genuine prophet and as he grieves he identifies with him as ‘brother’. If you’d said to the prophet: “Are you a prophet of God?” I think he would have answered, “Yes”.

And God seems to reject him. One of the most terrifying aspects of the narrative is that God does not say a word to this ‘prophet’. God is completely silent. He is a ‘prophet’ who has no access to the Word of God. The best he can do is trick a real prophet into having tea with him, and then plead to be buried with his bones. That is the closest he gets to God. God has nothing to do with him.

That is far, far worse than the fate of the younger prophet. The younger prophet hears the Word of God and then is tricked into disobeying. God then tells him that he’s going to die because of it, and sure enough he does. The young prophet has a relationship with God. God is completely faithful to his word, from first to last, and he speaks to this prophet. There are no games, no tricks as far as God is concerned.

This is God’s justice. There is nothing unjust about God’s treatment of either prophet. It probably makes most of us feel uncomfortable, but that says more about us, I think at this point. Two thoughts:

(a) We confuse ‘fairness’ with ‘justice’. We think that something is only just if it is ‘fair’, and we have incorporated into our view of ‘fair’ the idea of things being the same for everyone. This is a nifty invention of the Enlightenment, and from time to time is helpful for us. But on the whole it doesn’t help us deal with reality. Life is not fair. A cursory look at the water situation in the first world, compared with that in the third world should make it obvious that life is not fair. Even if we like to think of ourselves as scrupulously fair, we may not be ‘just’ or ‘righteous’. We might, for example, dispense our affection evenly throughout our family or friends, not taking in account that some might need more of it than others. We could congratulate ourselves on our ‘fairness’, but have we actually done the right thing?
And God is not ‘fair’. He is certainly ‘just’, but he doesn’t treat everyone the same. He gives gifts to those whom he will. He gives different life spans to people. And so it goes on. It is true that he doesn’t play favourites: he remains unimpressed with the beautiful, the intelligent, the wealthy, the highly talented, etc. Instead, he chooses for his family those who demonstrate that he is God and will be glorified through the weak, pathetic things of the world. All this should show us that God’s justice is beyond us. We can’t fathom it. We simply don’t have the wit to understand the wideness and complexity of it. And part of the reason is that our view of justice is stubbornly encrusted in the small, recently invented category of ‘fair’. God is far bigger than ‘fair’ and won’t be constrained by it. He is working with a far greater, more complex entity: Justice.

(b) One of the other issues raised by this narrative is the question of deception. How is it that God allows the younger prophet to be deceived by the older prophet? Why doesn’t he jump in and stop it? The assumption behind this is the idea lurking in our minds that God owes people who follow and trust him. He is obliged to smooth the path, at least partly, for those who take him seriously. After all, they are on his side.
But God doesn’t do this for the younger prophet. And this raises for us the disturbing possibility that God allows us to be deceived and even to deceive ourselves. Of course, this must be self-evident if we reflect on the number of Christians who disagree about important matters. We can’t all be right in everything. It is likely that we are all wrong in something, and that this ‘wrongness’ isn’t just a flaw in our logic. We get in the way of our own logic and believe things we want to believe: about ourselves, about God, about life, about other people. None of us understand the depth of our own sinfulness, so why should we have a handle on anything else in the world? We can’t function in the grip of such skepticism, and so, as Luther put it, we go and ‘sin boldly’, knowing that none of our actions are ever completely pure. But in knowing this, we must always know ourselves to be capable of self-deception and of being deceived by others. When we pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”, we are not praying about a hypothetical possibility, but about a real situation. The Bible does not stress that we are to be alert and pay attention to what we think and believe for no good reason. We readily and easily deceive ourselves and are deceived by others, often because we want to be.
In the end, if God does not open our eyes when we are deceived, we are hopelessly enmeshed in delusion. There is nothing we can do to cut the net.

This is scary, because we can’t ensure that we won’t be deceived. And we can’t be sure we won’t be deceived about something that really matters with significant consequences (like disobeying the word of God and being eaten by a lion, for example). How do we live with this? We live with it by realizing that we are only like this because we are sinners. This is not someone else’s fault. This is not God’s fault. This is not the ‘older prophet’s’ fault (whoever that might be in our lives). It is because we are sinful that we can’t see clearly. And the only thing left for sinners to do is to throw themselves on the mercy of God and pray for deliverance. Sinners can’t save themselves from their sin nor from anything else. They can only depend on God for salvation, and for clarity of mind and thought (and everything else they need for that matter). Pretending that we can work things ourselves on our own terms only binds the net more tightly around us and incapacitates us more. If we stop thinking we can be deceived, either by ourselves or others, we ensure we are deceived.
Depending on God is not a guarantee that we will not be self-deceived (or deceived by anyone else). God may allow us to be deceived (as he allowed the younger prophet to be deceived and to die for it). It is wise therefore to be suspicious of oneself and know that we are likely to be deceived. That’s why humility is so important: not some kind of ham-fisted attempt to pretend we have faults, but a genuine realization that we aren’t self-sufficient and aren’t on a level with God. We stand under his rule. When we say he is ‘all-wise’ we don’t mean that he is slightly more wise than we are, but that he is wise in a way we know nothing about.
So, we trust what he says because we know that he always tells us the truth about everything, including ourselves. A true understanding of ourselves as sinners capable of self-deception – probably engaged in it at this very moment – helps us depend on and be grateful to our only wise, faithful, true God who has promised wisdom to those who ask for it.

1 Kings 13 helps us to realise the kind of God we are dealing with: one whose Justice is beyond us. And it helps us realise who we are: the kind of people who are not self-sufficient and who can't trust ourselves to even think clearly. This is where 'trusting God' moves from a pious phrase to a living reality, as we say 'yes' to his justice and wisdom, acknowledging that both are out of our league.

Don't Feed the Messenger!

I have been thinking recently about what I consider to be one of the oddest chapters in the Bible. 1 Kings 13 gives us a narrative of the prophet who condemns Jeroboam, and is then deceived by another older prophet on his way home so that he falls under God’s judgment and is killed by a lion.

Leaving to one side the issue of 'fairness' (which will be dealt with in the following post), the passage calls up the importance of the message and the messenger and how the two are linked in a fairly vivid way. We see this in a few ways.

The first is in the odd instructions God gives to the prophet. He is not allowed to eat or drink on his way home. We could come up with all kinds of reasons why this might be the case, and sometimes God gives instructions to prophets which have a symbolic meaning. But in this case simply don’t know and we’d only be guessing. The narrative goes out of its way to show us (through repetition) that this is a clear, explicit command given by God and understood by the prophet.
And it demonstrates in a concrete way that the prophet belongs to God. He not only brings God’s message, but he has no independent existence apart from God. God literally controls his life: what he will say, to whom, and even when he will eat and drink. The prophet does not say his two cents worth and then go back to being a private citizen. He can’t divorce himself from his job or from his message. He is the prophet, not just the guy who sometimes prophecies.

The second thing is that others relate to him on the basis of his message. The older prophet wants him to come back with him because of his message, not because he wants to spend quality time with him as a person. We see this when he finally concedes that his prophecy was genuine in light of the younger prophet’s death. The (ironic, offensive and pathetic) outpouring of grief he has on the death of the younger prophet comes about only after he is convinced that this is a genuine prophet: he doesn’t grieve for the prophet as a man he had tea with, but as a prophet.

The young prophet dies because he is a prophet. God holds him accountable to his word in a public way because he is a prophet; the older prophet deceives him because he is a prophet.

It’s a great passage for bringing home the point that God’s word is not a neutral thing. It isn’t like any other word, and this raises a variety of issues. Here, one of the key issues is that the relationship between the messenger of God’s word and the word or message are strongly linked. The younger prophet doesn’t stop being a prophet – even his bones are the bones of a prophet (and so come to have value to the older prophet).

We see this most clearly in Jesus, who is both the great and final message and the last and ultimate messenger. The two ‘roles’ cannot be cut off from one another, effectively tying who he is with what he does and demonstrating his relationship with God and with humanity. You can only relate to Jesus on the basis of what you think of his message, because he is the messenger. Being messenger for Jesus meant dying for our sins and rising again and that is precisely the core of the message he brings. The Lord Jesus is not a private citizen but one who puts aside any private preference he might have and in order to welcome us to God embodies the message even as through his Spirit he speaks the message of forgiveness of sins through his cross. It’s no great surprise that the writer of Hebrews contrasts Jesus first with ‘messengers’ (angels) in Hebrews 1 as he shows that Jesus is superior, not only in bringing God’s message but in being the message. In Jesus, messenger and message come together.

And the warning for us lies in how we treat the messenger and his message. We can’t pretend to accept the message and deny the messenger; we can’t pretend to like the messenger and reject the message. The two are intertwined. This pushes us into understanding ourselves as always under the message or word in our relationship with Jesus, striving for an attitude of submission to him, by being ruled by his word through his Spirit.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Thoughts about Childbirth

I've been thinking about childbirth recently. Not too surprising really, given that hopefully I'll be doing this in about 7 weeks, depending on when Tiny decides he's had enough and wants to come out and play. I've got the skeleton of a 'birthplan', so that everyone does what I want them to do while I'm busy screaming. And we've gone and inspected the hospital, which looked sane and sanitized and an easy place to be while everything is happening. We only own a car seat for this poor child so far (which is sad given that we don't have a car), but slowly I am getting my act together and hopefully in the next two weeks will buy many infant related products.

There are two major things that have been buzzing around my mind in all of this, though. The first is the great category Luther gave to us. The feminists all hate Luther for his bombastic sexist remarks, which are often quite funny (I think they're funny - feminists do not find them amusing at all). I can't quote it verbatim (our boxes still haven't turned up with all our stuff in them), but one of my favourite quotes from Luther is found in Luther on Women: A Sourcebook By Susan C. Karant-Nunn (which I strongly recommend), and goes something like this:

Childbirth is a good work, to be embraced by all women as a privilege and a God-given task, which would could even cause men to want to be women so that they too could do this good thing. Will you die in childbirth? So, good for you, pass on over. You have died doing a good and worthy task.

You can see why feminists don't like this! It's typical, cringeworthy, over the top Luther at his most passionate. I am quite attracted to it though because it isn't being painfully careful and allows you to see behind what he is saying to the larger categories, which are quite useful I think.

The category I most appreciate is that Luther has moved childbirth from a demonstration that women are under the curse and are somehow cursed in and by childbirth (the medieval Roman Catholic view), to childbirth being one of those good works which God has prepared for us in advance to do (Ephesians 2). In other words, redemption really does roll back the curse in a genuine way for Christians this side of heaven.
It doesn't completely remove the curse and leave us 'bearing children, while contemplating God calmly and peacefully' as Luther argues would have happened prior to the Fall. The pain and the 'toil' of it is still very much present. But the context is so completely different. Far from being merely the frustrating, meaningless pain of futility tied up with the curse, when we know Christ we move to understanding that all we do for others is part of these good things that God has planned for us to do. Whether it is changing nappies (Luther again - referring to men here), doing great and wonderful things, doing menial tasks or doing something as difficult as childbirth - it is caught up in this extraordinary category of things God plans for us to do and gives us the opportunity to do as an expression of love. We don't need to be sentimental in the doing of them, but we are given a rock-solid reason based on who we know God to be, which doesn't remove the pain, but which dissolves the futility of the situation. Going through childbirth isn't just a necessary evil to be endured and detested, but something one does for someone else, with the blessing of God, knowing that this is part of the work he has given us to do.

I'm grateful to Luther for pulling things together like this. We tend not to speak publically about childbirth, so you kind of have to rattle around and do your own thinking about it and I think that can be a bit tricky sometimes. It's good to have some sturdy categories in which to rest your thinking with something like this.

The second thing I've been thinking about is death. Our baby has now got about 90% chance of surviving even at this 'early' stage if the birth was to take place now (which is quite amazing I think). I have an excellent chance of survival. In fact, no medical professional has even mentioned to me that I might die. I know it worries Mark, but I don't think most people really think about it.

Yet 100 years ago, and more so 200 years ago, it would have been a strong possibility. There is a service in the Anglican Prayerbook of thanks to God for mercy in childbirth. Bach came back from a months-long gig to find that his wife and child were dead and buried (and because of communication problems back then he found out when walked in the door). Just two reminders of childbirth going horribly, tragically wrong.
I'd be quite surprised if I died, and I'm not really worried about it, though of course it is possible; I worry more about Tiny dying. But this is the nexus of life and death: here where life is made possible (because Tiny cannot live indefinitely in my womb: trust me - there simply isn't room for a lot more growing to happen), but made possible only in the face of potential death.

I've heard that many people faced with the whole experience of childbirth are amazed and start to wonder whether there is something more to life than the merely material. It makes a lot of sense to think that because we recognise that we can't really control life. And it makes a lot of sense, not just in our day, where the focus is only on life, but in the past where death and life dwelt together during childbirth and the outcome was by no means certain.

I hope I remember somewhere in the chaos of it all, of this new mercy of a lowered death rate that God has showered on the human race, particularly if it applies to Tiny and to me and we are both alive at the end of it. I hope I remember it because it is an extraordinary blessing not to be contemplating and actively preparing for the possible death of myself or my baby at this point, but smiling to myself at the thought of a new life. And running around buying cot sheets and doing other trivial things.

Because life is always a blessing from God: none of us can make it happen. None of us can so much as add an extra hour to our lives. Life is a gift God gives and it is good for us to appreciate it and give thanks.