Skip to content

What Life Asks of Us

I just got back from a very enjoyable trip to Saskatchewan (I heard it was nice this time of year) to visit my brother and his family and play some hockey. Among other things, it gave me the opportunity to do something that I’ve never had the chance to do before: observe my brother in a classroom context. I sat in on his Intro to Theology class Monday morning and left with much to think about.

One of the chief tasks of a theological education, we discovered, is learning how to prioritize beliefs about God. Which beliefs are central? Which ones can we acknowledge differences of opinion on? In response to which ones can (must?) we simply say that Christians of good will, reasonable intelligence, and sincere faith simply do not agree? How do we think for ourselves about God while not abandoning the broad categories of received orthodoxy?

All this was still whirring around my brain as I jetted back to the west coast on Monday, and when I read this article by David Brooks in yesterday’s New York Times. Brooks talks about finding a balance between two goals of a proper education. On the one hand, we want to teach students to think critically for themselves, to challenge received dogmas, to push against the edges of what we think we know, to allow ourselves to be “disoriented and reoriented” by what and how we study.

On the other hand, Brooks argues, we need a return to “institutional thinking.” We all must travel through certain social structures, whether these are the structures of family, education, career, science or even (and Brooks doesn’t mention this specifically) religion. In each of these institutions, we must take as given a certain set of parameters, guidelines, and ways of thinking and doing. Brooks uses the rather benign example of baseball player Ryne Sandberg’s acceptance speech into the hall of fame, where he referred to having always felt a sense of obligation to “the game” and how it was “meant to be played.” This is the kind of thing that Brooks advocates a return to.

In the former approach—the approach, I would suggest, most of us are more familiar with—it is we who are in control. We ask the questions that are important to us, we decide what we will accept or reject, we decide what we will believe. We ask the questions of the external world and construct our worldviews based on the answers we prefer. The individual is sovereign.

According to Brooks,

institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior.

In other words, a world consisting of people who rarely move beyond putting their own questions and demands to life—who do not consider that life might be asking something of them, something which might require (gasp!) something like conformity or self-sacrifice—does not lead to a very good citizens or a very good world. That’s a remarkable thing to hear, now at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

It’s not hard to extend Brooks’ argument into the realm of religion. Religions have always, in some form or another, maintained that life does, indeed, ask questions of us. Whether at the cognitional, the ethical, or at the ritual level, all religions have held that there are ways of being and thinking in the world that respond best to the questions that a world such as ours (with all of its limitations, opportunities, and demands) puts to creatures such as us (with all of our limitations, abilities, desires). Religions have always claimed to offer ways of living and thinking in response to the questions life asks of us.

But religions are also, obviously, associated with such nefarious things as mind-control, indoctrination, rigidity, lack of curiosity, intolerance, homogeneity, and quite likely every other form of nastiness that you could come up with. Brooks is aware that advocating a return to “institutional thinking” will seem strange, and possibly unwelcome from this vantage point in history, but he persists:

Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.

But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.

We need institutional thinking to give meaning to life? In an op-ed in the New York Times? Wow.

Returning to the classroom of a little Bible College on the frozen prairies, I think that what I saw Monday morning represented the best of what Brooks is advocating here. I saw a balance between presenting students with the generic questions life asks of us—Why do we long for justice and goodness? What is the nature of beauty? Why do we love it? What could account for the human impulse toward spirituality? Why do we operate best in community? Why do we, in all of these areas, fail to attain what we so desperately crave?—and teaching them to (critically) consider the received categories and structures of Christian theology, and learn how to think and grow within them.

I saw the balance between individual and institutional thinking that I think represents the most healthy, the most fulfilling, and the most biblical approach to answering the questions life asks of all of us.

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Ah, my “brother” from a different mother; how you and your same mother, brother make me think….

    I know a lot of my perspectives lack supportive proofs, (deliberately so most of the time) I hope though, that you understand (and I think you do) that it isn’t for a lack of intellect on my part or a deliberate attempt to make mischief. With regard to my interactions with you both,
    I genuinely believe that our God has some grace in mind for us all, as a consequence.

    For my part, you and your brother have given me the prudent sense to “think before I act”, and for that I am thankful to God, for you both “being” in my life…

    My brother, seeing individualism as anything more than a,(meant to be discarded), means to an end, causes me great concern.

    How, in the end, does self as arbiter, not become self as God?

    Individualism and it’s better counterpart, institutional(collective individualism?) thinking, speak of a corporate community, at best. Does not Christianity speak of a corporal community?…”self surrendered”, (as both individuals and communities of individuals), mystically transformed;… not only through Him and with Him but, at it’s zenith; IN HIM.

    With regard to our present human condition, “Osmosis”, states that what is denser will filter through to what is less dense. Are we not be meant as Christians to be the more the more dense matter, filtering through other forms of human culture, rather than them through us? Will we become this “denser matter” responding to human culture as an equal blend of logic and spirit or are we better off being spiritual agents who only value rationalism to the extent that it informs “right” spirituality?

    Nothing makes sense to me, with regards to our Holy God, if man’s reason either trumps(not your point,as I read you) or exists as co-equal (how I read your post) to God’s Holy Spirit.

    From my perspective, mans reasoning and understanding of what is true will always be, relative to God’s, woefully inadequate and dutifully subordinate.

    January 28, 2009
  2. Dave Chow #

    Isn’t the NY Times an ‘institution’?

    January 28, 2009
  3. jc #

    “I saw the balance between individual and institutional thinking…”

    I don’t really understand what institutional thinking is. I didn’t think institutions could have thoughts. There is no such thing as a collective thought. Only individuals have thoughts. The article seems to advocate a renewed sense of duty for the individual as exemplified in Sandberg’s quote “Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect … . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game … did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

    This man just decided he would play the game the way others told him he was supposed to. Well I am sure others in his “institution” of baseball told Jackie Robinson that he wasn’t supposed to play baseball. Institutional thinking is the abjection of thinking… it like the term “collective thinking” is an oxymoron.

    January 28, 2009
  4. Gil #

    Thanks Ryan, for your very kind words. I wish I could claim to have considered this delicate balance between critical and institutional thinking before the fact, but I can’t. I do however agree with the need for it, as you helpfully point out in this post. It was great to have you in class.

    January 28, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    If a person where thinking of going to Saskatchewan in order to ah…….do something…… you know…something like ah……….you know, take advantage of the fine weather and ah…..what UV ray protection level would you recommend?

    January 29, 2009
  6. Paul,

    First, thank you for the kind words.

    Second, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to how you derived “man’s reason either trumps… or exists as co-equal with God’s Holy Spirit” from this post. I was talking about the goal of education and how we should be training people to think. I would have thought that you, of all people (a Catholic, if I’m not mistaken) would welcome the idea that institutions ought to play a larger role in shaping and defining the parameters of our thought! Maybe I’m missing something, but your comment left me thoroughly confused.

    As to the UV ray protection… um, the highest? Saskatchewan in January: frigidly cold, white, and brilliantly sunny!

    January 29, 2009
  7. jc,

    First, “institutional thinking” is Brooks’ term, not mine. I’m not crazy about it either, but I think what he’s using it to denote is worth thinking about. Of course you’re right—institutions don’t have thoughts, the individuals who comprise them do. What I see Brooks advocating is individuals allowing the parameters and structures of how they think to be shaped (not determined) by some of the institutions that predate them. As I said in the post, I understood him to be advocating a return to the idea that the individual is not sovereign—that it’s not just we who objectively ask the questions of life, that questions (not of our own choosing) are put to us as well, questions that existing institutions and patterns of thought can help us with.

    Of course, the individual must always have room to challenge the institution, as you point out in the baseball example. Jackie Robinson certainly pushed the “institution” of baseball to change in important ways; but he didn’t alter the structure of the game itself. He accommodated himself to some (most?) elements of the “institution” even while challenging others. This is something like the dynamic that I think ought to characterize education as well.

    January 29, 2009
  8. Ken #

    In David Brook’s essay I saw a brief argument for conservatism as expressed by Edmund Burke and his literary and political descendants, without ever using the word conservatism.

    I don’t recall seeing Burke use the term, “institutional,” but I think he would agree with your concern, and the concern of David Brooks, for balance.

    Critics of conservatism often assert that conservatism means opposition to change. It is an unfair assertion. As Edmund Burke wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” A conservative would say the same about churches and their theologies.

    Burke was reacting to the era of liberalism in which the slogan for change was, effectively: “Off with their heads!” Conservatism remains, I think, a reaction to that kind of radical liberal sentiment.

    January 29, 2009
  9. J #

    I think Neil Postman may have beaten Brooks to the punch. In 1969 he published his book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” (I hear Brooks’s notion of creative thinking there.) Then in 1979 Postman published “Teaching as a Conserving Activity.” (I hear Brooks’s notion of institutional thinking there.)

    Anyways, an observation I thought you might find a bit interesting.

    January 30, 2009
  10. Thanks Ken and J for filling in some of the blanks here. I like the language of Burke and Postman better than that of Brooks. I think that both point to the necessity of understanding that our thinking and educating is always done contextually. We are profoundly historical creatures who must take stock of what has been delivered to us—what to conserve and what to subvert.

    Of course the question of the criteria by which these decisions are made and who is actually making them remains. Against what standard do we conserve this or subvert that? Individual choice? Are we back to the sovereign individual? I suspect some kind of a “community hermeneutic” needs to be at work in all of this, but perhaps that’s leading us too far afield…

    January 30, 2009
  11. Paul Johnston #

    perhaps not…lol

    January 30, 2009
  12. Paul Johnston #

    don’t get the wrong idea of me 😉 and don’t be poachin’. I’m the “far afield” guy in these conversations!

    January 30, 2009
  13. By all means, elaborate Paul. You can go as far afield as you like.

    January 30, 2009
  14. Paul Johnston #

    the further afield the better, my friend?…lololol…I like you Ryan, your a smart guy, looking for the right questions, and you play your cards, “close to your chest”.

    Nothing wrong with that, especially around a “loose playing” Catholic.

    January 30, 2009
  15. Paul Johnston #

    oops, I’m so sorry, Ryan I just realized you responded to me earlier in #6.

    I’ll do my best to reply soon.

    January 30, 2009
  16. Paul Johnston #

    It might help if I first explain that I don’t always think/respond in straight lines, especially when conversing on line.

    I often find going from A to B to C to D irritating and unnecessary.(Clearly a personal conceit and an impediment to understanding) I guess what I’m saying is that I like to go A to Z, if that makes any sense to you.

    In my defense though, I do find that a lot of conversations bog down in the details and purposeful conclusions are either lost or never arrived at….

    So with regard to your post;

    A. Right education seen as a balance between the individual and the institutional is to me, as Vonnegut would describe, so much “Foma”, a “Grand Falloon”, a false paradigm.

    B. Nothing we teach/learn or the way we teach/learn it matters unless we are seeking holiness (God’s plan) in all our endevors.

    C. Individuals and their institutions that are not seeking to be holy as they endevor, will always, ALWAYS corrupt. Further many institutions are filled with mostly good people who have lost this right sense of priority.

    D. Worse still The right religious impulse towards holiness is often stolen by those who would deliberately corrupt it. Atheists; self idolaters…the worst of this group( in terms of impact) being political leaders….think Sun Kings, Roman Emperors, European Monarchs, Ultra Nationalists, Political Ideologues… and cultural leaders. Think Hollywood always and various media outlets, at various times.

    E. Presently in America a “messianic” savior is in the making. The NY times will help in making him….

    F. Righteous people of right thought and deed will have to soon (weren’t we always supposed to!) prioritize God word before any words/learning/science of their own understanding.

    H. I am concerned that you may fall on the wrong side of this divide. I believe God has great plans for you.

    Yours in Christ,


    PS. I just “wung it”, as the Spirit moved me.

    January 30, 2009
  17. Paul Johnston #

    PPS. I have to get ready for work now and won’t be able to respond to you, should you care to, until late tonight or tomorrow.

    January 30, 2009
  18. Two questions:

    1) How do you see attempting to strike a balance between, to use Postman’s terminology, conservation and subversion in education as being opposed to seeking holiness (“God’s plan).

    2)Is it possible that it is you who are setting forth a false paradigm. You seem to think that our choice is between “holy” and “unholy” thinking/education. Who determines this? What if there are differing conceptions of what counts as “holy?”

    January 31, 2009
  19. Paul Johnston #

    1. …”What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul”…first seek holiness. Right balance and order, regardless of situation or circumstance, will follow.

    2.(a) No, I’ve got it right.
    (b) God determines this. Through mankind, if mankind desires salvation. Apart from mankind, if mankind desires death.
    (c) There is but one holiness; it is Him. There are many, many manifestations of His Holiness. Those grounded in His Spirit, doing His Will, guide us.

    … If you are suspicious of His Grace and prefer your own wisdom, for goodness sake “look at the fruit!”

    February 1, 2009
  20. 1. That doesn’t answer my question. What if striving for balance is a part of seeking holiness? Are they by definition mutually exclusive? Why?

    2. What if people disagree about what God determines?

    February 1, 2009
  21. Paul Johnston #

    I understand you, Ryan but your asking the wrong question. Seek Holiness, brother. Love the Lord in a committed, intimate, prayer filled, personal way. “Right balance” as God wants you to understand it will follow. (frankly, with regard to the heathen opinions of the NY times, I personally don’t give a rat’s ass… I know our Lord does he has a deep and abiding love for all;I don’t…. sincerely I tell you, I know I’ve got to work with Him on that)…

    Those who would ferment disagreement with regard to what “God determines”, DO NOT KNOW HIM!

    Those who know God, ALWAYS stand in agreement. Ours is not a God of confusion, he is a God of ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND CONSISTENCY. He does not tell different things to different people.

    Tell me you hear God “speaking to you” and I will “revisit” my understandings.

    Your brother in Christ,


    February 1, 2009
  22. With all due respect, Paul, I don’t think I am asking the wrong question at all—you’re just refusing to answer the questions I’m asking you. What you are doing is implying that I do not love “the Lord in a committed, intimate, prayer-filled, personal way, and that this (unwarranted) assumption somehow addresses the issue of the post which had to do with the nature of education. You still have not considered the possibility that a balanced approach to education might be one of the ways (note: I have never said the only way) to pursuing God and his purposes.

    Those who would ferment disagreement with regard to what “God determines”, DO NOT KNOW HIM!

    I’ll ask the question again: What if there is disagreement about “what God determines?” Do we just go with your answer? Does everyone who does not share your understanding simply “not know God?” That’s a pretty convenient way to resolve an issue…

    Those who know God, ALWAYS stand in agreement. Ours is not a God of confusion, he is a God of ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND CONSISTENCY. He does not tell different things to different people.

    This is one of the stranger statements I’ve come across in some time. Are you seriously saying that (sinful and epistemologically limited) Christians can’t disagree about anything? Has this ever been the case historically?

    Tell me you hear God “speaking to you” and I will “revisit” my understandings.

    This is precisely what I will not do, for the simple reason that it would be difficult to find a statement that has historically been more abused than “God said x to me.” God has “spoken” some pretty strange things to people over time, after all—things that I think we could both agree had very little to do with holiness or God’s purposes.

    (Incidentally, if you don’t “give a rat’s ass” what the NYT has to say about a given topic, why bother responding to a post about it?)

    February 1, 2009
  23. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, unless we seek a corperal communion with God, through the Holy Spirit, there is no truth in us. That goes for me, that goes for you, that goes for everyone.

    Nothing we say with regard to any subject, “education” or otherwise, is of truth unless it is informed by the Holy Spirit.

    Jesus would not have left us were he not leaving us “something greater”; A “Spirit of Truth” that can be all places at all times to all His disciples (but only His disciples)

    Truth cannot contradict itself; people, Christian or otherwise, with misguided spirits, can and do.

    If God is not “speaking” into your life, why should I give a “rat’s ass” about your opinions?

    February 2, 2009
  24. Okay Paul, I’m afraid I’ve run out of ways to ask the questions. You seem uninterested in responding to what I say and very interested in repeating some version of your idea that disagreement with you = inattentiveness to the Holy Spirit/failure to seek “corperal communion” (what is that, exactly?)/or some other form of spiritual misdirection.

    If you’re not prepared to admit that Christians (of good faith, reasonable intelligence, and spiritual sensitivity) can and do have genuine disagreements about important issues (and that these disagreements are not, by definition, due to the spiritual deficiencies of one party), I don’t see how further discussion of this is possible or beneficial.

    February 2, 2009
  25. jc #

    What I was reacting to in the article was what seemed to be Brook’s advocating that we respect institutions somewhat arbitrarily. To ask someone to have ‘faith’ in an institution rather then evaluating an institution with one’s faculty of reason is wrongheaded. The quote from Sandberg seemed to uphold the notion of faith in the institution as opposed to one’s own ability to evaluate the value of the institution one chooses to associate with.

    I would not say its is either a choice between individual or the institution/collective being sovereign As Francis Bacon said “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Truth and values must be evaluated against the standard of reality and our only tools for evaluation are logic and reason. One should not accept the arbitrary rule of an institution.

    February 3, 2009
  26. I think you are right to point out the dangers in uncritically placing faith in institutions. I don’t read Brooks as advocating this (he seems to attach a good deal of stress on balance), but perhaps I’m missing something.

    Truth and values must be evaluated against the standard of reality and our only tools for evaluation are logic and reason.

    I’m not sure I agree. I think that logic and reason are hugely important and essential if we are to live and think in the context of various institutions, but I think that history plays a more central role. All ideas are contextually influenced (i.e., what questions are deemed important, what kinds of answers are deemed acceptable). To take one institution as an example, Christianity claims not to be the result of logical and detached analysis of the human condition, but a response to events in history.

    In history, something which precedes us asks something of us. Here are events x,y, and z: what do you make of them? What do they mean? Do they mean anything? Of course what any two people make of historical events may differ significantly, but in both cases we are responding to something that was claimed to have really happened that claims to answer real questions we have (existential or otherwise) as opposed to assuming the position of autonomous interrogators of reality.

    February 3, 2009
  27. Paul Johnston #

    Corporal Communion: through Him; with Him; In Him.

    …”You seem uninterested in responding to what I say and very interested in repeating some version of your idea that disagreement with you = inattentiveness to the Holy Spirit/failure to seek “corperal communion” (what is that, exactly?)/or some other form of spiritual misdirection.”…

    No, I simply believe that we were given a “Spirit of truth”, through which all right reasoning must flow. I am as capable of wrong reasoning, as is anyone else.

    I would agree that I have not addressed your question, on it’s own terms, because I believe it to be of wrong context.

    Our answers will be found by first seeking the Word of God, through the Holy Spirit,(Spirit of truth), and then applying our personal faculties to His Word. If our faculties contradict and we say that there is no contradiction within Him, our Spiritual understandings must be wrong.

    It then follows that it is our Spiritual understanding that we must revisit. No more; no less.

    I do agree that we have probably exhausted this thread and I truly thank you for the very Christian way in which you have responded to what I believe to have been, a very Christian rebuke.

    The “Spirit” works among us….:)

    His peace be with you always.

    February 4, 2009
    • Paul, I have one very simple question for you:

      Is it possible that a balanced education, which combines critical individual thinking (a skill you seem to be advocating in your comment on the atheist bus thread) and institutional parameters, could be one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit works to further the purposes of God?

      February 4, 2009
  28. Paul Johnston #

    Never said it wasn’t. Thanks for keeping it simple.;)

    February 4, 2009
    • Seriously, Paul? Come on. I asked virtually this exact question above (here and here) and not only did you fail to answer it, you proceeded to imply in subsequent comments that I “preferred my own wisdom” to God’s, that I wasn’t “seeking holiness,” that I was not seeking “corporal communion,” and God was not “speaking in my life.”

      February 4, 2009
  29. Paul Johnston #

    Seriously, Ryan.

    The point for me has always been not the answers we get but rather how we get the answers. One of my “default” faith positions, and it is a fundamental one, is that there can be no lasting goodness, “true” goodness, apart from God.

    With regard to your person and my implications, know that my motivations, as honestly as I understand and can explain them, are loving.

    I hope that in reconsidering some of my posts you can at least read into them the possibility that what I might be implying about you, I am really implying about all, myself included.

    I did challenge you, Ryan and your civil and well informed responses to a man who is clearly exasperating you, speak well about the “Spirit” within you.

    It’s strange I suppose, given that we don’t know one another personally and will maybe never meet but somehow I feel we’re meant to be important to one another.

    I know you are important to me in that you teach me how to better organize my thoughts and give me a better and deeper understanding of our shared theology. (Big nod to your brother here, also.) 🙂

    I thought, perhaps wrongly, that I could in return help you with the idea that prayer and contemplation, a real mystical, personal and intimate relationship with God, ought to underpin all our theological musings.

    I meant and mean well, though I know I have pride issues that are preventing me from articulating my points in the way God would fully like me too.

    It occurs to me that God wants me to read you and your brother so as to learn the proper methods regarding, “constructive debate”…”these boys have it in spades”…as for me the son of too many “in your face” Scotsmen…well, not so much.

    As I’m learning from you though, I get the sense that it’s OK to give you (stuff) from time to time….GO SCOTSMAN GO!…

    God can be pretty funny sometimes.

    February 5, 2009
    • I appreciate your point, Paul, but for the life of me I cannot see how you got the idea that I was recommending that all of this be done “apart from God.” I’m a firm believer that God uses a variety of means to accomplish his goals, and that education is one of these means.

      I thought, perhaps wrongly, that I could in return help you with the idea that prayer and contemplation, a real mystical, personal and intimate relationship with God, ought to underpin all our theological musings.

      I agree. And I’m grateful for the reminder. But I think that all of this can be going on at a foundational and formative level and Christians can still have informed, intelligent, and critical discourse in the public sphere. Indeed, I think the former can quite properly lead to the latter.

      Thank you again for the very kind words. I never doubt that you have anything but the best intentions when you challenge me on something. I realize that I do tend to lean toward the rationalistic end of the spectrum in the way I dialogue on this blog, but this is a (very) limited forum with a limited purpose. I do appreciate hearing from people with different points of view and (in my better moments) I try to learn from them as well.

      February 5, 2009
  30. Paul Johnston #

    Cool, brother, you’re very welcome.

    Thanks also for helping me feel good about myself and my contributions. It means a lot.

    I’m certain we agree on more, than my comments often reflect, forgive me. Gil, said something yesterday about truth and polemics…what he said!!…lol

    February 5, 2009
  31. Paul Johnston #


    Hey Ryan, while I am so pleased that on a “blogpersonal” we are communicating, I know I still haven’t answered your concerns directly (Ya Think!!!) Here goes…

    “Paul, I have one very simple question for you:

    Is it possible that a balanced education, which combines critical individual thinking (a skill you seem to be advocating in your comment on the atheist bus thread) and institutional parameters, could be one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit works to further the purposes of God?”…..

    Short answer, yes I do.

    The paradox though is that our understanding of God, through individual and corporate worship must first inform and define, what is, “balanced”, what is “education” what is “critical analysis” and (a) what our institutions should look like and/or (b) how we as Christians ought to interact with institutions beyond our scope of influence.( Though I think with regards to “b” we’re called to work towards influencing all institutions….”make disciples of all men” so to speak.)

    I think what has happened, at least post enlightenment/reformation, is that we have progressively moved towards understandings of creation and our place in it, through the “lens” of collective self reasoning, apart from the “Word”

    We are our first resource. We are first, “eating from the tree of knowledge” without asking; without invitation.

    I do not think we can manage this task apart from God, though we choose to do so. I think by so doing, we commit, as does our ancestor, (allegorical/or not) Adam, an act of “high treason”. The first and most deadly sin, through which all other sins are committed.

    I believe our God is calling out to us, as he did in days of old…”Adam where art Thou”. And like our ancestor we hide, backs turned to our God;naked and ashamed, replying, “Here I am.”

    Or maybe I give “us” too much credit. Adam at least knew of his sin. Sometimes I think modern man doesn’t.

    I hope that helps.

    February 8, 2009
  32. Thanks for clarifying/expanding, Paul. I think that we are in agreement on at least one important thing: everything good to which human beings aspire comes from God, regardless of whether this is acknowledged or not.

    February 8, 2009
  33. Paul Johnston #


    And thank you for so serenely forgiving me my transgression against you.

    February 8, 2009
  34. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, if it’s not too late in the life of this thread, would you be kind enough to answer my questions of you.

    Between a deep intellectual/philosophical understanding of God and an intimate personal relationship with God, which, if either, should we prioritize? Why?

    February 9, 2009
  35. Never too late, Paul…

    I guess the “correct” answer would be both. I say this, however, as one who has always found the concept of an “intimate personal relationship with God” a bit troubling, not least because it seems capable of being filled with widely divergent content. Does it mean feeling warm and fuzzy when I sing praise choruses? Does it mean being really, really, really convinced that Jesus is real? Does it mean feeling romantic desire towards an invisible God? Does it mean praying a lot? Wandering around in a blissed-out, peaceful state of euphoria? And on and on it goes…

    I’ve stopped feeling guilty about not being able to cross a fixed threshold of emotional attachment to God a while ago now. I used to think I was doing something wrong by not “feeling” certain things about God, but not so much any more. “Personal relationship” language, at least in explicit form, is absent from Scripture. From my reading of the Bible, I get the sense that obedience is more important to God than emotion. I don’t begrudge anyone their emotional experiences, but I’ve realized that God doesn’t relate to everyone in the same manner—and this is something we should be grateful for.

    So, do I really think they’re both important? Yes, I do. I think that a philosophical understanding of God that is not accompanied by prayer, a commitment to obedience, and worship (understood as much more than what goes on in a church building) is sterile and idolatrous. Knowledge and understanding of God ought to be transformative—it ought to make us better people, more accurate image-bearers, more loving and compassionate, more willing to extend grace. It ought to strengthen us to fulfill our mandate to love God and the world he has made.

    February 10, 2009
  36. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks Ryan, you are always so giving, detailed and coherent in your responses.

    I’m honestly suppressing laughter though, as I begin my post. I can’t help but think that you have just given something of an emotional response as a means of justifying analytical reasoning while I am going to try to analytically reason and justify (primitively, to be sure! ) an emotional (read love) response.

    …“Personal relationship” language, at least in explicit form, is absent from Scripture…

    …Why do you say,”Show us the Father? ….I am in Him and He is in Me”…

    I can’t think of anything being more radically intimate and more vested in personal relationship, than that statement. Jesus doesn’t just “know” His Father he’s “in” His Father. If “image bearing” is crucial to our understanding and salvation, and I think we would agree that it is, than I don’t think it is enough for us just to “know” I think we have to be “in” also.

    I can’t help but think that most Psalms are emotion based. Psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of praise, psalms of lament, and and outrageously, the “Song of Songs”; an explicit call to love God on a personal and intimate level, to the point of using highly charged and explicitly romantic language.

    God seen through that lens then, is not just our “Lord”, not just our “Master”, He is also our “lover.” …

    I too think obedience is a crucial component to a “right” relationship but I can’t help but think that without there first being a mutually felt and freely chosen, “covenant of love” obedience is too full of fear, to the point of loathing. While discipline, the Lord’s “refining tool” would feel too much like pointless violence.

    “Right” reasoning informs, deepens, supports and secures our relationship with God. But to me, in it’s purest form, faith; is a chance, it is a hope, it is a belief without proof….it is the risk we joyously take for love’s sake.

    February 11, 2009
  37. When I said “personal language, at least in explicit form, is absent in Scripture,” I was referring more to the notion (set forth by many evangelicals) that Jesus came so that we could “ask him in our hearts” and have a “personal relationship with him” (sorry I didn’t make this clearer). This does not exactly leap off the pages of the NT, at least in my view. Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God (which does not preclude our having a personal relationship with him, obviously) but is a much larger and more inclusive purpose than to elicit certain feelings within this or that believer.

    I don’t deny that the Biblical authors use emotionally-charged/romantic language when they speaks of Israel’s relationship with YHWH or when Jesus refers to his relationship with God. But I maintain that “God as lover” is only one of a variety of metaphors Scripture uses, and that all metaphors are by definition limited. In our day and age, “love” has a much different connotation than it would have had to certainly many of the NT writers. We have Hollywood understandings of love and then just transfer these on to God; I find this distasteful, and it does not resonate with my experience of God. Jesus was a man. I am a man. The idea of using the language of romantic love to describe our relationship doesn’t sit well with me and I don’t apologize for that (Song of Solomon, notwithstanding).

    But remember, I said I didn’t begrudge anyone their emotional experience of God and that I was glad people experienced God differently. If we believe this is true, we will be hesitant about using our experience of God as a normative template which must be applied to others whose experience is different than ours.

    February 12, 2009
  38. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, I apologize if I “read” like someone who is attempting to define what is normative. I don’t mean to. Rather, I am hoping to share true experiences of God with others, so that their understanding of what is normative might be increased. Likewise I’m seeking the true experiences of others so that my understandings might increase also.

    While my language and my temper sometimes fail me I am genuinely seeking a relationship of reciprocity and fraternity.

    Not without irony, I am presently reading the collected works of St.Teresa of Avila to help me better understand the “realities” of the contemplative experience. A central, recurring theme within her treats is this constant struggle between the intellectual and the spiritual. St. Teresa reconciles this dilemma, for the most part, by simply submitting to what she believes to be her calling to a contemplative life while constantly seeking the opinion and advice of those more learned than herself. She approaches her “teachers” with humility, always as the student never as the scholar. If she does “teach” it seems to be incidental to her conscious intentions.

    She is a person of great humility….me not so much….I’m sorry for that….

    BTW, I completely understand your mistrust of romantic metaphor, particularly with regard to “Hollywood understandings”. Still, I can’t tell you enough how powerful an experience it is to just sit in a quiet room for about 10 minutes in relationship with God and periodically tell Him in your mind, “You are my lover”. He understands what that truly means, even if I don’t.

    Uh oh, there I go, “grabbing the reins, again!” lol

    February 13, 2009
  39. I am hoping to share true experiences of God with others, so that their understanding of what is normative might be increased. Likewise I’m seeking the true experiences of others so that my understandings might increase also.

    That sounds like a very mature perspective, Paul—one we should all undoubtedly strive for. I’ve read a bit of Teresa of Avila and, perhaps not surprisingly, found her experience quite different from my own. Nonetheless, from your summary of her, she seems to have an exemplary posture: faithfulness and fidelity to what she understands her calling to be combined with a willingness to learn and experience more. Again, we would all do well to keep something like this in view.

    BTW, I think you might be being a little hard on yourself. I don’t really sense a great lack of humility or inappropriate temper/use of words on your part. Different people communicate in different ways and are drawn to different emphases. That’s part of the adventure of conversation, part of how we learn and grow and improve as communicators and human beings…

    February 13, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: