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A Personal Response

While I’m still in the reflection mode occasioned by a new year and a trip through my journals, I’ve been thumbing through a few of the books that I was reading and reflecting upon in my younger years.  Lesslie Newbigin was a writer and a thinker that was immensely helpful to me as I was beginning to negotiate such themes as the uniqueness of Christianity, the nature and limits of reason and faith, and the shape of discipleship.  Newbigin’s books were a gift then, and they remain so today.

Among these was a little volume called Proper Confidence where I made note of this passage on faith and certainty a decade or so ago:

We are not speaking of a blind leap into darkness but of a personal response to a personal calling.  When Jesus called the first disciples with the words: “Follow me,” he was certainly calling for an act of faith.  He certainly did not offer any demonstrable certainties.  And so it is with everyone who has been so called through the faithfulness of the first apostles and their successors.

To regard this as cognitively inferior to the rational demonstration of supposedly certain truths is to assume that the ultimate reality with which we have to deal is not personal but impersonal.  In the investigation of impersonal realities we may ask for the kind of indubitable certainties that the Age of Reason demanded, even though subsequent history has shown that they are not attainable.  But if the ultimate reality with which, or rather with whom, we have to deal is the being of the triune God, then the response of personal faith to a personal calling is the only way of knowing that reality.  To rule this out as unreasonable is to make an a priori decision against the possibility that ultimate reality is personal.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: Newbigin, “We are not speaking of a blind leap into darkness but of a personal response to a personal calling.”

    That is the testimony of so many of us over the centuries.

    I happened to read an article in this morning’s NY Times, mobile edition, about an upcoming article in a prestigious journal about extrasensory perception – one that claims it was detected. The debate over that article reminded me of your posting here. It seems that Newbigin is referring to something that some would call “ESP.” The critics of the ESP article believe it is cognitively inferior, in spite of the impeccable credentials of the author – no ESP and no personal calling allowed in science.

    January 6, 2011
    • Ah, the narrow gate of “scientific” knowledge…

      But I do understand the apprehension around “personal calling” language. It is easy to abuse and notoriously difficult to verify. I think most of us are familiar with someone who has felt a “personal calling” to or from something/someone that we think is laughably ridiculous. It is certainly difficult to use the language of “personal calling” honestly and responsibly, but I also think the task is too important to abandon.

      January 6, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    …”It is certainly difficult to use the language of “personal calling” honestly and responsibly, but I also think the task is too important to abandon.”

    How true and yet sometimes I wonder if the use of language has now become part of the problem. Too often I find myself being overwhelmed with language; with information. Much of it is beyond my ability to understand. Often I find what I do understand to be errant. Worse still much information is intended to be maliciously fraudulent…I become suspicious of words and the people who use them. Particularly those who use them well.

    Lack of trust is debilitating. Faith becomes an enormous challenge when words lose their integrity.

    January 8, 2011
    • I think what you say is especially true in our age, where we are awash in a sea of words from innumerable sources and mediums… Having said that, I am just reading about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and it’s been very interesting to observe the language used by the Nazi party and the official Reich church in their official statements, as well as the language used by the “Confessing Church” and how it was received, spun, etc. Given the political/social context of Germany in the 1930’s, I sometimes wonder how any ordinary person could have discerned the truth. Yet some did (thanks be to God!)…

      I suppose all that is just to say that language has always been part of the problem. We can’t do without it, so it has to be a part of the solution too.

      January 8, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the response, Ryan. Yes words must be part of the solution, but I struggle with the degree to which we should place our faith in them. I’m a simple man, academically speaking but based on my own life experience the gulf between what I’ve thought was so; what I said was so and what I’ve done, is a wide one indeed. I have had much to regret and feel shame over. And yet I can think of many instances of my spontaneous charity and loving response to circumstances around me, that make me feel proud.

    Maybe I am more sinful than many others. Maybe it’s my words, rather than words in general, that are the issue…. at the very least I think it spiritually wise to be open to that possibility…

    Mostly I’m beginning to think that listening is more Godly than talking, particularly when present before the Lord. I’ve often imagined that people would reconcile more differences if they just sat in humble silence together before the Lord, then in personal verbal exchanges between them.

    January 10, 2011
    • Well, I seriously doubt that it is your words in particular that are the issue. If sin is universal, then so is misuse of words. Having said that, I think we would all do well to hold a mirror up to what we say, how we say it, and how this lines up with our behaviour, as you describe here.

      And I think that we could all do more (and better) listening—to one another and to God.

      January 10, 2011
  4. Ken #

    Re Paul’s words: “I have had much to regret and feel shame over.”

    This is human.

    Paul’s words here led me to think something about Jesus that I had not really considered much before – his sinlessness. He must have felt no shame or guilt. If not, then he was not human in that sense.

    Maybe the sinlessness did not refer to the relatively small things most of us feel guilt and shame about most of the time, just to the big three in the wilderness. He passed the tests the ancient Israelites failed in the wildnerness, but otherwise had just as much cause for guilt and shame as the rest of us?

    Coming from a liberal background my own tendency has been to give very little attention to sin. Liberals do feel guilt, of course, maybe even shame, but not the theological kind. Maybe that is a sign that I am damned anyway?

    January 11, 2011
    • He must have felt no shame or guilt. If not, then he was not human in that sense.

      Or, he was fully human in the sense we will one day be—even, perhaps, liberals who don’t feel guilty enough :).

      January 11, 2011
      • Ken #

        Ryan, yes that is the way to look at it I am sure.

        I am still thinking. It is hard for me to imagine him not feeling any guilt or shame, even though he withstood the temptations in the desert. Surely he knew these sorrows as we do. And yet, you are right that he was the first of the new creation, and such sorrows, along with all the rest, are left in the past in that new world.

        January 12, 2011
      • I hadn’t thought about it from that angle before, Ken. Perhaps guilt and shame are part of the human condition that he had to somehow go through for our sakes. I suppose there would have been some kind of qualitative difference in the kind of guilt/shame he experienced—perhaps a kind of vicarious shame for the collective whole? I don’t know. Certainly interesting to think about…

        January 13, 2011
      • Ken #

        I started thinking about your expression, “qualitative difference.” It led me here:

        In 2 Kings, the Babylonians carried the people of ancient Judah into exile, destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the temple. In the writings of the prophets, it was God who did these things. In Ezekiel’s vision, angels set fire to the temple as God’s chariot left his home on earth. If not for such visions, what happened in 586/7 BC would have been forgotten.

        I think of the humanity and divinity of Jesus in similar terms. He was as human as you and I, not just in his flesh but in his heart. At the same time, he was as divine as God, not at all like us. He was, and is, the messiah promised through the prophets.

        These things we know not as we know the accidents of history, but as we know the wisdom and prophecy of scripture, and if there is any wisdom in the claims of liberal theology, we know these things as we know our own hearts and minds. We know as Paul knew when he wrote 2 Corinthians 4:6.

        January 13, 2011
      • Thanks for sharing this, Ken. What you say is a very intriguing way of conceptualizing the mystery of the incarnation.

        January 13, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Only Satan would want you to think you were “damned anyway”, my brother. Of all the people I’ve read on the blogosphere, your the one I think is closest to being in. Put in a good word for me will ya. 🙂

    January 11, 2011
    • Ken #

      Paul, thank you for your vote of confidence.

      If you will, put in a good word for me too. I suppose that is how we might all pray – that the grace and glory of God will shine in the hearts of all our brothers and sisters.

      January 12, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #


        January 12, 2011

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