Thursday, February 26, 2004

Dear millinerd...

So Dave asks a fine question in comments below that millinerd would like to take a crack at:
"What is scripted in "God's plan" or God's will? A lot of people in their 20's talk about finding or knowing these things; and are also keen on attributing specific events in their life as being part of God's plan. Is this Reformation kind of thinking that is taken to it's logical conclusion in Calvinism? Wesley would say we have more control/freedom over the events of our life?"
The short, cliche response: Live like a Wesleyan and believe like a Calvinist.

The short, original response: The answer to the question, "Does got have a specific calling for my life, or does he want me to choose a path myself?" is "Yes."

The really long response:

Let's start with literature's approach to the problem. Ancient lit. is generally determinist in its outlook. For example when in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus ("No-man") blinds the Cyclops, the Cyclops laments that this was prophesied by a soothsayer long ago and there was nothing he could have done about it. Or take the Oedipus myth, where the fate of Oedipus' ruin was determined from the start.

On the other extreme, Modern lit. emphasized free will, complete human autonomy apart from the gods, or God's designs. The de-Christianized existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre I suppose would be an example. Life is meaningless, but one must nobly choose path into the void nonetheless. (Incidently, don't let Kierkegaard know - the founder of existentialism would be furious that his movement was taken out of it's Christian context and sold to philosophy 101 students God-free). But the point is... Ancient lit. stresses determinism/ Modern lit. stresses free-will... but which is true? This is the age old paradox that the Western philosophical tradition could never figure out... and now that that tradition has been hacked to pieces by Foucault, perhaps never will.

ENTER THE BIBLE: The Bible however stands in between these two traditions. In it there is a tension between God's "providential" plan, and human automomy. Take for example, Genesis: There is a delicate balance between narrative and geneology in the Pentateuch. The narrative part is where human decision and freedom is taken into account, but the part we all like to skip over for good reason, the long geneologies, are the "drumbeat" of God's providence that provides the background to the story.

And it's not just the Old Testament where this paradox is evident. How does one make sense of, for example, this passage in the New Testament:
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." - Phillipians 2:12-13
The answer is of course that you don't make "sense" of the passage... how do we know "sense" as we understand it is an ally? Instead you let both God's working and ours to be true at the same time. (Or just dismiss the passage as absurd, which many do.) But the best New Testament example is Paul in Romans 9-11 where he wrestles through this very question in regard to Israel... and does not come to an "answer"... instead the logical frustration transfigures into praise... (spec. in Rom. 11:33-36). He wrestles with the question, and having maxed out the logical route - he moves from the realm of theology and into doxology. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is said to have remarked of such passages that if he doesn't understand them, it's not Paul's fault but Wittgenstein's. He was humble enough to admit he simply wasn't on the level of a mystic like Paul, rather than dismissing the passage as "contradictory." Perhaps he, like Paul, understood that reason is overrated. That being said, it's not that Christianity is illogical, it's translogical. It simply maxes logic out. That's why no one can be "explained" into the faith.

ENTER CHALCEDON: Just like, as the Council of Chalcedon decreed in the year 541 that Christ is 100% human and 100% divine even though our minds can't comprehend it; so also is the Christian journey 100% God's work and 100% ours, even though we can't figure that out exactly. It's a mystery... not a puzzle. A puzzle you can figure out. A mystery won't allow that. It instead figures you out.

This crazy guy named Clive Staples was right when he said as proof of Christianity being true is in its complexity...
"If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. . . . anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about." (Mere Christianity p.145)
Cults are simple... thus their seductive appeal. Christianity is complicated... moreso than Homer and Sartre, and so it should be.

In the great cocktail of American Christianity, where all the European variations were mixed in - the "Wesleyan" and "Reformed" traditions have got caught on the opposite end of this complexity. Wesleyans, or Arminians (with lots of good company in the Catholic tradition) emphasized free will and Sanctification (our part in the Christian life); whereas the Reformed, or Calvinist tradition emphasized determinism and Justification (God's part)... these differences play out on every town square with the corresponding Methodist and Presbyterian Churches.. (But they have their roots in the Arminian controversy in Post-Reformation Europe.) The whole Openness theology debate (yawn...) that's going on right now is simply one more time around this well worn track of American Christianity. Those who believe both in the Bible and (whether they know it or not) in the vestiges of the Common Sense Realism that this country was founded upon will debate these mysteries ad nauseum because there is ample Scriptural proofs for both sides.. and both sides won't ever "logically" fit.

ENTER BARTH: But why should we run it again? Notice how the greatest 20th Cent. Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, tries to solve the impasse:
"When we speak of justification and sanctification, we have to do with two diifferent aspects of the one event of salvation. The distinction between them has its basis in the fact that we have in this even two genuinely different moments. That Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one person does not mean that His true deity and His true humanity are one and the same, or that the one is interchangeoable with the other. (Church Dogmatics IVii p. 503)
There Barth uses the proceedings from the Council of Chalcedon regarding the nature of Christ to "figure out" a problem very similar to free-will/determinism question, the justification/sanctification dilemma. Sure the 2=1 math of Chalcedon could be considered an an oxymoron... but oxymoron literally means a "wise foolishness..." it's not necessarily a bad thing. Barth uses Chalcedon as his key because he thinks that nothing in the Christian life can be figured out apart from Christ. And if Chalcedon rightly shows Christ to be a mystery... perhaps much in the Christian life is as well. But a definable mystery, not a foggy one. The elements involved are not the mystery (God's nature and human nature in Christ/ God's will and our will in the Christian life)... it's how they are united that is a mystery. And by the way, it's not that Karl Barth is some kind of isolated original... he simply read earlier theologians and started to think like the church did long before reason's modern reign which put Christianity into such a tangle.

ENTER US: Applying this to the lives of those in our 20's, I suppose the trick is to enjoy and engage the mystery. Many of us have learned to do some serious second guessing when ourselves or someone else has a clear insight into "God's will" in a given situation... and rightfully so. Sure miraculous prophecies do happen, but rarely, and even less rarely can they be relied upon... but they can happen. Yet should the prophecy not come, it's a process of applying wisdom and insight of oneself and others to the hilt (our 100%), and mixing that wisdom and insight with serious, specific prayer (God's 100%). This is difficult... especially when our paths are so unclear... But it's a lot more fun than having your cult leader tell you that's God told him your calling in life is to make the Kool-Aid.