Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Faith Once for all Delivered to the Saints in Light of Contemporary World Views to the Contrary

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11)

Self-Perception and the Indubitable Reality of God as Radical Other

This is a particularly vexing issue today in that two fundamentally not entirely resolvable precepts have attained a powerful pull in our contemporary culture. The one is the predominance of self-perception, without which it would be difficult to fathom how one could function at least in our western setting. Whatever its ultimate truth (and the Bible itself is clear about the importance of personal consciousness and conscience), to deny or even downplay its centrality as a core axiom of personal identity would be a most unfortunate mistake. Yet when developed into a fully blown axiom accepted both as self-evident and at some inexpressible level as the truth--that is, as far as anyone can come to any notion of "truth" in the contemporary era which I argue is inescapable even in its very postmodern denial, takes on a religious aura in its own right. It is such a denial expressed in the guise of a self-evident truth statement that I would characterize as a major idolatry of our time.

No doubt faith comes to believers through their self-understanding, but that to which it points, the revelation of God through Christ, extends to a reality beyond the self that cannot be reduced to any level of self-perception. Granted that the faith proclaimed speaks directly to the self even in language beyond self-reference, making any claim of transcending self-understanding exceedingly problematic and at some level, irreducibly circular. Self-circularity may be unavoidable in a faith stance that proclaims to reveal itself to consciousness--even consciousness collectivized in the body of Christ. At the very least, the proclamation of God revealed in a particularly unique manner in Christ needs to extend beyond self-referential reductionism in order to gain an appreciative grasp of what it is and more scandalously who it is that is being veiled through the fragile instrumentalities of human understanding. For the very basis of faith is the belief "that he exists," without which one lacks an axiomatic starting point that makes further inquiry into the phenomenological experience of the Christian pathway on its own terms, impossible.

This struggle to transcend the self in proclaiming the revelation of God was a challenge mightily struggled for in the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who in his partial success opened up a fresh taproot into a transcendent theology which at the least broke the stranglehold of the hegemony of a religious orientation grounded first and foremost in feeling. Feeling, what Barth formally referred to as “actualization” remained important, though Barth’s more fundamental contribution to 20th century theology was the emphasis he placed on “objectivism;” that is, the reality of God as radical other who also lives within us as a theological; bulwark against what Barth and others viewed as an excessive reliance on self-understanding as the basis of rather than the outgrowth of faith in a fully-orbed biblical theology grounded ultimately in the awesome depth of a personal yet infinite God revealed most fully to human beings in and through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Son of Man.

Rudolph Bultmann and Paul Tillich, central figures in the neo-orthodox school of early-to mid 20th century theology, accepted and sought to extend the implications of Barth's dialectical theology in grappling with the ineradicable tension between faith and culture. However, they rejected his emphasis on dogmatics as grounding point, and opted instead for some version of an existential theology based on the centrality of self in critical dialogue with the biblical God and 20th century European philosophy.

The Gap Between the "One Truth" Claim of Faith and the Enduring Reality of Cultural and Religious Pluralism

The seemingly counter problem is the belief in a pluralistic world view in which in principle, one idea or reality is as equally valid as another, whether one is examining world religions or different realms of religious and secular thought. Thus, while noting that there are obvious differences between religions, especially among those that are monotheistic and those that are not, a commonly held belief is that at the most fundamental level each religious tradition is ultimately a pathway into the inexpressible or what Rudolph Otto refers to as The Holy.

Whether one is speaking of diverse religious or secular perspectives, and there are many world views, the extent to which they are compatible with each other based on a core belief in egalitarian pluralism is a major issue in itself. It is this, which needs to be viewed as a faith stance as powerfully adhered to as any "traditional" belief. Assuming this to be the case, that all world views, secular or religious, are faith stands at the axiomatic level, then the counter question needs to be asked, on what grounds is this presupposition of pluralism grounded; to further press, what are the underlying assumptions upon such a conjecture buttressed? In asking these questions I am not categorically rejecting the claims of a pluralistic universe (William James), but am seeking to press into a better understanding of the underlying frames of belief that ground all claims of knowledge. What I am challenging is any taken for granted assumption as an ultimate world view and countering it with the claims of the Bible that ultimately, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). Obviously, this cannot be proven, though there is a great deal of first-hand testimony and “evidence of things unseen” that, in my view, merit a great deal closer look than is commonly granted, though knowledge in its own right without the salvo of faith is insufficient and will not likely be persuasive on its own grounds.

Whatever the difficulties, a key stumbling block in coming to terms with Christian faith claims as reflected in 20th century philosophy and cultural life is the knotty matter of seriously grappling with any notion of "truth," some serious notion upon which Christianity is based. This namely is the truth claim that God exists and that he is revealed and embodied in the full human sense in Christ and only in Christ, though reflected in part in other revelations even as the knowledge of Christ through the prism of faith can only be grasped and lived out in part.

This grappling with “truth” is obviously a difficult philosophical issue that I can only begin to address at this point. The core issue is whether there can be any such reality as truth even as the search for it, however imprecisely one defines it, seems to be built into the hard wiring of human existence. Thus, one might say (and I can't "prove" this) we are meant for the truth and can never rest satisfied unless that desire were met in at least fundamentally reorienting our lives in moving toward it. Thus, at the very least truth servers as a clarion call to human fulfillment and satisfaction, however much the gap between the desire and attainment, which, I argue, is unsearchable and ultimately beyond comprehension, persists.

The fundamental claim and the scandal of radical Christianity is Christ's proclamation that he is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) in which no other truth claim can possibly compare. On this profession satisfaction in the full sense of the term can only be found in a thorough embrace of Christ as the fullness of God in human flesh. This is an incarnational faith revealed to human beings through the Spirit of God, as an essential dimension of God himself in his Trinitarian fullness. Its entry requires the way of the cross emblematic of utter self-denial as the basis itself of coming into the glorification of God revealed in and through Christ consciousness, which as New Adam engulfs and humanizes our own. It is this denial of old self to aspire toward new self in Christ that, in juxtaposition to the many exigencies of personal life and more visible public history that may be one of the most troublesome stumbling blocks to a solid embrace of the Christian faith. Yet, it is a direction established by God himself as revealed in the Old and New testaments to counter our own innate selfishness, a major source of much alienation and pain we cause others as well as ourselves in the very process of living our lives in which God through Christ became our vicarious High Priest.

To restate a core contention of C.S. Lewis, either there is something fundamentally true about the core New Testament claim that in Christ the fullness of God in human flesh resides or that the claim of incomparability in which Christ is the Alpha and Omega of human existence and experience is profoundly flawed to its core. If the latter pertains, the claim needs to be needs to be categorically rejected even as Christianity as a metaphor of one way to God or the inexpressible, among many other ways may have merit at least for those to whom the metaphor speaks.

At some root level it is impossible to evade the dilemma on the need to decide on the unconditional claim of Christ as the fullness of God in human flesh who both models and offers salvation to all who receive him. However smoothly or subtly one seemingly slides by the possibility of a decisive encounter with the living God, is at some core level a choice itself with indeterminate, but substantial, though not irreversible consequences in which the door of God’s revelatory grace may or may not be open to a particular person at another time. Now very well may be the appointed time if you hear the voice of God ever so faintl. For seeking to make a "decision" for Christ simply when one will without the grace of God intervening, is on the operative assumptions of Christian biblical theology an untenable impossibility. For the wind blows where and when it will.

However improbable all this may seem, it is impossible to attain first-hand experience of the depths of the Christian revelation without entering into and remaining in its pathway of understanding which entails a subtle blending of the will with the very prompting of God, however that ineffable presence may become manifest. The veracity of such a revelatory truth can only be revealed in the movement in faith itself in which "the good shepherd" will make his voice known (John 10:1-18). While there is a certain sureness in God's revealed voice (John 10:4-5)such knowledge remains only partial since given the natture of who God is, it is impossible to know him fully (Deuteronomy 29:29). Rather, the Christian pathway is a life from faith to faith in a mode of greater knowing where sight as the breadth and depth of God's glory is beyond our capacity to fathom and hence to perceive even as the promise of greater fullfillment extends into eternity where immortality swallows up mortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)


  1. Jesus' claims to be the Way, the Truth, the Life,that no one comes to the Father but by him are indeed severe to the pluralistic senses. It is the very stench of death in the nostrils of the unsaved. He is the line drawn in the sand as to eternal life and death by Jesus himself. You nailed it when you said "Its entry requires the way of the cross emblematic of utter self-denial as the basis itself of coming into the glorification of God revealed in and through Christ consciousness, which as New Adam engulfs and humanizes our own." Self-denial, what an offense to our ME-centered culture! Yhe Israelites lived and experienced God's miracles and deliverance and yet still they gravitated to other gods of their own making, ones that they could fashion to their own liking! We cannot truly follow the one true and incomparable God until we can lay down our own visions of who and what we believe God should look like and be to us and for us personally. Our society today is very much like the Israelites - not lacking in the truth of God, but more so rejecting Him for a god of their own fashioning. It is indeed a narrow path He calls us to and leads us on, but He extends it to the whole world...

  2. Thank you Susan for your keen reflection. It is not surprising that the the key claim of Christ as the way, the truth and the life John 14:6), "the one mediator between God and men" (1 Tim 2:5)is culturally incommunicable based on the prevailing thought patterns of the contemporary secular society. Yet, the revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world breaks in through his elusive, though ever felt presence in the many small still ways of his choosing.

    There are many challenges for the church in these secular times, including foremost the ever present challenge of seeking to live within the frame of God's called existence for each of us in the many places of our daily lives; at home, work, the broader culture, church, and most foundationally in our own interior relationship with the living God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    How we relate, then with folks of other perspectives; those representing different religious traditions as well as with those nwho profess either an agnosticism or an outright rejection of God, is also a critical challenge. Since we witness by our actions and attitudes as well as by our words and because it is right in any event, the extent to which we can exhibit the qualities of civility, respect and empathy without the need of subordinating or marginalizing our own faith stance, is one of the major challenges that I think that we as the body of Christ in suburban America face in our daily interactions with others.

    What this means for a more formal apologtetic response in a contemporary articulation of the faith in light of the dual reality of the pervasiveness of religious pluralism and the impact of a radical secular outlook among many, both within and without the church is a serious matter well beyond what I can address here.

    What we do need, I believe, are continuously strong and compelling reasons to believe in which each of us become ministers in our own unique ways both to ourselves and for each other. Needed as well, I think is the continuous expansion of solid Christian resources that we both have found through the various groups that we have participated in at First Church that have greatly enriched our lives together. In this, First Church of Wethersfield stands as a beacon with many other congregations in providing the resources and an encouraging climate where people do not merely get "fed," but where people become engaged to enhance their lives in Christ.

    It is very good that you and I have entered into each other's lives this past year.