Listen To Article
*** If you listen to a preacher long enough, you can deduce what they wrestle with personally, and you come to realize that all preachers are essentially preaching to themselves.
*** Every preacher basically has one sermon. The really good ones might have two.
Two of my favorite aphorisms about preachers. Replace the word “preacher” with “blogger’ and I think the message still holds.
That’s one of the gifts of this daily blog. Over time we become familiar with the various bloggers — their style and rhythm, their issues and concerns. I’d even say the blog as an entirety, a communal venture, develops a persona, a hazy uniformity. And my voice is part of it.
Of course, there is variety. Still, when you start reading a blog here, you have a general notion of what to expect. That’s okay, even good. It’s like a friend, a good conversation partner, the comfort of that favorite, gently worn sweatshirt. Certainly, there are surprises and twists. We are stretched, challenged, enlightened. We learn and are consoled. We’re reminded that we aren’t alone. Thoughtful, eloquent Christians believe like we do. They put into words some inchoate intuition within us. The poignant beauty they share nourishes our souls.
But if you know me, you know there is also a contrarian streak in me. So today I’d like to say “I disagree!”
Actually, that’s too dramatic. The voice and tendencies I want to push against include my own. I’m not attempting to stand apart, over-against all the rest like some Hollywood hero. But let me stir the pot, maybe go against the grain a bit. So, here I go — pointing out two tendencies I notice here, hoping to provoke some interesting conversations, maybe even a few au contraires of your own.
I. Our God is too cozy
When I read this blog and the ways we say we encounter God it reminds me of Burnham’s song. Latte foam art. Fuzzy socks. Birds at the feeder. Precious lines from an elegant poem. Our labradoodle. A walk on the beach. No doubt all these things are gifts. Beautiful. Warm. Life-giving.
But don’t we claim that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is universe-altering? Something incomprehensibly vast has happened — hasn’t it? How can we express that? How can we live it? Where is that vastness, that apocalyptic energy, that glorious triumph?
A colleague pushed back on my concerns. Doesn’t our gratitude for ripe peaches and the joy we find in purring cats demonstrate our acute observation skills? Our grateful hearts? We are looking for grace everywhere — in the small and the ordinary. Isn’t that a good thing? Recall the mustard seeds and little children and the invisible leaven in the loaf.
Moreover, when we Christians have tried to say or do “big things,” it has so often ended in tragedy and disaster. The Crusades. Today’s white Christian nationalism. The doctrine of discovery. Better, we know, to under promise and over perform than vice versa. Irony, authenticity, and self-deprecation are the currency of our age.
I’m undermining my own argument here. I see the pitfalls and the wreckage in history. But I am not entirely deterred. In fact, I ask for your assistance, your input and ideas. If the Gospel is what we claim, as immense as we believe, as furiously life-giving as St. Paul or Martin Luther declared, then somehow it seems our expression of it needs enlarging.
II. Nature and Grace
When Karl Barth asserted that the Belgic Confession is likely heretical, he put a pebble in my shoe that won’t go away.
Barth said that the Belgic is wrong to claim that God is known to us by “two means.” Our confession says these two means are “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” and “by his divine and holy Word.” Barth contended that God is known to us uniquely through the “Word” — the eternal Word, Jesus Christ.
This pebble in my shoe unbalances me. Disturbs me. It doesn’t resolve itself. And I’m not smart enough or determined enough to figure it out.
Often here on the RJ blog we have compelling, beautiful writing about the urgency of facing our environmental crisis. I simply reply “Amen!” I visit National Parks, compost compulsively, hike, support green legislation, watch too many videos about bears, squirrels, snakes and more. So this isn’t about “loving nature.”
Still, I think I align more with Barth. I sort of doubt that the universe is “before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” — although isn’t that glorious writing?
(And while we’re at it, haven’t we made that “without excuse” of Romans 1:20 one of the most overfreighted verses in all of scripture? An incredibly complex argument teeters on barely more than the head of a pin.)
Do people of faith encounter God’s handiwork in creation? Of course. Is their faith even deepened by what they behold? Often. Might a person become a theist of some kind by pondering creation? Apparently. But I have no interest in being a vague theist. I know they make nice neighbors and good friends, and that God loves them and showers them with untold blessings and grace. But that’s not what I am.
When I try to talk and think about this, it always feels like I’m shooting around the target. But I can’t really find the bullseye. It has to do with the particularity of Jesus, and the otherness of grace. Making grace too common?
My intent is not at all to “demote” creation, but rather to promote the unique revelation of Jesus Christ. I wonder if we aren’t sometimes a little imprecise, unintentionally sloppy, when we talk about creation and grace. Because creation is so marvelous, maybe it is too easy to cloak it with qualities that it doesn’t possess. In contrast the “Jesus Christ” of today is often so cliche and tainted it isn’t surprising that we might think nature is the more likely source of revelation. Yet, when I read the New Testament, for example, I find very little along the lines of “the stars above the Mediterranean were stunning tonight.”
And I realize this sounds way more narrow, exclusive, and maybe “evangelical” than I wish. But it’s the same reason that I’m more inclined to say all people have inherent value because of the incarnation than because of the imago dei. I want to try to start theological conversations by talking first about Jesus.
Forgive me if this is getting a little “too granular” — as we say these days. I began by saying I wanted to poke at some Reformed Journal truisms. There’s an image of two pugilists at the top of this blog. I’m not really throwing haymakers, I hope.
Any counter-punchers and jabbers out there? Or even simply a few kind conversation partners?