Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Music and Separation

I remember Margaret asking me a question once: "What would it be like if our lives had soundtracks?"

More and more lately, I have seen Gen Y criticized as being overly optimistic and idealistic, even while being disengaged from the surrounding community. The symbol held up to berate these "failings" is the iPod, often called the me-Pod, the individual cut off in a pod. I remember hearing this metaphor the first time during my time at Trinity Lutheran Church.

While this is a bit of a break from my heavier philosophical/theological posts, I felt that this symbolized criticism demanded at least a few thoughts. Is the use of the iPod as a symbol for our generation fair? Is asking that question even fair?

I actually do believe that the iPod as a possible symbol for our generation might be redeemable. However, I object to what many think it symbolizes. As such, the question is not "is the use of the iPod fair as a symbol for our generation" but rather "what does the iPod symbolize for us as a generation?"

I will grant that on one hand Gen Y is very idealistic and hopeful. We want more than is promised by the moment we live in. We believe that hope can be actualized. However, we are not that simple. Within that idealism I often discover a bitter skepticism in myself and others. Institutions have failed us. Individuals have failed us. We have failed ourselves. There is an apparent grand disconnect between our hope and our locality.

Many have claimed that this disconnect carries over to a disconnect between ourselves and the reality that surrounds us. We hide in our "me-pod." We cannot bear reality. So we hide in our shield of individualism.

I think there is some truth in these claims, but not where the claimants believe it lies. I agree that we cannot bear reality. We cannot bear the tragedy of the world. How unstable our world is. The pluralism that surrounds us. The lack of a singular meaning. The thousands of roles we play. The lack of a common thread. The lack of values we can stand up. We cannot bear the a-thematic nature of the reality before us.

As such, the iPod does not designate our separation from reality, but rather designates the tragedy of living in our reality. If we were separate from reality, from the absurdity of existence, we would be able to live without angst, without skepticism, without the nihilistic, a-thematic void that constantly threatens to devour our hope. Our hope does not arise because we are disconnected from the world. Our hope and tragedy paradoxically exist because of our reality - because we refuse to separate ourselves from our a-thematic realities. We hope because we must.

Which brings us back to Margaret's question. iPods are not emblematic of our separation from the world, a hiding in a false shell. Rather, iPods are emblematic of our desperate attempts to give our lives themes, structure and meaning. Music allows us to construct those themes, structure and meaning. We live in a world of creation. Music allows us to hope. My answer to Margaret's question is another question: "What would it be like if our lives did not have soundtracks?"

I cannot speak for an entire generation. But I can speak for myself. I do not listen to my iPod to escape. I listen to music so I can continue to hope. I listen to music so I can continue to live in our tragic world. I listen to music to continue to live within the paradox of tragic hope. Creation, music, art all allow us to engage. Praxis (faith-based action) follows the soundtracks we listen to. Our acts gain meaning in a world of music. So, what are you listening to?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Veil Is Thin (Individuals/Communities)

Relatively short post today; I mostly wanted to set out something briefly that will end up being crucial later on. Rather than delay such a topic until later, I decided it would make the most sense to present it now. It will also allow us to test my momentary theopoetic up to this point.

Who are we? Earlier, I explored this topic somewhat, and presented a few images. Let us consider those images once again. What does it mean to be conscious?

We are our values. If we are anything at all, we are the values, the ghosts that pull us forward. We are the potential we see in the world. But not just that...

We are walking values. We are values in movement, values in flux. Our values one moment are not our values the next. We are never haunted by the same ghosts; we are never the same ghosts.

We are local, walking values. We are values in motion. We are never apart from our locality, from our incarnation. Our values are inseparable from our time, our being, our non-being. Potential is born of the moment. We are momentary ghosts.

We are unstable, local, walking values. Despite the fact that our values are local, they have no firm ground, no structural support. Our values are unstable. Our values hold no justification. There is no such thing as a meta-value. We have no mathematical formula to follow to resolve which values we should live into. We walk on unstable ground.

We are contradictory, unstable, local, walking values. There is no unity to our ghosts, no thread that holds us together. Our values pull us in multiple, contradictory directions. We must choose. We can only act(ualize) once. The potential we envision is not whole, not singular, not one. We are pulled apart. We are not a synthesis. We are just thesis and antithesis. Our contradictions lead to our responsibility.

No doubt the images could continue. We are also tragic, hopeful values. There is much contained within our hearts. However, at this point, before we continue painting the picture, let us pull the brush back and study our painting.

It can probably be assumed that I am describing, painting individuals here. But am I? Do tragic, hopeful, contradictory, unstable, local, walking values describe just individuals, just the self? Perhaps our brush has painted communities as well...

Consider it - communities consist of contradictory values. The values of a community constantly shift, ebb and flow, are always in movement. Communities are defined by tragedy and hope. Communities are unstable and groundless, just as unjustified as the individual, as the ghosts that haunt them both. Communities too are local, as they live in extended, and yet still limited, moments of being and non-being.

The veil between the individual and the community is thin (if it is anything but a ghost at all). The self is nothing but a community; the community is nothing but a self. Communities make up part of the locality, part of the potential individuals live within. Individuals make up part of the locality, part of the potential communities live within. Both ghosts are conscious. Both are tragic, hopeful, contradictory, unstable, local, walking values. Both share in a haunting. Both are the potential we see in the world. The veil is thin...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Motivation, or what does "the cat is on the mat" have to do with our values?

As I mentioned in my post "A Modal World," my entire narrative project is dependent on the claim that all beliefs and statements (even descriptive statements) are supported/undergirded by our values. The stories we tell will assume that we have a fundamental choice to make as we live - ghostly meaning or the void. In order to set up this contrast, however, I need to establish that there are no other alternatives. Our values are unstable, foundationless, ghostly. My claim up to this point had been that everything we construct, utter, write is built upon the foundation of our values. Those values are ghosts. And so, everything that enters and leaves our minds is supported by our ghosts, our foundationless foundation. Imagine a building, complete with foundation, with no ground below it, floating in the sky. In that place, we are strangers at home. Or, imagine we are lost in the desert, surrounded by a blinding dust storm with nothing to guide us beyond our limited vision before us and our footsteps quickly vanishing into the sand behind us. The dunes are shifting beneath our feet.

Still, particularly in our culture, one might object that ethics is dependent on metaphysics, not the other way around. Or perhaps our values are completely distinct from our beliefs "about" the world. After all, it seems deeply counterintuitive that a typical descriptive statement such as "the cat is on the mat" has anything to do with values, emotions or ethics. If descriptive statements have nothing to do with our unstable values, perhaps we can escape our subjectivity and succeed in describing objectively the "world out there." If this happened to be true, we would have stable ground to stand upon. We would have exorcised our dilemma. No void or ghosts.

I have told a few stories up to this point why I believe that descriptive statements are dependent on our values. However, more than anything, I merely made the gesture. It was critical to establish what the question was before we attempted to answer it.

Every belief arises from a cause. I don't believe that claim to be controversial. If I believe that "the cat is on the mat" I have some reason (however poor) for believing it. There are two kinds of causes one might consider here. The first is how we typically think of causes in modern day, scientific language - Aristotle's efficient cause. What brought something about? If someone gives money to the poor, for example, and another person asked for the efficient cause of the act, a proper response might be "I pulled money out of my pocket, and transferred the possession of that money to an individual who was poor." An efficient cause for the belief that "the cat is on the mat" might be "my visual experience displayed a cat on a mat actually in the world." For efficient causes, think "how did something happen?"

However, an account of belief is not nearly so simple. After all, the question of why remains - "why did I come to believe that the cat is on the mat?" What was my motivation to accept such a belief? Why did I wish to give money to the poor? After all, belief indicates a level of commitment while the word "statement" does not. What was the motivation to commit oneself to a belief? It appears as though there are two possible answers to this question.

The first possible answer is to consider other kinds of causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes (the difference between the two does not matter for the moment). One's particular values motivated the acceptance of the belief. Consider an obvious case - say that someone believes abortion is wrong. Say that someone also encounters a study that claims "abortion causes breast cancer." That person's ethical value (abortion is wrong) will almost certainly provide the motivation to accept the claim "abortion causes breast cancer" as a belief. This will be the case unless other values interfere. After all, our values are not in individual vacuums - our decisions are always the result of an interplay between all of our relevant values. Perhaps that said person also deeply values a friend who provides reasons for not believing that "abortion causes breast cancer" is true. In such a case, that person will exist within a moment of value conflict. Which value is more important to the individual (and more directly connected to the belief)? The resolution to our value conflicts (when we act/come to believe something) is rarely simple. Regardless, values clearly provide motivation (since we act toward our values all the time), so it would seem plausible that our beliefs are motivated (and therefore supported) by our values.

The second possible answer is that the efficient cause is the answer to the why question, i.e. we come to believe it because that is how the world is. Certainly, many individuals seem fairly driven to be able to describe the world as it is. A challenge to the claimed objectivity behind some beliefs is bound to find resistance. However, consider the claim for a moment. Let us ask a metaquestion. Why do individuals believe that "we come to believe beliefs because that is how the world is?" The same two answers present themselves - individuals either gain their motivation for the belief because of formal/final causes or because of efficient causes. Notice, however, that the second possibility immediately eliminates itself - the statement "we come to believe the belief that we believe beliefs because that is how the world is because that is how the world is" is complete gibberish. However, a formal/final explanation seems more plausible. Strictly speaking, we will find no psychological motivation in efficient causes unless we first value efficient causes. If we come to value the traditional methods of "discovering" how the "world is," we will respect those methods, we will accept the belief that those methods are reliable at discovering how the "world is." If we don't accept that value, then we will not accept the belief. But notice that we are no longer talking about how the world is, about efficient causes as the source for our beliefs. As long as our values provide our motivation, our beliefs (descriptive or otherwise) will always be built upon specters. Our envisioned potential will always shape what we believe. As Heidegger might say, there is no belief about the world that escapes our intentionality. We come to believe because we value what we believe (or what lies behind our beliefs).

One might still object - this might appear sound in theory, but also appears deeply counterintuitive in practice. After all, what does "the cat is on the mat" have to do with our values? After all, our typically critical values (life, love, equality, freedom, etc.) appear to have nothing to do with such a belief. So why have so many people in our world come to believe such "trivial" beliefs?

We have not hidden from our ghosts. There are many things that we traditionally value that were not listed above because they are typically taken for granted, particularly in our modern era. Just as our values do not come in a vacuum, so too, our beliefs are not isolated from each other. Imagine what would be entailed in rejecting the belief "the cat is on the mat" "because my sense data gave me that experience." We would no longer be able to trust our sense experience. And yet, in our scientific world, nothing is more important, more valued than our sense experience. Our sense of order, of structure to our world, of our ability to predict the results of our actions would come crumbling down around us. There are haunting ghosts hidden within our descriptive statements. Our horizons depend upon the ability to state that "I believe the cat is on the mat because my sense data gave me that experience." And yet, those very horizons are supported by ghosts, by our unstable values.

We believe because we ought to. And yet, even in our search to escape our dilemma, we have discovered it again. We have walked in a circle in our desert dust storm. As we live our lives we are presented with one question, one choice - should we, or should we not? Should we live a life of specters or should we vanish into the void? Metaphysics, physics, science will not save us. All we have is our values, our potential, our ghosts. Perhaps that is not enough to continue walking, weary in our journey of shifting sands. Or, perhaps, that is enough, just enough, to take one more step.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dreamt of in Philosophy

[This is my response to Emily's post below. Please read her post in its entirety before you read my response. This post is dedicated to Emily Rains. Your patience, encouragement and critiques have been a blessing to me throughout our friendship. I look forward to our continued dialogue and my conversations with a treasured friend.]

"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, 165-167.

Yes. As I read Emily's essay, that was my first response. Absolutely. You understand. But what do you understand?

At first glance, much of your essay is set up in such a way as to assert my story as being an idol, an object of my own construction. You write: "God IS. We simply have to deal with that fact," that God is "infinite transcendence" and "only idols are constructed." I am open that the story I tell is a construction. Questions remain though - is the story merely my construction alone? AND is there room in my philosophical approach to be able to both assert the value of the story I tell as well as assert that it does not exhaust the meaning of God?

I believe the answer to the first question is "no," just as is the case with any story. The story I tell is just as much an extension of the communities and the localities I am a part of as it extends itself from me. Our stories extend beyond ourselves. Of course, this does nothing to counter your claim that such a story is still an idol. After all, whole localities and communities can be deceived.

I believe the answer to the second question is "yes." Consider the quote from Hamlet above. There is always a surplus of meaning beyond the stories we dream. My stories never claim to exhaust the nature of God. God is certainly transcendent over and beyond my stories. Life is more than a solipsistic hell. Life is more than just what our individual stories share. Our stories might glimpse the meaning of the "stranger," and in that they have value. Still, God is beyond our individual stories. It does us all well to remember that.

This is the difference between an idol and an eikon for me. Eikon is a popular word in greek, both amongst philosophers and in the Bible. An idol claims to be exhaustive of God. An eikon is an image of the prism of God, a glance at the stranger beyond our dreams.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that I don't have access to that exhaustive, transcendent story. Emily also acknowledges she does not have access to the complete story - "we have not yet exhausted the task." So what are we supposed to do? We work with what we have. There is a different form of realism at work here - the acknowledgement on my part that we don't have all the answers. Do we give up? My answer is an emphatic "no." We must work with what we have. And so we story-tell.

You might notice that on first glance there is a real shift in the mode of the storyteller between Emily's story and mine. To Emily, the storyteller is God. For the story I tell, the nexus of the individual is the storyteller. My unusual realism creates this shift in emphasis - even if the "storyteller" of the world is God/potential, ultimately we simply cannot tell the story from God's perspective. We don't know what God's perspective might be like. It is like attempting to share in the perspective of another - I have known my brother, for example, for my whole life, and yet, still, (luckily for him, perhaps) I cannot always get into his head. Consider the stranger. "There are more things..."

As such, for both of us God/potential might be the storyteller of creation as a whole, but Emily and I are the storytellers here. The majority of Emily's essay (my post isn't mentioned for five pages after the introduction) is Emily presenting a counter-story to mine. That is what she understands, for me. If you don't like a story, (re)tell a new one.

Of course, there is much possible overlap between our stories. "This Christmas Day" never claimed to be exhaustive, and as Emily rightly points out, it is possible for the story to extend before the birth of Jesus (and after his death). There is much I will not mention in her story that I would be happy to embrace with my story(s).

As I read Emily's story, a theme seemed present to me - even if we are the storytellers of our human stories, God should always be seen as the center, THE storyteller. Emily does give room for human creation, but it is in a very specific role - that of reaction within relationship. Consider, a small list of a few subject/verbs in your essay - "Man rebelled," "Abraham obeyed," "He [Isaac] dreamt." Emily writes that we are in "awe" of God as a "soul-shaking experience" and that "only God could save." And yet within that experience of salvation (within God's domain) we are supposed to "hope in you [God]." "And thus man is faced with a choice."

Absolutely - we are faced with choice(s), choice(s) born in a (re)action toward God. What story will we tell? But it is not a matter of simply choosing God's story or choosing a story of our own. After all, the moment words leave our lips, to a certain degree, we have already made it our own (no matter the story). That is the blessing and curse of choice. Within our lack of knowledge we have a terrible (and liberating/creative) freedom. That freedom is responsibility. What story would we tell?

Emily, you understand - tell a story to counter another story. The question, of course, remains as to whether your story does successfully challenge mine. What is the authority, the values behind your story? Do they successfully pull the story I tell apart?

As far as I read it, your argument, Emily, is this - the story you tell is the story of tradition, while my story is not. For example you say that "He [God] has not changed," and "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still the Holy One of Israel." You extend the story of Christ so that your story gains authority for being rooted in tradition.

There are several problems within this argument, however. First, it is difficult for me to understand why "substitutionary atonement" and David's response to God are related. The story you tell does not necessarily hold together. I, too, value trust, Emily. Acting with trust toward God (as stranger), trust that tragedy will not consume us, trust that our individual stories are not the final words is critically important. However, what does that have to do with God murdering his son for a cruel and vindictive sense of absurd honor?

Secondly, which tradition? There is no unitary whole that holds the world of Christian tradition together. In fact, there had already been several interpretations of the crucifixion before Anselm told the story of substitutionary atonement. Which tradition should we choose? And why? We need to know what traditions to hold as authoritative before we respond with "meek obedience." Who is the stranger that is God? Who is the stranger we have relationship with?

The choices keep revealing themselves. We all have choices to make. You write that it is my "arrogance to make [my] own god and tell [my] own story." You then write that it is "this arrogance [that] lies hidden throughout much of [my] story as [I] cover the safe and unthreatening parts of God's story." I sense poetry - for you what I hide is exactly what I reveal. I reveal safety, the security-blanket God for what it is - a falsehood. It is a falsehood because it keeps us from owning up to our responsibility - the impossible responsibility we have, that we are burdened with. We have choice.

What you see as arrogance, Emily, I see as responsibility. We, as humans, must own up to the fact that we have choices to make, that we have responsibility. That responsibility is not something I take pride in, nor is it something that I am happy to be "arrogant" about. It is a burden we must all live into. We don't have the answers. It isn't in our capacity to know. And so we act and story-tell with what we have. All with the hope that our (re)actions and stories hint toward the stranger that is God. You understand Emily, because your act of storytelling in your essay is exactly that - a grasping in the dark toward God. We grasp together.

To you, "[I] have had the arrogance to tell God who he is and what he wrote." I don't believe that for one moment. Every day, I pray to God for the courage to (re)act toward God, to meet God as stranger. It is that or the void. The void can be tempting at times. Grasping in the dark is exhausting. But the courage God gives me does not allow me to give up. We must not give up simply because we are stuck within our own finite perspectives as storytellers. We must not give up. I cannot give up, because I too "worship... a God who was [is/will be] bigger than any of [my] stories."

And within that grasping, Emily, let it be known that I am not afraid of power. I am afraid of meaninglessness. Call it stubbornness, but even if a omnipotent being that could eliminate me without a trace told me to do an evil act, I would not. Emily, if Satan had set the rules, would you worship him? All we can speak of is "what ought to be." If that condemns us, so be it. At least we will have lived a life of meaning rather than power. Considering that Paul writes that God is a God of the ta me onta, of the powerless and the foolish, of the outcasts, I have to believe that God works with us in our search for meaning (rather than against it). After all, our search for meaning is filled with enough tragedy already.

Ultimately, you write: "Perhaps it would be more accurate to draw a picture of a mighty warrior holding a hollering infant in his firm grasp, his mother left without breath, eyes glued to her child." Call it an idol, call it an eikon, but that mighty warrior is not God, even if that mighty warrior "is." The mighty warrior, militaristic and consumed by power (and nothing else) is the meaningless void. Gripped by it, we struggle on. Our struggling might be futile. And yet, we must not give into the void, into meaningless. Meanwhile, the mother is God, sharing in our suffering, "left without breath, eyes glued to her child." The mother is God, horrified by the death of her son on the cross. That God might not have the coercive power that the mighty warrior has, the dangerously fascinating, crippling pull of the void. Ultimately, though, as you point out, we have choices to make. And I will continue to pray to God for the courage to choose the mother every single time. And as we pray to God for what ought to be, like Job, and find no voice come out of the whirlwind, it is not because God is not there, or because God is the warrior. Instead, it is because God is breathless.

A Response to “This Christmas Day”

[Below you will find a very well-written and thoughtful response to my post "This Christmas Day" by a close friend of mine, Emily Rains. After reading it, I asked Emily if I could post it here, and she gladly agreed. Shortly after posting this, I will post my response above. What you see below is her response in its entirety, minus slight edits to her citation (since my blog does not support footnotes). Any errors in citation are mine. I have always desired this blog to be a dialogue, and I am incredibly grateful to Emily for sharing her thoughts.]

Christmas. Christ Mass. Saturnalia. The birthday of Mithra. Jolly old St. Nick? It certainly doesn’t seem we have added much to the rich traditions surrounding the 25th of December. But though it is, indeed, highly unlikely that Jesus was born on this day, history and more importantly, the church has established this day to honor his birth, whenever it occurred. And that cloud of uncertainty in no way diminishes the hope we receive on account of that event. But as you argued, Drew, this story of a beginning is not complete with out the end. For in the end, the significance of the beginning is understood. If there had been no Good Friday, and no Easter, there would be no Christmas Day, for there would be nothing to celebrate. But Christ did die and rise again and so we celebrate, the day of his birth. Anyone who sees God’s hand in this event is compelled to look beyond the consumerism and religious triteness to seek what God was communicating in Christ’s birth and life and death. And thus, not only is the Christmas story not complete without the Passion story, the real beginning to the whole story came much, much earlier.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” (Ge 1:1). And so begins the story. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1). And now the story is complete. We have the craftsman and his creation, the artist and his masterpiece, the man and his lover. The story might have ended there. But it didn’t. The Storyteller just kept telling and the heavens grew silent and listened. And God spoke man out of the earth, and in a flourish of creative extravagance the Storyteller gave this creature the opportunity to communicate with Him. The same voice that said, “Let there be light” spoke to the man and man understood. And man spoke to God and knew he was understood. God gave the man honor and distinction among his creation and a mandate to rule and subdue the creation (Ge. 1:27,28). So man stood in a relationship of beautiful communion with God, his maker, and the world, his fellow creation and God-given home. And it was good.

The history of man continued but it was no longer good. Man rebelled and destroyed the natural harmony of the creation and rent his perfect relationship with God. But God did not abandon man nor wipe out his creation. “For his steadfast love endures forever,” (Ps 136:1). God continued to interact with his creation, with mankind, and reveal himself to man. He spoke to Abram, who lived in Ur and called him out into the wilderness and promised him a son and descendents who would out number the stars (Ge 12:1, 2). Three strangers came upon Abram one day at his tents and Abram extended his hospitality to them. This unannounced guest was none other than God himself and over dinner he repeated this promise of a son (Ge 18:1-10). God? Visiting a man at a tent? Eating a meal? Promising a son? The Storyteller must have been really enjoying this moment, to be in his story, a fantastical embellishment to an already improbable storyline. But it just gets better. God is on his way to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy them for their great sin. And a short time later, after removing Lot and his daughters from the doomed towns, God destroys the town with fire and sulpher leaving barren ground behind (Ge 19:23-26). This God of creation and amazing promises and cruel destruction brings life out of dead bodies and Isaac is born to Sarah and Abraham (Ge 21:1,2). But then comes the crisis and the point of decision. All creation holds its breath as the God of life and death demands the life of the promised son. In a testimony that speaks as powerfully today as it did when recited by the ancient Hebrews, Abraham obeyed and prepared to sacrifice his only, promised son of his old age to the God who had called him out of Ur and into the wilderness, walked and talked with him, blessed him and tested him. But in a dramatic twist echoing the eternal theme of redemption, God intervened before the fatal stroke and a ram was killed in Isaac’s stead (Ge. 22:1-19). What a story! What a Storyteller!

Abraham’s grandson must have known the stories of his grandfather’s eventful life and powerful God. But none of those stories prepared him for the night he slept under the stars, with only a stone for a pillow and estranged from family and home. For as he slept he dreamt he saw a ladder ascending up into heaven and God, the Lord stood at the top of it and he said, “I am the Lord, God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” (Ge. 28:13). God promised Jacob that he would bless him and be with him and bring him back again to his homeland (Ge 28:1-22). Once again the Storyteller reached in to his own story and spoke to his creature. And as always, it was a soul-shaking experience. Jacob, whether he had taken his father’s God seriously in the past, now stood in humble awe of him, recognizing the authority of his maker to do what he wills in the affairs of man. He saw that this God had the power to create and to destroy, and to him was due honor, fear and humble obedience.

As the story continued to be told, there were many men who honored God. They understood his authority over man and if perhaps they did not understand Him, they knew that theirs was to fear and to trust this great God of their fathers. David, the shepherd, warrior, king and poet, recognized the fearsomeness of the God who created him, and all the world, who brought the plans of the nations to naught, who saw all mankind and knew all their deeds. This God was the only true hope available to man. All other hope, in kings and horses and idols and even in one’s self, were vain. Only God could save (Ps 33: 1-19). And in light of all that David knew about his God, he concluded, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you,” (Ps 33:20-22).

The story continued, Christ came and died and rose again. Men from around the known world acknowledged God and Christ his son and gave God the same awe-inspired fear and honor and obedience that had characterized the people of God from the beginning of the story. For God was no simpler, nor any safer, after the coming of the promised son. If possible, he was more enigmatic than ever. For now, the nation of Israel was set aside for a time while God called all men unto himself in the church. Paul felt the power of this mystery and the grandeur of the Storyteller behind it and burst forth in adoration and honor. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has know the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodes as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” (Ro 11:33-12:1). What other response can there be to a holy and all-powerful God, to whom we owe our lives, our world and without whose communication our world and existence would not hold together in a functional and cohesive whole?

This is the God who holds our lives in his hands today and who knows our hearts and our deeds. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still the Holy One of Israel. He has not changed. And thus man is faced with a choice. He can respond in humble acknowledgement of the majesty of his maker, or he can ignore the burning bush and make his own god out of wood or stone, or money, or things, or people, or words. The challenge is being honest about what you are doing. In recognizing when you are being humble before God and when you are only being humble before man. I know you to be a very humble man, Drew. You are careful to avoid pushing your claims about the world on others, careful to avoid a worldview that tramples on the claims of others. You are self-effacing and open about the deficiencies of your beliefs and claims. In your post, you repeatedly deny any claim to literal truth in your retelling of the story of Jesus. But your attempt to be humble only serves to mask an intrinsic arrogance: the arrogance to make your own god and tell your own story. This arrogance lies hidden throughout much of your story as you cover the safe and unthreatening parts of God’s story. But it still springs to the surface when you arrive at the crux of the story: the crucifixion. You take God’s story into your own hands and rip out its guts. As you write, “there was no magical vindication in Christ’s death (or anyone else’s death) on the cross. No substitutionary atonement. Any God that needs to be appeased for the sin of the world by death (of any sort) is no God. No one (including God) did anything to vindicate Christ’s death. There was no magic in the moment, only tragedy. Christ’s death was like all the others, totally unremarkable and absolutely tragic.” And their stands your idol. You have taken the knife into your own hand and made yourself a graven image. You have been faced with the power of God and his story and you have defaced it. You have had the arrogance to tell God who he is and what he wrote.

What ever this self-made religion may be, it does not honor the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of David, and of Paul. They knew and worshipped a God who was bigger than any of their stories, who was bigger than any of their constructs, who wrote the terms and who demanded the consequences. They knew from experience that God never fit in any box you tried to make and that just when you thought you had him figured out, he surprised you. Theirs was a God who created worlds and created man, who thundered out of heavens and joined Abraham for a dinner, who demanded the life of a promised son and promised his own. A God who knows each sparrow and in whose hand the nations are but a tool. A God who chooses men and nations but who is impartial. A God who burns in almighty hatred of sin and yet His mercy endures forever. A God who created life and ordered death. A God who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:21). The “I am who I am,” (Ex. 3:14). To a God like this, how do godly men respond? They respond like Abraham with humble trust and meek obedience. They respond like Jacob with reverential awe. They respond like David with a cup running over and a testimony before the congregation. Humility is undeniably a part of this response. Recognizing that God has written the rules, he has written the story and He has written us. There is nothing we can do to change the rules. The difficulty lies only in coming to know our God and to understand his rules and this most important pursuit has taken the human race several millennia, and we have not yet exhausted the task. But this pursuit must be governed by humility and honor toward God and cannot ever become the art of God construction. For only idols are constructed.

We simply must come to terms with who God is as we experience him ourselves and reflect on the experiences of others. It is futile to deny the testimony of this experience and say that such a God is not worthy to be a God. Such words are like the slap of an angry infant on his father’s face. It changes nothing about the nature of God and it only underlines the frailty of man in relation to God. Perhaps it would be more accurate to draw a picture of a mighty warrior holding a hollering infant in his firm grasp, his mother left without breath, eyes glued to her child. The infant, seemingly oblivious of the possible consequence, vents his fury on the face of his captor. It is futile; it would be laughable if it were not for the fate of the child trembling in the balance. In that moment, the infant’s protestations against the one who can kill or save him are more than futile; they are dangerously condemning. And although our God has a love for his creatures that is not captured in this picture, he is even more powerful in relation to us and holds our fate even more utterly in his hands.

If this God makes you uncomfortable, Drew, then you have truly seen him as he is. For he does not condescend to fit our guidelines, he soars above and beyond the mores and bounds of this created world and asserts his infinite transcendence in our lives. It is hardly surprising that when he acts, we are left shaking in our shoes and scratching our heads. God IS. We simply have to deal with that fact.

And if you don’t like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, if you hold fast to your assertion that a God like this is not one you can respect, then go, meet God face to face. Challenge the Author of History with your objections. Demand that the Father of the stars defend his intentions. Tell the one who can kill both the body and the soul what the terms ought to be.
And although there may be no voice out of the whirlwind, you will find that the answer hasn’t changed much since Job demanded justice from God.