The evangelical abdication of Truth; or, Two out of three is really, really bad

truth on handsWork continues on my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. The chapter with the working title “Passion for theology” has been kicking my butt up and down the street for a few days, but I got up at 4 this morning and the introduction finally came together. Here it is:

In the charismatic church where I came to Christ as a young man, we couldn’t wait for Sunday. Week after week we experienced such rich, life-changing ministry in worship and prayer. Night after night, the altar was jammed with eager worshippers seeking a “touch from the Lord.” And it seemed like He was always there to meet us and put his loving arms around us. After the service, we would leave the building with our hearts bursting with gratitude and joy. We even joked that it might not be safe to drive in that condition! And it didn’t take much prodding for us to evangelize, either: who wouldn’t want to share such riches?

I will always be grateful for those days, and for the divine condescension that worked among us with such power. Some folks accuse charismatics of not giving God or Christ his due. “There’s so much ‘me’ language in their songs,” they grump. And sure, our worship could become self-indulgent. But the critics just don’t “get” why charismatics use the first person so much in church. It’s because they live in constant awe that the God of Creation condescends to save and to love even them. What a God, who meets us in our brokenness and wraps his arms around us like the father with the prodigal son! The charismatic experience of God is like every love song on the radio. Try writing one of those without using the first person!

More than all of this, we loved church because we knew that we came away from it changed. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of imperfection in our lives. But along with the love-fest came real personal transformation: Sins confessed. Grace experienced. Old wounds healed. Broken relationships restored. Release from addictions. God not only loved us—he made us better people. We experienced not only the Beauty of his presence among us, but also the Goodness that came from the operation of his Spirit in our hearts.

But here’s the thing. As the Greek philosophers knew, humans cannot live on Beauty and Goodness alone. There is a third realm necessary for human flourishing: the realm of Truth. And in that area, I sensed that the charismatic church of my twenties was standing on thin ice. Many of our key teachings came from self-taught celebrity preachers who skewed heavily to the topical—and away from the exegetical—end of the preaching spectrum. Their messages were rousing, to be sure. They got the people standing on their feet and coming up to the altar. But by dint of stringing together out-of-context Bible verses with some homespun wisdom, these teachers took us down some garden paths: The prosperity gospel. Blame-the-victim faith healing. Demon-in-every-doorknob spiritual warfare. We fell over ourselves to get to all that wonderful Beauty and Goodness, and we left Truth in the ditch.

I won’t paint all evangelical Protestants with this same brush, but I’ve seen the same syndrome in a lot of churches, non-charismatic as well as charismatic: in the rush to apply the Gospel, to change ourselves and change the world, we bypass truth-seeking. After all, we’ve found The Answer. Why do we need to spend our precious time in a reasoned exploration of Truth? We’re pragmatic, can-do Americans. We go straight from experience to application, with a minimum of reflection in between.

What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we cannot content ourselves with seeking (only) the experience of encountering God in worship—in the awesome “beauty of his holiness”—or even (only) the amelioration of our own character, as wonderful and important as both of those things are in the Christian life. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can remain so only if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians know God as the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.

For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of theology; that is the job of theologians, professors, and pastors—those who serve the church through the gift of teaching. But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology.[1] Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.

If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of us have been formed, philosophy has always been not an intellectual game but a way of life. (As we’ll see, the early Christians had a word for those who do theology in the mode of hyper-intellectual abstraction: “heretic.”) So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas. Their passion for theology was a passion for God.

One more thing: simplistic theology is not just dangerous because it can lead to heresy. That is true enough, but there is another way that the refusal to pursue Truth is hamstringing the church today. When we refuse to “think with God” as Christians, we fail to understand not just God, but also the world he has given us. Nature. Society. God has fashioned us and our world in supremely intricate, beautiful, rational ways. He is a God of reason, and he gives us reason to understand our world. But when we fail in that understanding, then we become captive to the fads and fancies of our culture. We become captive to the slogans of political parties, the fantasies of Hollywood, the advertised pleasures of Madison Avenue. We are misshapen and lessened by political creeds, cultural imaginations, and personal habits and indulgences that contradict the truth about the kinds of wonderful creatures we really are and the kind of wonderful world in which we live. Because we fail to see ourselves and our world in the light of God’s truth (which is to say, because we fail to do good theology!), we hurt ourselves in so many sad and unnecessary ways.

Personal encounter with God. Changed lives. These are very good things. But Beauty and Goodness cannot last without Truth. And the kinds of Truth we Christians need to learn are not just truths about God, but also truths about the intricate and rationally structured world he made. In this chapter, we will learn how medieval theologians brought together faith and reason, love and logic, religion and science, Word and world in a breathtaking synthesis that not only delved deep into the Bible for wisdom about our life with God, but also birthed the university, modern science, and even economic flourishing. And as before, we will start our path into these medieval thinkers with C.S. Lewis, the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” of the Old Western tradition who translated that tradition’s ideas for modern Christians.[2]

But first, I need to make a quick clarification:

By distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty does not exist in the objective world—it is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty in a waterfall. And from the existence of that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving early and medieval Christians’ search for theological truth about God and the world was not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful. We need to recapture that holism.

Now, on to Lewis . . .

[1] The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

[2] The “dinosaur” reference is to his self-characterization as a “native speaker” of the language of the early and medieval Christian tradition in the West in his address to Cambridge University upon being installed as the chair in Medieval and Renaissance studies in 1954. The essay is titled “De Descriptione Temporum,” and may be found in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper.

One response to “The evangelical abdication of Truth; or, Two out of three is really, really bad

  1. Great intro! Truth, Beauty, & Goodness. Looking forward to reading the rest!

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