When Too Many Voices Speak for God

We can stagger under the impact of know-it-all voices.

Religious hypocrisy is a perennial problem among Christians. In fact, none of us ever live lives fully consistent with the gospel we claim to believe. One bitter fruit of this is that God’s good reputation gets tarnished outside of the circles of professed believers. I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paul’s Pious Phonies.

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There is another unfortunate fruit (more like a thistle) of this hypocrisy. Confidence in the message we preach and teach is undermined. This loss of confidence is intensified when we hear multiple voices proclaiming divergent understandings of God’s will.

I have lived most of my life in environments where I have heard a cacophony of conflicting voices each claiming to understand the truth for the church. I have often experienced a sense of betrayal by people (not only professional theologians and preachers, but also Sunday school teachers and devotional book writers) who have confidently proclaimed what they believe to be the will of God and therefore how I should live. As a boy and youth I accepted their claims without question.

But as I have advanced in my spiritual journey, I have come to question, if not outright reject, much of what was taught me when I was younger. I have adopted a lively caution as I listen to what I hear proclaimed today, not only in Evangelical circles, but in mainstream Protestant and Catholic circles. That caution works like a spiritual Geiger counter that constantly tests for what may be nothing more than religious cant.

What often sets off that spiritual Geiger counter is any claim by a speaker or writer that he or she is presenting the only one true way to God. The tone is I-know-it-all. This strikes me as true arrogance. My God will not be boxed into one theological box. My God may accomplish his purposes in ways far beyond anything I can imagine or expect.

What is called for, I believe, is a fundamental humility about our understandings of God and God’s will. We can and should live our lives confidently in the beliefs and convictions we hold. That is the way of maturity. Yet we must always be ready to admit that we might just be wrong. Infallibility is not a gift given to mankind.*

My Debt to the Reformation

To be honest, however, such a stance of humility can bear its own disquieting fruit. We can listen to the many theologies and ethical systems laid before us by preachers, spiritual teachers, theologians, and fellow lay Christians and then feel totally confused. Such confusion saps us of confident living. How do we end up making choices about what is right and true, choices on which we can choose to live our lives?

Here is where I realize that despite many qualms about my upbringing, I remain a spiritual son of the Reformation. For when I am confronted with a viewpoint that I do not fully understand or trust, I return to the Bible to find my bearings once again. It serves as the spiritual polar star that orients my faith journey. It is the rudder that keeps my spiritual ship sailing within a life-delivering channel. It is why the study of the Bible remains central to my spiritual life and my preaching and teaching.

When I say that, I am not saying that I practice some form of proof-texting where I find some verse in the Bible which I then extract out of context and turn into an isolated statement of universal truth. Such proof-texting lies behind much of the religious know-it-all arrogance from which I rebel.

I don’t believe that because a particular sentence appears in the Bible, it automatically becomes the authoritative word of God. Context and literary genre, for example, matter. So when I read the Bible, I try to be especially acute to the context of a phrase or sentence as well as the literary genre in which that phrase or sentence is embedded.

What I am doing  when I turn to Scripture is that I seek to soak myself in Scripture’s spirit and mindset. That means that, in a spiritual sense, I bathe myself in the waters of Scripture, listening to and meditating on what the Bible’s many diverse writers are saying. For I do not find one consistent message in the Bible, but a group of diverse voices in dialogue with each other. Their many voices remind me of the many voices of the rabbis whose wide-ranging discussions lie behind the creation of the Talmud.

Within that diversity of opinion and vision, I hope that I will tap into the Spirit who animates them all. The Spirit can do his work to cultivate within me the mind of Christ, which Paul urges us to adopt in Philippians 2:5: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….

As we come to look more and more at the world and at our own individual lives from within that mind of Christ, we can have confidence that the Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the truth.**

This is one important reason why I write this blog. I have confidence in the Bible because I have confidence in the Spirit that lies behind the Bible. The Bible therefore is worth the hours of energy that I invest in reading it and trying to understand its complex and spacious message.

This confidence in the Spirit is no guarantee, however, that my thinking will be without error. My creaturely mind will never be big enough to comprehend the fullness of truth. There will never be any grounds for intellectual or spiritual arrogance. But I can hope that I will be drawn deeper into the truth as I remain open both to the Spirit’s reshaping of my mind and heart and to perceptions of the truth offered by my fellow human beings.

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* On the issue of humility, I want to affirm the spirit expressed in this prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me ,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I was introduced to this prayer in a 2012 issue of the magazine Reflections, published by Yale Divinity School. The theme of the issue was: Seizing the Day: Vocation, Calling, and Work.

 ** What I am trying to say about the role of the Bible in my life parallels what the sages who wrote the Book of Proverbs say about the search for wisdom. For them, what ensures that their search for wisdom will prove fruitful is that it is grounded in an underlying fear of the Lord. This fear is understood not as terror, but as awe, reverence, and trust. The classic statement of this viewpoint comes in Proverbs 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

For me, one dimension of fearing the Lord is my basic reverence and openness to the words and thoughts I find in the Bible.

 

Qoheleth and the Trinity

If love is real, what does that say about the meaning of the universe?

If you are prone to depression, then you might be wise not to tackle the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The author is billed as the Preacher (Qoheleth in Hebrew.) As a revered sage, he reflects upon his life obsession with discovering the meaning of life.

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The Great Sage: Augustine of Hippo in his study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480.

His conclusion is disappointing. Vanities of vanities!, he concludes, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew might be more accurately translated as “mere breath” or “a puff of wind.” Nothing lasts. What is here today is gone tomorrow. And in example after example he drives that point home.

So what’s his advice for wise living?

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

 This conclusion is the fruit of his lifelong pursuit of wisdom. He has read deeply. He has observed the world of both nature and human beings. He has applied all his rational powers to trying to understand it. His approach parallels that of most philosophers and scientists today.

The Dead End Search for Meaning

He comes to the same conclusion as many of them do as well. Years ago I read a book titled Why Does the World Exist? byJim Holt.* The author seeks to penetrate the mystery of existence by interviewing a number of distinguished philosophers and scientists, including Nobel laureates.

His interviewees offer a number of answers, some of which mirror those of various philosophers down through the ages. But what I found most curious was the number of cosmologists and physicists who said the end result of all of their scientific explorations was the conclusion that the world was meaningless. There is no discernable reason why the world exists.

It reminded me of something that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote.

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home… that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temper of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.**

 One gets the idea that Qoheleth would fit right in in the halls and classrooms of modern academia and scientific labs.

In an intellectual world in which only rational conclusions are accepted as valid, it seems to me that Qoheleth and his companions present a perfectly persuasive argument. The law of entropy suggests that a form of death is the irreversible fate of all that exists in the universe. And if you take up the task of trying to answer why evil exists, then you are probably hammering the nails into the coffin of meaningfulness.

But What About Love?

I was reading Ecclesiastes recently, as I have many times before. I noticed something peculiar this time. The author is convinced that God is real. But the author’s favorite image of God seems to be that of the judge. This leads to the book’s final note of advice:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

What is strikingly missing from the author’s reflections is any perception of God as a God of love. The theme of love is missing throughout the book. And I find myself wondering if that lack accounts for the author’s such dismal conclusions.

If love is real–and human experience says it is, even if in all the partial and broken ways we experience it­–then there is a force at work in the universe that cannot ultimately be captured by human reason or scientific instruments. And may the meaningfulness of the universe be ultimately grounded in that reality? I would like to suggest that is not a phantom assumption.

Love Grounded in the Triune Character of God

I suggest that on the basis of the orthodox Christian assertion that God is triune–a Godhead that is not a singular, motionless monad, but a Godhead who is a unified, yet complex network of presences, presences that Christians have labeled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we confess that God is love, we are saying more than that God relates to creation–and to us–in love. We are saying that God is love within God’s own very being. The doctrine of the Trinity makes that very clear when it asserts that what constitutes the very being or life of the Godhead is the eternal dance of giving and receiving that goes on among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That dance is itself love.

Meaning is to be found and experienced within all our networks of love, but most especially in the network of love that constitutes the divinity. If God is love, then the universe that comes from him and is sustained always by him is grounded in love. And that will give the universe and human experience its ultimate meaning.

We may not be able to fully express what that meaning is in words, but we can be confident that when we experience love, we are experiencing in a deeply existential sort of way the meaning of our own lives as well as the meaning of the whole universe.

If all this is true, then Qoheleth’s search for the meaning of life takes on a whole different complexion. Let us indeed eat, drink, and be merry, but in the sobriety as well as the intoxication of love in all its many dimensions.

Writer’s Note: I recognize that I am likely to be vastly misunderstood in what I say if my reader limits his or her understanding of love to erotic love alone. When I talk of love, I have in mind the full spectrum of love as the Christian tradition has understood it. That includes erotic love, but even more importantly compassionate love, service love, and sacrificial love. For the Christian tradition, the highest expression of love was the love of Christ who  accepted the suffering of the cross for the sake of the salvation of the world.

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* Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?, New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2012.

** Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian,  Simon And Schuster, New York, 1957, p. 106.

 

A King James Surprise

Because English has changed so much since 1611, we miss a subtle feature employed by the King James translators.

The King James Version (KJV) has an unmatched eminence among English translations of the Bible. It has profoundly influenced English speech ever since, especially English rhetoric and literary style. One needs only remember that the power of Abraham Lincoln’s oratory owed much to his childhood immersion in the King James Bible and Shakespeare.

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The title page of the King James Bible published in 1611.

One of the enduring influences of the KJV is the elevated tone it set for religious language in English, especially the language used in liturgy. The KJV translators adopted some features of middle English that were already becoming archaic in their own day to give their Bible a more heightened style as divine scripture. For example, verb forms like falleth and doest would have sounded old-fashioned to Jacobeans just as they do to us.

We tend to assume that one other feature of this heightening tone is the KJV’s standard use of thou, thee, and thy as the pronouns in addressing or referring to God. Ever since English speakers have assumed that these pronouns give elevated sanctity to our addresses to God.*

If we make this assumption, we are wrong. The KJV translators were striving for something else in using these pronouns in reference to God.

The Original Association of Thou, Thee, and Thy

Thou, thee, and thy were once the standard pronouns in middle English used for the second person singular. Thou was the nominative form, thee the accusative form, and thy the possessive form. If you were addressing a single person, you would have addressed him or her as thou.

You and yours were the second person plural pronouns. If you used the word you, it was understood that you were addressing more than one person. The effect would have been similar to that of the slang expression we use today you all (clearly a plural address).

Middle English also shared with other European languages the custom of using the second person plural pronouns in formal speech. If a lower-status person were addressing a person of high rank, he would have used you, even if he were only talking to one person. For example, he would have said your majesty to a king, not thy majesty.

The second person singular forms, however, were the customary pronouns that you used in addressing someone you were familiar or intimate with. So a mother might address her child as thou. Likewise a man might address his wife or a close, bosom friend. Using thou, thee, and thy was then a sign that someone was in an intimate or familiar relationship with you.  The effect was to include that person within the circle of your family.

This intimate cast of the word thou would have been parallel to the use of tu in French or du in German. All of these words carried the trappings of familiarity, intimacy, or some social level of equality.

In the Elizabethan era the use of thou, thee, and thy was beginning to fade. All second person speech, whether singular or plural, was being covered by the all inclusive you. But there were yet memories of how thou, thee, and thy had this cast of intimacy. That is why Quakers continued to use these forms into the 17th,  18th, and 19th  centuries. Quakers considered all members of their sect as brothers and sisters, and so all should be addressed using the intimate form of the second person pronouns.

The Emotional Effect of Retaining Thou, Thee, and Thy

The KJV translators retain these second person pronouns in referring to God. But their intent was something different than choosing a heightened terminology in addressing God. They were not communicating that God was exalted, remote, and distant.

Rather by choosing this terminology, they were signaling that our relationship with God is one of intimacy.  God is our loving Father. Therefore, God should not be addressed with the formal you but with the informal, intimate thou. For God is in a sense so close to us that he forms a part of our family. He is the father of our spiritual family. Jesus was conveying the same sense when he chose to address God as Abba, which was Aramaic for the word Daddy.

But as English has changed, we have lost touch with this intimate cast of the second person singular pronouns thou, thee, and thy. Instead they have become formal terms heightened by their use in talk about the divinity. As a result, they tend to speak to us of the spiritual distance of God rather than of God’s intimate presence with us. And as that happens, we undermine the intent of the King James translators. How ironic!**

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* It was also the adopted practice of Thomas Cramner in his drafting of the Book of Common Prayer. That book has had even greater influence on the vocabulary we have traditionally used in English-speaking worship.

** I want to acknowledge that this insight into this feature of the KJV translators is one that I gained from listening to the lecture series The History of the English Language, by Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford University. The lecture series is published by the Great Courses company of Chantilly, Virginia. The series is an excellent survey of the development of the English language. Lerer devotes one whole lecture to the translators of the King James Bible.