Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

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How We Learn

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We most frequently follow one of three approaches to learning: the behavioral approach, the rational approach, and the authoritative approach. In the behavior approach, we follow the path of least resistance—we do more of things that have positive reinforcement and less of things with negative reinforcement. In the rational approach, we explore the alternatives presented and chose the best alternative based on our exploration. In the authoritative approach, we may start with either the behavioral or the rational approach but we limit our exploration to options suggested by a mentor or leader.

An example of the authoritative approach is found in Luke 8 following the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus gives his disciples a lesson:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15 ESV)

In this context, how do we know what we know? In the passage, Jesus gives us an interpretive key: “The seed is the word of God.” We understand and accept the lesson in this passage for two reasons. First, the key comes from a reliable source: Jesus. As Christians, we trust the Bible to tell us about Jesus who is known to use parables in his teaching. Second, the key itself, like the Copernican mathematics of planetary motion, makes intrinsic sense—the parable which was posed as a riddle, suddenly becomes meaningful like a lock opened with a key.

While not all problems that we are confronted with take the form of a riddle unlocked with a key, the parsimony displayed in Jesus’ parable demonstrates the value of the authoritative approach in learning. Most learning both inside and outside the church follows the authoritative approach, in part, because it accelerates our learning. Unbridled skepticism is a rookie mistake or a cynical attempt to undermine faith.

Our discomfort in the present age arises because we have many more choices than tools for selecting among them and we have been convinced that we should prefer the rational approach, even though even the best scientists rely on the informed opinion of others. Just like good seminary students apprentices themselves to the best pastors and theologians, the best scientists compete to be students in the best universities and with the best professors. It seems to be no accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, was the son of Germany’s finest psychologists of that day.[1] The question as to whether the authoritative approach is a valid approach to learning is moot, because everyone uses it.

If we try to avoid the authoritative approach, we actually put ourselves at risk. If we adopt the behavioral approach to every problem, for example, the positive reinforcement of addictive substances and addictive circumstances will lead us to self-destruction. Alternatively, if we adopt a rational approach to every problem, analysis paralysis will lead us into burnout and untimely decisions will cause us to miss opportunities. In this context, trusting a divine mentor can lead us to limit our choices to better choices.

The Parable of the Sower offers at least one other insight into our learning process. Jesus tells his disciples a story in the form of a parable. Story telling accomplishes at least three things relevant to the learning process. Stories are:

  1.  Easily understood and remembered.
  2.  Suggest insights into how the world works indirectly which does an end-run around our natural, human resistance to taking advice.
  3. Provide context for the words used in the story, defeating the criticism that the meaning of words depends solely on the social context of the reader.

Far from being unsophisticated, Jesus’ use of parables suggests a level of sophistication seldom equaled in the modern and post-modern eras, even in mass media.

Reference

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] “In 1912, Dietrich’s father [Karl] accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany, position he retained until his death in 1948.” (Metaxas 2010, 13)

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A Roadmap of Simple Faith

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament pictures Jesus as someone who enters our life, calls us into discipleship, and gives us kingdom work to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus finds Peter and Andrew at work fishing and calls them with these words: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19) As a rabbi, Jesus offers his lifestyle and teaching as a model to follow, but, unlike other rabbis, Jesus seeks out his students and redirects their life in terms of what they are already doing. Their response is remarkable—they drop their nets and follow Jesus (Matt 4:20)—because their simple faith in Jesus amounts to only two things: obedience (responding to Jesus’ invitation) and action (following Jesus). Other than obedience and action, they only know that he is a rabbi (Matt 4:17). Their roadmap was the person of Jesus.

What is Faith?

Knowing only that Jesus was a rabbi and that he invited them to follow him suggests that their faith consisted of taking the risk of enrolling in a class of religious instruction. The content of Jesus’ instruction was not necessarily obvious nor was it obvious that this instruction would provide gainful employment, because Jesus not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Furthermore, Peter and Andrew were already Jews so their faith in Jesus did not constitute an obvious conversion experience. Jesus offered them a study opportunity and they accepted. No strings were attached; no tuition was required; Peter and Andrew just had to accept Jesus’ instruction. The fuller meaning of this instruction only comes later as Jesus’ full identity is revealed because knowing who Jesus is raises the stakes in accepting his instruction.

Why Epistemology?

This model of simple faith—obedience and action—extends also to us, but how do we know? In this age of suspicion and doubt, this question has particular significance because Jesus’ call—“follow me”—comes to us at least second hand. We read an English text translated from Greek which was itself copied by hand for almost two thousand years after the Apostle Matthew wrote it based on the testimony of others, having himself been called later (Matt 9:9), and, then, only after the resurrection made it obvious that these events had eternal significance. The epistemological question—how do we know?—is therefore a reasonable and interesting question worthy of study even in the absence of doubt.

The Four Philosophical Questions

The epistemological question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. Those questions are:

  • Metaphysics—who is God?
  • Anthropology—who are we?
  • Epistemology—how do we know?
  • Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. In this book, I explore the epistemological question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy (I have a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in economics) but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we know?

Simplicity

In approaching the epistemological question, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But the young seeker curious about God and a hardened old atheist should take note. It is interesting that Copernicus’ observation that the planets revolved around the sun simplified the mathematics of planetary motion, because the earth was not the true center of the solar system.[1] In the same manner, our lives are simplified when we acknowledge that we are God’s creation, not the creators of our own universe. Simple is good; weeds are bad. As life is short, the need for a proper focus is instrumental to coping with life’s many adversities.[2]

What Does Holy Mean?

The act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[3] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

Roadmap

In this writing project I propose to look at the epistemological question analytically by breaking it down into a series of questions, including:

  • How do we approach thinking?
  • What does the Bible Say About God?
  • How do we argue God’s existence?
  • What can we say about the criticisms of faith?
  • Why do we care?

This last question may seem out of place in this discussion, but it is, in fact, a critical to our evaluation of faith arguments. Faith is a life and death matter because, as human beings, we strive for meaning and cannot face life without it. When the Apostle Paul repeats an early Christian confession—

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

—he starts by describing it as being “of first importance”. Paul is not writing about a philosophical hobby-horse. He is talking about faith as something worth dying for, which he later did. Faith is both our compass and our anchor. And anything worth dying for, is worth living for.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Lotz, Anne Graham. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing.

Polanyi, Michael. 1962. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernican_Revolution. Polanyi (1962, 3-5) argues somewhat differently: “This would imply that, of two forms of knowledge, we should consider as more objective that which relies to a greater measure on theory [Copernican theory] rather than on more immediate sensory experience [Ptolemaic system].”

[2] Some stories bear repeating. One story concerned a dinner party where Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills. “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lotz 2000, 3) The punch line here is that the best apologetic for the Gospel is Jesus himself.

[3] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Also see: Incentive to Examine Faith

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Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?

Epistemology

The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Why is Epistemology Interesting?

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Complex World Requires More Understanding

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

Project Objective

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

Incentive to Examine Faith

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