Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Do You Do When a Total Heretic Says Correct Things?

I heard a friend ask that question recently, and I have since put some thought into organizing some longstanding ideas on the subject.

First, we should not be surprised when this happens.  Even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day. More seriously, God's common grace brings about the refreshment of rain on the just and the unjust alike, and even a heretic will typically recognize that he is wet -- and he may say something insightful or beautiful about the event.  Sometimes, even the best among us fall into this mode of thinking in which we imagine that those who are against us are wrong headed and evil in every way. Of course, upon reflection, any remotely thoughtful person recognizes that this is really not the case.  Those holding, in my understanding, even the most pernicious views -- barring some form of insanity -- will share many thoughts in common with my own. 

Anyone who wishes not to be narrow will find the need to read and interact with views that differ from his own, and appreciation for God's gifts to others will cause us to realize that God has given insight to those with whom we disagree on various areas.  While I am reformed in my views, I recognize that there is considerable variation even if I were to restrict my reading to the historically reformed, and I also recognize value in the writings outside of my own stream of thought. I recenty wrote a post commending some thoughts of G.K. Chesterton.  Chesterton, a Catholic with whom I would disagree about much, also said much that I would consider worthwhile, and I could encourage others to read Chesterton's books.  I sing and love the hymns of Wesley, an Arminian, and read sermons by Spurgeon, a Baptist. These I find insightful and helpful, though there are issues about which I would have strong disagreement.

And, of course, I can benefit from and publicly cite disagreements with authors that I have strong antipathy for their views. This is true in both academic and popular discourse.

But what about someone who is notorious that says something I like?  My own approach is that it is counterproductive to rely on the support of someone who is thoroughly unsound, and if I need arguments or supporting material, I should take the time to find a more reliable source.  Hugh Hefner might have over the years said something I agreed with about sexual ethics -- maybe -- but I am not likely to quote him for positive support in Sunday's sermon. Similarly, the Watchtower Society or Pelagius, Joel Osteen, or Doug Wilson, or some other unreliable person may say something I like about God or worship or the Christian life, but I am unlikely to quote them. I really don't want to encourage anyone to listen to or read any of those sources, and those aware of their reputation may question my use of source material.  In the vast array of Christian literature, there are many others that can be looked to for illustrative or supportive material.

Of course, this recognizes a spectrum extending out from my own understanding.  There are some with whom I disagree, but I recognize that their views are within the broad stream of catholic Christianity.  Others fall outside that stream, and I regard them differently in terms of the way I would cite them. All of this requires discernment and care, but this largely explains my own approach to this question.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Knowing whom to believe in

For decades, I have seen G.K. Chesterton quoted in various works, but, to my detriment, I have never read anything by him -- not his mystery novels, his works in Christian apologetics, or anything else. I say "to my detriment," as last night while browsing the selections at Barnes & Noble, I picked up his "Orthodoxy" and was arrested by the very first page. The following thoughts result from my reading only the first couple of pages -- reading the rest will come later.

Chesterton describes himself as walking down a London street with his publisher, who remarked that a person he was working with could go a long way if he just learned to believe in himself. Chesterton replied that insane asylums were filled with people who believed in themselves more than Napoleon or Caesar had believed in themselves. When the publisher challenged him to provide an alternative for people putting their faith in themselves, Chesterton decided to write a book.

Part of the reason that this drew my interest is that while Chesterton's conversation occurred over 100 years ago, it has a very modern feel. "Believe in yourself" is a modern mantra, and it is arguably the chief end not only of pop psychology, but also of much evangelicalism -- just before looking at Chesterton's book, I had flipped through the pages of Rev. Steven Furtick's execrable "Chatterbox," and the thinking of the books would not have been more different if Furtick were an atheist.

The Apostle's Creed, which was written well after the apostolic age but nonetheless summarizes in broad terms the historic faith of Protestants and Catholics alike, begins: "I believe in God the Father Almighty...." When Christians recite the creed, we tend to think of it as a series of propositions that we adhere to -- and it is at least that. However, Christians hold that this word "believe" does not affirm mere intellectual assent. Belief is a matter of both the intellect and the will. It is a matter of trust, as well as assent. As such, the Creed is the Christian's affirmation of both truth and ultimate value.

There is a sharp contrast here. Our culture -- including much of our religious culture -- tells us, with regard to our hopes and aspirations: "Believe in yourself!"  In the Creed I confess my belief in God. Why would I believe in myself as the basis for hope and aspiration, when I instead have the option of believing in God the Father Almighty? I choose the latter.

Of course, the modern religionist assures us that belief in God leads to belief in self, but this is nonsense that results from thinking out of the wrong categories. It is true that belief in God the Father Almighty leads his people to engage in bold and energetic enterprises. However, those who want to put believing in self alongside belief in God always end up making much of themselves and little of God. In that thinking, we always end up in the big roles, while God plays the supporting actor. However, God does not share his glory with his creatures, and our power is minuscule beside his. This making much of self is exactly opposite of the way it should be.

Why insist on believing in myself, when instead I can believe in God the Father Almighty?

We should be plain about forms of Christianity that encourage belief in self: they are anti-Christ. The goal of the Father from all eternity was that Christ would have the pre-eminence. The work of the Holy Spirit, as described by Jesus, is to speak of and glorify the Son of God. Christian teaching that is indeed Christian points to belief in -- trust in -- Christ. Teaching that urges belief in self is something else.

In myself, there is weakness and sin. Yet, I go forth in life. I don't trust in myself. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.