Reflection: 5 lessons I’ve learned

I’m scheduled to address the youth group at my church in a month. The general topic I was given is “A lesson I have learned.” This got me thinking. Could I name concisely specific things I have learned about God in the past 10 years? I know I’ve come a long way. I started as someone with an avocational interest in theology during my late high school and early college years. That grew into a specific area of study that has taken me all over the world and back earning two degrees and briefly starting a terminal degree in the subject. But could I put my finger on the lessons i’ve learned? I think I have. Here are the 5 most important lessons I’ve learned in the past 10 years or so.

1. You can’t put God in a Box

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that God constantly defies our human expectations for divinity. In other words, God doesn’t play by our rules. God is free. There are no obligations external to God to which he must conform.

When we think of how human intellectual movements spread, it is reasonable to us to posit powerful, eloquent leaders with a good pedigree and education in turn mobilizing similar people. Perhaps we think of strategic military leaders overtaking regions by force and then forcing assimilation. We may think of very charismatic orators persuading large swoths of people to see the world as they do. But in the spread of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love of his creation and his defeat of its self-defeating tendencies, i.e. sin, is/was not accomplished through these expected means. Indeed, God’s very defeat of sin itself was not undertaken in a reasonable and expected manner. You see, the 1st century understanding of the expected messiah was that a great, charismatic, military leader, would come and kick the Roman occupiers out and restore Jewish National identity. Instead, the Son took the form of a man, a carpenter, born out of wedlock (talk about taboo). The rescue operation appeared to be a failure as the leader of the movement was executed by those he was expected to kick out. And yet this was exactly how God intended it. This how God so often works, defying our expectations.  This is exactly what Paul is getting at speaking about the foolishness of preaching in 1Cor 1:18-31. The fact that God has done it this way, is a reason for us to rejoice and boast in him.

This will be my topic at youth group in a few weeks.

2. If you want to know what God is like, you look at Jesus (not philosophy).

The problem with many approaches to apologetics is that they seek to use reason alone, or reason in combination with experience to arrive at a conception of God. Usually the conception at which they arrive is something akin to Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. This conception then is normative for what God must be like. This is precisely where the enlightenment went (when it remained favorable to religion, it did so as deism). God as the ‘unmoved mover’ created all and set it in motion and then stepped back. God’s interaction with creation was deemed at best improbable but more often an impossibility. This is not the way to approach a doctrine of God. We must recognize that we are dependent in the process of knowing God. Dependent does not mean passive any more than blind does, but it does mean that we lack the capacity to apprehend an accurate account of the divine unaided. God must make himself known. Indeed he has–in the person and work of Jesus. Any account of God that is not centered on Jesus as the revelation of God is woefully inadequate. Jn 1:18 “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (NIV) 

Many apologists, while apt logicians, are poor intellectual historians. We cannot pretend Kant didn’t happen. The rest of the intellectual world exists in a Post-Kantian frame of mind. Our cause is not served by ignoring his Copernican revolution. May we awake from our dogmatic slumber and realize that we have no epistemological access to God except by way of God’s own bridging of the epistemological chasm! This bridging can only be intelligible in the person of Jesus Christ.

Many approaches to apologetics are preoccupied with demonstrating the logical necessity of a maximally perfect being, etc. But it does not follow that if there is a god that he must be the Christian God. A categorical error occurs in this methodology. If we can and should found our account of this god primarily on reason, at what point does reason alone demand that the historical person of Jesus has something of value to contribute to our understanding of the identity of this perfect being that Mohammed does not? Christian apologists here change their method in the midst of argumentation. They begin by saying that we must listen to reason and logic and thus proceed inductively to the existence of this god. Then the triune identity of this god is asserted and shown to comport with reason deductively. Further more, we must not pretend the cause of Christ and his kingdom is served by convincing people a perfect being exists–it is only serve by making a people  who worship, serve, and follow Jesus.

3. There is really no such thing as a ‘minor’ doctrine.

I am not here saying that our eschatologies are of equal importance as say the doctrine of the Trinity, only that in so far as Christianity is a coherent worldview, then even your minor doctrines have profound implications for life, as well as implications for your ‘major’ doctrines. What you say about the ‘last things’ implies certain beliefs about more substantial matters like salvation, the doctrine of Christ, and even your doctrine of the church. These lesser doctrines are supposed to be downstream the larger ones, and should reflect the upstream composition.

Insofar as we have a responsibility to seek consistency and coherence, we must recognize that minor doctrines have a major and instrumental role in faithfully communicating the whole Gospel.

4. The church is not served when we deal too simply with complex matters.

We often seek to simplify our theology in hopes that we can be big tents and not divide over small matters. However, oversimplification leads to ambiguity and suspicion of other’s motives and  it doesn’t foster healthy debate. When debate, including disagreement, is present both sides have the opportunity 1) be corrected and 2) grow in their own understanding and appreciation of the faith. Both sides of a debate are often edified by the discussion itself. To avoid the discussion is not to foster unity but to squander opportunity to grow.

5.Theology that doesn’t culminate in worship is vain, but worship that isn’t steeped in theology is empty.

The biggest lesson I try to hit home in the first few weeks of the semester is “why one should engage in theology.” Often coming into the class, their biggest objection to theology is that it stunts worship. In truth, its telos is, as Stanely Hauerwas says in the preface to his Gifford Lectures published as, With The Grain of the Universe, “…to help Christians pray faithfully.” When we are theologically informed we are given the concepts and vocabulary to vocalize our adoration, gratitude, and confession. This is where every Christian doctrine is inherently practical. You must apply your theology in your prayer life before it will ever affect any other aspect of your life.

Thoughts? Comments? What are the 5 biggest theological lessons you’ve learned?