Monday, August 24, 2015

Walking away from Christ

I read this post Sunday about a fellow who has abandoned Christianity principally for two reasons: first, because God was so intolerably silent during a period of profound suffering and worry; second, because of the disunity of the Christian Church regarding the proper teaching on important matters, which suggests a failure on God's part to communicate clearly and effectively.

Read the post for yourself and see the author's reasoning. It seems to me the problem here -- as in many other cases of persons who have abandoned the Christian religion -- is attempting to think about God and understanding God independently of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ's incarnation, ministry, crucifixion (on our behalf,  for our sins), resurrection, and ascension. All these events communicate something about God himself because, as T.F. Torrance would emphasize, God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son are homoousios, in the words of the Nicene creed: one in being. The life of Christ is the life of God; events in the life of Christ are events in the life of God; the character and concerns of Christ are the character and concerns of God himself. And most of all, we know Christ through his crucifixion on our behalf; thus Paul says: I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2.2).

What is so important about this? Knowing God through Christ, we are always aware of God's love for us even in circumstances in which we cannot seem to sense it. There is nothing in the world that can change the fact, forever immutable in the past, with scars that remain on the body of God even unto the present day, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3). As T.F. Torrance says, the Cross on which the crucified God hung for our sins is a window into God's heart: it tells us that he loves us more than he loves himself. Nothing whatsoever can change this, even though we should suffer in a million different ways and ultimately die.

God alone knows why he presents himself to some persons in a more direct and special way while not doing so with others. I don't know, and I am convinced no real reason might be within our grasp of understanding or discerning. I am not convinced that very many of the Christian martyrs felt God's presence particularly strongly when they were eaten by lions, or had their heads removed, or tortured in various ways, yet they kept the faith because they knew that Jesus Christ had died for them, so they can die for him too. Apart any sort of subjective awareness of God's closeness, what we have is the definitive self-revelation of God in Christ, which is an eminently loving and kind one: he is willing to die for our sins in order to restore fellowship between us! And nothing can ever change that!

Here I think is the weakness of iconoclastic traditions of Christianity: the images of Christ crucified, rising from the grave, etc. must be present in our worship because they offer us real, concrete reminders of the self-revelation of God in Christ. Especially the image of the crucified Lord should be present, because in this way we can be reminded of the prime evidence that God loves us. Apart from the self-sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, we cannot be certain that our conviction of God's love is nothing more than the delusion and dream by which certain primates comfort themselves in order to make their terrestrial existence something more than an insufferable hell. So we ought to see it, we ought to see the man hanging on the cross, the blood and water pouring from his side, the eyewitnesses from whom we know the story standing around him so we might never forget. And as I've written elsewhere, this reflection on Christ's crucifixion and resurrection should be a regular part of our worship services, so that we might not forget the most important truth of all.

More than that, Christ's crucifixion and resurrection remind us of something: this world is still under a curse. Evil still happens here; people still suffer; Christians, even though they live their lives with a foot in the eternal life of the next world, are nevertheless subject to death. We undergo these things perhaps inter alia in order not to be too attached to this life and to this world. The world is still under a curse and this will play itself out. The grace of God, however, is shown to us in that those who believe in Christ are promised a better lot in the next world, if they stay faithful. Therefore the scripture tells us: exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3.13).

I think it is the saddest and most tragic day when a person walks away from Christ, who has only ever done us good and at such cost to himself. I am always sorry to hear that other persons have stopped believing in Christ, or doubt him, or have lost their love for him. I love Christ very much and I want others to share this love with me, too. What can I do? I can pray for others without ceasing and I can write what the Lord gives me to share, hoping that it reaches the eyes of the right people.


Mike H. said...

As one who is in the midst of a faith crisis, I'd like to offer some push back on point #2 and the following statement:

It seems to me the problem here -- as in many other cases of persons who have abandoned the Christian religion -- is attempting to think about God and understanding God independently of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ's incarnation, ministry, crucifixion (on our behalf, for our sins), resurrection, and ascension.

I'll just ask a basic question.

If you begin with the "self revelation in Jesus", (as most Christians at least profess to do) would you expect to have the same answers to PRIMARY issues as someone else who started with that same story? And I use the word "issues" in a very personal, character-of-God type way - not in an abstract argumentative propositional theology way.

If so, why are there such staggeringly different theologies/conceptions of who God is across traditions who hold to the same basic narrative?

Steven Nemeș said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment! I hope my post was helpful to you in some way.

In brief response to your question:

(i) To some extent differences of opinion and emphasis are inevitable, because we all approach God in different ways, with different backgrounds, with different capacities, different concerns, etc. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because our understanding can be greatly enriched by differences and variety; this is one of the best lessons I've learned at Fuller Seminary in my time here. All of us have idiosyncracies and aspects of our character which might lead us to absolutize and overemphasize some things; thus we ought to live in continual dialog with one another, irenically and peacefully undertaken, so that our knowledge can grow, rather than hardening ourselves against one another in excessive dogmatism.

(ii) On the other hand, I am not convinced there truly are "staggeringly different theologies/conceptions of who God is across traditions." If you read the best and most renowned theologians from every tradition, it seems to me you'll find them affirming more or less the same things about God: he is merciful, he is loving, he is just, he is the only creator, he is three hypostaseis in one ousia, he punishes the wicked and forgives the penitent, he inclines to mercy, etc. The reason why is the Bible straightforwardly says all this in so many words (okay, with the possible exception of the trinitarian stuff), and these guys all read the same Bible. In polemical contexts, the differences between them might be magnified or exaggerated, but in general I find our capacities for rational judgment is slightly diminished when engaging in polemics, so it may be that those so-called differences are really overblown.

(iii) I think in large part, if there are radical differences, it is due to the Reformation. With no more external authoritative source, whether it be the Creeds or the Tradition or the Magisterium, every individual is left to judge for herself what sort of a teaching the scriptures give us. The problem here is that not every person is adequate to the task. There is a reason the apostle Paul tells us that teachers are a gift to the church from God (Eph 4.11): we are not all equally capable of understanding the revelation of God, and so God specially equips and gifts some persons to this task to take care of the others. No one is an island, and no one can take care of himself; we need each other.

(iv) I would emphasize that God seems happily present in the lives of Christians from a number of different traditions through various means: miraculous signs and wonders, gentle stirrings of the spirit, providential guidance, conviction of having been forgiven, etc. Though certainly Jesus prayed for our unity, yet it seems he hasn't totally abandoned us in spite of our disunity. What is important is that we always pursue communion and fellowship with God by the means he has given us: prayer, the scriptures, the fellowship of the church, and partaking of Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist.

Mike H. said...

Thanks for the response, Stephen. And for your posts in general.

(i) I don't disagree. And it's one of the reasons that I think that a falling away in faith (the way the the original poster is discussing it) is way more than just "thinking about God apart from the self revelation of God in Christ". It's more complicated than that.

Perhaps expectations need to be managed - like we shouldn't expect people to agree on even major things. That in itself seems to create problems though. Whatever the nature of biblical inspiration, is it just not enough to cut through the mess of the subjectivity of life as its lived by actual people?

(ii) I suppose that "staggeringly" different is a bit subjective. I stand by it though. At a high level, perhaps all traditions look the same because they all read the same Bible (oh wait, they don't) and believe that Jesus died on a cross. But the differences between, say, the 5 point Calvinist God and the free-will Arminian God are profound. The difference between a retributive gospel vs a restorative one is profound. While all may profess the ancient creeds, the way that the doctrines play out in the divine/human relationship, and the way that words like "love", "justice", "faith", "all", etc. are defined are dramatically different. The evidence of the church itself shows that using "God is like Jesus" doesn't seem to resolve these differences. And being a universalist, I'm sure that you recognize this.

(iii) Certainly the Reformation exposed something, but I'm not convinced that a magisterium truly fixes it. It silences it, or hides it. The problem of authority is separate from the nature of the biblical text itself.

(iv) All good points. But in general, what I was saying (and what I hear you implicitly saying here and in your other points) is that there's more than just "the self revelation of Jesus" at work here. You touched on sacraments, the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, being in community, etc - a lot there.

I don't say any of this for the sake of being argumentative. Two points that I hope demonstrate my real reason for commenting (which is just to say that a faith crisis/losing faith is not black and white, and is as unique as each person).

One, a faith crisis (even to the point of walking away) is not necessarily due to NOT thinking about God through the self-revelation of Jesus. The self-revelation of Jesus is, apparently, understood in very different ways if you look closely enough (as I'm sure would agree). My own faith crisis came about from being MORE attentive to the Bible, and MORE attentive to the theological conversations going on around me, particularly the wide spectrum of belief and the spin used to 1) pretend the differences aren't really there 2)to explain away the things that ARE there, or 3) to make it seem like it doesn't matter. It's not ignorance of the Jesus story.

Two, his 2nd point is absolutely true. Given the actual state of things, it's clear that the meaning attributed to the self-revelation of God in Jesus isn't self-evident. Again, it can be used in the context of fundamentally different pictures of God (I stand by that).

Practically, and from the perspective of one mired in a faith crisis, I'd just want all pastoral folks to 1)listen before trying to explain my doubt 2)know that a faith crisis happens for many reasons.

Keep up the good work Stephen.

Mike H. said...

And apologies - should be Steven with a "V".