Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Christmas, Doctrinal Truth and Human Flourishing

In my prayer time the other day I was pondering Psalm 43:3, “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”

Truth and good order go together.  The shalom of God means that truth and good order lead to human flourishing.  God’s created order means goodness and blessing for all.  Implication: truth cannot be a secondary matter.

Talking about truth sounds to many people like a mere intellectual game.  The spirit of the age encourages people to separate the experience of God’s goodness from doctrines about God’s nature and work.  Some people argue that one can have a powerful and life-changing experience of God without being committed to (or even very worried about) truth.

Clearly, we don’t have to be perfectly logical and coherent in order to experience God’s goodness.  Certainly, there are flaws in my concepts of God and I still experience God’s goodness.  But I don’t think this point gets at my concern about the spirit of the age.  The problem is that we almost entirely divorce truth claims from experiencing God’s goodness, as if we can have heads full of seriously bad ideas and still experience the fullness of God.

We mostly soft-pedal doctrinal differences.  We don’t like doctrinal debates (too abstract and probably irrelevant) and we don’t like to tell people openly, “You’re wrong,” even though we think it all the time.  The underlying assumption seems to be that doctrine really doesn’t matter very much – that God is so gracious and good that God apparently overrides really bad ideas with grace and love anyway.  But, of course, I just made a doctrinal (or theological) claim about God’s goodness.

Does God care whether I think A or B about God?  Since we’re approaching Christmas, is it truly only of secondary importance that some Christians dismiss a literal incarnation of the Word of God, preferring to think of it as metaphorical and not actual?  Does thinking A rather than B have no impact on their spiritual lives?  Their experience of God?  Can we grow to maturity either way?

If there is not real life from God in true doctrine, then about any old idea works.  If doctrine is nothing more than manipulating concepts, while experience of God lies elsewhere, then any old idea works, because God apparently works independently of ideas.  But of course, not any old idea works.  If any old idea worked, then God-as-cruel-Tyrant works as well for helping me flourish as does God-as-loving-Parent.

Having a head full of the right ideas that don’t penetrate one’s heart is not what the Christian life is about.  Neither is the opposite, that one need be unconcerned about sound doctrine because God will bring a flourishing life anyway.

I believe that those people who are captivated by the incarnation of the Word of God will have a dramatically different Christmas experience than those who think it’s just the birthday of Jesus.  There.  I said it.

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December 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Troubling Use of “Information”

For some time I’ve noticed a perplexing quality of college student word use.  Here are a couple of examples:

“I have to miss class tomorrow and I was wondering if I could get the information that you’re going to cover.”

“I want the professor just to give me the information without his/her opinion so that I can make up my own mind.”

I hear some version of these remarks fairly frequently and they alarm me.  In the second one, I can see the student’s concern for not being force-fed ideology and I’ll give that one to him.  It’s a legitimate concern, but in a broader sense reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of what should happen in a college (it was a political science) class.  Secondly, referring to course content as “information” sounds utterly lifeless and sterile, having no more than instrumental value, available only to be manipulated for some pragmatic aim.

(Disclaimer: I believe in the importance of facts and information.  I am not a rank subjectivist.  In fact, I hold an “externalist” view of truth – that it is really “out there” and available.  With that qualification, back to my point.)

How did we get here?  Well, clearly, the “information age” of personal computers and the worldwide web has helped dramatically.  I love the technology, but if we don’t pay attention to the paradigmatic control these computer metaphors are working on us, I can hardly imagine how impoverished, even perverse, our lives will become.

The other culprit is hiding in fifth or sixth grade classrooms, where students are indoctrinated with the fact/opinion distinction.  Certainly, there is a difference between facts and opinions and I applaud the intention, but I’m worried about the misleading implications.  A “fact” is evidently something beyond need of interpretation because it is “neutral.”  We trust facts.  “Opinions,” by contrast, are squishy and subjective and, most damming, idiosyncratic.  How many times have you heard, “That’s just your opinion,” as if the mere fact (yes, I meant that word) makes the whole thing dismissible?

It’s a short step from “fact” to “information,” Same feeling, same attitude, same problem.  First, it seems to assume that people are neutral information processors, a self-evidently absurd notion when one pauses to think about it (but who’s pausing?).  Likewise with facts.  Facts have to be applied and application requires interpretation.  We have to figure out what the facts mean. They tell us nothing in and of themselves.  Do students understand how important this step – from facts to meaning – is?

In this context, campus ministers have a crucial role to play.  The world needs wise, well-formed disciples of Jesus.  Wisdom requires thoughtfulness, the habit of taking into consideration a range of opinions, weighing evidence judiciously; most of all, it means applying truth lovingly, with the heart of Jesus.  In other words, to think well requires a well-formed character, which involves far more than “getting information.”  “Just getting the information” simply won’t cut it.

Campus ministers: we’re supposed to be about developing well-formed followers of Jesus.  We may not assign grades, but we’re still educators in the best sense of that word.  Precisely because we are not giving exams and assigning grades, we have the luxury of helping students learn, untrammeled by the pressures of academic demands.  Let us not squander this sacred opportunity.

October 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment