Friday, February 20, 2009

Words and Signs

An intriguing little detail in the account of the burning bush - Exodus 3. Moses goes aside to look at the bush, which burns but is not consumed, and ends up in conversation with God. He is commissioned to lead Israel out of Egypt, a task he considers outside his ability. This is the response he gets:
But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.
Bear in mind - Moses is seeking some reassurance here. A sign is probably what he is expecting. But this is problematic. The sign offered will only be seen after Moses has ventured everything, risked his life and the lives of his people in a confrontation with Pharaoh. Moses will know God has sent him when he sees the outcome of his actions.

Two interesting things about that. Firstly, Moses has already seen a sign - the burning bush itself. But it seems that was just to get his attention. Is that the way God normally uses signs? Is that the way the more spectacular charismata in the church are meant to work?

Secondly, Moses has to set out in faith, trusting in God's word. He has to step out onto God's promise, trusting that that promise will take his weight, and only as he does so will he brought to the place where he will see (rather than believe) that God is with him. Of course, he gets more signs after that, but they are given to him in response to his unbelief. The narrative makes it clear that he should have just taken God at his word.

What does that mean for my response to the word of God? What does it mean for the Christian life, walking by faith and (not yet) by sight?

Monday, February 16, 2009

A touchstone

I have been turning over and over in my mind the idea that the basic criteria for Christian theology are that it must be all Christ, and that it must give us a view of Christ that includes Christ as creator, Christ as redeemer and Christ as judge. The degree of harmony and unity between the portraits painted of Christ (necessarily there will be three distinct portraits) is a good indicator of how particularly Christian a system of doctrine is.

If I am correct, contemporary evangelicalism has a problem.

For most of us Christ as creator barely features - and certainly bears no particular weight within our doctrinal system. And for many of us, Christ as judge is not recognisably the same person as Christ as redeemer. This has knock-on effects on our theology. On the one hand, the neglect of the doctrine of creation (and therefore also of the care for and enjoyment of creation) amongst evangelicals is massive. On the other hand, it is all too easy to posit a divide in Jesus - the Jesus who wants people to be saved and the Jesus who is rather threateningly waiting to turn up and bring the salvific mission to an end. The result of that is that the second coming becomes bad news, and we end up working against Jesus to save as many as we can before he turns up and ruins everything.

We know God as he is revealed in Christ. That means that the incarnate Christ is also our view of the creator and the judge. There is no other shadowy Christ with contrary aims and a different character. I need to integrate my three portraits of Christ, and thus enrich my worship of the one Lord Jesus.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

God cares...

God cares about us, which is an amazing and wonderful and comforting thing...

"What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honour..."
Psalm 8:4-5

God cares about us, which is a terrifying and devastating and painful thing...

"What is man, that you make so much of him and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit?"
Job 7:17-18

Isn't it interesting that in the Scriptures - particularly in the Hebrew poetry - men appeal to God to look at them and take notice of them, but also not to look at them and to leave them alone? What a great privilege and what a terrible burden it is to be those upon whom God sets his heart, those he determines to bless and sanctify!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Know yourself!

This grand instruction was apparently on display at the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi; it is also a very important part of what passes for contemporary wisdom. Be acquainted with yourself. Know who you are.

There is wisdom in this little catch-phrase. Self-knowledge is vitally important. Problem is, according to at least one strand of the western philosophical tradition, it is also impossible. I have in mind mainly Hume (who denied being aware of any self - just bundles of perceptions), Kant (whose doctrine of the transcendental ego cannot be delved into here, but involves the implicit barring of self-knowledge) and Wittgenstein (who points out that the self is that through which we view other things, and as such cannot be viewed in itself). The basic point is: because I am always the subject of my perceptions, I cannot also be the object. Even in introspection, I am still the one doing the looking, and so it cannot be I that I am looking at - or at least, not entirely. It's like trying to look at your own eyes - and without the benefit of a mirror.

We know this in experience - often others know us better than we know ourselves, and we are sometimes shocked when a close friend has to tell us an uncomfortable truth about what we are really like. Problem is, other people don't see us completely; they see only the externals, only our actions and the thoughts we choose to put into words. There are depths they do not see.

Is knowledge of God a pre-condition of knowledge of self? God knows me - really knows me - in a way that I cannot know myself and no-one else can know me. His knowledge of me is exhaustive and unbiased. I am object to him in a way I can never quite be to myself. So only he can really tell me what I am like.

If I am to know myself, that knowledge will come from above, not from within. But do I want to know what he might say about me?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Ministry and Ambiguity

So, February thus far has been entirely given over to Free, the Oxford University mission. The week had ups and downs, great bits and not-so-great bits, hallelujahs and how-do-i-get-through-to-yous. There were a great many people involved, and the nature of the Uni meant that they were operating in 30 linked but basically separate mission fields. Some people had better weeks than others.

I came out of the week thinking: this is all so ambiguous. How do I know whether I did anything of eternal value? Was anything achieved? I think we understand that this question stands over the people who struggled to have a single gospel conversation. What strikes me is that it stands equally over the people who prayed with a dozen folk to receive Christ (if there were such people). Will they be standing on the final day? Was their profession genuine?

I guess most of the Christian life takes place under a cloud of ambiguity. The deepest experience of the Spirit could be explained in purely psychological terms. The greatest answers to prayer could be bizarre coincidences. Conversions could be just people getting caught up in the moment. Sermons could just be rhetorically powerful. It's all very muddled. Ambiguous.

Much like the pre-resurrection life of Jesus Christ. Muddled. Ambiguous. Transfigured, but also mocked. Loved, but also crucified. Healing, but also crushed.

The resurrection puts the life of Christ beyond ambiguity. It will only be my resurrection that brings the same clarity to my own life. Until then: lift your eyes and see what is unseen; believe, rejoice, follow; trust.