searching for meaning

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1

My go to book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites, anyhow) is an acknowledgment in part of the futility of life, and of thinking that one can find any real meaning under the sun. The idea ends up simply enjoying what is, to the fullest, and not taking it too seriously, since in the end it will all be gone.

But there’s some stealth thoughts interjected along the way, such as the fact that God will judge, which is roundly stated in the end. And that we shouldn’t say much when we enter into the space where God is present for worship, but simply be silent. Those are clues that there may be more to this, to life than what often meets the eye. And in the end again, the charge to fear God and keep his commandments caps what has been an interesting read.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to what we regularly profess and confess. We need to let the weight of the narrative in Ecclesiastes have its affect on us. That is the way we’re to read scripture. And preferably with others.

I think it’s best to embrace the reality of how all these means which are made to be ends are not ends themselves at all. They have usefulness, to be sure, their place in life “under the sun.” But none of them in themselves can fulfill what only God and the promise of God in the grace and kingdom come in Jesus can. But we need to feel the full weight of the emptiness of the endless pursuit of humanity to arrive and achieve. While some satisfaction might be found in it, it will end, and then what? (Another theme in Ecclesiastes.)

We have to look “above” (or beyond) the sun to find meaning in life “under the sun.” The meaning we find won’t be in what is done in this life, but the transcendence which is imminent, and therefore gives meaning either to or in the midst of all that happens here and now. So that while these things in the present are empty and meaningless in themselves, they derive meaning and fullness in the Creator God, and the covenant God makes with humans. A covenant fulfilled in Jesus, full of meaning, which then translates to all the emptiness and meaninglessness down here. In and through Jesus.

Advertisements

do we have confidence in God’s word, or not?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4

The NIV‘s heading for this section is entitled, “A Final Charge to Timothy,” and includes this well known important passage:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Something I’ve noticed in my lifetime is that often the word isn’t preached. I think I’ve been blessed with the churches we’ve been a part of to be used to the exception. But as a rule, it seems like an appeal to the word is only from something other than the word itself. Somehow there just doesn’t seem to be adequate confidence in scripture as the written word of God.

I’m not referring to a lack in expository preaching. That can be good, but it’s interesting when you read the sermons in Acts, that actually none of them is preaching a text expositionally as at least was popular in many evangelical and fundamentalists circles, and you still find a few holdouts here and there. I think it’s alright. In fact I think it’s probably safe to say that such a method is much better than much of the pablum which passes for sermons today. Somehow it seems like the goal is to get people’s interest and keep it, and somehow through that, get in something of the word of God.

My question becomes, Do we really have confidence in the word of God itself, because it is God’s very word? And is that a measure of our confidence in God?

Scot McKnight has an excellent post that hits on this very subject in what is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?“). He states that the Reformers were marked by their deference to scripture, by opening the Bible and reading it. I think it’s good to refer to theological concepts which point to the truth about scripture (or what Richard Wurmbrand said is “the truth about the truth.”). And there’s no doubt that the art of biblical interpretation, which includes kind of a science to it, as well, is important. And we need to reject the Cartesian Modernist, scientific approach (Rene Descartes) as in relentless examination and induction of the biblical text (see John Locke). I am rusty when it comes to philosophical figures, not that I was ever heavy into them, but they are important in helping understand the times in which people live.

Our appeal must be to scripture, and it must start with ourselves. If we don’t see it as vital, and of central importance in our own lives, then we certainly won’t see it that way for others. Of course it points us to God’s final word in Jesus, and the good news in him. But we must be in the written word itself to find the Word himself.

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4

And so the measure of our actual faith and confidence in God will in large part be our confidence in scripture itself, the word of God. To be biblical we must get back to the Bible like the people of God in the Bible did, including even Jesus himself. We need to have the utmost confidence in scripture as God’s word first for ourselves, and then for everyone else. And live with that in hand, in and through Jesus.

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.

what led to this (the moral relativism, etc., of our day)?

It’s common in the United States to hear about how the bottom dropped out in cutlure in the 1960s, “the Psychedelic 60s” when all became relative. And the 1920s, “the Roaring 20s” are compared to it, the United States temporarily pulled out of that moral ditch by the Great Depression and World War 2. People wish for the good old, “innocent” days of the 1950s.

We might wish it was as simple as all of that. Surely the seeds of what happened were planted in the American soil long before either the 1960s or the 1920s, for that matter. At least we might imagine that Post-Modernism was a reaction to the real problems of Modernism, and romanticism was a reaction to rationalism. And on top of that, we always have the serpent of the garden saying, “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3)

I would like to point a finger toward what is commonly called a cultural Christianity, which passed for the real thing. A time when nearly everyone went to church. And when people more or less understood and could express or at least would acknowledge as truth, basics of the gospel: that the Ten Commandments are a basis for understanding right and wrong, that we are all sinners, that Christ died for our sins.

Of course that’s good, to acknowledge and even take for granted certain truth, what we can call, moral foundations, and even spiritual foundations along with that. What undermined that is the passing for Christianity of a cultural version which was a far cry from the vision presented in the Final, New Testament. While at the same time granting full well that churches right from the start have always experienced messiness and difficulty. And granted, there was plenty of good in the days before moral relativism became more or less the rule of the day in the universities.

The difference is most simply understood, I think, in that what happened in the paradigm shift, was in part simply another different form of the work of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Before we had slavery, not to mention other forms of evil and violence. Change was needed. And the fact of the matter is that we have witnessed the fall and destruction of one idol of humanity after another.

Like so many matters, it is all more complicated than this. One needs to remember the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (2-3) when considering the decline of the church in the west, including America, now.

It is good to think and pray about what has happened and the result. The world has come crashing in upon us, which again for the nation of America is not at all anything new. We are a nation of immigrants. And the field of the world is now right in our neighborhoods. We no longer have the “safe” neighborhoods of the past, when pretty much all the same folks lived in the same neighborhoods, which of course itself is far from innocent and complete good.

All of this to say that rather than the empty, and actually mistaken cry for the good, old days (as Ecclesiastes points out to us), we need to accept where we’re at now with all of the good and bad in that. Nothing new, but just a different form today of challenges and opportunities, advantages and disadvantages we might say.

We don’t do ourselves or anyone else a favor to want to go back to some mythical past, as if there was once some golden age which with insight and effort we could find and make viable again. Life simply doesn’t work that way.

What we in Jesus need to return to again and again is the gospel itself and how that is worked out in and through us in the churches, whatever church tradition we may be. We need to become more and more grounded in that, and in nothing less than that. While at the same time appreciating and praying for the good of the nation of which we are a part.

Life is dynamic and fluid, not static and set. And that’s good, because we believe that Jesus somehow even now is Lord over all, somehow the church being in that reality (Ephesians 1). God being at work in the world by the Spirit, but all of this either directly through or in relation to the gospel, the good news in Jesus. A good news which is always changing us more and more into conformity to God’s will in Jesus, and meant ultimately to change the world.

it is more complex than that

For me the main thing I can hang my hat on for certain is the gospel which is Jesus as revealed in scripture, God’s written word. By faith we know, a knowledge or assurance dependent on faith, yet in the case of scripture and specifically Jesus’ resurrection, not devoid of evidence. That is not to say that I don’t accept some things as true, like gravity. The question may end up being not only how much weight we put on something, but more importantly, why and what kind. We might find that the difference ends up being whether or not we trust a person, God (who, to bring in something complex, and well beyond us is one God in three Persons).

But on many things people seem to hold tenaciously to as matters of first importance, it often seems to me that it’s more complicated than that. That is one reason I like science, even though I really am not gifted in that field. Science keeps asking questions and is open to new answers, new ways of seeing things. Good theology should be like that. Some things have been well established by the church from scripture. Of course when you’re talking about God and humanity along with real life, we can begin to understand that while the Bible is wisely straightforward to the point of simplicity about some things (like the reality of good and evil, light and darkness), we also come to understand that there is much that we don’t know. So that we had best withhold judgment on a good number of matters.

And even what we do know is completely dependent on something beyond us, beyond our senses. Otherwise we could never know anything. That something is a Someone: God. We can rest assured in what knowledge we have, while at the same time seeing the entire enterprise as interactive, so that much of what we do know is relational and life-oriented. In other words a good part of knowledge from God found in scripture and mediated through Christ in the church is knowledge for life in this world in terms of love and how we are to live. It is rooted in history and for the real world.

Humility is the order of the day on this. We need to keep asking questions. But above all, to trust the God who has given us his word in scripture and in his final Word, Jesus.

against pragmatism

The American music invention jazz was a great find, and even though I’m not a jazz enthusiast across the board, some of it I like quite well. Although I think I subscribe to something of a critical realism, philosophically, I’m not so fond of the one American philosophical invention, pragmatism. Pragmatism is simply the notion that if it works, it is good. I think it does have some limited value, and we can’t toss it out completely (though it is untrue in its definition—see below). After all, don’t we see something of that thought in the wisdom of Proverbs?

The way of Jesus and the way of the cross seems counterintuitive, and to a certain point it is. In fact up front and on the surface it makes no sense at all. And especially so in worldly terms. Who would think that sacrificing one’s life for Christ and the gospel works well at all in terms of what the world holds dear or is running headlong after? But in terms of God’s kingdom come in Jesus, giving up one’s life for the sake of Christ and the gospel makes all the sense in the world. And it does work. So that it actually is pragmatic, but not at all in terms of the world’s value system, at least not up front. Ironically in the end it provides the very thing the world wants, while those who pursue this on their own, worldly terms lose it all.

A practical flaw of pragmatism which haunts us and our society is simply its setting aside of divine law and grace. Law is no longer so much what is right or true. After all, who can know what that is, anyhow? It is in terms of what works, what is workable, and what society accepts on both counts. So I can flout any notion of God’s law. And yet scripture tells us that we reap what we sow, that those who sow to please the flesh will reap destruction, while those who sow to please the Spirit will reap eternal life. And that this begins in this life. And grace. Pragmatism has very little or no room for that. But since God’s kingdom is present in this world in Jesus and is destined to take over such, we do see God’s goodness worked out from this grace or gift from God in Jesus. Even while the world still shakes its head and goes on in its way.

And so we might argue that pragmatism, the sense that meaning is derived from what works and not what is supposedly true, though off in its definition, since this is an and/both, not either/or proposition, does have a sliver of truth in that it works in the long run in and through Jesus. With the counter that it must be grounded in the Truth himself, Jesus.

Therefore I am not held hostage to any supposed empirical findings that say this or that works. Instead I with others seek to follow the one who went to the cross, to death with resurrection following. As we await the transformation of all things according to that, in and through Jesus.

no avoidance of philosophy

Not many of us read philosophers and philosophical writings (such as from Aristotle, etc.). And we may imagine that we avoid philosophy altogether. But there is no avoidance of philosophy whatsoever. Philosophy simply stated is the study or consideration of life itself, what life is all about, why we are here. Whether it is one who is steeped in naturalism and what is called scientism, or someone caught up in studying philosophers and their systems of thought along with their worldview, such as from Aristotle or Plato, or someone closer to our time. That is what could be called philosophy proper. But actually we are all philosophers in the sense that we all have adopted and settled into some notion of what life is all about, even if we may not be able to express that well. Good questions could help us get to the bottom of that, even if we might find there’s not much there. Even agnosticism, the idea that we simply don’t know and perhaps can’t know is itself a philosophical view.  This, by the way is ordinarily something not static, but dynamic and ever changing, even if only in the sense of being refined over time.

Whatever my philosophy is, I hope it is steeped in solid Christian theology. I believe that Christ and Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, in opposition to the wisdom of this world. Scripture, and Paul specifically warns against worldly philosophy. It is potent and powerful and pulls people into its ultimately lifeless embrace. And away from Christ. To be in Christ and to be informed and formed in that is to begin to realize the true meaning and end of philosophy, indeed of life itself. There may be subsets of that to help us through the intricacies of the complexity and wonder of life. But the root of all truth is somehow found in Christ. Deriving its origin and meaning from him. Colossians is not a bad book to start in seeking to understand something of this philosophy.