Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Learning to see the world as Christians

Learning to See the World as Christians
by Ray Fulmer

Of all recent joys of my life, perhaps the greatest as of late has been the opportunity to go through seminary at the same time that my best friend is doing graduate work in the field of Islamic Studies - his tradition of faith. Although we’ve been brothers in all but last name since childhood (I once joked that I wouldn’t date his sister because my faith forbids incest) our dialogue has never been more fruitful than at this point in our life, even though we live on different coasts.

Most recently we were caught up in a discussion about Hurricane Katrina and the retrospective understandings surrounding that mighty and destructive storm. So many popular reactions have emerged, from "I can’t believe in a God that would let this happen" to "I can’t believe in a world so meaningless that tragedies like this are not in the hands of a loving higher power." Yet something struck me as we assessed the many voices bearing on the event - very few spoke about it through a faithful allegory. By that I mean to say that few people took the physical dimension of the event and attempted to attribute an elegant and personal spiritual dimension to what had occurred. We judged the event and judged God by the event without ever considering the various ways in which God might be teaching us and judging our pre-conceptions. Could we not be the intended audience every bit as much as those in New Orleans? Could it not be that we should start with a feeling that it could just as easily have been us?

I believe that this shows a general poverty in our way of reasoning. It’s symptomatic of how we compartmentalize our faith. Church and faith cover only very specific aspects of our lives. We have grown up in a society that preaches separation of Church and State, that oft used and more frequently than not misunderstood clause of a distinctly Modernist document which, among all forms of legal codes across time and space, governs only the United States of America, and has done so for only two centuries of history. Our national idea of separation creeps into our conscience as being normative and binding - the way things are and have to be.
One consequence of such separation is that we tend not to attribute a spiritual dimension to otherwise ordinary actions.

In Judaism and Christianity it was not always so - all events in the physical world have been traditionally ascribed a higher meaning along with the material explanation. It was thought normal in other times that those who had been illumined by their confessed faith would naturally see certain themes and realities through the lens of the faith goggles that were not entirely obvious to those outside of the group. Many cultures still feel much more comfortable undertaking such an endeavor, and it is certainly the Scriptural witness. Think of when Peter tells Christ not to be crucified and is told "Get thee behind me Satan." Of course Peter had not become Satan incarnate, but Christ correctly attributed this level of meaning to Peter’s faithless rebuke - Satan was visible through Peter's words/actions.

Perhaps the best example of this in early Christian literature is St. Athanasius’ double work Against the Pagans and On the Incarnation. Athanasius spends vast swaths of both works, which together form one extended apology for the cross, narrating pagan history from a Christian perspective. For him "idolatry was the beginning of fornication", and "the cross of Christ has put all demonic activity to flight". Now in the fourth century you could not have looked outside at the myriad of pagan cults and practices and said with assuredness "oh yes, that’s true", but Athanasius was undaunted by the facts on the ground.

Athanasius goes on to demonstrate how a person might see the world through his lens. Interestingly, none of it is a factual proof from physical evidence. Most of his examples of Christ being "present in the world" were narratives of the acts of asceticism, martyrdom, and charity performed by Christians in their daily lives - not a defense of the factuality of the Scriptures. It's pretty obvious that he believed the truth of his message could be seen by correctly viewing the daily goings on of Alexandria in his time. Conversely, the falsehood of pagan idolatry was not a matter of performing chemistry experiments or exacting research, thus showing the non-existence of Zeus, but was viewed primarily through the lewd behavior and lack of virtue in the actions and mythology of the pagans. Athanasius was a rhetorician of the highest caliber, and such reasoning came naturally to him.

The Prophets work exactly the same way. We should not imagine that Jeremiah or Ezekiel were thought to be obviously correct in their own day based on evidence they could offer the people. Their people did not see them walking down the street to the coffee shop and tell their kids "there goes a prophet of the most high God."

In fact, if we take the narratives on any kind of face value, Jeremiah told the people of Israel that their city would be destroyed due to their iniquity, and he was summarily run out of town. It was only after this event had come to pass that the sayings of Jeremiah were deemed "prophetic". Whether or not God had chit-chatted with a literal and physical Jeremiah beforehand was not the issue. Rather, the people agreed with his spiritual narrative after physical history had already come to pass. The prophets saw in the actions of God in daily events, and spoke of them as such.

Slaves in the American South were also the same. Old African-American gospel music freely uses scriptural imagery to describe their conditions. The hymn "Go Down Moses" is usually rendered something like this: Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go!". Of course they weren’t under Pharaoh, and they didn’t live in Egypt, but in the Scriptural story they saw their own plight, and so they spoke of their condition through this lens. Doubtless the abolition of slavery was thought to be the right fulfillment of biblical promises. Seeing that if the situation was similar, then if God so delivered Israel, he could deliver them as well.

The idea of understanding the spiritual reality in otherwise normal happenings is not foreign to the Christian worship tradition. One needs to look no further than the Eucharist. Certainly nobody in their right mind would say that what they are eating is other than bread and wine, yet through faith it is also, in a very real way, the saving body and blood of Jesus Christ. Our collective faith creates the new reality of the bread and wine. We have confidence that God hears our prayers and responds accordingly, no matter what we might see or not see. If we have no problem with this reasoning in our churches, why should we not approach the rest of our lives in a similar way?

So, back to the current reflections on Hurricane Katrina - is it not reasonable that faithful people could derive some Scriptural allegories for this situation as well? We need not be Pat Buchanan or a fire-and-brimstone televangelist, presuming to think that because of the particular sins of the people of New Orleans that God had chosen to smite them, but shouldn’t we offer a counter-narrative? Pat has at least offered his take, and some do listen. Can those with a different but equally faithful understanding propose some kind of faith-based alternative interpretation?

I for one believe that there are numerous biblical themes at work in these tragic events. There is the old standby about the fleetingness and unpredictability of our lives, even in our often deceptively safe world. We have also the heroism and charity of those who have done their part to help the city and its refugees; and yes we have the debased actions of many who used the anarchy after the storm for their self-centered ends, with no thought of their fellow people. We are reminded of the hubris of human beings, figuring that we can build a city against the whims of nature without consequence. We are also reminded of the destructive waters offering a fresh start; a chance to rebuild Zion holier and more humble than it had been. The same beautiful waters that have offered the inhabitants prosperity and identity can turn vicious, as can all parts of lives that we assume to readily are generic good. Those in the faith tradition of Noah should not be in awe of such an interpretation! We are shown lastly never to make idols of the things we love, but to recognize the fickle nature of our powerful earth.

I do not wish to belabor the point or to offer an exclusive understanding of what actually, factually, historically happened in New Orleans. Besides, my allegorical offering of the events might be poor. Rather, I hope to show that in all events, good and bad, no matter how mundane, faithful people have the ability to allegorize the situation and learn a little something from it. Spectacular events, even bad ones, are present in our world, and they cause us to deal with them in some way. God will not be boxed, and God’s creation regularly reminds us that, as the CS Lewis’ fawn Tumbus said of Aslan "he is not a tame lion."

I would offer that the lens could be applied to all things in our daily lives. We need not view life one-dimensionally. All regular events have a spiritual side so long as we believe in a God who created all things. Christians are short changing themselves by not seeing our faith in the happenings of the world around us, and we fail in our duty to witness to the rule of the true God when we abandon all spiritual stories to the fringe. When we can regain our sense of allegorizing our life through faith, then we can begin to de-compartmentalize ourselves and begin to be Christians at all times and places, becoming all things to all people. In short, we become part of the ongoing biblical narrative. We proclaim that our God IS, and not that our God WAS. As always we are brought full circle to the Lord's prayer: Our Father, who IS in heaven, hallowed be your name...


Blogger a part said...

It would be interesting to track this with what seems to me to be the modern shift away from belief in the total sovereignty of God. I haven't studied the history of the issue, so this is more speculation on my part, but it seems as though God's sovereignty didn't used to be something that was questioned or debated within the Church, it was simply assumed that God was and is always in complete control. Somewhere along the way we seem to have become all big on free will, and likewise become convinced that in order for us to have free will, God must not be sovereign, or at least He must choose to not always exercise his sovereignty. And if God is not sovereign, then we need not always see His hand in day-to-day events. This seems to me unscriptural. I do not see how the apostles, how David, Abraham and all the rest could have had the faith they did without knowing that God was in total control and would not let them come to harm unless he willed it. And that, further, this is good. When you take sovereignty as a given, along with the assumed "goodness" of God, then it seems to me you have no choice but to both see His hand in everything, and to assume that somehow his Glory will be made manifest through even tragic events, though at the time of their occurrence such understanding may be beyond our feeble human minds.

Don't know if I'm making myself clear, just something I was thinking about...

5:25 PM  

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