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The current installment of the COEC began meeting in 2007.

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2.16.2008

How do we know what God does?

Ok I think this is the biggest question for me that stems all sorts of other questions that double back on themselves.

Lately I've been trying to define in my brain what I actually believe. If you take the Rob Bell example of the brick wall and the springs I feel like over the past years my wall has slowly crumbled to the point where I don't trust it to hold anything. It's like I am keeping the rubble around and still doing Christian things in part because I don't know what else to believe, in part because it's the way I've always done things and I'm scared of change especially change in relationship with friends and family, and partly because I believe there is some truth in there and I'm afraid that if I test it and put some weight on the wall the whole thing will fall and I'll be left with nothing. I want to start rebuilding with springs, but don't really know how or feel like I have the time and excitement necessary. I think this is a process that most of us are at some stage of and have been really grateful for the Cohort and that everyone is really open to discussing thing that really aren't open for discussion in an established Church.

I was thinking about the legitimacy of the Bible in the shower this morning and thinking about how it all goes back to the question of What does God actually do? Did He inspire the writers of the Bible to write the perfect words and for books chosen to be canonized to be the specific books He wanted and for the translators to translate it the way He wanted and then for us when we read it to understand what He meant? It is possible that He had his hand in the processes every step of the way. Or also part of the way He could have only inspired them as much as He inspires other writers today or They could have just written what they saw and heard and it could have been just a natural thing. I also have this question of prayer too. When I pray what does God actually do?

Ok I'm having a difficult time trying to put to words what I think/feel, but I guess them main question I want to ask is:
When something unexplainable happens to you, how do you decide if it was God, you understand it but know it's not God or you just don't know either way?

I feel like lately everything unexplainable has been going into the I just don't know either way category which feels very empty. I don't like being uncertain about everything, but don't know how to have certainty because the more I look into something more uncertain I am about it.

12 comments:

Jesse said...

Hey Zack -

These are good questions, and I really appreciate your honesty. I echo your gratefulness toward the Cohort for providing a "safe space" for these types of conversations. For me, that is very close to the heart of being "emergent."

I hope you don't mind your brother making a few comments about your post :) I think your question is essentially epistemological, which is really the crux of the postmodern, and thereby emergent, movement. Here's what I mean:

Epistemology is basically how do we know what we know, or how can we be sure what we think we know is the truth. Seems kinda complicated, but it's something we do every day. I choose to drive in my car; I choose to eat food from a restaurant; I know that when the light is green I go and when it is red I stop. Every word I speak/write/think is latent with meaning that I "know."

The impact of the 21st century, postmodern culture is that we are quickly realizing that all of these decisions we make are based upon our personal perspective, and these decisions change from person to person and in different contexts. So for example, I choose to eat at Taco Bell, because I think it tastes good, but someone else may think it is disgusting. I drive on the right side of the road, but the Brits drive on the left. To me, yellow means slow down, red means stop, but to a Guatemalan, it's all just a suggestion :) These are simple, commonplace examples. But of course, it all becomes much more serious when we start talking about how we know religious/spiritual truths are really true. Clearly the implications are far greater.

So, your questions are right on target: "How DO we know?" These are issues of postmodernity and epistemology. The Christian generations before us operated under a different framework in which proofs, arguments, and absolutes were sufficient reason to say what we knew was true. Furthermore, they were not as heavily exposed to people who, for really good personal reasons, held strongly to drastically different beliefs.

Many Christians unfortunately have one foot in the modern American church and one foot in the postmodern culture. Or another way to think about it, one part of our mind/spirit/psyche is supposed to believe certain things are true for everyone all the time (in Rob Bell's analogy, these are bricks) and the other part of our life/mind/being exists in a world in which everyone is entitled to their own legitimate opinion (springs).

Ok, so for me, as best I can understand it, that is the road that has brought you (and me, and many other people) to this crossroads of belief. And from this point, like at any crossroad, we have four choices.

1) Turn around and go back. As always, this is unacceptable. We can't pretend we don't know what we know and we don't feel what we feel. We have to choose a new route.

2) "Absolute absolutism" - the path of fundamentalism, modernism, the extreme religious right, etc. To follow this route, we have to say that the truths are true, whether I think they are or not, and so my job is to more appropriately relate to them. In other words, the Bible is true, I just have to live what it says, and then it will all work out. However, if we choose to walk down this path, it's like walking due east into the rising sun. The blaring light of postmodernity will always be in your face, and unless you choose to simply close your eyes to the facts all around you, the only thing you'll get is a really bad headache.

3) "Absolute relativism" - besides being an obvious logical contradiction, relativism is also like you said Zack, very "empty." If our only resolution is that we can never really know, we are not even really walking down a path at all. Instead, we are just standing at the crossroads saying, "Well, I can never really know. I just don't know." Every step we take down the path would be riddled with uncertainty and questions, and from my experience (in my life and talking to others) a real deep unhappiness.

4) Ok, obviously this is what I think is the "best" route :) This is what I have lately started to call, "Almost Absolutes" or maybe another phrase could be "True as best I can guess right now." Like I explained before, this is how we live life every day. We make a choice, and we act upon it. We can't do anything else. Part of our essential human nature is our mysteriously complex free will. And it requires that WE choose. So, what do we do? We recognize that our decision and knowledge is limited, it is certainly biased, and it may be informed by other people's perspectives. But based upon everything we have experienced, seen, learned, heard about, hope for, dream about, etc. - THIS is what I believe, right now at least.

Maybe that is too weak for some people. Maybe that is not really what you are asking about. But in my mind, it holds in tension the necessities of reality - there is a truth that I can know some things about, but there is also an ever-present element of faith in which I just have to go with my limited knowledge.

If we can get a better understanding of how we know what we know, and why we believe what we believe, I think it can help us with each of the specific questions, i.e. Is the bible inspired? Does God answer prayer? etc.

Jane Johnson said...

Zack,

I was encouraged myself to read about your questioning and spiritual struggle this morning, because for the past year I have been troubled by exactly the same things.

I empathized with your questions about the Bible. I grew up believing the detailed inerrancy view of the text, that absolutely every word is true and straight from God's mind. But I began to see passages that troubled me... Then when I began my musicology studies things got more difficult, because I was learning what seemed like brillant ways to look at texts written by humans. I could apply these scholarly findings to any text (for me this often meant pieces of music or writing about music), but not to the Bible. It was off limits. The usual procedures, difficulties, biases, emotional conflicts, didn't occur in the Bible. I didn't know how to deal with this for a few years, but now I've come to the decision that it would be ridiculous for God to create the human mind to work quite consistently across cultures in one way, but then suddenly there is an exception for the Bible. Then we must also consider that many of the Biblical texts were transmitted orally for long periods of time before they were even written down!

So I think to answer some of the specific questions that you posed, given this position of mine, I don't think God gave people perfect words to write down. I think that the Biblical writers were men who desperately sought to know God and so as a result their writings are filled with glimpses of his truth. Accounts of visions can, I think, be taken as true experiences that perhaps provide more objective truth (although I think the person still processed the visions through his limited human senses and mind). Prophecies to me seem to fall under visions in level of authority because I think it is clear that at times the writer's emotions and spiritual preconceptions play a part in what the prophecy says. (I think it is "clear" because those of us living today, with different preconceptions, would not write with all of the same concepts as, say, the OT writers, who had a different understanding of who God was.)

Don't get me started on the canonization issue. I think once again a group of men came together and tried their best to discern which of the existing Christian texts were perfect. I have no doubt that if they came to the task with humility, the Holy Spirit helped them to choose. What bothers me is that according to the usual inerrancy view of the Bible, nothing has been written by any Christian after around 90 AD that was as inspired as the Biblical texts. This doesn't make sense to me. Why should God have suddenly stopped inspiring his people in such a powerful way? I feel no guilt in reading a book by a modern author and feeling that it might at the moment be causing me to grow spiritually more than the Bible could.

This is already pretty long, so I'll stop spouting off now about my personal views. The only other thing I would add is that I think that no matter what, if we believe in a loving, benevolent God, He would never want us in a place where we feel empty, hopeless, and so tied intellectually that we can't do his work. About a month ago I went down the path of questioning the usefulness and logistics of prayer to such an extent that I basically stopped praying. That wasn't good - ask Nick and about how fun it was to try to live with me. I've come back to a place in the past week where I'm willing to put forth a tiny amount of faith that prayer still works, even though it might seem irrational. I think at some point the whole faith thing has to kick in, at least just a little bit, because we humans so quickly arrive at the end of ourselves.

Zack said...

Jesse and Jane, Thank you both for taking the time to respond to my post.

Jesse, I think I'm starting to understand epistemology more the first time you brought it up I was very confused, but it does make more sense now.

At first the idea of almost absoluteness felt just as empty as relativism, but the more I think about it there has to be some uncertainty for faith to kick in. I have never liked this idea that things that don't make sense about the bible we are supposed to just have faith and ignore the inconsistencies or things like that, but to an extent I do like that it is more relational then if we knew the specifics of everything and were just signing on the dotted line with God there would be no risk involved.

There are some things that you can know. I do know that in America there is a law saying to stop at red lights. I also know that some roads have cameras that take pictures of you if you run a red light. I know this because I got a notice in the mail saying I owed Columbus 95$ that had 2 pictures of me going through a red light and a website address with a video of it. I am very sure about that. There is always the possibility it was some scam or something, but I was sure enough about it that I sent in my 95$

However if I take something like prayer there seems to be very little that I can base my judgments on I can go by what the Bible says, but if I'm not even sure about that it makes things more difficult.
I think what confuses me the most is that I often feel like other people don't struggle with this as much. It seems like other people are more easily certain of things. I guess if it is so much based on personal perspective why is mine different then others who have come from similar backgrounds.

Jane,
I'd agree with you about feeling more certain about prophecies and visions in the Bible simply because the writers thought they were hearing from God whereas the NT is mostly letters that I doubt Paul thought was going to become "the word of God"

Anyway we can know some things about the Bible. How do we get to a point of really believing in what it says.

I usually don't think I'm like an over analytical or logical person, but when people encourage me to read the Bible and I try it for devotional time or whatever things just pop out at me and I'm like "that's really weird that they knew the exact words that Jesus prayed when he was off by himself and they were all asleep" or something. It sounded like you and Nick had found some of those weird things while doing your lenting. And I get to the point where I just stop because it feels like it is making me believe less and I wonder how do others come so quickly to the point of believing everything in there is straight from God.

I don't want to have absolute absolutism but I want to have a stronger almost absoluteness about things.

Jesse said...

Jane -

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Your personal testimony is a great balance to my attempt at an over-analytical explanation.

Zack -

For me, the reason I love emergent so much, is that I am finding more people who really are struggling through the same questions you are. I can honestly say, two years ago I was asking those same questions at a really serious gut level. Brian McLaren's often quoted title is really appropriate - this is a "new kind" of being a Christian - a kind that asks questions, thinks in a different way, even believes in a different way (remember Peter Rollins' statement about orthodoxy - it is the right way to believe).

More than anything, I am convinced that it is the search, the push-back, the questions and the frustrations that are really meaningful - for Christian community, and to God himself. So keep asking hard questions and searching for real answers.

Writing that last line reminded me of a sweet-ass benediction that Tony Jones posted, so I'm gunna copy it here in a minute, even though I promised myself this comment would be shorter. Sorry :)

- - -

A Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger,
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

My God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their
pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness,
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

Greg said...

I don't think you should feel obligated to rebuild the brick wall with springs, Zack. I also think you are exactly right to assume there is some truth in the broken bricks. Doubtless, Rob Bell himself most likely subscribed to brickianity at one point in his life, or he would not have come up with the analogy. I agree with your assessment that others are more easily certain about things. I just think they are missing the point.

For me, it is infinitely more comforting to acknowledge and embrace the "weird things" that inevitably pop up, rather than glossing them over, pretending they don't exist, or rationalizing them with some pat answer. Questions, dialogue, conversation--all the stuff that Emergent is doing.

Nick Johnson said...

Greg, can you expand on the "weird things" comment. I'd love to hear what you mean by that.

Greg said...

I was referencing this comment Zack made earlier: "It sounded like you and Nick had found some of those weird things while doing your lenting."

For me, "weird things" represent any of the incomprehensible aspects of scripture. Tony Jones provides a fitting example in chapter 5 of his new book. There he describes a passage from Judges in which one of God's warriors, Jephthah, sacrifices his daughter to God out of loyalty. As he goes on to say, deep psychological, sociological, and theological questions need to be asked when reading a passage such as this. His point is that Emergents are dealing with these issues rather than ignoring their presence in scripture, because they share a commitment of reading the whole Bible--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Nick Johnson said...

Ah...thanks Greg, not sure why I didn't put that together.

Speaking of a weird thing, Jane and I were talking and she asked, why didn't Jesus write a Gospel? If he wanted us to know exactly how to follow him, it seems like he could have written a letter and given to it someone after he rose from the dead. Anyway, just a weird thought, not sure what to make of it.

Anonymous said...

Zack-

I remember being where you are--questioning my beliefs--why I did what I did, thought the way I thought. My husband and I had just moved from Texas (our home) to California (what a culture shock). For the first time in my life I was away from family and childhood influences. I began asking myself why do I get up on Sunday morning and go to church--is it just because that was the way I was raised? Is it what I want to do? Does it matter? Do I really have to shut the door of the refrigerator each time I am getting something out or can I leave it open for a few minutes until I am finished? Why do I put the dishes in the dishwasher that way? Can I do it differently?

Looking back those 3 years in California were years of discovery about me and how I fit in the world around me--how I relate to God and how He relates to me personally. God caused me to fall in love with His word at that time and my absolute love and esteem for His word has only grown since then.

Here is what I discovered back then. Notice I use the word "discovered"--I found truth, I didn't create it--it was always there, a lot like your police camera story. You were being filmed even though you weren't aware of it. Truth didn't change just because you were unaware of it. It was okay for me to leave the refrigerator open if I wanted to. Mom and dad didn't like it and when I lived in their house I needed to honor and respect their wishes. But, when I was responsible for the electric bill I could do as I pleased. I could also arranage the dishwasher however I wanted. My house--my labor--my choice.

When it came to spiritual matters though--my relatiohnship with God, that was more critical than the refrigerator and dishwasher. Those issues effected my eternity and how I lived out my days on this earth. My parents loved me this I knew; they taught me Truth because they loved me. I did the "church thing" all those years because I lived in their house and as a member of their family I had no choice--it was what we did--who we were.

Once I was out from under their influence though I began to question why I continued to follow their example and what they had taught me. You know what I found out? Yes, I love to be with God's people in an organized setting worshipping and praising God togehter. I loved to have God's word opened and read to me from the pastor. I loved the way he brought to life the lives of those people in the Bible. Yeah, sometimes it could get a little dry and a bit long but even during those times I realized that most often the difficiency was in me and not God's word. I was preoccupied, out of sorts or under conviction.

What about God's word--it is true? Honestly Zack that is not a question that has ever really been an issue for me. Perhaps because I have spent so much time in it. That isn't to say that I understand everything in it or that I understand everything about God and how He responds to me--what He allows to come into my life. But I do accept what He says on faith. Not a blind faith--I don't believe blind faith is Biblical. Biblical faith is predicated on the character of God. Maybe that's a good place to start in response to your question, "How do we know what God does?" To answer that question I think you need to ask another one, "Who is God?" Uncover the "Who" and you'll find the "what".

Where do you begin? With the book that is His revelation of Himself to mankind--the Bible. Begin at the beginning. Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created..." John 1:1-5, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it."

Zack, what do you know to be true about God and how do you know it is true? Make a list and support your findings with a passage in God's word. One verse or passage for each truth. (I'd love to read your list.) John 17:17 says, "Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth." What makes God's words so much more powerful or important than anyone elses? His word is Truth--it is the standard by which we measure all "truth". Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

I have discovered that God is not interested in playing hide and seek with us. That was the role of the gods of Greek mythology. The Creator of the universe wants a relationship with me--with you. David gave wise counsel to his son Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:9, "...for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you..." Sounds a lot like the Hebrews passage doesn't it? Concidence? I don't think so. Continuity--I love it!!

Zack, thank you for letting me respond to your honest questions. I'd be honored to continue a dialogue with you. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Keep seeking.

Peggy

Andrew said...

Hi, I'm new to this forum. I've enjoyed reading the comments relating to epistemology ... good exploring such matters when the standard "answers" don't seem to work any longer.

My contribution to the recent posts would be that there do seem to be "characteristics" (gate markers) of things that are True and Real -- the things God wants us to know and be and do. These would include the following:

1) LOVE - the goal of our instruction is Love (1 Tim 1:5) and Eph 4: 14 ... that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,
15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--
and of course 1 Cor. 13: If I have all knowledge, but have not love...

2) HUMILITY - we are shown perfect in/by humility
James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.

Matt. 5:48 "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
6:1 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

3) SELF SACRIFICE -
Eph. 5:1Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
Mt 19:21 Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (which needs some unpacking...)

4) TRUST (Faith)
... in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not on thine own understanding . Prov. 3
James 1: 5-7 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;

5) Please add your thoughts on characteristics of things that are True ...

6) Please add your other thoughts on characteristics of things that are God's doing ...

7) RESONANCE - on which topic I've written more but I will spare you for now.

These characteristics, it seems to me, are there to help us know when the things happening to us are God inspired or not -- if they produce these qualities, I think we can move forward in confidence.

Appreciate your feedback...

jc

Kristen Kuzmick said...

On things that are true and real...

I really liked the characteristics identified in the previous post. I see truth in love, humility, self-sacrifice, and trust. I think that these qualities have produced truth in my life and in my relationship with God. I'm still really blurry on any details about the bible, theology, and whether doctrine can exist, but on these four qualities I see truth.

I wonder if we get hung up on the wrong questions, like many emergents have proposed. Questioning whether the virgin birth is really 'true' or if the bible is inerrant may not be the point of this faith journey. Whether I concede that evolution is really "true" or not does not change the truths of love, humility, self-sacrifice, and faith. These truth qualifiers are not threatened by these questions and I feel like they are the things that Christ focused on most in his life.

Why is questioning the details of the bible and asking if something is really "true" so threatening to so many Christians?

While there is indeed discomfort of asking these hard questions, I hope that I can see the discomfort as a blessing, like Jone's benediction says.

May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships...

Sometimes I think it's easier to just not ask the questions, because I feel like they threaten my faith. But then I remember a time when I ignored the questions and pretended that I just KNEW God's truth and had such strong faith.

I'd rather continue wrestling with God and truth and fact and faith and this thing called life than push the questions away; and I'm really glad that I get to take part in this wrestling match with all of you! =)

Zack said...

Wow thank you all for taking the time to post and your encouragement.
Also I wanted to say I really enjoyed our conversation at Mac's Friday night and am looking forward to the things that will be brought up this afternoon.

Peggy,
Perhaps your right that I am in a phase of discovery where I've realized that the way my parents do the whole christian thing and even the way America does Christianity and the things they believe aren't the same as Christians everywhere. This is hard to take in with humility. Like your refrigerator story you realized that you didn't have to do it the same way as your parents, but what if there were also a million different ways to do it and instead of it being just a matter of personal preference because your entire life and possibly your eternal life is based off it.

I feel like there are a million different beliefs about the Bible, Jesus and God and it is very difficult to weigh them all equally or even to look at them all to start with. I feel like I have to just pick one to go with for now, but I don't really know. This is okay for me until evangelism comes into play. Okay this is getting long and a bit off topic.

Anyway Peggy it is hard for me to make a list based off the Bible if I don't feel completely sure it's totally from God. I think things that JC / Andrew?? posted were good, but general things like Love, Peace, Self Sacrifice, Humility are shared amongst many religions and doesn't really help to distinguish Truth.
You said I need to look into who is God and I really think my biggest question now is How do I know Who God is. So instead of who does the bible say God is. I would ask you How do you know what the Bible says about God is really true? You said to seek and I will find and I often feel like Christianity gives me empty sorts of promises like this and that I seek and still feel lost. Also I would ask how do I seek with the millions of different beliefs out there and the hundreds of books I should be reading where do I even start. I often feel just overwhelmed when I start to search out what I really believe and then give up.

I'm hoping we can continue this discussion at Global Gallery today.
Nick, Jane and Noel had some really good thoughts about neo-platoism natrual/supernatural emotional stimulus and "the right way" to pray. Then maybe we can move comments to the wrap-up post so we don't have to keep looking back at this post.