Thursday, May 05, 2011

Connect the prose and the passion

(With apologies to E.M. Forster.)

There is only one religion that connects the prose and the passion, and that is Christianity. Christianity offers mankind all the scope the imagination and the heart could desire--God become man as a baby with a virgin mother, sin taken away mysteriously by means of the God-man's shameful death, His vindication by a glorious resurrection, the possibility of new life for each of us and the remission of sin, the final promise that all shall be made new.

For this very reason, some have feared that they believe Christianity only because they want it to be true, only because it would be so wonderful if it were true. For this very reason, too many Christians have played along, fearful that the prose might cancel the poetry, separating the "Christ of history" from the "Christ of faith" and assuring the faithful that they can have the latter on which to rest their hearts and feed their imaginations even if the former is...a bit lacking.

This is to separate the prose and the passion with a vengeance.

But this is not Christianity. For Christianity affirms, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell, and the third day He rose again from the dead." There is no separation between the great truths of the Gospel and the prosaic truths of history, between the massive miracle of Jesus risen and the all-too-human, bureaucratic hand-washing of a harassed Roman official two thousand years ago.


Fake Herzog said...

Fantastic post.

Speaking as a fan of history, this is part of the appeal of the Christian story -- it is the story of mankind (sometimes prosaic, sometimes heroic), here on Earth, and his encounter with God (always great).

It seems to me that this is also why some of the best that Western Civilization has to offer with respect to the arts has explicit Christian themes -- this art connects the "great truths of the Gospel" with painting, music, literature, etc. to form something that is both aesthetically beautiful and containing deep spiritual truth.

Robert Kunda said...

Regarding paragraph #2—Might this not be why so many Christians seem ill-concerned about whether or not Christianity is true? Or rather, disinterested in it?

Being an adult convert that began early on trying to understand the "what" to believe and the "why" for Christianity, self-study and seminary (if I can call my program that), has been a largely heartbreaking experience for me. This is not from the experience from the education directly, but in how disinterested or even hostile toward anything "heady" from the average believer.

Everything is always presented as needing to move "from the head to the heart." There's this wholly unhealthy separation of head and heart in modern thinking that's radically destructive, as if contemplation and understanding is a negative and only feeling is reliable or beneficial. Or, provided the former doesn't interfere with the latter, at least.

Maybe I'm getting off topic, but it all too often seems to me that we're more enfatuated with the idea of Jesus than the actual Christ.

I think this is, partially, why universalist heresies are so popular, and people that warn against them so unpopular... with people that are professing to be in the church. Universalism is cheerful and makes people feel good. Talking about a literal hell is so negative, so detracting from the Christian experience, don't you know.

Sorry for the rant.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

C. S. L. was emotionally most satisfied with Norse myths.

Cris Putnam said...

Robert I feel your pain. There is a subjectivity that reeks of postmodernism prevalent in the church, yet in my observation its more a product of laziness than philosophy. That being said Lydia post is fantastic, because she speaks of connecting the prose and the passion. Its the connection that feeds the "that is true" with the "why its true"; if we don;t have the connection we can err both ways, a subjective emotionalism or a dry argumentative rationalism. The connection that Lydia wrote about is the necessary balance.

Lydia McGrew said...

Gentlemen, thanks for your comments.

FH, right on! :-)

Robert, I think the incursions of postmodernism into Christianity that you are sensing--the lack of interest in the truth of Christianity, for example, are in no small measure a result of fear. There's been a definite sense (and this since long before postmodernism) that Christianity cannot meet the demands for evidence, that indeed all questions of evidence are _intrinsically_ stacked against Christianity (which in fact is not true but is the impression secularists and religious liberals have wanted to give). This sense has given rise in our own time to the "narrative" or "story" approach to Christianity in which its emotional satisfaction level is all that matters. A most unfortunate development!

Lydia McGrew said...

Vlastimil, I believe you may be right, though I don't recall now if CSL ever expressly compared Norse religions with Christianity on that score. I do know that he said much what I have been saying here--that Christianity is the only religion to connect historical facts solidly with religious mysteries.

Cris, I think philosophy is implicated to no small extent, as I say in my comment to Robert. Pastors learn a certain anti-evidential approach (one or the other of them), and this causes them to encourage a lack of connection and in particular emotionalism in their congregations. The congregations may acquiesce because of laziness, but the pastors would have at least some opportunity to change the laziness if they were really committed to doing so. That's my perception, anyway.

Neil Shenvi said...

Regarding your comment that religious doctrines need to move "from the head to the heart", I think the validity of this statement depends on how we undertand it. As you describe it, this phrase is being used to claim that spirituality is a matter of emotion (heart) as opposed to the intellect (head). But in the bible, the word "heart" is a metaphor for the "center of one's being," encompassing intellect, will, and emotions. In that case, the phrase in question means something like "doctrines need to be not merely intellectually believed but also taken into the center of our being." This is precisely the differentiation the early Reformers made with regard to faith as consisting of three parts: notitia (awareness), assensia (intellectual assent) and fiducia (trust). If we reduce faith to mere intellectual belief, we end up with dead orthodoxy. If we reduce faith to mere emotion, then we end in purely subjective irrational mystical quagmire. I think the answer is simply to recapture the biblical understanding of faith as "personal trust" which necessarily involves the intellect, will, and emotions.

Lydia McGrew said...

Neil, my guess is that the phrase is being used as Robert is hearing it to disparage the "head."

Robert Kunda said...

Unfortunately, one is left to speculate as any given sentence isn't always qualified. That said, my assessment isn't that this type of comment are directly meant to disparage the head inasmuch as relegate knowledge to the category of superfluous, or perhaps even a hinderance to the highest calling—emotional response.

In this sense, any serious study is potentially a 'deadening" of faith. You know, hat tip to "those of you" that feel so called, but them's dangerous roads you'r traveling. "I may not know much about no books, but I love Jesus."

It's early, and it's pre-coffee, so apologies for the scattered thinking. My frustration isn't with emotional responses. I'm not convinced that this whole "all head and no heart" Christian is anything more than a mythology. The people I know that are most passionate (not synonymous with volume level) about X topic are the people that have put in a considerable amount of study and work into it. I know for me personally one area I care an enormous deal about is abortion/protecting the lives of the unborn, this resulting not from closing books, but from opening them.

The same goes for my faith. The more I've learned, the stronger my commitment's to Christ have become, and in turn, my heart-felt conviction as well. I just can't fathom saying, I care so much about this that I refuse to learn about it."

I don't think a seminary degree is any sort of prerequisite for Christian faith, nor the ability to clearly articulate the complexities of complicated theological arguments.

I would however question my own professed love of my wife if I really knew little or nothing about her. Sure, we spend "time together" and we talk, but I couldn't tell you anything about her.

Make sense?

Neil Shenvi said...

That's totally possible. In that case, the quote is being both misunderstood and put to a very destructive use. I just wanted to point out that the heard/heart distinction actually does serve an important purpose within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief.

More broadly, I think your post was right on the money. Apologists tend to focus on the intellectual, the prose, of Christianity and with good reason. But we need to remember that the poetry can often be just as important. In fact, this observation in itself might be an interesting apologetic point: what if the truth about God is also supremely beautiful? What if the message of Christianity appeals not only to the intellect, but to the emotion? I think human beings have the innate sense that the truth _ought_ to be beautiful. What if it is? There are certainly elements within Christianity that will challenge our aethetic sensibilities. But what if -at its core- is an idea of staggering beauty and glory: the righteous suffering for the unrighteous?

Bethany Rohde said...

I am glad I read your post. Thank you for expressing this vital connection between the beauty of God's epic love for humanity and the paydirt of his reality in history. It cannot be overemphasized enough!

Neil, that was a lovely last point.