USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 2 of 4

thinking sculptureOkay. So I’m arguing that we should learn to use the Bible to gain wisdom for our “secular” lives. I admit that for many people such a claim can put stress on the system, and I get why others will feel a bit groggy and unclear about it. Others will, quite naturally, want to “search the Scriptures” to see whether it’s true.

Does the Bible address aspects of life that are not noticeably religious or moral? In other words, to use some common language of today, does the Bible concern itself with secular matters? Does it deal with socio-economic and geopolitical questions? What about issues surrounding art, law, business, science, linguistics, ecology, and communications? Or how about justice, racism, abortion, and marriage? In other words, does the Bible have any secular literature? The strange thing is, once you start looking for it, there is so much, and it is so obvious, it is a wonder we ever missed these present-day secular interests.

Take the Book of Deuteronomy, for instance. If our Lord could be said to have had a favorite biblical book it would be Deuteronomy. If put on the spot and asked to say what was in this book, many of us would typically know this as a book where one finds the Ten Commandments and the famous declaration of faith made by Jews everywhere in worship, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4).

We might also recall Deuteronomy as one of the great basic texts for the teaching of the prophets, and that chapters 10-11 carry a higher concentration of language specifically about love between God and people than possibly anywhere else in the Old Testament. And there is also some overt religious instruction,such as about sacrifices, festivals, and the priesthood. But then our knowledge of the book probably tails off.

And yet Deuteronomy includes provisions about everyday life – ranging from nesting birds to digging toilets. The text also addresses issues of war, finance, politics, eating habits, jurisprudence, and public health and safety, not to mention the treatment of criminals, children, wives, slaves, and the poor. We may have ignored such passages because they are not concerned with the overt religious, moral, or devotional areas of our lives.

But there is another reason, which I want us to spend some time with. We may have ignored such passages because the topics they address can seem non-germane to the complexities of our Western world. So what can we possibly learn from issues and interests that were the “secular” concerns of people who lived 3,000 years ago? Good question.

Our complex and specialized societies think and talk in terms of technical language, and we’re used to that: socio-economic indicators, climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, fiscal control of inflation, free market economy, multilateral diplomacy, common core state standards, particle physics, the Web, smart phones, iPads – you name it. I once heard someone describe the person who came to get rid of the mice and termites as a “certified pest control technician.” And I once had a job as a “petroleum transfer engineer” – I worked at a gas station! Well, you get the picture. Everything seems to be getting more complex.

nesting birdsWe have grown so accustomed to our culture’s highly technical language that we cannot see how it could possibly relate to the many secular matters dealt with in Deuteronomy. But we should not let today’s technical jargon confuse us. It is frequently about the same basic elements of everyday life as are dealt with in Deuteronomy. The Jubilee, for instance, was an institution whose significance was chiefly socio-economic. The laws against cutting down fruit trees in war (20:19), or taking a mother bird (22:6), or mixing seeds (22:9), as well as a reason given for the delay in conquering Palestine (7:22), are plainly ecological in nature. The laws about body fluids, quarantines, and sanitation (23:1–14) address practical health care concerns.

This brings us to what we could call the ABCs of Scripture, its basic ingredients. We can learn wisdom by understanding ways in which the ABCs of Scripture relate to our “secular” lives today. I want us to look at that in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Davide Restivo & Victor Berzkov respectiviely (permissions via Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 1 of 4

Bible studyThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It often is ignored or misused, but it is still as much a gift as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time, as a humorous story in the previous post made clear.

If we do not use godly theories, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes along. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a simple illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving.  So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen to be first on the scene of an car wreck, afraid to help the injured parties because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates doctors and nurses (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

In the previous post I called attention to the relationship between our wisdom and the theories we use that help us cope with life, and I said that the way to better theories is through acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical. Here are a few tips along the way.

Begin with humility of mind. You are entering a process of change. Yes, on becoming a Christian a radical change is introduced into one’s outlook. Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that your entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway and with it any wrongheaded theories. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And we ought to keep in mind the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians may fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:20-3:2).

Prepare to hit resistance but press on. People, including even our ministers, may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations may arise to become impatient, to fall for simplistic or dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But whoever said Christian discipleship was going to be easy? So press on but proceed humbly – that’s where the grace is.

Learn to read and study the Bible as a “secular” book. There is a lot of biblical wisdom for daily life to be gained through such an approach. Traditionally for many of us, the Bible slides past our eyes with a “stained glass window effect.” That is, we read the Bible as a “religious” book only – for instructions about prayer, worship, doctrine, church activities, moral behavior, evangelization, and so on. Certainly religious instruction must not be downplayed. Yet that alone leaves us ill-equipped to study and apply Scripture with reference to the many “nonreligious” issues and aspects of daily life.

Sure, many Christians can quote from the Book of Proverbs, say for business principles, relationship taboos, or parent–child environments. But I’m talking about a much wider horizon. When it comes to immigration laws and health insurance, for instance, or to medical debates and  economic development, or to government subsidies of the arts and US foreign policy, it usually does not occur to us to check out the Book, for we assume that it has little or no distinctive wisdom for such “secular” matters.

But that is not how Jesus, or the apostles, or God’s Old Testament people saw Scripture. They had a God who was involved in the whole of life and they had a Scripture to match. The knew that Bible was not relegated to “religious” affairs only; it held instruction for what today we often call secular life.

In the next post I want us to look at that way learning wisdom from Scripture.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Steel Wool (permission via Creative Commons)

CANNONBALL RACES

bowlsDuring one of my countless conversations with John Peck about “wisdom,” he told me a funny story about the leisurely British game of “bowls.” Since most Americans will find that game unfamiliar, I should first describe it so that John’s story, below, will make sense.

Bowls is usually played outdoors on a long rectangular patch of short-cut lawn called a green. A player – a bowler – starts the game by standing at one end of the green and rolling a small but fairly heavy and solid white ball, the jack, down the green to the other end. The jack is not rolled again during that game. A lot of sportsmanship ensues as bowlers take turns rolling their much larger and heavier black balls down the green to see who can get closest to the jack.

Sounds easy enough, but the larger balls are biased (with interior weights) and so do not travel in a straight line – they follow various degrees of arcs when bowled toward the jack, not unlike American fingertip bowling balls en route to the pocket. Once all the balls are bowled, the direction of play is reversed. To get points, bowlers must to get as close to the jack as possible by the end of the game, and to do that they employ various strategies, such as trying to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way.

Okay. Got it? Here’s John with the story:

Once as our family was driving through a park, one of the younger kids amused us by looking out of the back of the car and shouting, “Look, Dad, cannonball races!” Everyone looked around and saw a green with a leisurely game of bowls in play.

As my young son did, we all interpret any new phenomenon in terms of what we already know. So let’s pull the car into a parking space, watch the game closely, and imagine a discussion between me and my son.

I remark on the skill of a player who has rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. My son is puzzled by my statement, but that doesn’t stop him! He naturally responds, “What sort of a race is it where people only try to get even and not ahead?”

So I explain the concept of “getting close rather than getting ahead.” Rather dubiously he accepts the notion but suggests that the players start aiming better. “After all, Dad, the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.”

So I try again. But by the time I get through explaining the concept that these balls have a bias in them, he’s now impatient with me and explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!”

So I reply (fully assured and ever the expert!) that the bias is deliberately put into the balls during their manufacture. At this point my son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that…. They must be mad!”

You can find this story in our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (Chapter 7), and John’s point was to call my attention to the importance of the relationship of wisdom to theories.

People, however, can be terrified by the word “theory,” or they can’t be bothered with it because it doesn’t seem practical. It’s about ivory tower intellectuals, who never have to deal with Pampers, flat tires, or flu shots. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them. In other words, theories can be quite practical indeed. And if you bring a faulty theory to an experience or an issue, something is going to go wrong. Here’s how John put it in the book:

You could hardly blame my young son. I failed to address his basic assumption that these were cannonballs, and that this mistake resulted in a different theory about the game of bowls and its rules. Because I had a different theory about the game and failed to acknowledge that, he could not understand the game or my explanations of it.

What is more, in his attempt to make sense of what he was seeing in this new experience, his faulty theory meant that he asked the wrong questions. My answers, therefore, even though they were from the correct theory, were not helping him in the least, for they were not answering the questions that formed in his mind using the faulty theory.

It is, of course, a parable. In Uncommon Sense, John and I went on to discuss this at some length, such as to show how dad’s neglect of, or possibly ignorance of, the son’s faulty theory made communication and progress on the issue impossible. Of course, the problem in that situation was a trivial one and easily resolved in terms of the father and son’s common culture.

blastertheoryYet the form of the problem is similar for all of us with respect to bigger and crucial issues, such as come up in science, education, religion, politics, and elsewhere. In such areas, a new problem will not be easily defined or practically resolved when people bring different theories to it. And when contradictory theories are brought to it, you have a huge mess.

The form of the problem also exists in varying degrees between an ethnic minority and the dominant culture, or liberal and conservative Christians, or labor and management, or left wing and right wing politicians, or American Christians and Muslims in the Middle East – the list goes on.

As a culture increasingly fragments, as its structural problems present themselves more  intractably and its conflicts become more wide-ranging and more common, if they are not corrected, a culture ends like the Tower of Babel, if not in a civil war. And the principle holds true also for the international scene.

What we need, then, is a wisdom – a way of seeing life and living in it – a way of making sense of the creation and living in it effectively – that makes sound theories possible for coping with and communicating about life’s problems. What we are talking about is having theories that correspond, as much as it is humanly possible, to rightly understanding and stewarding the many and varied aspects of God’s world.

Lacking that, life goes terribly wrong. Therefore, seek wisdom. In the next post I want to share some clues from the Bible about that kind of seeking.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Peter Labourne & Neural respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 2 of 2

creation artWhat is wisdom? Is it reserved for old age? Is it about pithy sayings, such as proverbs? Or perhaps it is that touch of cunning which gives certain people a clever understanding of situations that others would not have in a million years – Solomon’s ruling about a prostitute’s baby comes to mind (1 Kings 3). Certainly, the Bible’s view of “wisdom” would include such ideas. And as we saw in the previous post, wisdom, like love, faith, and truth, has been one of the great objects of human search throughout history.

So wisdom seems to be something other than merely the one or two ideas that we typically like to nail it down as. Which brings us back to this. In the posts that began this blog – a blog dedicated to wisdom – I offered examples of a key fact: The more territory you explore in the biblical wisdom literature, the more you see that what you thought you knew about wisdom expanding considerably.

In other words, wisdom is not so easily defined as we may think. Instead, wisdom is rather like a person. I mean, you can, for instance, define a human being as one thing, say chemically; but if that’s it, most people know that’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer. It leaves many questions unanswered.

Look at it this way, a person cannot be reduced to one or two roles. An adult can be a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandmother, a wife, an attorney, a musician, and so on. In other words, there is more to any one person than meets the eye. You’ve just got to look for it. The agency of wisdom is like that. To try to pin it down to any one or two things is reductionistic. The question “What is wisdom?”, then, like “What is truth?” or “What is love?”, is one of those big questions that defies an easy way of nailing down.

The seeking of wisdom is a lifelong process. You get it as you go along and you keep getting more of it as you keep seeking it. Because there is an increasing knowledge of wisdom as we go along, we must be cautious about trying to nail down to reductionistic definitions. I want us to keep that in mind, here, because now I’m going to break the rule and  offer a definition!

“Wisdom is a way of seeing life and living in it according to how you see it.” Or you could put it this way: “Wisdom is a way of making sense of the creation in order to life in it effectively (and it will affect what you think is effective living too).”

This helpful understanding of wisdom comes from British theologian and philosopher John Peck, a leading specialist in the wisdom literature, and you can find more about it in chapter five of our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

I’m sharing this exception to the rule for at least two reasons. One, it seems to me that it is big enough to avoid being reductionsitic. Two, I’ve found it a handy tool for discerning different kinds of wisdom, which is a prominent theme in the New Testament – the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. In fact, I am so keen on this understanding of wisdom that when I teach about wisdom, I encourage people to take time to memorize it because I have seen the good fruit it can produce over time.

This Christian understanding of wisdom comes from a prominent way in which the Bible sees wisdom: as the way the world works. For example: “In wisdom,” says the Psalmist when speaking about the works of creation, “you [God] made them all” (Psalm 104:24). From the prophet Jeremiah: “God … founded the world by his wisdom” (10:12; 51:15). And in the wisdom literature itself: “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Proverbs 3:19).

building blocks (Artful Magpie)In other words, the whole universe functions by the wisdom of God. We see this emphasized in a peculiar passage in Proverbs 8:22-36, where “wisdom” is personified as if it where the very secret of the universe, as the craftsman at God’s side during the process of creation. (I wrote more about this here.) Therefore, says wisdom, “listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise.”

This text in Proverbs seems to be indicating, in part, that when God created the universe – with all its multifarious facets, with all the complex intricacies of its workings and its human beings – first of all there was a concept, or vision, that dominated and controlled, or made effective, that creative process. (This may be somewhat analogous to the vision that an artist has first, before putting paint to canvass.)

And the result is that the creation “stands up” as it were. It doesn’t exist like a cat and a dog fighting, which you can barely keep apart. It doesn’t exist like nitroglycerin, which, if you gave it a jar, might suddenly blow up, and you would never know when. Rather, the creation has stability, and this stability is orderly. There are rules on which it works. There’s a reliability and consistency to it, so that the same rules govern this earth which govern the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

That was in God’s mind as His wisdom, and it played a vital role in God bringing the world into being. “This means that when you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character” (Uncommon Sense). Yes. It’s a gorgeous mystery. And the more we get into it, the wiser we become.

The problem is that there are other wisdoms, other ways, ways that are not God’s way of seeing the world and living in it. In the next post I want to share a funny story about the difference.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Helene Villenueve & Artful Magpie respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 1 of 2

exploringOnce a dutiful and thrifty peasant’s wife wrapped her shawl about her shoulders, took up her basket, and told her husband, “Otto, I’m leaving now to go over the hill to nurse my sister Anna. She’s down with the fever and her children need lookin’ after. I won’t be returnin’ for several days. Look after yourself. And remember, when the cattle dealer comes to buy our three cows, make sure you don’t strike a bargain with him unless you can get at least two hundred thalers for them.  Nothing less. Do you hear?”
    “For ‘eaven’s sake, woman, just go. Go ‘n peace. I will manage that!”
    “You, ‘ndeed,” said the woman. “You who are wont to do the most foolish things. I’m tellin’ you now, we ourselves will be very lean cows this winter without that money.” And having said that, she went on her way.  
    Two mornings later the cattle dealer came. When he had seen the cows, he said, “I’m  willing to pay two hundred thalers. They’re worth that. I will take the beasts away with me at once.”
    He unfastened their ropes and drove them out of the cowhouse, but just as the cattle dealer was leaving the husband said, “Wait. You must give me the two hundred thalers now, or I cannot let the cows go.”
    “True,” answered the cattle dealer, “but I have forgotten to buckle on my money belt this morning. Have no fear, however, you shall have security for my paying.”
    “And what shall that be,” Otto asked, “as you have nothing with you?”
    “But I have these three cows with me,” said the cattle dealer. “I will take two cows with me and leave one, and then you will have a good pledge.”
    The man saw the force of this and let the cattle dealer go away with two cows, thinking, “How pleased my wife will be when she finds how cleverly I have managed it!”

That parable from early 19th century European folklore makes us smile. How easily old Otto got rooked, we tell ourselves. A fool and his money are soon parted. We know better. We are wiser than that guy. But why? Why do we think that? Well, we recognize which one of the parable’s three main characters is the fool, which is the con artist, and which is wise. And we’re pretty sure we’re like her.

At heart, the parable is about wisdom and folly. But what is wisdom? It’s such an important question, because when we act with wisdom we are kept from being foolish. For such an easily asked question, however, it’s not so easily answered. Take a stab at it yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Yet we need an answer because wisdom is a big deal, both according to the Bible, which tells us to seek wisdom, and from the witness of history, where we see that wisdom has been one of the chief objects of human search as far back Eden. Wisdom is more precious than rubies and yields more profits than silver and gold, the book of Proverbs explains. Nothing you desire can compare with her, we are told in its pages. Therefore seek wisdom.

Like our longings for love, faith, truth, happiness, and freedom, wisdom is a deeply constituted human desire. Nearly a third of the Jewish Bible, the Writings, contains wisdom literature, and it is there that we find the well known first principle: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 9:10; Job 28:28). As David Ford, Britain’s leading wisdom theologian, writes: “In the Bible itself, apart from the desire for God there is no desire that is more passionately and loudly encouraged than the desire for wisdom” (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love).

discoveryIn the Christian tradition, the New Testament indicates that from childhood Jesus grew in wisdom, and a close reading of much of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels will disclose Jesus’ wisdom-based way teaching about life and relationships (see: Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom). First Corinthians chapters one through four includes a sophisticated argument from St. Paul – a rabbi trained in the wisdom tradition – about the wisdom of the Cross. And much of the epistle of James is committed to a wisdom agenda.

Other traditions have also seen wisdom as a hallmark human concern. In conversations with his disciples, Buddha was known for his wisdom, as was Confucius, who, five hundred years before Christ, emphasized a practical moral and ethical wisdom that helped to change Chinese society.

The philosophers of ancient Greece were known as lovers of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom), and for at least one of them, Aristotle, practical wisdom (phronesis) entailed taking virtuous decisions that led to living well, including in political life. And in Islam, the Qur’an explains that God grants wisdom, and its readers are exhorted to pray for wisdom, as their Bibles exhort Jews and Christians to do.

The human race has a long history with wisdom, and it’s a history which discloses that wisdom is not confined to any one culture or people; instead, wisdom cries to be heard in every time and place. As Emerson wrote: “Wisdom has been poured into us as blood.”

Still, none of this answers the important question: What is wisdom? I offered some answers, beginning here, as this blog was launched. But as i said in those posts, that did not exhaust the possible answers, because the closer you explore the historic wisdom tradition, the more you discover more about wisdom than you thought you knew. At least, that has been my experience.

So in the next post I want to offer some further possibilities to: What is wisdom? For it is in knowing and practicing wisdom more fully and consistently that we become less foolish actors on this great stage God has created for us.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Tartarin2009 & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE ODDITY OF ANOTHER WAY

problems solvingPolitics, science, education, economics, society, and every other basic aspect of a nation’s life – in the long run these are not neutral subjects. The way in which these areas develop in the minds of individuals or communities is determined by the kind of god that governs the thinking of those individuals or communities. And that determines how collective problems are analyzed and solutions enacted.

This is vitally important to get into our heads, at least for anyone who wants to see a nation directed by a gospel-shaped wisdom: because the way the gospel thinks is different from other ways of thinking about sociology and politics and economics and foreign policy and so forth. A gospel-shaped wisdom is going to have different ways of analyzing such problems and offering solutions for them.

The difficulty is that a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom for a nation’s problems may seem terribly odd to both individuals and communities. The reason for this is because the gospel doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere; it is different than the ways people are used to thinking about problems and solving them. (For an introduction to this phenomenon, refer to the series on Jesus as a Teacher of Wisdom in Ancient Palestine.)

Here I want to note some apt examples from theologian and philosopher John Peck, whom, I should add, was also my tutor. From a lecture many years ago, Peck’s observations about the oddity of gospel answers to the collective problems of a nation remains pertinent today:

“We are in a society which, since Freud, has been pleading increasingly diminished responsibility. Well, that makes the gospel assumption of human guilt seem pretty silly. And our politics is torn between individualism and collectivism and a lot of uneasy compromises in between. That makes the concept of the Trinity – a God of individuality in community – one God – an unbelievable God. puzzledIt makes the God-man Jesus an impossibility, logically anyway. And our economics is obsessed by the two alternatives of breakneck progress or stagnation. So that the idea of slowing up for the sake of the helpless seems an unrealistic idealism. It hasn’t got any space. And our education is so devoted to scientific measurables, that faith and hope and love sound a bit daft – because you can’t mark them on a dial.”

This is equally true in areas of interest to this blog, such as diplomacy, international relations, and foreign policy. In the U.S., foreign policy analysis and decision making, for instance, is deeply rooted in ideological thinking. This makes the idea of constructing international relations based on what the gospel would have to say about peace and human mutuality seem ridiculous.

If a nation is not run on a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom, it is by default run on some other wisdom, on some other way of seeing national life and expressing it, on some other way of trying to analyze and solve its problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Boy image by Daniel (Permission via Creative Commons)

RELIGION: A HIDDEN WORD

search for Chr AmerA nation’s conception of itself and of the way it should be run is derived from its faith. In other words, there is a direct link between a nation’s ultimate conception if itself and the utterly practical ways in which it get things done. Consider a common slogan: “America is a Christian nation.” Many people deploy it to mean: “America has to get back to being a Christian nation.” That is, America’s founding faith was Christian, the country has let that slip, and so the answer to its ills is to recover Christianity as the nation’s guiding light.

Reputable, patient, historical scholarship, however, has shown that it is a misleading reading of the history of the United States to conclude that it was founded as a Christian nation. See, for example, The Search for Christian America (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) or the more recent Founding Faith (Steven Waldman). No one, of course, can honestly deny the Christian influences, which were many, widespread, and deep, in the early American narrative. Puritan, Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic settlements, for instance, all confessed Christianity and exemplified variants of it. However, these were settlements and colonies. They were not about the founding of a nation, of the United States. The distinction is significant.

The founding document of a nation is its constitution. If, for instance, you read the constitutions of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan you will immediately see that they are “Islamic republics.” This can leave no question in anyone’s mind about the ultimate religious faith of those nations – their conception of themselves – which then directly influences the practical ways in which they go about their business. As Pakistan’s constitution puts it: “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed” (my emphasis).

Now there is no such overt faith or religious statement in the constitution of the United States of America, or even in the Declaration of Independence, about Christianity. It is true the Declaration gives a nod to “God” and to “divine Providence,” each once. But the Declaration is not the Constitution. It did not found the nation. It declared the thirteen colonies to be independent from the British empire. Twelve years later the Constitution was written and signed, and there is no mention of Christianity in it, nor any God-language either. The closest the Constitution gets to God-language is the Preamble’s ambiguous phrase “to secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

So is American a Christian nation? Not according to its founding, legal document. This is not to suggest that there were no Christian ethical, social, economic, political, and other insights contributing to the founding. But it is much closer to the actual reality, I believe, to sum up the founding faith of the United States of America as an admixture of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism.

These sources play huge roles in America’s ultimate conception of itself, that is, its faith. They informed the thinking that went in to U.S. Constitution. They account for the way the nation goes about its business today, such as its social, political, economic problems, as well as its analyses of and responses to its foreign relations headaches.

In the next post I will conclude these thoughts on “religion” by considering why a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom seems an odd way to address America’s collective problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

RELIGION: A NECESSARY WORD

steel structure“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” In the previous post I said that we ought to ditch that widespread Christian slogan. Here I want to say explain why, by thinking about another common Christian slogan: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.” This, of course, a way of stating from the negative that Jesus is Lord – has the final say – over all of life – not only over what we do on Sunday but throughout Monday to Saturday as well. Either he is Lord of those days too, or he is not Lord at all.

But what does it mean that Jesus is Lord of our lives outside the church walls? Simply said, it means that you are not just a student, or just a journalist, or just a math teacher, or just a single mom, or just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. You are much more than “just” anything everyday.

To help Christ’s daily lordship seem more understandable and manageable, some Christian philosophers and theologians see life in terms of specific aspects, such as the physical, the biological, the aesthetic, the linguistic, the social, the economic, the ethical, the political, and so forth. This makes sense when you think about it, because we all function in these basic areas of life. I mean we have bodies (the physical), we eat to stay alive (the biological), we pay our bills (the economic), we vote (the political – to note vote is a political statement), and so on. So to claim that “Jesus is Lord” is to claim that he has the ultimate say over these and every other aspect.

Now here’s the thing. There is also the “religious” aspect of life. It is about one’s ultimate faith or confession. As we saw in the previous post, it denotes, for instance, how people express the commitment they have to God symbolically, such as during a church service or in the mosque or in the temple. Further, the religious aspect tops the list of all the aspects. This is because one’s ultimate faith commitment gives direction and shape to how the person will think and act in all the other aspects. So there is no “just anything” about our lives.

If we claim to be Christian, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and how we treat your bodies, and how we treat others, and the way we are singers in rock ‘n’ roll bands are  directed and shaped (at least they should be!) by what we confess as our ultimate religious commitment – Jesus as Lord. No one does this perfectly, of course, but we ought to be doing it prayerfully, deliberately, and more consistently as disciples, that is to say, as a learners.

As well, if our religious commitment is to what the Old Testament person would call an idol, or a god, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and the way we treat others and even our bodies, and all the rest of life too, will be directed and shaped by whatever that ultimate faith commitment is.

In the West today, of course, most people do not have shrines in their homes to Baal, or Dagon, or Mars, or Venus, or Whatever. Well, maybe to Steve Jobs. But the Western gods are mostly invisible. Nevertheless ultimate faith commitments exist to them under names such as Reason, Materialism, Scientism, Empiricism, Individualism, Collectivism, Secularism, Self, The Almighty Dollar. The list goes on.

If this stuff is making your head hurt, sorry about that. But try to stick this out. Just as our ultimate beliefs give direction and shape to our lives as individuals, nations are also shaped by their ultimate beliefs. We need to wise up about this. I’ll suggest why by wrapping up this theme of “religion” in the next two posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Harry Cjr (Permission via Creative Commons)