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Posts from the ‘Charles Taylor’ Category

Encounters with the Unknown Christ

Spring Break allowed me time to read Eleanor McLaughlin’s book Unconscious Christianity in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Late Theology (2020, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), a revision of her 2015 Oxford dissertation. It is prohibitively expensive, at $95 hardcover, but my library was willing to buy the book and loan it first to me. Interested readers who lack access could consider the $45 ebook version.

McLaughlin’s book is the first complete study of the concept of “unconscious Christianity” in Bonhoeffer’s theology, in particular in the final few years of his life (1940-45). What does this term mean? McLaughlin labors to construct a definition from the scant material references to the term (Unbewußtes Christentum), and by page 95 the definition arrives:

Unconscious Christianity refers to the whole body of good people who have encountered Christ without being aware of it and do not self-identify as Christians. In addition, they may fulfill any of these six criteria: (1) to have faith without knowing it, (2) to be selfless and participate in Jesus’s being-for-others, (3) to not seek to be other than what they are, (4) to value the penultimate [i.e., this world, as opposed to the world-to-come], (5) to perform acts of faith without reflecting on them, (6) to be a member of the Bürgertum... [I]t seems that as he further develops his ideas on unconscious Christianity Bonhoeffer suggests that unconscious Christians are recognized as righteous by God.

McLaughlin arrives at this definition by placing Bonhoeffer in context, in four ways. First, theologians Richard Rothe and Martin Rade had used the term before him, and Karl Rahner used the similar “anonymous Christian” in the same era (though he meant something else). Second, Bonhoeffer belongs in the context of the German Bürgertum [upper-middle] social class. Third, he was a member of a barely religious family, whose work against the Nazis later funded his fiction writing and this thoughts about unconscious Christianity. Fourth and finally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer in his late theology, which in general is neither in clean continuity with his earlier thoughts nor radical change from them, but is a “fluid” “movement” (citing Hanfried Muller), “developing” the earlier ideas into the later (146). Additionally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity on the back end in the context of mid-twentieth century “death of God” theology, naming William Hamilton and J. A. T. Robinson (144-146).

In other words, this book is a formal study and an exercise in historical theological exegesis, more so than a positive or constructive theological argument. I was surprised and impressed by the great lengths to which McLaughlin went to articulate Bonhoeffer’s exact view and the limits of what we can reconstruct. I can imagine a reader seeking a constructive theological argument reading the introduction, chapters 1 and 5, and the conclusion, and benefiting greatly. Meanwhile readers interested in the historical Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer Studies proper, or in theological method (especially on extracting theology from fiction writing) would benefit from the whole book.

Quickly, I want to sketch the four references to unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.

First, in his essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” a chapter from Ethics written in 1940 at Ettal, Bonhoeffer made a marginal comment on the manuscript (which did not enter the printed text.) The essay in general is about not sacrificing the life to come for the life of this world, and vice versa. Christians should live in both the ultimate, and the penultimate, at the same time. Towards the end of the essay he describes people who “no longer dare to call themselves Christians,” who we must then claim as Christians. We should do this because the human and good work that these people do in the world unites the penultimate with the ultimate. Then comes the note. He writes, “Unbewußtes Christentum. Balzac. Leute des Antichristus.” This note turns out to be a convoluted reference to the play Les Comediens sans le savior by Honore de Balzac (1846). The characters in the play each stand for something in French society, though they are unaware of it. Bonhoeffer is presumably then saying that unconscious Christians are playing a part in Kingdom of God without knowing it either. The reference to the Antichrist, writes McLaughlin, is more or less inexplicable (65-66).

Second, in his novel Novel, written in late 1943 from Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote the term unconscious Christianity into the dialogue. Two boys, one from a working class and the other an upper-middle class [Bürgertum] family, are talking about trust and social class and the ways that the underclass have been so mistreated that they cannot trust anyone. (This would be Bonhoeffer’s view of the underclass, of course). Talking about his family, the Bürgertum boy says,

“But now I’m thinking about Papa and Mama. You can’t really say they’re Christians, at least not in the customary sense of the word. They don’t go to church. They only say grace before meals because of Little Brothers. And yet they’re as little affected by the spirit of false ambition, careerism, titles, and medals as your [the working class boy’s] mother is. They prefer a good laborer or craftsman a hundred times over some puffed-up ‘Excellency.’ Why is that?”

Ulrich thought for a moment. “That’s because without knowing it and certainly without talking about it, in truth they still base their lives on Christianity, an unconscious Christianity.”

This is the clearest use of unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. The family is probably based on his own family’s quasi-irreligious nature. The thing that distinguishes them is that they are unaffected by titles, etc., which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s theology of self-forgetfulness and kenosis in Christ, the self-for-others.

Third, in his letter to Bethge postmarked July 27, 1944, Bonhoeffer used the term in a theological context. This was just one week after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, which would later lead to the order to execute Bonhoeffer. Here is the quote:

Your [Bethge’s] formulation of our theological theme is very clear and simple. The question how there can be a “natural” piety is at the same time the question about “unconscious Christianity” that preoccupies me more and more. The Lutheran dogmatists distinguished a fides directa from a fides reflexa. They related that to the so-called faith of the infant at baptism. I wonder if we are not here addressing a very wide-reaching problem. More about that, hopefully, soon.

Unfortunately Bonhoeffer did not return to this point in his surviving letters. (Bethge burned the September 1944 letters when his own arrest was ordered, so perhaps it was there, but alas). McLaughlin writes that Bonhoeffer’s example of infant baptism teases out another distinction, between faith that would be “by reflection within the individual” and faith that “simply indicate[s] the manner of being of that individual.” Unconscious Christianity, then, would be the latter type. It is not inward “faith” (i.e., how most evangelicals understand the word) but a fact about the person’s manner of being. Bonhoeffer’s statement that this could be a very wide-reaching problem intrigues me. He is including the unconscious Christian in the fides directa along with baptized infants, but I can only wonder how much further Bonhoeffer would have pressed this logic had he survived the war.

Fourth, in his notes in preparation for his new book (of which only the outline was ever written), Bonhoeffer makes several scattered comments on a chapter on unconscious Christianity. He writes:

Unconscious Christianity: Left hand doesn’t know / what the right hand is doing / Matt. 25. / Not knowing what to pray. Motto: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

These cryptic comments need explaining. The first refers to Matthew 6:3, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The reference to Matthew 25 is to the parable of the goats and sheep. The motto comes from Mark 10:51, Jesus’s question to the blind man (who replies, “Rabbi, I want to see!”). I don’t think McLaughlin explains the comment, “Not knowing what to pray,” or at least she does not address it in the two textual analyses on 70-72 and 87-89. However it must come from Romans 8:26 where Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” The basic picture that emerges from these scattered references is someone ignorant (right/left hands) of their good deeds (sheep) and yet by their deeds they are encountering Jesus (Matthew 25:40/45). It takes more theological creativity to fit the “motto” and the reference to Romans 8 into this vision of unconscious Christianity, which may explain why McLaughlin shies from them.

In my own words, here is what I would say. Bonhoeffer seems to radicalize the parable of the Sheep and Goats so that it is more than an exhortation to care for the poor. Instead, caring for the poor (and etc. selfless good deeds) are an encounter with Jesus, whether people realize this or not. Bonhoeffer was driven to this view by his own situation. His co-churchmen had caved almost immediately to the Nazi regime in 1933 and were helplessly compromised in the fight against evil. Conversely, many of his co-conspirators were not religious, but they were fighting evil at great risk to themselves for the sake of the weakest in society. Bonhoeffer has this visceral understanding that the ones he expected to do right and wrong, had done wrong and right. This forced him to develop theology to explain this real phenomenon. Because his a Lutheran, he pulls on the fides directa and thinks that his co-conspirators “have faith” just as baptized infants “have faith” but do not realize it. They are playing Christian roles, like the unconscious French characters from the Balzac play, but more than this (as his thought develops from 1940 to 1944), they are participating in Christ, which is faith. The connection to Romans 8 is more obscure, but I can imagine ways to develop it which would look like Sarah Coakley’s argument in “Praying the Trinity” (chapter three of God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’). This is too abstract, I need to return to it later. But there is some connection between the Spirit placing us in the position of the Son before the Father during prayer, which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity. Unconscious Christians, if they really are participating in Christ as faith by their self-denying love and service, are not only participating in Christ but necessarily also participating in the Divine Life of the Triune God in total. Maybe this could extend the concept of unconscious Christianity to address a “very far-reaching problem.”

McLaughlin’s conclusion makes several valuable points.

First, calling someone a Christian when they are not, “as a tool to reveal to people who they really are, as though they are not competent enough to decide their identity for themselves,” is not pastorally wise (189). Bonhoeffer always has a pastoral heart in his discussions of this topic, which we should emulate. Many Muslims for example, and almost all Jews, would bristle at being named Christians without their say. I would add that it flies directly in the face of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” and so is uniquely problematic today.

Second, McLaughlin points to Tom Gregg’s book Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. There he has addressed contemporary sociology and ecclesiology and secularism and so on, and uses Bonhoeffer to do so. McLaughlin suggests his analysis could be supplemented by including unconscious Christianity. I agree, I assume, but also would like to point the arrow the other direction. Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” came mostly through his reading of Wilhelm Dilthey, whose sociology has come under extraordinary fire. His secularization thesis has more or less been killed by Charles Taylor and others. My question is not just how Gregg’s analysis could grow by including Bonhoeffer’s insights, but how Bonhoeffer’s analysis could grow by including Gregg’s, Taylor’s, and others contemporary insights about secularism. The “world come of age” Bonhoeffer prophesied has come in some ways but not others, and the world it promised to replace still haunts us.

Third, McLaughlin points out that people today can be unconscious Christians, not just people in Nazi Germany. She does not use the term, but the social justice movement comes immediately to mind. There are many grifters and snake oil sellers in the social justice movement, I am aware, but someone who engages in social justice activism with the intent to love and serve the most marginalized may be encountering the unknown Christ.

McLaughlin’s book is judicious and compelling, and theologians will now have to debate the merits and usefulness of Bonhoeffer’s concept. I am not wholly convinced by Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity, and am more likely to limit the concept to “encounters with” (rather than “participation in”) the unknown Christ. As I have struggled with deconstructing and reconstructing my faith the past two years, I have wondered where Jesus went. Many of my friends ask the same question. Could it be that I have had unconscious encounters with Jesus? “Could it be that you have been praying, unconsciously, all along?” suggested a kind professor of mine. I am less interested in what unconscious Christianity would mean for soteriology and more for discipleship and daily Christian living. Maybe my thoughts, my actions, my lamentations and loves, have been more faithful than ever before, because to my conscious mind they were alms given in secret.

Fall, friendship, and experiencing God

As I drove back to college from my parents house today, my route wove through an aimless countryside. Along the way were Pumpkin Patches and Harvest Pickings, Apple Orchards and Tree Farms. My parents and I stopped at one together and bought cider, jams and apples. We even had our picture taken:

edwards photo.jpg

Seeing the fall in action ushered my mind to a moment in one of my favorite books. David Whyte’s collection of short essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In his meditation on Friendship, he writes this:

Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going. (73-74).

One of our main goals as people is to experience transcendence. This is true of everyone, even, awkwardly, of those who deny that the transcendent is real. To see a mountain that dwarfs us in size. To look out on an ocean whose end is the horizon. To look injustice in the face and say “No, you will not remain,” only for, to our surprise, our words to make themselves true. To understand our world in a way that bring us if only for a moment far beyond our normal, small lives. To look up at the color-changing leaves of a tree and tremble under the weight of overwhelming beauty.

For the believer, these everyday moments point to something outside of themselves. They sign God to us, or his glory, or the meaning he declares over our lives. For the nonbeliever, these moments of transcendence are puzzling. Even though nothing exists out there, beyond us… we still experience the “out there” in our own lives.

These are “the surprising circles of which we are a part” and “the wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship.” We have the option to see them around us — or we can shut them out. If only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand.

What surprises me about Whyte’s comments is that friendship helps us get outside us. Friendship and its “natural surprises” can condition us to see a bigger world. A world that is open to what may be outside it, whether we like that possibility or not.

Thinking it would be fitting to the topic, I sat outside to write this post. But within a few minutes, I was too cold and had to retreat to the Student Center fireplace. Even after almost twenty conscious years of living through the Midwest winter — which bottoms out at negative 20 most years — I always forget the cold. This is because the knowledge of cold and the experience of cold are two different things. Six months of warmth is not enough to make me forget that it gets cold in October. But that length is enough for me to forget what the cold feels like.

In the same way, we who believe can know that God is real. And those who do not believe can know that God is not real. But we all feel, we all experience, we all sense God. The changing seasons, of which Pumpkin Patches and Apple Orchards are reminders, remind us to look beyond ourselves. So, too, does the tumult of ordinary life with friends challenge our gaze to drift higher and higher.

Fall 2018 Reading List

books 1.jpg

Beyond my textbooks for school (which I certainly will read in full 👀), I present to you a list of books I plan to read between now and December 14th. Somebody out there, hold me accountable to this. Come nag at me if there are any I haven’t read by 12/14/18.

Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz

Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty

Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Merold Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: an Existential Phenomenology of Religion

John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve

John Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

John Walton, The Lost Word of Scripture

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

Robert Epstein, The Case Against Adolescence

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

John Santrock, Adolescence

Laurence Steinberg, Adolescence

P.J. Graham, The End of Adolescence

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine

Don Carson, How Long, O Lord?

Jim Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Andrew Naselli, No Quick Fix

Charlie Wingard, Help for the New Pastor


Some of these are daunting. I may spend half the semester reading Charles Taylor’s book. I already tried once, got to about page 200 (of 800) and had to stop. The Agamben books are 6, 7, 8, and 9 of 9 in the Homo Sacer series, which I have spent much of the last year slogging through. Incredible stuff, but a slog. Opus Dei is about ethics and is supposedly the hardest one. The John Walton books are because I read The Lost World of Genesis One and it totally changed my perspective on creation. His other books are more or less the same methodology but on different topics.

The books from Andrew Root to P.J. Graham are for my Senior Thesis which I am writing in the spring semester. The rest are either books I’ve wanted to read for a while (Carson, Packer, and Arendt) or books I got at T4G back in April (Naselli, Marshall and Payne, and Wingard) or Bonhoeffer. Or idk why Darwin but I bought that book at the Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum in London because that seemed like the right place to buy it, if anywhere. Same with Arendt too. I bought that at Sachsenhausen in Germany because it seemed right.

These are also just spare time reading. My Greek and Hebrew (ugh) work will mostly be textbook work not book work, same with my final two philosophy classes and my undergrad Teaching the Bible course. So this book list may be all of the book books I read this semester.

Here’s to a semester of expanding my perspective on the Bible, on the Christian life, on youth ministry, and on the world. And to another semester of forgetting to update my “What I’m Reading” tab.

Certainty, God, Lived Experience, etc.

moonrise kingdom girl

As I veered wildly toward Atheism about two years ago, something key to the Christian life had been lost that I didn’t realize until later. I finally now have the categories to understand and explain this idea. It used to be vague and nebulous, but now it is clear.

The Christian Life is not phenomenologically possible without confidence in the existence of God. There are a couple of things to break down here. First, The Christian Life. This is the lived experience of being a Christian. Not the beliefs of Christianity — those are one thing. Instead, this is talking about things like the rhythms of prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and study. The community in which one lives. The subtle attitudes that emerge from believing the truths of Christianity. If the Christian message is true, how does that impact my day-to-day behavior, and how I engage in the ordinary things of life?

This is what the gross word “phenomenologically” means. Eliminate the suffixes. Phenom. Ology. The study of. The way that things appear. Truth questions can be asked separately from lived experience questions. My reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age lately has opened my mind up to this whole topic of study. What do things actually look like in practice?

moonrise kingdom blurry

If a belief is “not phenomenologically possible,” then nobody can live like that. The belief does not work in practice. The truths can all be there, the premises confirmed, the logic holds, the argument sound. But if it cannot translate into real action, what does it translate into? My newfound favorite example of this is Calvinism, and by that I mean Determinism. Determinism is not phenonemologically possible, meaning that you cannot live as if Determinism is true. If Determinism is true, then you have no motivation to do anything. There is not meaning in life. There is not meaning in anything. Also, since there is no free will, there cannot be moral responsibility for things that happen. Who is responsible for my sin? God, of course, because he decided I would do it. But no Christian, no matter how Deterministic they are, actually lives like this. They avoid sin as if they are an Arminian. They evangelize like they are Arminian. So, Determinism is not phenomenologically possible.

Confidence in the existence of God is important. The Bible is straightforward on this.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6.

An important point here gets misplaced sometimes.

moonrise kingdom adults

As Christians, we are not supposed to have faith in the existence of God. We do not “have faith” that he exists. No, the Bible treats the existence of God as a basic given, and then moves from there. We “have faith” that Christ’s work of atonement can be applied to our account. That is what we have faith in. There is no real reason that we should feel justified that the crosswork of Christ would mean anything in relation to us. But that is what faith is.

The existence of God, along with “believing that he rewards those who seek him,” are treated as basic givens that must be true in order to have faith. But faith is not just “believe in God + believe that he rewards.” It is something greater than the combination of the statements in Hebrews 11:6. Something like “drawing near” which is an action, not an idea. Nonetheless, those two ideas must be true for faith to happen.

The Bible never seriously poses the question, “does God actually exist?” because it doesn’t need to. God is all over the place. He sends fire, he communicates directly to people, Moses got to see him (but only backwards?), prophets speak in his name and are correct. Prayer withholds rain from the sky for three and a half years, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and himself from the dead. God has created the world. God has put conscience in all people (“the gentiles are a law unto themselves”). The Jewish religion continues in perpetuity because of the promises of God.

Similarly, in The Christian Life, we cannot entertain the idea that God does not exist. Get it figured out. Decide. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Look at the Kalam Cosmological argument. The Ontological argument. How about the Teleological one? Recall from your own personal experience the work of God in your life. Become an Atheist, or resolve to be a Christian. But the worst of all options is to remain in perpetual uncertainty. Evaluate the evidence once, and then put the counterarguments out of your mind until, a few years later, you decide to reopen the case file.

moonrise kingdom narrator

I say this because all the great aspects of The Christian Life are impossible in the absence of such confidence. Without believing that God exists, you cannot have faith. You cannot experience the power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot encourage fellow Christians in the way of the cross. You cannot testify to the goodness of God, must less experience it yourself. You certainly cannot evangelize. How could you persuade someone to draw near to God if you aren’t sure he exists? You won’t. You’ll just give up on evangelism. You cannot exercise the giftings of the Spirit in the context of the local church.

At least, I didn’t. And I’m sure that my experience was not unique. Atheism may be true. But if it is, then you cannot also phenomenologically live the Christian life. And Christianity may be true. But without confidence in one of its most basic premises (“God exists”), it cannot be lived.


Noahpinion on race, homogeneity, assimilation and diversity

Today a blogger posted the best essay I’ve seen in rejection of the idea that diversity is inferior to homogeneity, or put more charitably, that the alt-right’s message of “diversity + proximity = war” is not sound.

View the post here.

This ties together everything I’ve been saying about immigration politics the past year or so. You can see bits and pieces of my thought process in this post and this post, but I never got around to an outright refutation. That would have been against the rules I set forth in this post.

It’s not worth trying to summarize his points because 1. Finals week is coming up and 2. he already said everything better than I can.


The Scales

[Originally delivered as a sermon to Grace on Campus, the Christian club at Hononegah High School, on April 13, 2017.]

scales from eyes

I’m thinking about the way one of my college professors uses a particular expression.

Whenever a student has a sudden moment of realization in class — they hadn’t understood something but then all at once they get it — my professor comments that “it’s like the scales have fallen from their eyes.”

I’m not sure exactly where he got this expression from, (though I harbor some suspicions), or why he uses this metaphor instead of the numerous others that relate understanding and wisdom with eyes and sight.

Somehow, some way, scientists can know how different animals see. Humans, obviously, because the scientists themselves are human. Dogs, because they can dissect the canine eyes and count the cones and rods, or something. The particular animal of this metaphor is the snake, which has a thick scale over each eye which prevents it from really seeing. It can see that things are there, like if you closed your eyes and tried look forward. You would have just the vaguest impression of light and dark, but no thing in particular. So it is with snakes. This is also why snakes flick their tongue out. Not just to taste the air. They are smelling the air. It replaces their mostly-useless eyes.

Needless to say, my professor is not the first to compare sight and understanding. The scriptures also use this concept, and I’d like to bring to your attention several distinct places the Bible talks about blindness as a spiritual and mental, rather than merely physical, process.

First let’s dig through Paul. Some important sections come to mind.

From 1st Corinthians:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

And then later on, into the next chapter:

12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness,and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Let’s take stock of a few things before continuing. First, Paul is talking to an audience of Greek believers who face a variety of issues. Some were practical, like marriage, lawsuits, and people disrupting the church service. But before Paul gets into any of that, he talks about this. Human understanding and reasoning. This audience is living in ancient Greece, keep in mind, the hub of all kinds of different philosophies. He wants to make sure they get this down first.

Second, the problem with Jews and Greeks. To the Jews, it is ridiculous to say that Christ’s death achieved anything. Why would his death have any impact on me? Shouldn’t my own death, or maybe the death of my property (rams, bulls, cows, etc.) have an impact? Why would someone else’s property dying, or their death, alter my account? Not to mention, how could God die? If Jesus died, then he isn’t God. The problem is that the teachings of Jesus upended their religious system of sacrifice and atonement. Jesus’s death is like asking your calculator to find 2+-*/2. Syntax Error.

The Greeks had similar opinions of Jesus, but for them, it was because they were wiser than that. The solution proposed by Christ would be simple, too simple; stupid, a question for fools, they think. Like answering the question “how do you solve the world’s problems?” with “a good deal of hard work.” That’s not enough of an answer. There is clearly something more sophisticated than that.

So both end up rejecting him. A stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Last, lets look closely at the final statement in these verses: the unbeliever “cannot understand [the things of the Spirit] because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” So, they are blind — not that the unbeliever can see things but refuses to follow them.

They cannot see at all.

They have scales covering their eyes.

Flip 10 or so pages forward in your Bible and find 2nd Corinthians, chapter 3. This is a follow-up letter to the same group of people, in more or less the same situation. Not much has changed since the first letter (which infuriated Paul, I’d imagine). Here is the passage:

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

And then continuing on into the next chapter a few verses…

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

As straightforward as ever, Paul is again arguing in this passage that people are blinded to the message of Christ.

This comparison between Moses with his veil and the Israelites with their spiritual blindness is a bit confused, in my opinion, because it’s compares general themes, instead of a 1 to 1 comparison, and we hear 1 to 1 comparisons more often. But here is what he means: just as nobody could see Moses’s face because the veil prevented them, so could the unbelieving Jews today [c. AD 54] not see what is really going on.

His language is explicit: people who have not “turned to the Lord” have something blocking their ability to understand the truths of God, and they “cannot see the light”. Here Satan gets the credit, but at other times God does, because in some way everything is at least partially is attributable to God. Yet when that person is reoriented towards Christ, their barrier is removed and they understand.

They can see the light of the gospel.

The scales fall off their eyes.

To make my point crystal clear: belief and unbelief are not as straightforward as being convinced that something is true.

If it WERE so straightforward, then I would only have to point them to this next argument and they would convert on the spot.


__________ BEGAN TO EXIST
__________ HAS A CAUSE.


The force of this argument should be felt immediately. If the two premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. And if that conclusion follows — that matter, time, space, energy, the universe, or any other way you try to slice and dice everything that “is,” are caused — then they must have a cause which is not themselves. So, there must be an immaterial cause for matter. There must be an intemporal cause for time (i.e. never changes). There must be an inspatial cause for space. There must be something not made of energy that caused energy. (Though this is irrelevant because Einstein proved the unity of energy and matter with his equation e=mc^2). Put generally, there must be something outside of the universe which is not the universe itself nor is made of what the universe is made of, that caused the universe to be.

This argument leads all the others in most circles of Christian apologetics. William Lane Craig wrote his PhD. dissertation on this topic and has since written numerous books and articles about it. The Kalam brings us to the same point that Aristotle did with his “unmoved first mover” concept. There exists something with properties x y and z. Now, we are left with the legwork of connecting that thing with those properties to the Person we describe as God, and sure enough, the argument holds there as well. These traits do match the descriptions given in the scriptures and are precariously similar to Anselm’s or Paul Tillich’s description of God.

But this isn’t how things work. It doesn’t matter how logically structured the argument. The gap between unbelief and belief is not persuasion.

There is something blocking their understanding.

Their face has a veil.

Their eyes have scales.

I really hate to introduce another passage of scripture because too many can be overwhelming, or seem like I’m pulling things out of context. But this one is too good to resist.

At the very end of Luke two men are walking along a path and see a third one nearby. So they start a conversation, not realizing that the third man is Jesus himself. Now, I’ve undersold it already: they didn’t just “not realize” it. Instead, as verse 16 describes, “they were kept from recognizing him.” So that little verb, those two words “were kept,” means that this blindness is imposed upon them. It isn’t coming from themselves. It’s an outside force. Keep that in mind.

Jesus has just been crucified that weekend, and raised from the dead that day (or maybe the day before). So these two travelers start telling the third man, unbeknownst to them Jesus, all about who Jesus is and how he had died and rose again. And Jesus replies, picking up in verse 25:

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

And notice again, let me read it one more time, verse 31: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This, just like “were kept,” means that some outside force was in the way, not just themselves.

So what exactly happened here? Did these men have some crazy backstory of hating and persecuting Jesus? Later on Saul would be a good example of this, and another angle emerges there when you consider his blindness. But were these men ridiculous sinners, criminals, and such? No, it seems like these are people that had been tracking with Jesus for quite a while. These are the ones in close proximity to him. We don’t know who they are, but the text sort of implies that they are among the 12, minus Judas, so the 11. Yet these men did not understand. In their description of Jesus they called him “a prophet, powerful in word and deed.” But is that all? Is Jesus just a powerful prophet? Jesus corrects them and says “the Messiah.” The chosen one.

And their hearts, burning within them! The teaching of scripture lit a fire within their spirit. The passage records that Jesus went through the Old Testament and pointed out all the places that testified to him — that’s all he did — and inside them grew an intense passion.

Meanwhile, they gain vision.

They can see.

The scales are removed.

My own testimony happened in something of a similar process. And by process I mean all at once, in a single moment, without any duration or length of time at all.

Sitting on a couch in the youth room at Hope EFC in Roscoe, (and I can still point you to the exact spot), a few things came together at once. The group was studying the book “Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World” by C.J. Mahaney. Doug Juhlin was leading my small group and was asking us questions. The first chapter after the introduction provided a very pointed scenario:

Imagine that someone could obtain a transcript of every word you said this week, the lyrics of every song you listened to, a complete browser history of your internet activity, and a print-out of every thought that nobody else but you could know. This observer also gets to have the same documentation from a random, non-Christian person. If they looked over the documents, would they notice a difference between the two of you? Would there be anything indicative of a changed life?

You must change your life. This religious system holds to certain premises, and from those premises follow conclusions that must logically follow. You agree to the premises, Ross. God exists. You have offended him. You are sinner in the hand of an angry God. You must obey his commands. But will I follow those to their end?

What a profoundly Biblical concept. Union with Christ means that I must fully surrender, that ALL of me must be united with Him.

And so it happened that all in one moment I felt this impact. The whole gospel message finally clicked. Why did Jesus have to die? What does it mean for “Jesus to live in your heart”? What is the significance of faith in the life of a Christian? What is a Christian, as opposed to a non-Christian, if not beliefs?

I moved from being a James 2:19 follower of Christ to being a James 2:22 follower of Christ.

My aloofness was taken all in one moment.

I could see.

The veil was gone.

The scales had fallen.

This happened in late September or early October of 2010 and for the remainder of 7th grade I was on fire for Christ. My heart burned within me. Everything that I could think about or talk about reflected Him. I exclusively listened to Christian music, consumed Christian radio and podcasts, read books about Christianity (from a very fundamentalist slant) and got more and more involved at church. My attitudes in school changed; no longer the sarcastic, arrogant prick who was smart enough to goof around and still get an A+. (The classes were still easy enough to do that, but my attitude changed). Suddenly I was engaged in classes, I became an extrovert with social skills on the rise, instead of hating everyone and playing with my Lego blocks in the corner. I began to desire the things that God desires. My favorite book was a two-way tie between Romans and Romans. In short, I became the most Christian person I knew.

The rest of my story is long and complicated. Everything changed after 7th grade, and I’ve swung up and down and sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways, and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of.

In 8th grade I became depressed from a confluence of different circumstances that all seemed to pile on at once with no solution in sight. Everything being miserable and all, the pure joy of the previous year fell away.

In 9th grade I became worldly after the depression wore off, because now I was neither depressed nor joyful — just hollow, and I let that hollowness be filled in by influence of the wrong people.

In 10th grade I became build up again after I left those friends in the dust and headed for the hills. My accidentally joining the Cross Country team led me to therefore (and really, this did 100% follow from being on Cross Country) become part of the Christian Club. A set of upperclassmen together fixed their eyes on Christ and caught my gaze in the process. Winston, Shannon, Liz, Hannah, and the list goes on. Real discipleship.

In 11th grade I became busy, filling my schedule to meet every demand. My study of the scriptures became less important. My study of statistics, now that’s where my time went. Along with my other half a dozen AP classes, all of my clubs, my church hyper-involvement, and on and on and on and on.

In 12th grade I began to doubt. Over the previous year I had begun to listen to some passionate atheists online because I agreed with their politics, but I ended up gathering from them more than opinions about government. I downloaded their thought process, the way that they found truth strictly through reason and evidence. In my mental computer I followed the startlingly new chain of Start > Control Panel > Command Prompt > Run > Secularism.exe. Rationalism! Intelligence! Profundity! Reason! Dozens of objections to the faith soon followed and it all quickly spiraled out of control.

Do you remember the presentation in January of 2016, last year, during Outreach Week when we had Mickey Klink come speak with a topic like “Arguments that a God Exists”? Do you remember the buzz around the school that day, what everyone was talking about? They were all annoyed that he didn’t actually give arguments that a God exists. Instead he spent almost the whole hour talking about the legitimacy of doubt in the life of a believer. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said. He also talked a lot about presuppositions and the foundations for secular thought, and why those are unsatisfactory. But that flew right over everyone’s heads. “That’s not an argument for the existence of God,” they said.

In retrospect, and I didn’t understand this until at least 8 months later, I realize that he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to me. Every single word that he spoke was directed by the Holy Spirit to console, of all people, the one who organized the event. Me. I booked him as the speaker, I gave him the topic and prepped him on what not to say, I met him in the lobby, had a bottle of water for him, introduced him to the audience and everything. I had a great leadership team to help with the entire week, but this particular even was solely mine. Yet I was the one receiving the message, not them. Unbelievable.

In 13th grade, this year, I became passionate again. It’s the year of Jubilee! Seven years later and the slaves are all set free. Since I arrived at Trinity I have had those doubts repackaged and reoriented in a way that makes most of them irrelevant. A whole lot has changed and I wish that I could describe it all to you, but put shortly: in one moment, at probably 2 or 3 am in my dorm, I was reading the textbook assignment for the next day. The selection was about the difference between recognizing pluralism and abandoning absolute truth.

And it hit me.

I was set free once more.

The scales that had regrown over my eyes were gone once more.

You see, something strange happens in a public school environment that doesn’t happen in private religious schools. I brought this entire book with me to read a passage from it, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have time for that.


But essentially, here is what happened: I didn’t need to be a Christian to do Calculus. Alex Hartz could hand the same calculus problem to a hardened atheist and a selfless follower of Christ, and the only determinant on who gets the problem right or wrong is who did the homework — not — who believed in God. The same was true of English class, or Economics class, or worst yet, my classes at Beloit College that year. It did not matter whether I believed in God or not. And since school had consumed roughly 1000% of my life, I just began to live my life as if He wasn’t there.

(This effect is something described in depth by Craig Groeschel in his book “The Christian Atheist.” I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon.)

Here’s the mistake I was making. I mixed up two different concepts: that we all coexist together in this school regardless of our religion, and that religion does not matter. When really, we can coexist in the same school regardless of religion and I can still fiercely disagree with you. I can look you in the eyes and say “you’re wrong” and still do my math homework. 

Before time runs out, I want to offer some applications from all of this.

First. Let’s remember that sight is God’s supernatural work. We cannot save people, and we cannot even present the arguments in a way that makes sense. Because to them, it won’t. They disagree not because of anything purely rational — though they may frame the conversation in those terms — but because Satan and/or God is standing in the way. Instead, ask God to remove the veil. Only he can do that.

Second. Your peers worship one of four things. The God of Christianity. The God or deities of some different religion. Themselves. Or their college admissions counselor.

Most people that talk about high school students overlook this. They think that if a student isn’t religious, they are obviously a crazy party goer, slamming shots as if alcohol isn’t kryptonyte to the liver. Doing a different drug every day, cheating their way through tests and girls like their consequences will never catch up with them. Their social media doubles as an online MTV-if-ied 16 and Pregant of their horrendous moral choices. They look up to the cast of Jersey Shore.

This only tells half the story. In fact, an entire group of students– at my school, somewhere between 70 and 150 people, or 1/3 of the grade — are more religious than the most Christian student in the school. They could deny themselves and take up their cross all day long, but they weren’t following Christ. They would worship at the door of the office of their college admissions counselor. Complete and total self-sacrifice in exchange for the approval of this one person! That’s as religious as it gets! They would sacrifice four years of their life, all their passions and goals, and press through sheer hell. All day long, every day, every week, every month, for four years.

Puritans of all Puritans!

It’s funny, because on the first day of school, freshman orientation in 2012, my admissions counselor told everyone at a presentation that they should join clubs. Okay. Sure. Joining clubs sounds like a good idea. But she said that joining clubs was a good idea for one particular reason: because it looks good on college apps. That phrase, to my surprise and eventual frustration, would be repeated by students as a justification for doing anything that had the slightest chance of getting into that one school they’ve always dreamed of attending. It’s funny because when I applied to schools, and this is true for nearly all schools, especially the good ones, the application limited me to listing my top 5 extra-curricular activities. Only 5.

I didn’t even mention Student Council. I was the president.

This is outright sinful and I regret not only participating in it, but dragging others deeper and deeper into the system. This is outright treason against God and as such it is sending people to Hell. We must stop it.

This is the gutwrenching reality of what it means to be a human being: you will worship something. If God is removed from that equation, you will still worship, it is only the object of that worship that will change. God. A different God. Yourself. Your college admission counselor. Pick one.

Third. The Christian’s task is to beam the light of the gospel into the eyes of snakes. Your job, to continue this already crude metaphor, is not to anesthetize the snake, grab a scalpel, and cut into the eye-scales. Instead, take out the flashlight. Spread the true message of the gospel anyways. It works. God will change lives through your proclamation of the simple truth. We don’t need to “distort the word of God,” per Paul in the 2nd Corinthians passage. Nothing about the purity of the message needs to be improved. “On the contrary, we set forth the truth plainly.”

And by “light” I do not mean the Kalam Cosmological argument. This “light” is not the mere existence of God. It is not warm and fuzzy morality. It is not “family values.” It is the message of redemption, that you don’t got God because you ain’t good but God got good at gettin’ you and so propitiated the wrath destined for your account, switching your place with Christ’s, and accepting you into the kingdom. This is the gospel message. This is what we spread.

Because with it, God transforms lives.

Because through it, God reveals the truth to those without understanding.

Because in it, scales fall from the eyes of men.




*[The book is How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith and the passage I was going to read is this:

What [Charles] Taylor describes a ‘secular” — a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world — is the engine that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. As she attested in a letter about her first novel:

“I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.”

Even a faith that wants to testify and evangelize — as certainly O’Connor did — has to do so from this place…. [Paul] Elie… well summarizes that effect:

“We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by out experience, are complicated by out lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.”

Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded. Conversely, the Nietzschean dream is alive and well, and the heirs of Bertrand Russell and Auguste Comte continue to beat their drums, and yet Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert still make it to the best seller lists and the magic of Tolkein still captivates wide audiences. (p 10-11).]