Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday School Answers

As long as I have known her my wife has talked about her frustration with what she calls Sunday school answers. For example, statements such as “God loves you,” or “All things work for the good of those who love God,” or “God sees,” or “Jesus suffered and died for us, or “there won’t be any more pain in heaven,” and so on. All these statements are true, but when a person has just lost their child, or is in the throes of a horrible divorce (is there any other kind?), or has been without work for a year, these truths don’t seem to carry the day. They can be in many situations like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire. At one level I have sort of understood what she has been talking about, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I read something that made it click for me.

In his recent blog, Dr. Roger Olson, of Baylor University, has been reviewing a book on The Gospel Center. In this particular post his discussion centered on how Evangelical Christians have traditionally come to know and understand what they confess and believe. In short, Evangelicalism has approached knowledge deductively—that is, they start with concepts, and then make sure their interpretations and decisions conform to those concepts. As with the so-called Sunday school answers mentioned above, these concepts might be absolutely true, yet by themselves they tend to be ineffective for us during times of real crisis.

For example, my physics professor in college told us that he knew all there was to know about the theory of sailing—and he did. He told us he had decided to rent a sail boat and take his girlfriend sailing. She asked him if he had ever sailed before. He replied proudly, “I know everything there is to know about the theory of sailing.” Well, after several hours of floundering around in the bay, he ended up walking the sail boat along the shoreline, with his girlfriend steaming at his other side. Apparently, she never went out with him again.

If concepts primarily determine how we understand our Christianity, then we will more than likely find ourselves bereft during the troubles of life.

It wasn’t Dr. Olson’s analysis that led me to this epiphany, rather a comment to his blog by someone who addressed him/herself as Chris. The following is an excerpt from Chris’ comment:

Kant, borrowing from Hume, wrote that “Concepts without percepts [those things we perceive through our senses and experience] are empty…..I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that most honest people, at least unconsciously, come to realize that propositions and “truth claims” fail to have real import if they are not adequately perceived. After all, it’s one thing to have someone say “Jesus loves you,” but another thing entirely to have your feet washed by him. Because of this, I have severe misgivings about the presuppositionalist [those who start from concepts] evangelical epistemology [how we come to know what we know] (which you’ve identified as mainstream); I think it leads to the kind of pedagogical [how we teach each other—in this context, about our faith] problems that I’ve pointed to as a source of dissonance that almost drove me away from Christianity (or at least from the church). Unfortunately, I don’t see many pastors, authors, and teachers addressing these kinds of pedagogical problems. Maybe they don’t recognize them? Or maybe they haven’t faced their own struggles with dissonance, or keep them to themselves? I don’t know, but I wish someone would speak up!

“Of course, Kant was quick to add that “Percepts without concepts are blind.” That, I’m convinced, is also true; it is, I think, the reason for Scripture. Still, though, I’m convinced that perception necessarily precedes concept in the building and imparting of knowledge. After all, don’t we love because “he first loved us?” That’s why now, as often as I remember to bring about my Christian witness—to believer and unbeliever alike—I think in the back of my mind: help them perceive first. Explain later. Give them reasons to believe.
” [bracketed comments are mine].

Chris hit the nail on the head. The only way we can sail a boat is by experiencing the process with an experienced guide. Only then will the theory be of complete value to us. We do need the theory and other practical concepts to ultimately be a successful sailor, but we must start by perceiving the process—by actually practicing it.

Contrary to the belief of some, Christianity is not a religion of the Book, but of the risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. We must begin and end with Christ. God first loved us, but we will only begin to understand what that means by loving Him back by obeying Him, which is to love others as He has loved us; we follow Christ in real, objective ways, and through these acts in perception we learn firsthand of God’s faithfulness, the cost and glory of love, and what it means to depend on Him. Then all the concepts we stand on such as grace, faith, resurrection, atonement, and on and on become real and comprehensible to us—not just ropes of abstractions we desperately cling to over the abysses of life.

As Chris so adeptly pointed out we need the concepts to complete this knowledge: we need God’s revelation to us that is the Bible. And in this holistic education of perception and concept, we truly understand how to live as dwellers of God's kingdom in a dark and treacherous world, and are equipped to help others in their struggles, without resorting to Sunday school answers.