Making Sense of it All

We have bucket loads of words for thinking, and thinking is just one of those words, so I could have chosen other words. Like pondering. We could add to a list of thinking words another list of feeling words and they influence thinking and thinking the feeling. “What we are trying to do, in a phrase,” with those those words, “is make sense of it all.” So says Daniel Taylor in his lovely The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist.

“Making sense is messy” and it is messy because it’s hard and because others do it too and we often come up with daggers pointed at one another, to use a rather harsh term. To be good at sense-making instead of just declaring or pounding our pulpits requires these elements:

Humility, which lessens our chance of being a Smoke Blower.
Risk and Commitment, because the messiness of it all means we have to be committed to get anywhere wise.
Community and Listening, because no one can make sense of it all all alone.
Diversity, because we are all different and “none of them is adequate alone.”
Perseverance, because we have to stick it out to learn and grow and time teaches us that we can make sense better later while in our youth we think we know too much. Ed Sanders once said to a group of us that some scholars “know too much about Paul” when much of what they know is guessing and imposing.

He tells a story of a man, Maximilian Kolbe, who was starved to death at Auschwitz and in the room next to him someone had etched the torso of Christ into the wall with someone hanging on to him — as a way of making sense.

We seek to make sense because often enough things don’t make sense, which is why today I want to clip and link to Pete Enns’ attempt to make sense beyond some of his own doubts.

Faith is probing at times, probing into God, into faith, into the self, into the Bible, into the future… Pete Enns

I will number them (because I have German blood) as separate items, but these reflexions overlap.

1. I don’t think the life of Christian faith is fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties. I have long felt that a God who can be comfortably captured in our minds is no God at all. I see our sense of what is rational as often more the problem than the solution. I am not for one minute saying “reason doesn’t matter.” I am using reason as I write this. I read and write books. I mean only that the life of the mind has its place as an aspect of the life of faith, not its dominant component. 

In other words, I belief that faith in a true God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) and mystical. I try to remember that as I work through intellectual challenges–and I mean “work through,” not avoid.

2. Related to #1, I see the two pillars of the Christian faith as expressing the mystery of faith: incarnation and resurrection. Though conscious of reductionism, I see these two elements as making Christianity what it is, and both dodge our powers of thought and speech. I don’t mind saying I find it strangely comforting that walking the path of Christian faith means being confronted moment by moment with what is counterintuitive and ultimately beyond my comprehension to understand or articulate.

3. In dealing with the various challenges of reading Scripture–especially as a biblical scholar–I try to keep #s 1 and 2 before me. Over the years, I have expressed this process by way of an analogy (not “identification”), often referred to as the incarnational analogy–Scripture is a full and unfettered participant in the ancient cultures in which it was produced (as Christ was a full participant in 1st century culture), thus reminding me to expect Scripture to reflect an ancient, other-worldly, mindset rather than my own categories of thought.

4. I have had my share of “God moments” in my life. I’d like to have more–maybe I’m just not paying attention. I know that any alleged subjective experience of God can be explained otherwise, but I have had some experiences that lead me to question those alternate explanations.

5. “The things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I end up doing.” I feel there is something deeply wrong with this picture, and the Gospel story explains me. Let me stress here that this isn’t “proof” of Christianity. In fact, it is my Christianized self that even leads me to phrase my internal struggles by co-opting Paul’s language from Romans. But for me, this is a piece of the puzzle that becomes more evident the older I get.

6. Embedded in some of these points is my growing conviction that “journey” or “pilgrimage” is a powerful metaphor for the Christian life. Hence, I expect at times to be in periods of unsettledness, uncertainty, fear, and other sorts of things that help remind me that who I am, where I am, and what I think do not define the nature of reality. Ironically  I feel exploring my own realities more deeply are a means by which I can learn to relativize them.

7. I have come to believe that periods of struggling and doubt are such common experiences of faith, including in the Bible, that there is something to be learned from such periods, however long in duration they might be. I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me to end the journey.

8. This final thought only occurred to me recently, and I am not sure if I am gaining some insight in the second half of life or if I am missing something. As a brain-oriented person, I have tended in my life to look down on those who say things like, “If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t make it through this,” or “If God isn’t real, I don’t know if I can hold it together.” These sorts of sentiments always struck me as irrational, for the weak-minded, those who “needed” a crutch. If Christianity is true it has to be for reasons other than “I need it to be true.”

In recent years, however, I have begun to see this from a different angle–and this ties in very much with #1. I have begun to see that those who cry out to God may be perched at the very point where true communion with God begins, because they are in the unique position of surrendering fully from self toGod.

I see this modeled in Job, who is given the choice at the outset of the book of whether he will trust and worship in God because he is well off, etc., or whether he will surrender and trust/worship God because…well…no “because” other than God is God–i.e., for no discernable reason external to the current crisis. (I owe this insight to a guest lecture C. L. Seow gave in a Wisdom Literature class of mine many years ago.)

Those who truly suffer have no where else to go, which means they have fully surrendered–including giving up anything under their control, any “reasons” for holding on. Perhaps it is only in suffering that we can die to ourselves and put our (overactive, western, rationalistic) life of the mind in its proper place. We just cry for help, free of what we have constructed of God.

I know I keep returning to the idea of mystery, but that is where I am (and where I am is what this post is about).

Anyway, this is how I am at present living with the genuine challenges to the Christian faith.  Take all this for what you feel it’s worth. Now it’s your turn–just try not to be as longwinded as me.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • DMH

    Great post. I resonate with all of Pete’s list on some level. Though not all together different I would add; I have a deep sense of my own finiteness- I don’t know everything and my perception and interpretation of life could very well be wrong. I have to remind myself that this is true not only of my positive affirmations but of my negative affirmations as well- which in the heat of things I can ascribe a greater reality to.

    I also try to look back over my life and ask what would my life be like without a consciousness of God? This can be a bit murky but but there are some decisions (past and daily) that I have made/make which would be different if I believed God was not there. Over all, for me, my life would be uglier without God.

  • Kandace

    Love this post- I have thought about many of these points over the last year. #6 helps me take a deep sigh that this new journey I’m on can be enjoyed right in the midst of the uncertainties & struggles. A big contrast from fighting to find my way in a life (My life) that has never made sense.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    Thanks, Pete. The post represents a much more balanced, healthy view of what faith is, what the Bible presents, etc. than usually seen. Most of traditional Christianity (esp. Protestant) has leaned on “rational proofs” or “evidence that demands a verdict” (just WHAT verdict I’m not sure McDowell made clear, other than for Christ and, no doubt, “substitutionary atonement” — I went to Talbot a few years after him). Tho wildly popular for a few decades at least, the approach leaned waaay too much on historicity, “fulfilled prophesy” and such. For the non-scholars who may be reading, the honest, open biblical scholars even operating within an Evangelical grid, almost always come out at least more nuanced, humble (as I read you), and such than those a level or 2 “below” them, knowledge-wise: pastors, Christian pop writers, lay people. That’s even if you/they still formally embrace the major creeds or other doctrinal statements.

    Yet the dysfunctional rationalism (distorted though it is) and reductionism continues because 1) it “works” for a lot of people needing a simple certainty, and 2) it has a long history of supposedly being validated by venerated saints, our own leaders, etc.

    Returning to “honest, open… scholars,” a great many of them (among whom I’d put myself tho I didn’t quite complete a theology/psychology/religious ed. PhD) do become either atheist, agnostic, or something “liberal”. In my case, while giving up the Evangelical theological system (and basic interpretive grid), I never “left” God or faith, never felt alienated except from those around me who couldn’t really even listen to understand my changes. I re-aligned, eventually, within the progressive cutting edge of the faith, as a Process/Integral Christian. Provides both the “heart” and the “head” connections and exercise I believe are vital, as you imply, to be in relative balance.

  • Ryan Pendell

    Regarding No. 1, it seems like we default to a vague metaphor when we talk about “reason.” Reason is this kind of circle, like in a Venn diagram that kind of overlaps with certain other areas. But then there’s stuff outside the circle of reason that is arational (contrasted with irrational, which I guess would be like broken reason).

    But why do we think of it that way? Must we think of it that way? Is that really the shape of reason? Why not think of it in a classical, Dante-esque sort of way, as something that ascends and then disappears from vision on its way beyond human intellect?

    Christians often say “God isn’t limited by our human reason,” as if reason is this limiting, shackle-like experience. And outside of it is this non-reason realm. “Don’t put God in a box.” Well, what if God is ultimate rationality rather than beyond rationality? Then God is the box, and you can put yourself inside him.

    The limits of the human mind don’t have to be the limit of reason.


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