In most of my articles on Patheos, I intend to present what I believe are learned arguments defending some aspect of the Christian faith. Admittedly, those arguments often fail or fail to reach their intended target (as far as I know). This is, in one sense, inevitable. Any Christian evangelist or apologist should know in advance of evangelizing or defending Christian claims that faith cannot be generated in man naturally. True faith is a gift from God, or, in an analytic register, salvific faith has God as its efficient cause. It is important to realize this fact for two reasons: one, so as not to become discouraged and two, so as not to become prideful. If one thinks it through, any true faith has to be directly from God Himself. It simply cannot be otherwise.
However, it may also be the case that I try to present arguments in a “learned” or sophisticated way because I have motivations that are less honorable than pure charity or the naked truth. Maybe I simply desire to have a larger audience and feel I will garner more readership if I write with great erudition? Or, perhaps I long to be perceived as intelligent, savvy and smart– or, far worse, to be considered original. This too could be a reason my writing fails to compel, because what I write is not motivated out of a genuine, agape love. I mean, do I need to admit that I check the “analytics” on my articles almost every other day? Well, it might even be every day, to be frank.
Still, and perhaps even more likely, maybe I carry out this project because of some deep desire for personal affirmation. Maybe some emotional piece of the particular psychological puzzle that is my “authentic self” is missing– a piece that needed to be fit in during early childhood but which was never put into place. Then, of course, there is just the sheer finitude of the mind and the natural effects of sin that debilitate the mental life.
In the end, I am convinced it is something like all of the above that motivate my writings and effect the arguments I give. My only hope, however, is that even if all of the above motivations are partially involved in the process of deliberation and action, there is still one more motivation I possess that transcends them all.
The Complexity of Man’s Motivations
Man is indeed a great and complex apparatus of mixed motivations. I am no exception to that rule. I hope that such an admission is itself a good thing. Perhaps my admission might even engender others to think about their own motivations. For the truth is I often find myself agonizing over large and complicated books hoping to find some kernel of insight I can share and, in sharing it, be viewed as particularly clever, or, even more insidious, as helpful. Obviously there is also something like innate curiosity and a genuine thirst for knowledge. I have always been a reader, ever since I can recall, so I don’t mean to self-flagellate too much.
Nevertheless, in moments of genuine prayer, I feel the compunction of this shallow and self-serving impulse. I hesitate to continue in the endeavor to produce yet another thing. And then, in other moments just as deep, I feel motivated afresh to do the same thing again, to seek truth and share my tentative findings regarding it. And so the cycle of mixed motivations grinds forward. And so I, and I believe most of us, continue to read and think and write and speak.
However, a great danger presents itself to the Christian thinker. For in that process of reading, thinking, writing and speaking the simplest idea and most basic motivation of pointing to Jesus Christ can be quickly lost. If that happens, I must recognize the error and either course correct or give up ministry entirely. And, to up the ante, my embodied habits and behavior must approximate to some degree that which I point to in my thinking, writing and speaking about Jesus. In the end, there is only one purpose, one singular motivation for reading any large books or grinding out some essay. That end is Jesus Christ. This is the motivation that must transcend all other motivations. If I do not have that, then I must stop writing theology.
The Professor Whose Mind Faded, But Whose Heart Shined
I once had a seminary professor who was a brilliant educator. He taught theology and Bible at a well-regarded evangelical university I once attended. He was smart, gifted and erudite and a talented writer. He wasn’t prolific, but penned a few good books worth reading. He was also compassionate and kind. His devotion to Jesus Christ was unparalleled and his students loved him. He was a good seminary professor and a good man.
After graduating I lost touch with my teacher. I only heard he had retired, or been retired, due to some persistent health issues. A few years later, however, I heard that the reason for his early departure was that his mind was fading. He had contracted Alzheimers and his mental capacities were quickly depleting. When I later ran into a friend who knew him well, my friend admitted it was hard to see our former teacher like this. In one very real sense he was a shadow of his former self. His once commanding presence in the classroom could never again be realized given his condition. But, of course, it was far worse than just that, especially for his family. Anyone who has had a loved one with Alzheimer’s will know.
A few years after that conversation, I was sitting in the cafeteria of a local church typing out an essay on my laptop. It had to do with something about Hegel’s view of history and the dialectic process. Across from me sat a group of older gentlemen. One of them kept popping out of his chair and walking, somewhat aimlessly, around the room.
Over and over he said in a rather loud yet unthreatening voice to any who would listen “do you know Jesus?” and “do you have a relationship with Jesus?” or “we are going to go to church now to be with Jesus.” After several minutes, one of the other gentlemen would eventually get up and go over to him and kindly say “Okay, let’s go sit back down now.” The man went back to the group without protest, but continued all the while to proclaim rather joyfully, “I have a relationship with Jesus. Isn’t it wonderful to have a relationship with Jesus?” This went on for at least 30 minutes.
At first I was a bit annoyed by the man. After all, here I was trying to understand Hegel (of all people) so that I could better explain to the Church what I thought was a great challenge to our faith. Hegel’s view of history and his understanding of the dialectic have been, in my view, tragic to the current state of western thought and culture. Specifically, Hegel’s views are quite unfriendly to the idea of the biblical Revelation being “fixed and universal” as opposed to historically contingent and malleable. And so, this clearly disturbed man’s incessant message of having a relationship with Jesus felt very much like a distraction from my very important theological work. After all, someone had to warn the Church about Hegel. I mean, clearly he could not do it, so that left only me!
However, as I sat and observed this man, my heart, heavy from reading Hegel, began to be lifted. I thought to myself, “look at this, what am I doing in comparison to this man? Has he not made the better choice?” The words of Jesus in the passage about Martha came to me. Martha, thinking she was doing all the heavy lifting for the Lord, was chastised by Christ for making the wrong choice. Instead Jesus commended Mary, her sister, for simply sitting and listening, for just being in His presence. Wasn’t I like Martha, distracted by my “many tasks?” Martha, who continued to work as the Son of God himself sat in her living room! Just think of what Martha missed while preparing all those dishes?
“What was I missing?”, I thought to myself.
It was then I looked a bit closer at the man and that is when it dawned on me. This was my old professor! The very man who taught me to think clearly about the Bible. The one who had educated me in learning, in reading and erudition. This was the same person who had trained me in the art of biblical interpretation and who helped me to know far better than I ever could have on my own the words of God to man. Here he was, the man who taught me to think theologically, and who had been integral in the very process that lead to me writing these articles I write today.
Yes, it really was my old mentor. I had not recognized him at first, because he seemed so different from when I knew him. After all, clearly his mind had left him, at least in some way. His voice was also different. I hadn’t recognized it either. But my oh my, what a heart he still had! And what a message he still preached! And once again his words reached into me, breaking me away from the burden of German idealism:
“Do you know Jesus? Do you have a relationship with him? Let’s go into church and sing to Jesus.”
Simple Mind, Pure Heart
Perhaps it was not my old seminary professor who had lost his mind. Perhaps it was I, sitting there trying to hash out Hegel. Or, perhaps it is all of us in our own way, as we muddle about in our pondering and pontifications. While many have appropriately lamented the lack of intellectual rigor in American Evangelicalism, is it nevertheless the case that this rigor is often elevated in a way it should not? Sitting in that coffee shop I realized, once again, the simplicity of the Gospel.
Ironically, the same man preached this Gospel to me twice in two very different ways. The first was with great mental erudition in his seminary classroom, and the second with profound simplicity of mind in that church cafe. In both cases, however, there was one thing that transcended both the sophistication or the simplicity of thought: a purity of heart. It is the purity of a heart for Jesus that is the only valid motivation for a Christian to do anything, let alone make arguments for Christianity.
Childlike Faith: The Greatest Gift at Christmas
Next to my laptop sits a very good book, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, published by Cambridge press. The author, David Bradshaw, is an Aristotle scholar par excellence. I am excited to read this book. In fact, there is a good chance it might motivate some future article I might publish right here. This is something, I imagine, that might be interesting to a few and perhaps even inspiring to some.
However, as I sit and contemplate the opening of the Advent season, I am reminded of my old professor’s call that day in the church cafeteria. It is the call to childlike faith that reminds me of my place and my position. It is a call that lifts me up as well as warns me. It keeps me aware of who I am and reminds me of the task which has been given to me.
This Christmas I pray that I never miss the mark and get distracted by “many tasks” as Martha did. I pray that I, and you, and all of us, stay focused on the one thing that matters this Christmas season. I pray we keep our eyes on Jesus and that we realize that the greatest Christmas gift we can receive is the faith of a child, be that child 10, 50 or 100 years old, be he a man of war, like the Roman Centurion, or a woman whose body won’t stop bleeding. It is a type of faith that the erudite among us are tempted to mock or scorn. But I pray we do not, for it is the gift of God to man.
One day some parents brought their little children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But when the disciples saw this, they scolded the parents for bothering him. Then Jesus called for the children and said to the disciples, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
Luke 18:15-17 (NLT)