A spiritual exercise I intentionally practice every few years involves “forgetting” what I think I know about God, faith, and faithful living. Of course, I don’t really “forget” these things but I do my best to identify and bracket these things and try to read the Bible again with fresh eyes and clear heart. It is always good to do this with other similarly committed believers. You can hold each other accountable, help us identify each other’s blind spots, and share the hope of growth and new life.
In North America most of us are shaped by the western tradition of thought and life. This tradition has its great strengths, to be sure. But it has blind spots as well, debilitating blind spots. We do well to focus on these blind spots as exercises in “forgetting” to open ourselves to a fresh reading and reflection on scripture.
Five of the central planks of theology done in the western tradition that negatively impact faithful Christian life and thought are its view of God, its view of reality, its view of a reason, its view of a Christian life, and its view of money. To “forget” these influences involves bidding adieu to Aristotle, Plato, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and Adam Smith. Today we say good-bye to Plato.
“FORGETTING” the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment began long ago and far away, back in the Garden of Eden. And it was serpent, not Rene Descartes, who started it. Or rather he suggested it to our first parents Adam and Eve. They had been happy and content, you see, to live in this glorious, abundant, and verdant garden God had made for them to live and work in. There were two special trees there, in addition to all the rest. One, a tree of life, was the source of their life and goodness in this place. The other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were not eat the fruit of this tree on God’s order.
This fruit of this tree would enable one to know everything (that’s what the Hebrew idiom “to know good and evil” suggests, to know “from A-Z” in our idiom). Right here at the beginning, then, is posed the alternative of reliance on God (the tree of life) which we can call “revelation” or relying on ourselves and our capacity to know and act, which we can call “reason.”
The snake promised the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was make us “like God.” With God-like knowledge we would be able to make the world over as seemed best to us using our own reason to build a paradise rather than accept and serve God in the one gave us. We bit – or rather Eve bit and then gave the fruit to Adam to eat (the dunder-headed fool was apparently just standing there mute all this time!). And Lo and behold, it seemed like the snake was right!
This was the beginning of the Enlightenment. It reached full flower in the 18th century in Europe and has dominated the world since then. Reason, unleashed on the world free of any restraint from God or tradition or custom, has indeed remade its own paradise.
Only problem, though, is that being God-like has proven a bit more than we could handle. We just aren’t quite up to the job. As one of our bards put it, we’ve “paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.”
If only we’d kept on reading that old story about Adam and Eve, we have seen that before too long, they’d messed up their lives, raised a dysfunctional family, and found themselves at odds with the creation itself.
We still buy into this dream of reason – some of us at least. After all this time, others have gotten wise to the reality that this Enlightenment movement is not, and likely cannot, deliver on its promises of unending progress and improvement . Those don’t know quite what to do now, but they searching for news ways and fresh movements to continue running their own lives for their betterment.
God, during all this time, has been slowing building and recruiting a resistance movement to the Enlightenment. These folks accept God’s call to live humans should have from the beginning and to done the work he’d originally entrusted to us. And that work was to protect the creation from harm and nurture it toward its full flourishing (not toward that parking-lot-paved-paradise!).
This people struggle to live from the “tree of life,” the wooden cross on which once hung God’s very own Son. He was murdered for calling people to follow him in trusting God and living from the life God freely offered rather than continuing on the path of our presumed “godlike” destruction.
Funny thing is, reason has become so out of sync with reality, that it figure what God’s up to! Murdering Jesus seemed the expedient and logical thing to do at the time. But it ended up being just that thing God used to defeat reason. From this “defeat-turned victory” God “reveals” to his people that the life he intends for humanity is one that seems upside-down, counter-intuitive, and even “foolish” to reason. As God’s people live this way, the way God always intended, somehow the world will be wooed and won back to God. We can’t quite figure that one out, with is probably a good thing, otherwise we’d try to control and predict its outcome. Reason doesn’t give up its hold on us easily and we often slip back into that mode of living.
So revelation and reason are locked in a struggle. God is busy calling more and more of us to reconnect with him as the source of life through the cross of Jesus, the empty tomb, and his ongoing existence as the risen Lord to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given. Thus this struggle is not symmetrical. The outcome is not in doubt. The war has been won, even those battles and skirmishes remain.
We are called to join the side of revelation – the winning side – even though that means living in a way that often seems like losing and is fully out of sync with what reason thinks we ought to be doing.
Let’s bid adieu, then, to reason’s Enlightenment, and recommit ourselves to “forget” it and receive a fresh revelation of God’s life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.