Dissent During Prayer

I must start with confession, for when one is arguing with a prayer during prayer, one has failed to actually pray. The prayer I was arguing with is the prayer for Justin Martyr’s feast day (today, on the Western Calendar).

Lord God, in a wonderful way, through the folly of the cross, you taught your martyr Saint Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ. Heed his prayer for us: dispel every deceiving error, and ground us firmly in our faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I suspect for many a history lesson might be helpful. Justin (d. 165) desired to be known as a scholar and theologian. None of his theology is remembered; only that he desired that it be remembered. He died at the hand of the Roman Empire and is thus remembered for his martyrdom and not his scholarship.

The prayer says, “you taught your martyr St Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ.” I was irritated that the prayer focused on knowledge. Justin was united with Christ … and we’re talking about knowledge!?

And then I realized it was a gotcha prayer. The “surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t “knowledge” as we typically think about it. The prayer is talking about seeing Christ face to face. It is (to borrow a favorite phrase from Michael Polanyi) “personal knowledge.” The prayer isn’t talking about facts, it’s talking about presence (being in Christ’s presence) and relationship.

And so I realize my initial disappointment is completely misplaced.
The surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t head knowledge at all, it’s fellowship, it’s union, it’s witness (the translation of the Greek word martyrion) of who Christ truly is face to face. Thanks be to God.

Faith and Theology

On the way to looking for something else (about Anselm) I ran across this definition from Daniel Migliore:

If Christian faith is basically trust in and obedience to the freely gracious God made known in Jesus Christ, theology is faith asking questions and struggling to find at least provisional answers to these questions. [Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 2]

Now that is a classic Presbyterian/Reformed definition of faith and theology. (And this slim volume is one of the great introductions to Reformed theology, by the way. A must read for anybody that wants an alternative the excessive rationalism of the Westminster divines.) I especially like Migliore’s Trinitarian emphasis (echoes of Barth at this point) that faith is not faith in Christ, but rather faith in God through Christ (or as Migliore says it, “faith in God made known in Jesus Christ”).

That being said, I was struck by how far I’ve moved from this classically Presbyterian posture rooted in Anselm and championed by Barth, and then especially the Torrance brothers. (I’m not trying to drop names by the way, but rather provide readers with my theological mentors and intellectual trajectory.)

Following Anselm’s lead (ie, “faith seeking understanding”), this approach is a very intellectual pursuit. True faith produces questions (ie, intellectual dilemmas). Active faith, in turn, seeks to answer those questions (Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding”).

But today I was struck by how far off the mark this posture is. True faith, I would argue, produces, not intellectual dilemmas (at least not primarily intellectual dilemmas), but rather relational and moral dilemmas. What I am drawn to and dance around as a result of my faith is not a struggle to find answers, but rather a struggle to find my place in this love affair I have with God in Christ. The question isn’t, “What does this mean?” it’s “Why in the world ought I do this rather than that?”

And the choice of postures profoundly affects one’s understanding of theology as intellectual pursuit or response of the heart (or more technically, response of the nous).

The Anonymous God Blogger recently linked to an article about Kierkegaard by Jamie Moran. In the second paragraph Moran observes of Kierkegaard,

“Like all existentialists, he says the distinctions that matter in life are not hard to make so much as hard to face. Facing up to faith is extremely difficult: most human beings, especially the religious, falsify faith because they want to avoid what faith asks of them in their action, what it asks them to give in their living.” [from “Faith as a ‘Leap of Passion'”].

This is the difference between the intellectual posture expressed by Migliore and the relational posture that imbues Orthodoxy:

When we come face to face with God in Christ, the posture of faith is not hunching over a desk frantically searching to find out, “What does this mean?” It’s rather falling on our face before the Master crying, “I am unclean!”

A Preamble, before you are Assimilated

The next essay, divided into two posts, will sound familiar to those of you who have been reading the blog. It deals with the same thorny issue that a previous series of six essays dealt with.

In the discussion related to the previous series of essays I was criticized for not having a concrete solution to offer. I will gladly embrace the same criticism for this two-part essay.

As I will say in the first part, theology is not about circumscribing truth nor about offering solutions. It is a poetic vision of what the reality is in which we participate. Michael Polanyi, the Oxford philosopher of science, claimed that science was more closely related to poetry than it was to engineering and technology (fields that apply science to the “real world”). Mathematics applied to engineering circumscribes. Mathematics applied to science qua poetry rends the heavens so that we can see what’s really there.

(I don’t even have a direct quote, much less a citation of where Polanyi wrote this. It was scribbled quickly during one of Harold Nebelsick’s theology classes. His good friend, classmate, and professor at the University of Erlangen (Germany), was lecturing and had just described Karl Barth as contemporary theology’s greatest poet. We students, who were struggling through Volume 1 of Church Dogmatics promptly snickered. Prof. Nebelsick came to St. Karl of Basil’s defense by loosely quoting this passage from Polanyi. And yes, Prof. Nebelsick assured us that Polanyi’s apocalyptic imagery was quite intentional.)

Think of these two essays as two different images of the same problem. They are two stories that highlight two facets of one sticky wicket. My theory is that if I tell enough stories, present enough images, eventually the way forward (ie, the “concrete solution” I so famously never get around to) will eventually show itself to me.