Hear my words, you wise men,
and give ear to me, you who know;
for the ear tests words
as the palate tastes food.
Let us choose what is right;
let us determine among ourselves what is good.Job 34:2-4
This morning the sermon I heard was a classic Presbyterian sermon on how we have nothing in ourselves to bring before God.
Actually, it was a very good exposition of Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." It was fully contextualized in the framework of Matthew's kingdom pronouncement, and some common misunderstandings of the verse were corrected.
Even so, this idea that we have nothing to bring before God seemed to be the main point. I don't necessarily have any problem with this idea on one level. I have certainly learned my own limitations as a human being. I don't pretend I've earned anything from God.
Christianity seems built on certain paradoxes surrounding this idea that we don't have anything in ourselves, and yet we are valuable beyond measure. In the case of evangelicalism, though, I tend to find a somewhat cruel paradox.
We sang the song "Just As I Am," which is a song built entirely on this idea of bringing nothing before God, wholly relying on His mercy. And then there's this curious verse in the middle:
Just as I am Thou wilt receive"Because Thy promise I believe." That really sounds like bringing something to God. There's a paradox here. We are told that we bring nothing before God, and that we need to recognize this fact. But is not the recognition of this fact actually something we bring before God?
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve
Because Thy promise I believe
O Lamb of God, I come...
What about those who bring nothing--not even faith!--before God? Wouldn't these people be the ultimate beneficiaries of God's pure grace? Yet, paradoxically, Christians say one must have faith, or else God won't save.
Maybe it's just the scientific materialist in me, but I always think of belief as a physical property of a person. Like anything else a person has, it really is a function of chemical compounds interacting in very powerful and intricate ways. So when I hear that nothing is necessary but belief in Jesus, I think, what an obscure physical trait to expect of people.
But I don't think you have to think like me to see what I'm getting at. I started this post with a quote from Job that makes me think, you know, expecting a person to believe something really is a lot like expecting them to have a particular taste in food. It's not entirely up to them, is it?
Such a comparison will naturally lead people to cry, "relativism!" and the like. But really, taste in food isn't completely random or up to the individual. We grow up in a certain culture that tends to eat certain food. Chances are your tastes in food will be related to those trends.
But you can always try new food, and you can learn to like a lot of it. Your tastes can change the more you experience. Still, a lot depends on your own taste buds, which you had no part in determining.
Aren't truth claims pretty similar? Can anyone explain exactly what makes anything convincing? Scientists give "proofs" and Christians give "testimonies," and those are all great, but what if your taste buds just haven't shifted, so to speak?
I suppose conversion is usually described in terms of "taste buds" changing--I was blind but now I see, and the like. Calvinism is consistent, after all: even the faith that saves you is not from you, but a gift of God. "Nothing in my hands I bring."
But why in the world would that be limited to any group of people? If one person can be healed from his blindness, why not all people? Why not right now?
In the end, whatever reasons people give for believing something aren't going to satisfy everyone. I say this just as much for science or mathematics as for religion. (Why not? It's the same thing, really.)
The only catch is that some claims are more intense than others. Maybe science makes truth claims about our changing climate and what we should do about it. Okay, well, meanwhile religion is making truth claims about eternal salvation and damnation.
Some would say that if you don't believe a certain truth claim, you're damned for all eternity. What's fascinating is that in our society, many people take this claim and, instead of being scared by it into humble acceptance, actually use it to make a moral argument against believing the claim. This claim becomes morally self-defeating. Interesting.
To be honest, I think there's something healthy about that. To me it doesn't scream "relativism" at all. Rather, it suggests that deep down we all believe that truth and goodness belong together. If the truth isn't good, then what's the point?
Doubtless someone will say that the truth can't just be whatever you want it to be, but I disagree. If you learn to want life to be what it is, then life is what you want it to be. There's always this combination of discovery and self-transformation that has to take place.
So we're back to square one, aren't we? How do we have the faintest clue which is better: to learn to love the food in front of you, or to order up a new dish?
I never said I had any answers.