Gospel hunt! beyond belief

On September 2, 2012, in Gospel trajectories, by Peter Kress

The gospel of Mark shares a story where Jesus interacts with a man who has asked him to heal his son “if he can”.  When Jesus challenges him on his faith the man anguishes “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”. (Mark 9:24)   This tension describes a crisis to which I think many of us can relate.  There may be times in our life in which we are overcome with the mystery and poignancy of life, beauty and love and whole heartedly commit ourselves to the community and system of faith where we encounter celebration of this mystery.  But, there are other times when we wonder, as in the children’s fable, “is the emperor wearing any clothes?”

My own crisis of belief plays out in several contexts. When religious and scientific communities frame their explanations in ways that demand skepticism towards the other I think we experience a lose-lose double-bind.  When faith communities define rules of inclusion and exclusion and allocate privileges based on those rules, compassion is compromised.  Finally, I am skeptical that “belief” makes me a better person than my neighbor.  I am fairly good at cognitive dissonance.  I engaged these concerns as interesting theoretical and theological discussion for most of my life while being careful not to compromise my self-identity as an insider.  But as many of those whom I care about no longer chose to “play the game,” my exploration became more pragmatic, urgent and personal.

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong warns us that religion fails in two ways.  When faith becomes assent to a particular set of propositions, absolutely knowable, then religion becomes particularized, rooted in a given culture and context, reduced to an idol, and too brittle to morph with the progress of history, culture and generations.  Idols break.  On the other hand, when religious ideas are abstracted, made too theoretical and philosophical, become mythologies, they fail to engage us. We do not invest.

As I have been struggling with a way to think and speak about gospel in a way that engages us here in our 21st century I am very aware of the problem that Dr. Armstrong describes.  If the gospel is for the select few, to whom true knowledge has been revealed, it becomes an incredible idolatry, a game board on which a few play out a shared fiction, irrelevant for most of the world. On this game board, like in a movie, we can suspend disbelief for a while, even for a lifetime.  On the other hand, if the gospel (incarnation, suffering, redemption, and spirit) becomes just a set of metaphors for attempting to invest meaning in a set of biochemical processes, then why bother.  We can share a few moments of wistfulness, how beautiful, how poignant, how self-soothing, but then back to the rat race on whose backs we are just fleas.  Paul says it well.  “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:17-19.

So, what is the gospel I seek?  I am inspired by the idea that the human enterprise is the overcoming of suffering, evil and dealth to fully express love, life and beauty.  I hope/believe that this human enterprise is both response to and empowered in the gospel.  I hope/believe that the dimensions of the Jesus story: incarnation, suffering, resurrection, and spirit are powerful explanations of the embeddedness of gospel in this universe.  But, I suspect that I think way too small about all of this.  The New Testament writers often talk about gospel as “already, not yet” – a gospel that was real in the past, is becoming real in every moment today, and an anticipated realization of the eschaton – the horizon of the future.  A sense of the space/time scale of the universe tells us that we have barely begun our knowing of gospel.

Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:44-46.

I want to hunt gospel (beauty, love, life) with all of you along roads, worlds, and futures unknown.  You in?

 

 

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7 Responses to Gospel hunt! beyond belief

  1. Lee Wyatt says:

    Good stuff! I’m in. The shift from Creed to Credo (or better Credemus, “we trust”), from faith to hope, from Christ to Spirit of Christ – all needed.

  2. [...] 8, 2012 By peteenns Leave a CommentOver at GospelFutures, Peter Kress is on a hunt for the Gospel.Which raises the natural question, “What the heck are you talking about?”Kress explains [...]

  3. craigvick says:

    I think I’m in. This reminds me of Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Martyr. Unamuno begins with I Cor. 15:19, and much of the story is a depiction of Mark 9:24. If your not familiar with it you may find in it a fellow traveler of sorts.

  4. Derek says:

    I know I’m a bit late with this but I would appreciate some feedback regarding the following comment you made:

    “If the gospel is for the select few, to whom true knowledge has been revealed, it becomes an incredible idolatry, a game board on which a few play out a shared fiction, irrelevant for most of the world.”

    I take issue with the above because you seem to believe that God supernaturally regenerating the elect by the power of the Holy Spirit is little more than “fiction”. Can you please shed some light on this?

    Also, doesn’t the Bible teach that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing? Therefore, is it really all that surprising that the unbelieving world regards Christianity as irrelevant?

    Thanks!

    • Peter Kress says:

      Derek:

      Here is my take. I am interested if this makes sense to you.

      The fundamental assumption in the Gospelmemes series is that the Gospel, partlially described incarnation, suffering, redemption, union with Crhist represents the fundamental essential event of the universe. This event is singular, but fully made present by the spirit in every moment, molecule and heart in the universe. I have made analogy between this reality/presence and gravity — it is a universal and pervasive reality.

      When people use a narrower interpretation of gospel, as something that is mediated through preaching and assent, only found in the church, even, only found in scripture, I believe this is a kind of idolatry — a replacing of the gospel event with a narrower rule bound interpretation of the reality.

      I will be discussing regeneration more in depth in a future post, but let me preview here.

      1. regeneration is an expression of our union with Christ in his resurrection.
      2. resurrection is experienced as an already/not yet.
      3. Our theological description of the holy spirit’s work of regeneration is aspirational, it is an anticipation of the new humanity that we already live today in union with Christ.
      4. In the moment there is no change of substance in our humanness linked to the idea of regeneration.
      5. There is a subjective reality that we express as “conversion” and link to “regeneration” and memorialize in the sacraments. This subjective reality is an outworking of faith and belief and linked to the visible church. The actual working of the spirit in the human heart is more inscrutable to us. Every human heart (whether self-identifying as Christian or not) is constantly engaged in both receiving and rejecting grace. We only expect this “tension” to resolve in the eschaton — past our current horizon of knowledge/experience.
      6. Conclusion. We should live as if the gospel is at work in every life around us even our own.

      The cross is foolishness to all of us in our unbelieving and a miracle to all of us as the Spirit works grace into our living and thought.

      Peter

      • Derek says:

        Thanks for your thoughts Peter.

        I more or less agree with your post, however, I find the following statement somewhat problematic:

        “When people use a narrower interpretation of gospel, as something that is mediated through preaching and assent, only found in the church, even, only found in scripture, I believe this is a kind of idolatry — a replacing of the gospel event with a narrower rule bound interpretation of the reality.”

        I think our interpretation of the gospel simply needs to be Biblical. If that entails a seeming “narrow-ness”, well, God ordained it and we would do well to follow his ways, no?

        Although, that is surely not to say that the gospel is merely intellectual assent – that’s not Biblical. Indeed, the gospel rightly proclaimed, understood and applied by the Holy Spirit to the believer imparts new life, transformation, God-oriented desires, etc. Sanctification thus takes root and begins the life-long process of increasing transformation into the likeness of Christ.

        Finally, I agree that we all experience doubts and unbelief, however, I do not think that this is a consistent-theme or norm for the born-again believer.

        Thanks, Peter!

  5. Tim Beckham says:

    Peter, I keep coming up against the limits of knowledge, and the apparent ineffability of the divine. It appears that you are writing with the all-too-common assumption, based on the toil you take in figuring out the importance of the divine in our lives and how it manifests in ways that we can logically discern, that there is some sort of accurate “conclusion” just over the horizon, that we live in a world in which the divine is detectable, and that it conforms to our human sense of logic, morality and common sense. That may all be true, but I cannot see the difference between the theological assumptions that allow one to come to those conclusions and the triumph of a forced sort of willful hope, functioning in the absence of evidence as a basis for faith.

    It seems to me that, although we must assume that, if the Spirit exists at all, it exists independently of our belief in it, it is still true that our concept of the Spirit must be rooted in the reality we know. After all, we are limited by our senses, unless there is some undetectable way of knowing that we are unable to define and, therefore, unable to discuss. Perhaps I am too limited in my scope, but it seems to the that, if the Spirit deigns to inform us of Its nature, then we must be able to see that nature in what comes to us in our daily lives. After all, God has no apparent reason to be mysterious, to remain ineffable. Applying human logic (our only tool), what purpose would that achieve?

    The only “conclusion” that I can imagine our finite brains are capable of reaching is, in fact, no conclusion at all. It is the acceptance of our existence in a void of knowledge, totally dependent on the will of a God whose true nature we are unable even to imagine. If there is any knowledge we enjoy of the divine, it is not a knowledge recognizable to us as such. In my opinion, if we know the Spirit at all, it is very likely totally and completely known to us, with no secrets withheld, and in a way that is so entwined in our lives and so fully seen by us in our every moment, that we fail to realize that every aspect of our existence is imbued with Its essence, mistaking it instead for the mundane.

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