photo credit: Jaie Miller
I’ve been thinking about intellectual inquiry and my Christian experience as a person of faith. Six recent experiences have catalyzed my thinking about the topic:.
Conversations with students in my Life Group at UBC.
Reading Scott McKnight and Dennis R. Venema — Adam and the Genome.
My disappointment elicited by ecclesial pragmatism.
Praying through the text for the latest Origin Church gathering. Luke 24:13-35, The Emmaus Road.
Reading Allister McGrath, Inventing the Universe.
Pondering the most recent Angus Reid report, Religion in Canada – 150.
It’s tempting to believe that intellectual inquiry, especially our own, is a solitary experience and can be a pure experience of reason. We may imagine going off by ourselves into the wilds of the Canadian wilderness. But “by ourselves” is an illusion. I say that even as a baptist, a protestor. Such theological independence is an illusion fuelled at its worst by pride but at its best perhaps by a more hopeful motive – a yearning for purity of thought and a desire to live well and close to Christ.
The intellectual survivalist imagines what it would be like to come to truth by themselves. I believe they stand to delude themselves into believing they are the solitary champions of truth. These intellectual Christopher Knights dive into the woods, avoiding people of faith, when in truth they are dependent on other people of faith for their survival. Christopher Knight was recently upheld as one who survived alone for 27 years. But he didn’t survive alone. His independence and isolation actually required the enterprising provision of 100 other families. In fact his solitary experience of 27 years required a community, even be it an unwilling community. In relation to them he lived as a parasite. (I think my catholic and orthodox friends may have a field day with this metaphor… but I’ve put it out there anyway. He smiles.)
Intellectual inquiry doesn’t happen in a vacuum of pure reason. Intellectual inquiry occurs in the interplay between what we think and what we experience. Its a process but not a linear process. If we are honest about the intellectual process of inquiry its best seen as a cyclical process in which we poke into a matter, retreat into consideration, poke into a matter again and retreat into consideration, poke again with others, and then retreat with others for consideration, and then we land on or in a statement of ______. (You fill in the blank. Its tempting to believe its a statement of reason. But on the matters that truly matter — justice, love, purpose — you land on a statement of faith. Reason from scientific “fact,” as Allister McGrath notes, actually has a very small landing area.) Intellectual inquiry may indeed have its moments of serendipity and even ecstasy, but most often its a prolonged agony, especially as we test out, idealize and realize the statement of faith we will adjust our lives to in response to Jesus Christ.
Why prolonged agony: Faith seeking understanding.
Anselm introduced the phrase which we can use to describe the process by which persons of faith move forward with reason in their life of faith. I am proposing its use in the most relational and faith-full of ways. Faith seeking understanding is personal. Personal and communal faith seeking understanding is constantly agitated by the question of truth. Although we declare and may experience the confession, “my faith has found a resting place,” this process sets us up with a persistent willingness to not only tolerate disruption but to also engage the disruption with Christ and grow in Him.
We enter Christian faith via the person of Jesus Christ. Inquiry is an enterprise in which we commune with Him allowing ourselves to be taught by the Resurrected Lord Jesus and drawn to participate in His Kingdom as dearly loved citizen-family-sojourner-friends. While there are many questions that may be settled in our lives by faith in Christ, there is usually something just around the corner to stir us up: our stage and season of life; the questions raised by the city we live in; new discoveries or perspectives in science; a reading of Scripture; a traumatic experience; the inquiry of other persons of faith. All these can disrupt our peace and ease of faith thus pushing us to enter into the agony again of intellectual inquiry.
I find the Emmaus Road text helpful for framing some of my expectations for intellectual inquiry. I am enthralled with the image of Christ accompanying us in the journey of life. There are several relationships at play here: me with others, us with Christ, and me with Christ. Furthermore this framing accepts intellectual inquiry as an active process (a journey) strung out over time, punctuated with rest and with a movement between community and solitude. Three processes can be engaged as intellectual inquiry:
1. Identifying unmet or crushed expectations. Here we are trying to understand what makes no sense to me; this requires that we identify my expectations being challenged by reality. This is most often accomplished when the community asks me personal questions and waits for my answers. I may not have yet given voice to the reality I’m facing and I may not have yet actually named the unmet expectations. On the Emmaus Road, the “unknown companion” (who we as readers know is the Resurrected Jesus) leads them into inquiry. “What are you discussing among yourselves?” Their answers reveal unmet expectations and realities they are trying to comprehend. They were trying to make sense of that which made no sense to them. Their expectations of Jesus of Nazareth as the redeemer of Israel were unmet, for Jesus was crucified. (It was traumatic.) Their expectations that it was all over when Jesus died on the Cross were overturned by the women’s proclamation that Jesus is alive. Intellectual inquiry has to take hold of both matters: new realities and unmet expectations.
2. Welcoming strangers or even people we know as companions who teach/explain from the wealth of their pool of knowledge. Intellectual inquiry welcomes the company of people who can shine a light on our ignorance or on the shape of our mental map of reality without annihilating our own agency or participation in the process. On the Emmaus Road, the unrecognized Jesus becomes not only their fellow traveler but also their rabbi. He challenges the foolishness of their picture of the Messiah. He truly rocks their boat; he creates more disequilibrium and in so doing creates the space to learn something they didn’t yet comprehend. (He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”) Although they had the “right Scriptures” they had the wrong picture of the Messiah and thus had created the wrong expectations about the outcomes God desired. The Messiah had to suffer and then enter His glory. That was a different picture. So beginning with the Scriptures which they “knew” he explained to them what they did not yet see. Their seven mile walk must have gone quickly! The two travellers invited their teacher to remain with them longer and share a meal; they were inviting further consideration and relationship.
3. Receiving grace to recognize and authorize Jesus as Lord so we become His witness.
Now Jesus does not require our authorization to be Lord. He is Lord. He has received the name that is above all names that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. However, in relationship to Jesus in this life He is actually the initiator of intellectual inquiry. Jesus Himself approached the travellers with questions to stimulate their inquiry with Him. And in so doing, Jesus seems to not really be interested in making sure these two travellers make it to Emmaus. Jesus is truly interested in giving them the grace to recognize Him as the Resurrected One and become His witness. Intellectual inquiry does not need to cease with the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord of All. It needs to begin and to continue. These two travellers, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, return to Jerusalem quickly to report to the others that Jesus is alive. They are witnesses now to the Resurrected Lord. Their repentance, their change of mind, their authorization of Jesus as Lord, is quickly translated into their return to Jerusalem and their testimony among the disciples as His witness.
There is good news for intellectual inquiry: Christ is Risen. For the follower of Jesus, every venture into intellectual inquiry if it is in the company of Jesus as Lord can find its culmination in communion. Though we may be tempted to build hollow identities on intellect, or on the prevailing virtues of our academy, or perhaps even on being a hostage of our deathly doubts, the Spirit of God woos us to recognize Jesus and become a participant in His death and His resurrection. I don’t need to fear the disruptions of unmet expectations and confounding realities. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” However, I do need company for intellectual inquiry. And I do need to comprehend Christ in ten thousand places.
This is the grace we desire. Lord, help my unbelief.
The is the joy of the Lord. Lord, warm my heart to you.
This is life redeemed. Lord, you!