Gopnik Levi Foster
Udo W. Middelmann
The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation
Chalet Mon Abri
CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland
This issue of FOOTNOTES has three sections. As always I hope you will find them interesting, gently provocative to sharpen your perception for a more active engagement in your life and location.
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To know someone implies knowing a person’s name, background and links with a wider world. It also means knowing what that persons thinks, values and how he or she acts. We get to know a person by their words and by their behavior, their reactions to situations, and their choices when exposed to life’s various challenges.
We get to know ourselves in a similar way. We may see patterns in the way we respond to joyful or painful situations. We listen to our own stories and illustrations. We realize what we are comfortable with and what annoys us. How do we react when we are tense or tired?
We even get to know God by what he says about himself, about the world around us and about us. We read about his actions in the past towards all kinds of human situations: his compassion, his willingness to wait and see, his patience, his judgments and his urgency to reach into the course of human events. We learn about his general comments for everyone and his specific instructions for Israel as a people. We see them expressed in the form of historic records, specific teaching and even poetry. We find his views behind the discussions with Pharisees and other flawed, believing and unbelieving people. We find a filling-out of these lessons in the person of Jesus Christ, who is, as the letter to the Hebrews (ch.1) reminds us, the express image of the Father.
When Jesus ascends to the Father, where he now sits on the right hand of God with authority, also standing up at such times as when Steven, being martyred, is welcomed by Jesus (Acts 7), God is with us by the Holy Spirit, that comforter and reminder of all things true. That Holy Spirit had already given us Scripture, a “more sure word of prophecy” than any eye witness or first person account of spiritual or existential experience (1.Peter 1:21).
All this is important to keep in mind when we are attracted, from a deep longing for greater spiritual awareness and growth, to seek ways to diminish the weight life in the material world or to abandon reasoned insight into such spiritual realities as questions of our purpose, meaning and focus. Such attractions “elsewhere” are distractions. They are not new. Paul already warns against them in several letters to churches, when Gnosticism sought to replace the down-to-earth realism of the Bible with a hidden, inner knowledge of secret ways to attain the divine. Already then advocates of Gnostic spirituality spoke against marriage, the eating of certain foods, the use of educated reasoning. They rejected the material world as evil and taught salvation through spiritual disciplines, which oppose the spiritual to the material.
According to the Bible the Spiritual is part and portion of the real world together with the material. The Bible begins with God, who is Spirit, creating a material world as the normal place for human beings. The Bible also ends with the descent of a heavenly Jerusalem to earth and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on a repaired, purified earth. Living in God’s presence on earth is the purposed habitat for us. We are not meant to be angels elsewhere, nor live in heaven, but rather wait for the coming of the Lord with power and glory to a material world, which then will be found laid bare of all evil elements (2 Peter 3:10).
Between these ‘bookends’ of Scripture any longing to focus on the non-material, spiritual, is borne out of a deep tension in reality now. The Biblical view is that a tension exists between life in a fallen world and a longing for a return to the Garden of Eden. A Gnostic view, by contrast, is borne out of the tension between spirit and body at any stage. The Bible affirms the rightfulness of a material world, created ‘good’ by God; the problem is that we have sinned and smashed the goodness of creation as a consequence of our guilt. The Gnostic view is that matter is a creation of a devil and therefore at all times to escape from.
According to the Bible there is no material world without a spiritual dimension. It is God, who is Spirit, who decided to create a material world. Everything created, whether by God or his image bearer, the human person, since then does not simply exists as a thing without a thought, purpose or value. There is always a mind, a thought, a design in things. It is never sheer matter.
Consequently there is nothing wrong with matter itself, and there will always be matter in God’s universe. Matter will not be destroyed when Christ returns, it will be laid bare of sin, found restored and enjoyed, from the marriage supper of the lamb to the New Jerusalem shared in continuing life in our resurrected bodies. Platonists and Gnostics, but also several Christian seekers suggested that the material world, because it is defined and limited, is a handicap, is even evil. They sought independence from physical time and space in order to have permanence or infinity. They sought the divine in their desire to leave behind the valley of tears, the tragedy of life in a fallen world. They longed for the good and an avoidance of evil. They understood the body to decline to death and the soul to have a permanent existence in the presence of God. Freedom from the facts of the body, from appetite, food and drink, from proximity to other people, from physical care and sexuality were parallel images to a bird being released from a cage, as the soul being set free from the body.
But these are Greek and pagan ideas, not Biblical ones. If they were also embraced by ‘saints’ like Thomas a Kempis in his Imitation of Christ or Mme. Guyon, Francis de Sales, Francis of Assisi and others it is a sign of how easily the lure of escaping the reality of the concrete outer and material life in search of a reality of the inner life is advocated and embraced. It may be painful and promises questionable rewards; it makes one feel better, perhaps, for doing something, but does it really promote what Scripture tells us to be our task: To love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves?
Prayer and fasting, obedience and good works (Ephesians 2:10), being spiritually alive rather than dead, are not so much concerns of the inner life as realities one chooses and creates in recognition that we are God’s children in a living relationship with the Lord of the Universe. Fasting is not taught as a way of becoming more spiritual, but rather as a choice to spend time for something more important than eating. It is to set us free to pray, to care for someone sick, to have a conversation with God or another person. In contrast to Eastern religions, fasting is not to make us light-headed, more spiritual and independent of the needs of the body. For, we are not trying to attempt what weird Hindhu holy men and women do when they do not eat, lie on pins and needles for a month or drink their own urine, but to honor and obey God in our lives.
Fasting should be the consequence of judging something as more important than eating. In preparation for a day of prayer and fasting Edith Schaeffer would say that you would not refuse to see the Queen at noon, because that was your usual lunch time. You would drop lunch instead. Such days were to free us from the need to prepare food in order to have more time for prayer. Fasting, prayer, praying together at an agreed time: it shows the importance given to the task, a choice of priorities, not a more spiritual experience.
The alternative view of spirituality is a form of denial of creation, of the material world, of real bodies created by God. When Paul writes that we should not be “drunk with wine, but filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) he has in mind that wine depresses reactions, makes our perception less precise, lets us pretend that reality is different than what it is; being “filled with the Spirit” leads to the opposite result: we see things more clearly, discern more wisely, and are more realistic about being alive as people in God’s world. Wine separates us from seeing the shape of reality, while God’s Spirit tells us the truth about it!
In the writings of many past and present Christian mystics we find an embrace of a simple life. They escape from the difficulty of valuing the material world in light of God’s word. Yet, that is the reality in which we should be busy as people nurtured, informed, driven and empowered by God’s Spirit. We become spiritual when we do things correctly, as God intended them. We are not spiritual when we diminish the real in favor of the hidden or the less explained, where we focus more on feeling than being. Pagan cultures advocate such mysteries, as the Greeks did and African tribal religions still do, together with those who derive clues for their lives from horoscopes.
Such a view shares characteristics of animism, not Biblical faith. It sees a ‘spiritually’ intended meaning behind everything, every event, every situation. Nothing exists because the Creator intended it for itself, such as when trees now produce “their fruit according to their kind” or water flows over the dike in a flood. Instead, each event is seen as a deliberate act by god or ghost for a spiritual purpose. It gives a hidden, personal lesson, not an obvious and public one. The Christian sees such events as evidence of things to remember, as a situation in which to use our minds and hands in the real world. Paganism, animism and superstitious spiritualism seek to discover a more personal and counter-rational message. Paul warns against such hidden meanings as the appearance of spirituality in several of his letters. The attraction lies precisely in the hidden elements; they seem to be more real, more true and more personal, while the Bible encourages us to live in the real, the visible and the understandable, which God made and which God will restore.
Our citizenship is in heaven, here we have no abiding place; we wait for ‘kingdom come’: each of these sentences has nothing to do with a denial of the real world, of history or of the body. These scriptural reminders tell us of where we belong, who created and now redeemed us and where our eternal inheritance lies: God has made us in his image, adopted us into his family, given us eternal life in Christ. What we leave behind is a body of death, of corruption, with roots in the earth (God made Man in his image); we look forward to the full reign of Christ in a restored creation, to which the heavenly Jerusalem will descend.
The spiritual body of the resurrection is not a faint shadow, a cloud-like appearance, but a material and now incorruptible body. With it we eat, occupy space, handle things. With it we can be touched and use speech. Of such a body was the Risen Christ. The difference from our present bodies is not immateriality or independence, but that our physical bodies will be renewed, raised and empowered by God’s Spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s had this in mind when longing for spiritual reality, first in the underground seminary and then in the horror of a Nazi prison shortly before his death. He rejects pagan earthiness and materialistic brutality. Earlier, much of monastic life, though not all of it, focused on bringing peace, knowledge, hospitality, justice, public health and economic development to a wounded countryside torn apart by roving bands of unemployed and pillaging knights and lesser and common villains. This was not primarily a concern born out of denial and withdrawal, but a resistance to what had become a natural lawless situation. Initially there was hunger for righteousness, not for personal spirituality.
That is quite different from the Ron (Siders) and Tony (Campolo) ‘program,’ which idealizes a community of spiritual beings who distance themselves from ties to the material world. Yet, small is not always beautiful. Poverty is not our calling. Independence from shelter, food and clothing, from knowledge and practical tools is no virtue. The Jubilee provision in the Old Testament does not provide economic egalitarianism. Progress in knowledge, service and accomplishments is mandated in the Bible from creation on; it is part of having dominion over the earth and oneself. Efforts to improve life in the fallen world are not always only acts of autonomous affirmation.
Yes, we need spiritual discernment about choices made in real life, but when that leads to a ghostlike independence from the material world, when the care of our bodies is neglected as unimportant; when independence from material things like food and drink and newspapers is seen as more spiritual we are no longer obedient to the God of the Bible. God created Adam to be dependent on his help-meet Eve. Even in the garden God was not sufficient for Adam!
Paul speaks of that already in Romans 8:4ff (‘who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit”) and again in 1. Corinthians 15: 43,44 (‘it is raised in glory…in power…a spiritual body’). Our life is empowered, nurtured, directed by the Spirit, not by spiritual exercises in the form of denials, negations and rejections.
I have recently come across a modern encouragement of this wrong direction in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Many people have been drawn to books like it from a desire to learn from the spiritual experiences of earlier believers, attracted by the testimony they give of a walk with God, of miraculous blessings and accomplishments. A deep frustration with the character of our age and its focus on material success, security, status and conquest also contributes to the attractiveness of such alternative views, now and in times past.
But our spiritual education should at all times translate into earthly or creaturely effects. Because God’s spirit ministers to us, we should be able to minister to others. Because God teaches us about himself, us and life, we should be able to serve him and our neighbor with greater insight strength and commitment. Our task is not to leave the real world, but to transform it into something more real, more just, more beautiful, safer, freer and more able to resist the effects of sin. That is what Christianity has produced in the past, through greater obedience to God’s instructions, not through a rather selfish pursuit of spiritual satisfaction, experiences and abstinence.
Foster talks about the need to free ourselves from all manner of dependencies. He fails to see that as creatures God has made us dependent. We depend on others, on food and oxygen, on language, music and aesthetics, on knowledge and critical judgments, etc. We are never independent! In order to love our neighbor we need to know his life, problems, worries, illness, taste and gifts. These are not destructive or distracting drugs, but essential parts of life in the real world. Because we wait for Christ to come and reign, we should not first become so spiritual that we are no good for any earthly use.
While in New York for the past almost three months to teach two courses at The King’s College in the Empire State Building Deborah and I had time also to dip into the reservoir of cultural resources available from around the world. The calendar of events offers far more than anyone can oversee, let alone attend. So, one must select between concerts, operas, lectures and other refreshing productions from within this amazing human family.
Deborah stood in line for three hours to get rush tickets, of which 200 are offered every day by, I believe, a foundation for the price of 20% more than an entry to the movies and less than one would pay for dinner. You wait in line, talking to people in front and behind you, learn about their lives, their treasures, their survival often, and share your views with them. We got to watch and hear Il Trovatore with our friends Lloyd and Libby Davies in a masterful production at the Met.
At another time we stood in line at 7 o’clock early in the morning for a free rehearsal concert at 11 AM with James Galway to open the NY symphony season. Then again, one night the Bremen Chamber Philharmonic orchestra performed Beethoven’s second and seventh symphonies in the newly remodeled Allis Tully Hall, starting at 10:00 PM; yes, it went past midnight, but was extraordinary in its interpretation of these two compositions.
We also took in an evening of Jazz at the Café Creole in Harlem.
Free lectures we attended several times, in the public Library and also in the old Cooper Union building, where Lincoln gave his candidacy speech in 1860 before becoming president. One lecture discussed “Growing up Jewish under Stalin”, a touching story of a painful childhood in Odessa under the anti-Semitic persecution of Stalin’s henchmen. Without knowing at the time what being Jewish meant, the author realized that is must be something special, and feels it when he touches the Matzoh bread before Passover one year. He reads out of the low, rough mounts of burst bubbles in the dough the inheritance of something unique, a heavy significance, a hidden meaning of something ageless that transcended Stalin’s persecution and stood up to it.
We got caught in another lecture, which we attended on the basis of its intriguing title (with a relation to from Isaac B. Singer’s writing) about “The Eternal Treblinka”. We had initially thought the speaker would lament the often cruel treatment of animals as just meat, not living creatures. That would have had a valid point, as I have suggested in an earlier FOOTNOTES. When the concept of the creation of animals is replaced by the mechanics of Nature and production, animals no longer receive the respect due them as purposefully made by God, for themselves first, and later for food.
But instead it turned out to be a presentation that had little to do with the Nobel laureate Singer and much with the author’s proposition that we should all become vegan and no longer eat meat.
The Treblinka connection is based on the author’s theme: First animals chased and ate humans; then we turned on them and have killed them with increasing brutality and indifference to their suffering. We raise them in such a way that they become meat-producing factories “on the bone” without regard to the dignity of their being animals with sensations. Thirdly, under the cover of calling other human beings whom we despise by animal names like pig, dog or camel, we have made it easy to exterminate human beings as if they were animals, as was done in Treblinka and other extermination camps.
And now we treat animals as objects, kill them like Jews were killed, etc…you get the gist.
The remainder of the audience gradually revealed itself as aficionados of this vegan proposition. We should eat no meat, kill no animal, not even roaches and other bugs. That killing must stop, and we will all be better off, healthier and emotionally sweeter. One participant told of people she knows who live to be 150 years old on their vegan diet and “leap up and down mountains like younger people.”
In the Q and A session I dared to point out that the author wore a leather belt, for which he then presented his excuses. It was 20 years old and had been presented to him before he became vegan. On a more serious note I received first a moment of silence and then an outburst of anger at, what I then became known as, “that man.” My question was simply whether the facility with which human beings have become cruel to animals would also explain why we have become so indifferent to the killing of a million and a half unborn children per year? There was anger and rage that could be felt in the room!
The most fascinating public conversation took place in Cooper Union, the hall where Lincoln gave his famous speech prior to being named candidate for the presidency in 1860. Adam Gopnik, who writes for The New Yorker and recently published “Angels and Ages”, spoke with Bernard-Henri Levy. Gopnik is the humanist Jew, who proposes that both Lincoln and Darwin found a way to replace the God of the Bible with another guiding, sovereign principle, when they realize that evil and suffering in the real world cannot be reconciled with the idea of the God of the Bible. It is the old problem of Evil that prevents the belief in a Good God. Evil, death and a seeming indifference to it all makes the belief in God implausible, even impossible.
When Darwin realizes this through his careful observations he replaces his earlier belief in God by the new guiding and controlling principle called ‘Nature’. Now there exists an explanation for the conflict, the waste, the cruelty and the amoral selection in what he calls “natural selection.” Under this sovereignty everything finds a home, is explained true to the evidence at hand.
For Lincoln, who already in his youth had mocked God and the Bible, the same suffering in history, including the Civil war and its brutality, can also more easily be understood under the control of a guiding impersonal Providence. Both stumble over an undeniably cruel world and resolve the conflict in a parallel manner. For both men history is the story of a series of inevitable occurrences. That is not surprising as the picture we see here in the 19th century took place in philosophy in general: The gradual and deliberate replacement of Christianity by a kind of pan-everything-ism that includes all and does away with any real and basic distinction between good and evil. History is just so, one can observe, must accept, but not judge. It is all part of BEING itself.
I had studied this with my students in the course “Modern Philosophy” and found that with Kant God is understood to be the all-powerful, omniscient and omnipresent divinity and thereby disappears as a knowable being; with Hegel the divine is nothing but the great sweeping movement of history, always pressing forward and advancing through conflict, a theme that Marx would later advocate. Schopenhauer calls it ‘Will’, for Heidegger it is Being, for many common men it is the “Elan vital”, a life force or energy. The God of the Bible has been swallowed up, absorbed into the totality of what is. Nature has swallowed Grace. For Lincoln it is Providence (parallel to the ‘fates’ of the Greeks, who were so admired in the 19th century in a deliberate effort by many academics and politicians to have Greek thought replace Christian thought as the foundation of Western culture!!)
We are then left, Gopnik proposes, with the responsibility of adults to make do without God, armed with good will and reason alone.
Turning to Levy in the conversation Gopnik raises the question why the European still holds out for a metaphysical dimension, when thanks to the Enlightenment’s abandonment of church and monarchy we now know that natural selection is the reasonable driving force behind events.
Levy responds to the American that without that metaphysical reference and restrainer all things become allowed. Without the reference to good and evil as substantial realities no distinction can be made between them. The Jewish/Christian belief in the eternal and substantive distinction between good and evil alone guarantees that someone will stand up and denounce evil as opposed to good. For, with it alone any situation, event and practices do not simply follow each other in history in the way nature for Darwin produces both life and death, and governments embrace both justice and cruelty in providential sequence!
Repeatedly Gopnik tried to win Levy over to the humanist position, but he does not manage it. The suggestion that doubt, argument, humanist ideals originate with the Enlightenment, that removed the authority of the Talmud and the church and gives us a much saner, realistic assessment of the tasks before us is eloquently opposed by Levy. He counters that the quest for and the discussion over what is true, good and righteous started with both Jewish scholars and the church way before the Enlightenment. It is an old tradition between competing scholars, rabbis and church councils, precisely because it is so important to not just accept and believe, but to find out.
It turns out that the humanist is the one who philosophically stops asking questions, as he has resolved that there is nothing more to discover in search of the good, the true and the beautiful. He can discover and observe, but he has abandoned any moral dimension or criteria in his outlook on life, which consists of a sovereign process of natural selection.
Once we understand this we should be able to see how little difference there is between this atheistic view bowing to Nature and the view of many Christians bowing before their view of God. They have joined the overwhelming number of people around the world who all hold the same thing in various ways: that our lives are wrapped into a necessary program, or as some will say “that human history does, in an ultimate sense, move forward according to God’s good pleasure and will.” Marxists say that, substituting ‘history’ for god; Muslim have their Allah instead of Jehovah; naturalists say it with reference to genetics, sociologists refer to upbringing; pagans have their destiny, Africans their ancestors watching, Greeks their fates and feminists their gender specificity. Regardless of labels or particular details, common to everyone, including the new Calvinists TIME magazine reported on (March 23, 2009), is that they all work within what Francis Schaeffer called a “closed system”. It offers security, but abandons morality.
I for one object on Biblical grounds to see my brother’s suicide (or any tragic result of the fall in people’s lives) as “human history.... in an ultimate sense, move(d) forward according to God’s good pleasure and will.”
This view is no “Good News”. It merely repeats, using Biblical vocabulary, what so many others already believe. There remains neither something ‘good’ nor something ‘new’, since everything is already happening anyway according to a divine or nature’s plan. There was ‘good news’ emphasized at the time of the reformers: the free gift of grace in distinction to the righteousness by works. Surely part of the ‘good news’ in today’s intellectual and cultural setting must include that history is precisely not the manifestation of God’s will, that God is grieved by what creatures do: that there is no reason to see every event as in any way necessary, destined or willed by God. “History is”, Clive James says, “a record of things that did not need to happen.”
“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”(Job 2:27) is from a man who does not yet know what we know from the first two chapters: that the devil, not God, brought about Job’s hardships. Gopnik’s attempt to have Levy agree with the statement about God being responsible for everything, fails when Levy forcefully points out that such a view is that of Job’s friends, not of God or His Bible.
God’s moral character, will and purposes are not written in nature nor in history. We find God’s mind revealed in his Word, both written and living.
It is tragic that parts of the church don’t seem to understand how much they say exactly what most everyone says anyway, i.e. everything runs according to a sovereign plan. She uses a different, yet morally also indifferent name for her “sovereign” determiner.
Lenin’s statement that you can’t have an omelet without first breaking the eggs applies here. The “good pleasure” of Darwin’s nature, Lincoln’s providence, Gopnik’s humanism and the view of many of their God is to make an omelet of the human race by means of the Fall, Cain killing his brother and all history since then. That, however, is not the God found in Scripture, who runs after Adam, loves Cain, weeps over Jerusalem and has compassion over the sheep without a shepherd.
With warm greetings, Udo Middelmann
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