This is Life: A Theological Reflection

Last week, Durham Intercollegiate Christian Union (DICCU) put on the series of events entitled This is Life. These talks are an iteration of a regular event in which the organisation presents an overview of what they believe (in the hopes that you will join them).

I went along to the lunchtime events, which took the form of short lectures on a variety of topics, followed by a brief question-and-answer session. In these, a speaker gave a topical lecture in which he presented an apology of the Christian worldview (à la an evangelical protestant organisation) in light of particular issues. In this article, I reflect on the theology presented in the talks. I am not so interested here in the force of their apologetic case as much as the overall shape of their theology and the kinds of theological considerations it gives rise to. Consider this, then, my constructive contribution to the DICCU-student dialogue. Thank you for the sandwiches.

The first talk presented DICCU’s fundamental theology, discussing the grounds for belief. According to DICCU, we know God through His revelation, which takes two modes: God’s “whisper”, and God’s “shout”. God’s whisper presents us with a situation in which it is intuitive to believe in God, as well as adding to a cumulative probabilistic case for God’s existence.

There are two voices through which God whispers to us. The first is through the fact that our universe exists, and does so in a certain way such that there is a hole in our ontology into which God, conceived apart from any sort of reaction to that hole, fits. This renders belief in God intuitive in the context of our lives in what can now be called ‘creation’. However, on its own, this whisper is not an argument for God insofar as it does not provide warrant for positing God as an explanatory theory over any other.

God’s ‘shout’ takes the form of the revelation of His existence and will in the incarnation. According to DICCU, the best available explanation for the story of the resurrection and the historical events after it is that Christ was resurrected from the dead and did all the things which the Bible claimed he did, thereby vindicating claims to His divinity. If this case is as strong as they say it is, it lends credence to explanations of our intuitions produced by God’s ‘whisper’ from within a Christian framework, which thereby add greater probability to the case in general.

The speaker introduced DICCU’s dogmatic theology (that is, what precisely we should believe given our fundamental theology) with an exploration of the accusation that it is arrogant for Christians to claim that they have been saved, which also involves an attendant claim to the falsity of non-Christian beliefs. Their response to this is to note that, at the heart of the Christian worldview is an admission of our own sinfulness, which must be recognised and admitted to before we can be justified. This justification is solely the work of God, with no ‘works’ required on our part apart from this inner disposition of contrition. Even repentance is merely the act of free reception, rather than an act which leads to us ‘getting’ forgiven. Thus Christianity proceeds first and foremost from a position of humility.

So what about this is good? Thursday’s talk argued that, looking around us, we can see the workings of sin. The Good News is that God will accept us and ‘cure’ us of our sin despite the fact that our sinful nature renders us unworthy of this charitable act. This, however, does entail contrition in the act of accepting this intervention. Thus we must be willing to give up the sinful things which, in our sinful state, we enjoy. However, as Friday’s talk explained, the autonomy to set our own ends which we sacrifice here is a lesser good than participating in a life which leads to the ability to attain salvation and reconciliation with God, living in harmony with the ordained order of the world.

The epistemic case for Christianity, as presented, rests on God’s shout as the only direct provision of knowledge of God. The data provided by the shout is theoretical knowledge. We know God exists because Christ existed. And we can infer from what he did that Christ is God. This lends credence to Christianity as an inferred explanatory response to God’s whisper.

There is, perhaps, a problem here. If all our knowledge of the divine is, first and foremost, theoretical, the Christian subject can only relate to God as an observer, standing apart and inferring certain third-personal ‘objective’ facts about Him from the world. Under such a model, God becomes related to us solely as an object, standing apart from us as observers.

We might wonder about the adequacy of this. A supposed faith based entirely on an evidential case seems impoverished at least, if not a mistaken notion of faith entirely. A big part of Christianity is the idea that you can know God personally. Indeed, I think that any DICCU member would be appalled at the accusation that their faith ultimately boils down to intellectual assent to a few inferred propositions about the divine. Anyone who has ever spoken to a DICCU member will be aware of the intimate personal relationships with God to which they claim.

Furthermore, without some sort of interpersonal relationship to God, the necessity of the Christian life laid out in their dogmatic theology can only be accepted based on an understanding of its necessity as fact. I think that most Christians would want to say that they are obedient first and foremost out of love, which requires a person to which it can be directed, rather some distant threat of damnation or promise of salvation impinging upon the sphere of their self-concern. One of the problems that I had with the talks is that the lived aspect of the dogmatic theology bears no real relation to the theory of the fundamental one. This is brought out most clearly in how I have been able to so easily distinguish between their fundamental and dogmatic theologies. One follows from the other, but only insofar as the truth of Christianity requires a response in general.

So how can we conceive of this interpersonal relationship? One approach would be to say that we encounter God in such a way through inwards refection. God is a voice that speaks in our thoughts. But this produces a very inwards-looking faith, in which God is reduced to a kind of passenger riding around inside our heads. Because we cannot see inside of each other’s heads, this also means that we cannot participate together in this relationship. Even if we simultaneously have an internal connection with God, we remain isolated from each other in it as we do not collectively by share in it. This seems to go against the grain of the fundamentally communal impulse in Christianity – there is a reason why the Church comes together in worship, rather than everyone being a hermit-mystic. As such, if we’re not willing to posit some kind of religious telepathy, we must look outside of our minds for the encounter with God.

This is where I would like to make my positive contribution: DICCU could be well served by adopting a notion of sacramentality. While this word has Catholic connotations that would make most Evangelicals spit out their tea, sacraments need not be associated with any one particular institutional structure. Broadly speaking, a sacrament is merely an object in the world that God ‘shines through’.

The early Christian tradition conceived of God’s relationship to the world as one in which the world existed by ‘participation’ in God’s being – that is, to exist means to be a form in which God shines through to a greater or lesser extent. Under such a notion, God can be encountered personally in the world ‘out there’, albeit in a veiled way – for example in the goodness of an act of love, the beauty of a glorious sunset, or the truth of a mathematical theorem. I think that this is quite intuitively correct. When we look upon the majesty of the universe, we don’t say “here is glory, and I know that the Lord is glorious because He made it”. Rather, we are more inclined to say, “behold, the glory of the Lord”.

Such a notion lends itself to a re-conception of the dual sources of knowledge of God mentioned above. We should take the inferential knowledge of God in the incarnation and file it along with the other inferences under his whisper. God’s shout is rather his direct self-presentation – first and foremost in Christ, and then in a lesser extent in all the goodness and beauty of the world around us, perceptible by the eyes of faith. It is to this that we respond with love and obedience, the appropriate forms of which are elaborated by the whisper of reason.

We know God personally, in faith, and look to the claims of the Bible and the propositions of reason to know about Him. In this way, faith can be rendered communal and returned to the heart of the Christian experience, and Christian life to the heart of dogma. God’s whisper is the echo of His shout, which resounds in the very bones of creation.

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