Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Self-Referential Incoherence

I wish I could take credit for the phrase, ‘self-referential incoherence,’ but I cannot. I believe it was born in the mind of Professor Alvin Plantiga. Way back in the late 80’s, when I was in Aberdeen, Scotland, studying with Professor J. B. Torrance, Plantiga came to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures. After one of his lectures, several of us gathered for a beer and a follow up discussion with the famous philosopher. It was then, I believe, that he shared that great phrase with us. It stuck with me ever since. Over the years I have expanded it slightly into, ‘the latent deism of the Latin West and its ongoing problem with self-referential incoherence,’ as a larger statement about how lost we become when God is only watching us ‘from a distance.’ But I digress.

I think Plantiga meant to give us a thought to put in our back pockets for the days when the naysayers out do themselves during Q & A. Nonetheless, ‘self-referential incoherence’ is a profound insight into the problem of ‘the fall.’ For the most part we have been taught to think of sin as primarily a moral problem. I think sin is fundamentally a reference problem, followed, of course, by all manner of other rippling relational, social and moral issues. In the fall, Adam’s reference point moved from God to himself. He became self-referential, and thus developed a perception of himself, God and the world from a center in himself and his terrible fear. From that point the human race was trapped in its own way of seeing. If it does not ‘make sense to us’ it cannot be true. Our way of perceiving a person or a situation is the way it is. And that is the problem fraught with utter impossibility. Even the Lord’s presence and self-revelation, and indeed his way of thinking and saving, has to pass through Adam—and our—way of thinking, and thus the Lord himself and all his ways are subject to our judgment. He must make sense to us, or He is not correct, and thus dismissed. So we invent a god in the image of our own self-reference—which, of course, from the Lord’s perspective is utterly incoherent—and judge God’s presence and action by it.

So how could the Lord possibly reach us, and establish a real relationship with us in our self-referential incoherence? Everything the Lord does will be perceived, or misperceived, through our grids of judgment. Whatever he ‘says’ will be ‘heard’ through our ears. Who among us would ever suspect that our way of thinking or hearing could possibly be faulty? And even if we stumbled onto the idea that our judgment could be wrong-headed, what could we possibly do to escape our self-referentialism?

How does the Lord reach us? How do we escape our own way of seeing? How could we possibly perceive beyond our own perception and know the Lord as he is? How could we have real relationship with each other when between us stands our own judgment?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


In the two centuries between 1600 and 1800, the Church across Europe, America and indeed across the Western world suffered two direct and brutal blows, which shattered its confidence and left it in a crisis of irrelevance. The movement known as ‘The Enlightenment’ (also known as ‘The Age of Reason’) decimated the rational foundation of Christian faith and set forward an alternative vision of God, of the universe and of human existence and life within it. This new vision captured the imagination of the masses and led them as a pied piper into a brave new world that did not need the Christian gospel and certainly not the Church. The Church has yet to recover.

Such a secular movement did not develop in a vacuum; it was over one thousand years in the making, and as strange as it might sound has part of its root system in the Church itself and particularly in the great St. Augustine (354-430). The secular Enlightenment is, in my view, Augustine's stepchild, born of his unholy marriage between Greek philosophy and the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ..

In their combination of a sophisticated philosophy with religious aspiration, the pagan Neoplatonists had only one serious rival—Christianity, and, anti-Christian though they were, it was the incorporation of their ideas into Christian theology that ensured their permanent influence on European culture (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, preface, viii).

The principal figure in the transmission of Neoplatonist thought into Christian theology is St. Augustine (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, p.177)

It was a long time in coming, but the unconverted reasoning that Augustine allowed into the holy of holies of Christian thought finally came of age in the Enlightenment and broke free from the shackles of Christian authority altogether. Like a child who grew up to abuse his parents, pagan reasoning rose with such considerable force that the Christian vision of God and the cosmos was overthrown and a pagan vision of God and a radically secular world-view took its place.

There and then, the Western Church lost is position, its standing and prestige in the culture around it. We have yet to recover. Since that moment in history, the Western Church has been in survival mode, fighting tooth and nail to get back on its feet and find a place, a legitimate hearing in the larger secular culture. The last 200 years of Western Church history represents a long and frantic attempt to find an acceptable basis for Christian faith, and to establish the relevance of Christianity for human life, in a society that believes it is of little value. At the same time, the Church retreated into itself and its private Sunday spirituality, in a desperate attempt to protect its own turf, hoping that the storm would blow over and go away.

Today as the unwitting heirs of the Enlightenment's revolution, and as the sons and daughters of a saddened and beleaguered Christianity we are spiritually depressed, and light years away from the New Testament's vision of Jesus Christ as the true light of the entire cosmos and of the early Church’s magnificent vision of the Triune God. And we are a long way from the sheer passion and the unbridled confidence and the dreams that such vision stirs within the human soul. And we are a long way from moving out in that passion and confidence to explore the universe, to rethink human existence and relationships, to develop political, economic and scientific, medical, psychological and legal theories in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Father’s eternal Son is the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained.

We have lost the fearless, confident boldness, the parrhesia, of the apostolic mind. We have lost, what my friend David Upshaw calls, “the apostolic swagger.” The apostles believed that they had seen the mystery behind all things—past, present and future. They believed that they had come to the heart of the universe itself, to the very secret of creation and of human history. In such knowledge, they set out to inform the whole world, and indeed the principalities and powers throughout the cosmos. They gave their lives in the service of the revelation of Jesus Christ because they knew that the cosmos was bound up in Him, and thus that coming to believe in Him inevitably meant the release of the kingdom of the Triune God throughout the earth and the cosmos.

Jesus performed miracles not merely to prove that he was God, but as the expression of the fact that as the Father’s Son, in and through and by whom all things were created and are sustained, the cosmos was already wired for him, already set up to respond to his every thought and bidding. What would happen, then, if the human race came to know Jesus, and believed in him, and brought its fallen and confused mind to his feet for conversion? What would happen if people threw their hearts and souls and minds into participating in Jesus’ world, and in His life with his Father, and in His anointing with the Spirit? Would it mean disaster for the creation? Would it mean great darkness and chaos? Would it mean evil? It would mean the personal, the corporate, the global, the cosmological manifestation of the kingdom of the Triune God. It would mean that the fullness of the Trinitarian life of God would flower in our humanity and express its goodness across the earth, releasing the great dance of life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit throughout the cosmos. For it is our darkness and terrible confusion that stifles the emergence of the present kingdom.

This is what the apostles knew intuitively in their encounter with Christ. This was the Jesus they encountered and worshipped and served with their lives. This was the Jesus Christ who blew their minds, thrilled their hearts and filled them with hope—and stunning confidence. But compared to the great apostles, compared to the martyrs and the fathers such as St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius, the modern Western Church has retreated to playing shuffle board in a nursing home—when we have been given the secret of the universe, and the keys of the kingdom of the Triune God. It is time for us see again what the apostles saw, to encounter the real Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, the anointed One, the Lord and light of the cosmos.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I was riding home a couple of nights ago when I noticed a bumper sticker. It read, ‘if you bought it, it was trucked.’ The next day I actually met a trucker as we stopped to get some ice and water. I got into a conversation with him about the bumper sticker. He said, ‘man, you don’t have anything in your house, including anything that went into building your house or out-fittin’ it, that was not delivered by one of us.’ His comment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few years ago in Toronto with a trucker. His job was to drive his truck from Toronto to Miami twice a week to pick up flowers and bring them back to Toronto. As I listened to his story it struck me how many people, and families, were blessed by his unknown work. Think about the weddings, the special occasions, the not-so, yet, quite critical moments in peoples’ lives that are directly influenced by the fact that this dear man gets up at 3:00am and heads south, by himself, to pick up fresh flowers for people he will never see or know.

Many years ago, I wrote a small booklet called, The Secret. In many ways I think it is my best work (The Secret is a free download on our web site). The point of the book was to help us realize how much of what we assume is our ‘ordinary’ lives is actually part of our participation in the Trinitarian life of God. That such a line of thought sounds somewhat strange to us is shocking proof of how profoundly lost we are in our religious darkness. God incarnate spent more time making chairs and tables than he did preaching, or doing miracles. Think about it. What did Jesus, the Father’s eternal Son incarnate, do for the vast majority of his earthly life? I don’t mean to say that we should give up on the miraculous, or, at least, what we might think is miraculous. I am all for miracles. My point is that there are stunning miracles happening in all of our lives everyday, but we can’t see them because of our religious prejudices.

While I utterly deplore the lack of expectation in our Western churches, it bothers me more that we cannot see how Jesus is involved in our ordinary lives. Let me put it this way: Don’t thank God for your daughter’s wedding if you cannot say ‘thank you’ to the trucker, or the cake designer, or the dress designer, or the gardener, or the architect, or the one who toils making sure the salad is perfect, as the ones who participated in the Lord's personal blessing. While the Father, Son and Spirit do not need any of us, the fact is they refuse, as Karl Barth has insisted, to be God, or to bless us, without the participation of others.

We all know—somewhere deep inside—that everyday we are blessed by people who do their jobs, by people who care, by people who grow or cut or dress the chickens, by people who meet, bless, care and teach our children, by people who make sure the traffic signals work, by people who work with shovels or atoms or gaze the stars to make things easier for all of us. But do we have a theology—or a Christology—that even hints at telling us who these people are who bless us so, or leads us to honor them for their participation?

Just remember: When you bow your head to thank God for the food you are about to receive, or to thank Him for your car, or your house, or the air-conditioning, or the health of your baby, make sure you thank him for the regular folks who He uses to bless you through. We don’t need to spend millions figuring out what is wrong with the Church or why it is dying. We need to see Jesus as he is—present, not absent—blessing his creation through ordinary people. And when the Church finally gets it, and starts refusing to recognize people according to ‘the flesh,’ and thus starts treating the truckers, farmers and workers, the gardeners, teachers and mechanics of the world as people who are participating in the Trinitarian blessing of creation, I suspect we will not have a problem with boredom or with an audience.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jesus and Installing Pools

I Got back from a remarkable trip to New Zealand only to discover that our beloved Perichoresis' ministry is in the hole financially. We have struggled since we began in 1994, but we have always managed to make payroll. This month was different. For the first time in all these years we did not make it. So let me make an appeal. If our ministry has been a blessing to you, please consider helping us financially, so we can be a blessing to many more. Contrary to what you might think, Perichoresis is a very small ministry. Our outreach is global, and that is both stunning and beautiful to me, but the ministry of Perichoresis is almost exclusively privately funded, and the work boils down to me and my wife Beth. Until recently, thanks to a dear friend, we have operated out of our house. We now have our own offices. Scotty Rogers works one day a week helping us with administration. Scotty is a very gifted minister and therapist, with a passion for youth, and my prayer it to bring him on full time.

Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart. You can contribute online through our webs site. Just go to ‘donate’ on any of the pull-down menus. Or you can send a tax deductible check to us. Perichoresis • P. O. Box 98157 • Jackson, MS 39298. Every dollar counts.

Meanwhile, I have been working with a friend who just started an outdoor pool installation business. The 14-16 hour days in the Mississippi heat and humidity has been a challenge to me at 49, to be sure, but it has been a great experience. Installing pools is a dramatic contrast to teaching. The fruit is immediate and obvious. And I love that. And Pharisees don't hang out in the Mississippi heat! We hit the ground running around 7:00am, cut the sod and start carving the ground. By the end of the day another family is thrilled. The smiles on the kid’s faces alone makes it all worthwhile. (Yeah, I can hear it now, ‘Baxter, the pool guy’).

Most of the pools we have installed have been in rural Mississippi—not that there is any part of Mississippi is that not rural—and that has taken me back to my roots. One of the great strengths of Perichoresis is its ability to put complex theology in creatively simple ways. For my part this has its origin in growing up in a small town in the deep South. I reckon that the return to hard work in the farm lands of Mississippi is intended as a blessing from the Lord. I am grateful. It is exhausting, but good.

Everyday I think of Jesus asking the servants to get water to fill the ‘empty’ Jewish purification pots. It was surely hot, and the wedding party needed wine, not water, but the servants got the water and Jesus turned it into wine. The servants, doing something as apparently mundane as getting water, got to participate in the creative blessing of the Lord himself. Dignity. Meaning. Purpose. Our fleshly systems of evaluation are the fruit of sheer blindness. Participating in Jesus’ presence and blessing, whether it is through farming, putting in pools, helping a friend, or, I suppose, even preaching, is life.

The lesson for us all is this: There is far more going on in our lives than we ever dared to dream. We belong to the Father, Son and Spirit. We always have and always will. And the presence, not absence, of Jesus, calls us to throw our hearts and souls and minds and strength—and sweat—into participating in what he is doing. What we need is wisdom. So, Holy Spirit, please give us real eyes to see the presence and work of Jesus. Deliver us from our blindness and our sacred-secular dualism so we can see Jesus in the midst of our ‘ordinary’ lives.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Evangelical Repentance

Is forgiveness prior to repentance? This was one of the critical questions Professor James B. Torrance of Scotland (my professor in theology) used to raise to his students. It was, of course, a question calculated to stop us in our tracks and to force us to reflect upon some of our assumptions about the heart of God the Father and the reconciling work Christ. I am not sure that I ever heard anyone answer ‘yes,’ at least not before they heard Professor Torrance lecture on the subject. Torrance’s abiding point was that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and is to be proclaimed as such to the world.

Two of Torrance’s main influences on this point were John Calvin and Thomas Erskine (see his book, The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel, in the ‘essays’ section on our web site). Calvin himself says that “a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace” (Institutes, III.2). Yet how is one to recognize God’s grace if it is not proclaimed to him or her as a fact rather than a conditional promise?

Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was somewhat disturbed by my simple declaration that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2COR 5:19) and by the fact that I turned to the folks gathered at our meeting and declared that all without exception had been forgiven and embraced by the Father himself. In the conversation afterwards, I asked the young man, ‘what is the gospel?’ ‘what do you tell people to believe?’ ‘what is the good news?’ He answered, ‘I tell people to believe in Jesus.’ I then asked, ‘believe in what about Jesus?’ His response was telling, ‘I tell people that if they repent and believe in Jesus, they will be forgiven.’ ‘So,’ I said, ‘the object of our faith is not Jesus and our salvation in him, but the possibility that we can be forgiven, if we repent and believe in Jesus. So we are summoned to believe in a Jesus who may be our savior if we repent and believe in him correctly, and in doing so (which we can’t) we actually make him the savior?’

Either we believe in the fact of our forgiveness in Jesus, and thus have something real to believe in, or we believe in the possibility of our forgiveness, and thus believe in whatever it is (our faith, repentance or goodness) that makes the possibility a reality.

The gospel is not the news of what can be if we make it so; it is the news of what is, of what God has established in Christ. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself.’ Torrance, Calvin and Erskine were right, forgiveness is prior to repentance, and indeed, prior to faith. For without the fact that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ there is nothing real to believe. And without the proclamation of this truth as truth we give people nothing to believe in except themselves and the existential power of their own faith and self-energized repentance.

Are we really afraid that there is someone out there who is not supposed to hear that they are forgiven, embraced and included, and thus may get into heaven without God’s permission?