The Mystery and Enchantment of Faith

It seems as though “post-modernity” as a philosophy and way of seeing life has come round to reveal to the world of modernity with all its hubris, pride of control and the exaltation of reason and will over all things just how far from reality and truth it really is.

The last 250 years have seen the rise and ascendancy in the western world of what has been known as The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment or Modernity. It is a philosophy that has shaped the western worldview in such a way as to deify human reason and will and to make “progress” the ultimate “modern” idolatry. Most of the “isms” that plague our contemporary world have sprung from the womb of Enlightenment thinking in almost all of the aspects of culture and society in mainstream America and Western Europe.

Autonomous individualism, moral relativism, lethal societal narcissism, secular humanism, scientific or rational reductionism (sometimes called “scientism”), pluralism and a host of other Enlightenment offspring have taken hold of our society in almost every field of endeavor and social construction. In so doing, modernity (which is still very much with us despite post-modernity’s increasing influence on younger generations) has reduced most of the meaning of life to what we make of it, to what we can make happen by will and reason, by gaining understanding so as to control our environment.

We see the fruit of this insidious philosophy of life in the increase of other, more ancient “isms” fueled by the Enlightenment “human engineering” project. Hedonism, rampant materialism, unrestrained consumerism and the economic brutality of globalization and runaway capitalism have reduced human experience of life to the survival of the fittest, or the greediest, or the shrewdest, valuing power and wealth above compassion and generosity. Totalitarianism has arisen in new and unexpected forms in many parts of the globe, even “post-communism”, and the regard for the dignity and value of human life, together with most other categories of meaning, have been reduced to impersonal “bottom lines” of various kinds.

The late Pope John Paul II lamented these developments in societies and cultures where the “culture of death” seemed to open its maw to consume individual dignity and freedom. He described the state of man in 1991 in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly: “At times it seems as though man exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of state administration,” he said.
But, you might be saying by now, what about our faith, what about the power of the Gospel to bring change to these desperate times and developments. I ponder the same questions and look for the fresh and transforming answers the Good News of Jesus Christ and His new way of being human may hold for our times.
One of my deep concerns in this regard has to do with what I see as a capitulation of the Christian faith on so many fronts to the very same Enlightenment rationalism, particularly in America and western European nations. So often, the Christian faith has been reduced to accommodate or fit in with aspects of modernity that are so pervasive we don’t even realize we are serving its agenda in the ways we approach the implementation and understanding of the faith.
One prominent concern in this regard is the use of what might be called “reductionist rationalism” to interpret and understand the faith that was, as the New Testament author, Jude, describes it, “once and for all delivered to the saints”. This approach to the faith has given birth on one hand to a narrow and inquisitional fundamentalism – “we know what the true meaning of Scripture is”, whether it be about spirituality and Christian devotion, biblical prophecy of the end times or critiquing everyone else’s understanding of these things. On the other hand, it has fostered the rise of an apostate liberalism that is just as captive to its own interpretive grid and methodology, leading to a complete redefinition of what it means to be Christian that looks more like fallen human society than it does the crucified and risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.
Recently, I read an online critique by a well-known evangelical leader and father figure for many from the Jesus movement era from a new book he has released. In the statement by him, joined by other voices and online website commentators, he was passing judgment on all forms of Christian prayer and devotion that emphasized “contemplative prayer”, or “contemplative spirituality”. Some of the other commentators, all exhibiting a stark “rational reductionist” approach to Christian prayer and worship/devotion, began tolling the ominous bell of Christian witch-hunting by warning all followers of Christ that they were aware of a trend led by such figures as Dr. Robert Webber, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and others, that emphasized what Dr. Webber calls “ancient-future” faith and others call “convergence of the streams”.
One and all were opining that any teaching that emphasizes “come to the quiet” or “stillness in the Presence of the Lord” or “contemplative prayer” (a prayer of openness and listening in the Presence of God commended to us throughout Scripture and the history of Christian devotion and worship) were in error and leading followers of Christ into dangerous territory. I won’t belabor their rhetoric, but it all seemed shot through with modernity’s approach to everything: “boil it all down to the bottom line, reduce it to categories we can understand, and so be in control; it must be logical, rational and clearly ‘biblical’, or we must not touch it for fear of being led astray.”
Of course, those making these dire predictions and moving by mother Enlightenment’s dna see themselves and everyone who thinks as they do as the ones who have the “true” and “correct” understanding of these things and of Scripture, although Scripture in a myriad of places commends being still, resting in the Lord, “quiet like a babe on its mother’s breast”, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength”, “the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him’, “there was silence in heaven for half an hour”, “Jesus called them to come aside with Him to a quiet place for solit
ude”, and on and on and on.
The problem lies not with “biblical interpretation” but with a rational reductionist approach to “understanding” Scripture and its teachings and warnings to the faithful. This approach eliminates all mystery, all wonder and awe, all falling on our faces before Someone we cannot comprehend with all the mysteries of our faith that generations of believers in Christ have marveled over. The Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, made a penetrating and prophetic statement about this tendency to prefer rationalism to mystery when he stated:
Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, commandingly,
convincingly preaches some soft, sweet some thing which is supposed
to be Christianity! Woe to the person who makes miracles reasonable.
Woe to the person who betrays and breaks the mystery of faith,
distorts it into public wisdom
, because he takes away the
possibility of offense! … Oh the time wasted in this enormous work
of making Christianity so reasonable, and in trying to make it so
C.S. Lewis and so many like him have addressed this tendency in fallen human nature to approach the holy and the divine as if it could be distilled, categorized, rationally critiqued and contained within laws, principles and propositions. Kierkegaard addressed both extremes of modernity’s Enlightenment influence in Christian thinking – both those who “smoothly, flirtatiously, commandingly, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something which is supposed to be Christianity!”, as well as those “who make miracles reasonable” and “betray and break the mystery of faith”.

Christian faith bows with the cherubim and seraphim before the One Who Sits on The Throne, and covers its eyes before the bright wonder and mystery of “Love so amazing, so divine”. Because God the Word came in human nature among us in the Incarnation and because the Scriptures speak of Him as “the express image of the invisible God”, we are sometimes prone, because of an unhealthy and detrimental “familiarity” with this and that “understanding” of Scripture and the Faith, to fall into the trap of reducing all thought about the Christian faith and its practice to our own categories and our own community’s interpretive grid; thus, reducing the mystery and enchantment of our faith to nothing more than rational propositions about truth facts.

Mere Christianity” is anything but tame, something that can be categorized, organized, scrutinized, criticized (whether by “higher” or “lower” criticism) or quantified. Mark Galli, from an article taken from his latest book, “Jesus Mean and Wild – The Unexpected Love of An Untamable God” strikes at the heart of this reductionist vision of Christian faith when he says, “…. What is ‘relevant,’ ‘meaningful,’ and ‘powerful’ is more mysterious than you imagine.”

Like so many before us in human history, Americans, and the British before us, to name only two of the more recent, see the whole world through our own lenses and expect that everyone else should see it the same or they have a less than “civilized” or “enlightened” perspective on life. Unfortunately, it seems to me as though this latest inquisitional encyclical against certain biblical and historic Christian devotional practices has fallen into this same “imperialistic” mindset. The only ones harmed are those who “break the mystery” and bury the “enchantment” and wonder of our faith in a God of love who is still inscrutable in all His ways, higher in all His thoughts than all our highest thinking and far beyond our finite understanding. Yes, He has come near us in the person of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Redeemer; but even the apostle John who had walked in such intimacy with the earthly Jesus and shared events, sayings and actions that the other Gospel writers didn’t, fell on his face on the isle of Patmos when he was given a glimpse of the ascended Jesus in His resurrected glory, to say nothing of his bowing down in worship toward the Savior’s angel messengers.

Here was no lack of wonder, enchantment and mystery. He could not even approach the precise use of human language to describe what was revealed to him of heavenly glories and the eternal and transcendent dimensions of the ultimate purposes of the Great Mystery of Love who calls Himself “I AM”. Maybe our postmodern prophets, who often come in the guise of playwrights and screenwriters, quantum physicists, songwriters and artists of all kinds, to say nothing of enduring writers such as C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Tolkien, George MacDonald and a host of more recent ones in the same path, have become the “postmodern” oracles by which our risen Lord still tries to break through our limited way of thinking about Him and His ways. Our “understanding” is, after all, only “our understanding”. There is always so much more to life’s dimensions than meets the eye. And reason, seen through the lens of historic, biblically rooted devotion, is “faith seeking understanding”, as Anselm and Augustine and a host of others have affirmed.

Bishop Michael Marshall of the Church of England says beautifully in his book, “The Freedom of Holiness”, regarding these thoughts,”yet it is only in prayer and silence as we study God’s known Word and revelation and His call to His people in times past, that we can more easily recognize that same Word through: the words of the preacher; as we “read between the lines” of the daily news; as we increasingly see God’s hand in “the words of the prophets, written on the subway walls” – so that heaven and earth come alive with “the sounds of silence”, the echoes of God’s voice and the traces of His glory.”

Our Lord Jesus made it clear for us on more than one occasion that to enter the reign and rule of God we must become like little children or we will not see it. While this doesn’t mean or endorse “childishness”, immaturity and a lack of reason (which is somewhat different from “rationalism” – beware the “isms”) in approaching our faith, devotion and worship, it does point us to the values of God’s kingdom where both the approach of the Pharisee and the Sadducee are shown to be wanting. May we all be able to break through the enchanted “wardrobe” again to find ourselves surrounded, as Elisha’s servant was in II Kings 6, with horses and chariots of fire all around us.

May we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who “veil their faces to the Presence, as with sleepless voice they cry, ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!” May the wonder and mystery of Christmas, Easter, raising the dead, healings and miracles and the Ascension and coming of the Spirit reduce us all to adoration, contemplation, joy and the obedience of faith!

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