Life on the Messy Ocean

by Justin Lonas

As I look back over my life of learning, the words of President Harry Truman seem to run like a thread through my experiences: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

If only someone had shared that with me years ago. Back then, I did know it all. I was a sworn Christian, a sworn Republican and a sworn believer that all the world's problems could be solved (by me, naturally). I knew what I believed about music, movies and books; I knew how I'd deal with everything that came my way. To be sure, I hadn't experienced anything of import that would shake any of that. What I was shocked to find out after few semesters in college was how little I'd thought through it all. It only took a few classes for me to realize I didn't know everything. It's taken me a lot longer to realize that I don't understand everything.

The difference between knowledge and wisdom is all too often blurred these days. Too often, I confuse devotion to a human system of thought (the "way we do things" in journalism, ministry, democracy, etc.) with a wise choice. I allow myself to be led along by things I hold as absolutes that are actually only products of human reason. Being a sworn Christian, rather than serving as the basis for all my other ideas, was only a sliver of my field of thought.

By assigning absolute value to ideas peripheral to the Word of God, I'd weakened my understanding of Christianity. I was letting decisions that should be made through prayer and deliberation be made off a well-tailored, man-made cuff, and hurting people in the process. Acting on "absolutes" had become an excuse for intellectual laziness.

In Christianity (particularly Christian education), absolutes are hailed as a good thing. Too often, however, we fail to couch our definition of absolutes in Scripture. We treat relativism as the enemy at the expense of a thorough understanding of what our side truly stands for. The Word of God should be our only absolute authority.

If we stand on Scripture, we allow God to direct our decision-making. If we stand on any human system of thought, we're inviting fallen humanity to jump to conclusions for us. Indian author Salman Rushdie (whose novel, The Satanic Verses, enraged the Islamic world, incurred very real death threats and forced him into hiding) referred to living by absolutes as being "trapped inside a metaphor." In a 1991 speech, he said:

"I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else's description of reality to supplant your ownthen you might as well be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist worldview is the easiest to keep hold of; whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I've always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to that chameleon, that chimera, that shapeshifterno matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I've lived in that messy ocean all my life. I've fished in it for my art."

What Rushdie offers as an alternative to absolutism belies his commitment to another absolute- himself. His point, however, is still somewhat valid. It's easy to be told what to do, but it's a lifelong journey to seek out the truly right responses to situations. Sincerely following Christ (instead of taking on a hand-me-down "Christian" system of belief) is far messier than we'd like to admit, but it's far more rewarding than any alternative.

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul illustrates the ethic of Christ as the absolute.

"So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (nasb).

God isn't telling us to decide for ourselves what is right; He's pointing out that we should seek Him passionately in His word and through prayer. We learn to obey Him properly when we exercise our minds and hearts in pursuit of Him. Christianity is not, as skeptics would have us believe, for the weak-minded. Quite the contrary, God desires the fiery love of our intellect. Allowing it to atrophy by bowing to any extra-biblical entity is to distrust God. We should never decide what is or is not obedience to God based on any outside system of thought, least of all on our personal ideas of righteousness or feelings of comfort. Supplanting His ideas with those of men is neither right nor safe. We must remember that this world is still groaning for its redemption (Rom. 8:18-23). The systems of man, even those we hold dear, are fundamentally flawed. To trust wholly in them in any circumstance is to curb our intellectual commitment to the Lord.

Our calling is to seek His ways to guide our everyday decisions, both small and monumental. We need to view the Christian life as something of a "hopeful pessimism" that longs for redemption while recognizing the fallen state of our existence rather than embracing the false optimism of human wisdom. Loving the Lord with all our minds doesn't leave any room for "knowing it all." Without learning that, we can never grow in true knowledge.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps

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