Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Intellectual Fantasies

There are, besides sentimental religious fantasies, also intellectual religious fantasies.

One night, Demetrios and I were watching a documentary about a ceremony of the Ethiopian Church. This television documentary was intent upon showing that Coptic religion is a combination of Christianity and paganism. To that end, it was showing a “pagan” celebration, which we immediately recognized as a more or less standard Epiphany rite, very much like the one in which we participate yearly. The narrator explained, at one point, that now the Cross was going to be blessed by being dipped into the water, which of course is exactly backward; it is the water being blessed! The use of water, the narrator further explained, is a clear example of pagan influence. As if water had not been a Judeo-Christian symbol ever since Jesus was baptized in it, ever since the Israelites crossed the sea dryshod, ever since Noah’s flood, ever since the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep! You see what I mean? Here is an intellectual pretension based, ironically (or perhaps inevitably), upon an intellectual defect, namely bias or else profound ignorance.

Here’s another example. On the CBS news some years ago, a remarkable archaeological discovery was announced. In Capernaeum, in the layer dating from the time of Christ, a cross was found, clearly inscribed upon a stone. This presented a great puzzle, said the “scholars,” because crosses simply were not used during the first three centuries, since Jesus’ earliest followers were ashamed of the criminal manner of his death!

If the early Christians didn’t dare to use crosses openly, I can think of some compelling reasons, but not that. Did these researchers never read any of the Pauline epistles, in which the Apostle teaches us explicitly to glory in the cross? Did they never read Peter’s sermon in the beginning of Acts? So here we have another intellectual fantasy and again based upon either bias or a surprising degree of ignorance.

These intellectual fantasies abound, as I learned in my New Age days. Philosophers sit (or walk) around thinking noble thoughts, spinning all these theories, and after thousands of years, are still going around in circles, ever restless, never satisfied, always journeying, never arriving, never even getting any closer to whatever their goal is, though they sometimes imagine they may be. After all this time, doesn’t anybody suspect the approach may be all wrong?

Applied to Christianity, emotionalism and intellectualism are alike inadequate approaches. We know that God is not merely the Ultimate Emotional Crutch, despite the impression we might get from some denominations. On the other hand, neither is God merely the Ultimate Enigma, as we might infer from some academics. I do not think either error can be corrected by balancing it against is opposite error. God is Spirit; we worship Him not primarily “in intellect” nor “in emotion,” nor in any combination thereof, but with the whole person “in Spirit and in truth.”

Christian spiritual life involves resolving to seek nothing else than to be a servant of Christ Jesus, trying to bring one’s will into harmony with the will of God, to live as a member of Him, to be led in all things by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Emotional warm fuzzies, by contrast, and intellectual speculation alike, are consumer goods. They are this-worldly phenomena, passing, fleeting, non-eternal things. They are not per se spiritual. They are not among the gifts of the Spirit or the fruits of the Spirit, with which we principally concern ourselves. They are part of “the flesh,” to walk according to which is death. Spiritual life is lived by those who are in this world but not of it, who seek to be weaned from attachment to the ephemeral in favor of the eternal things. This is both a sober and a sobering endeavor. It may involve plenty of emotion. It leaves room for prodigious intellect. Yet it keeps both sober.