Shuck and Jive

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Words, Words, Words

(Conversations with Bob! Light reading for the beach! Here's Bob!)

Okay, I admit it: I haven’t read Schleiermacher for 10 years. And I think I may have muddied the waters by talking about feelings. My main concern with Schleiermacher is his attempt to start theology from human experience rather than from revelation.

Second, I think we just ran into a situation where words mean different things in different parts of the Church. Among the people I hang with the word “experience” often does refer to feelings. To experience the presence of God often means to have a feeling of awe or peace or sometimes even terror. I wonder if my perspective doesn’t come from the Evangelical tradition of Revival. Going all the way back to Jonathan Edwards, (and before him to communion seasons in Scotland), the experience of grace has often been described in emotional terms. One felt lost. One felt guilty because of sin. One felt the anger of God at sin and knew that there was nothing one could do to make God forgive. One felt peace and joy in an experience of grace. While Edwards, (and again, I’m doing this from memory), insisted that feelings were not grace itself, he acknowledged that feelings were part of the human experience of God.

It sounds, John, like we may agree about the movement of God and humans. While humans may seek God, the true experience of God is always at the initiative of God.

This brings us to one of my concerns as a Presbyterian. We all use the same words but sometimes we mean different things. For example: we both just used what most people would not hear as a philosophical or theological word: experience. We meant different things by it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. That’s why conversations like this are so terribly important. Before we start condemning each other we need to at least be sure we understand what the other means.

So let me use another word that you used: faith. I believe faith is an all person thing. Faith does involve feelings but it also involves thoughts, words and actions. You said, “My faith or trust in God as creator does not come by proof or scientific method. When it comes, it comes usually by grace, that is, I cannot engineer it. I experience it.” You equate faith and trust, a very Biblical/Greek approach since the word in Greek can be translated either way.

Let me make some affirmations about faith. Some are going to be more Reformed and others are going to be generally Christian, at least I hope.

Faith is a gift from God. Again, God begins the conversation but we are not even able to have the conversation until God gives us the gift of faith through the Holy Spirit.

Faith is also a human response to God. God calls out to us, as God called out to Samuel and we must respond, “Here I am!” My understanding of the Hebrew is that it means more than just, I’m here. It also means I am here with you and for you and I will follow you and do as you command. Therefore, while faith is first a gift from God from a human perspective faith is also the great “Yes!” in response.

I agree with you John, what we believe, what we put our faith in can never be proven. I would use the word believe in different ways for scientific theories and for God. I would say that, given the evidence available at the present time, (I mean the evidence available to me), I believe the Big Bang theory is the best theory at the present time to explain the evidence about the beginning of the universe. But I believe in God, meaning I put my faith and trust in God.

Hmm . . . Curiously I think I would also say I believe in gravity too, not as a theory or any kind of scientific model (although I would say I believe in gravity in the same way as I believe in the Big Bang), but rather as an experience. Having never been farther away from earth than 40,000 feet, my experience is that if I go up I’m going to go down sooner or later too. But my trust or belief in gravity is different in some ways from my trust and belief in God. Consider gravity as an analogy for faith in God: I can depend on gravity. It’s there whether I need it or not. Sometimes it’s there when I don’t want it, like if I fall down the stairs. Part of the way I trust or believe in God is the same. God is always present. I can’t go anywhere where God is not. And yes, sometimes when I sin I wish God was not there but I know God is present whether I want God to be present or not.

But faith in God is different because gravity is part of creation. God is creator. Further, as we have discussed before, faith in God is at least partially relational.

I am curious about your statement that I quoted above: “My faith or trust in God as creator does not come by proof or scientific method. When it comes, it comes usually by grace, that is, I cannot engineer it. I experience it.” I may misunderstand you but it sounds as if you are saying that your experience of faith is intermittent. Certainly I would also say that there are times when I place my faith in God and other times when I do not. The latter may be doubt. It also may be sin, usually the good old human sin of trying to take God’s place and be in charge of my own life. I may, again, be completely misunderstanding what you say but it sounds to me that you are describing faith as . . . the best word I can think of is punctiliar rather than continuous. An analogy for what I hear is a sense experience. I walk in my yard in the spring and smell the lilacs. To fit the analogy better I would have to say that I am surprised by the smell of the lilacs. You seem to say God acts and you experience faith, usually by grace.

I suggest (and also should say I experience) that faith as both punctiliar and continuous. Sometimes I experience the presence of God (arguably an experience of faith) in a way that seems to be a feeling but much more than a feeling. Other times faith is a daily way of life. As mystical seeker has implied in one of her responses, my faith colors the way I look at the world. Faith is, in this sense, a worldview that is much more than intellectual. While saying that I believe humans are created in the image of God, certainly an intellectual assertion, I seek to treat everyone as the image of God. Sometimes this is a conscious decision and sometimes it is not. Of course I don’t always succeed, but seeing all humans as created in the image of God is a central part of my worldview, my faith.

And, as I said in my last post, sometimes I believe in God, I place my faith in God when all around me shouts that I am wrong, God is not present, God does not love me, Jesus did not die for me, God has not forgiven me. I have been to the place that the mystics call the dark night of the soul, or if I haven’t been there I never want to go there because where I was was certainly bad enough! Faith in such times takes great energy, to insist on faith when the evidence suggests that my faith is foolish.

So I think faith is a gift from God, has intellectual content, like the essentials I keep listing, is relational as I trust and also doubt, affects the way we see what happens in the world, should, but does not always direct the way we live and sometimes is an affirmation in the face of doubt and fear.

And faith is much more, but enough for now.

Grace and Peace



  1. Those weren't just "words, words, words" Bob, those were words of truth, beauty, and goodness.

    Thank you for sharing,

    God bless,


  2. **Faith is a gift from God. Again, God begins the conversation but we are not even able to have the conversation until God gives us the gift of faith through the Holy Spirit. **

    I think ideas such as this can be interpreted in two ways. One is that humanity is so sinful that it can't seek out God on its own.

    The other is how I tend to see things (and others may see it this way as well): can we do anything on our own? Isn't everything that we're blessed with a gift from God, because it's how we are created? I don't think it's a matter of deserving the gift or not. Anything that's good inside a person is not the result of the person, but of who/what created the person.

  3. Isn't everything that we're blessed with a gift from God, because it's how we are created?

    I would agree with that. I think we have a lot to be grateful for in our lives, and everything about us--our very existence--is really a gift.

    I think that God is always in conversation with all of us, not just certain ones (and not just Christians or those with the supposedly "correct" beliefs). Whether we are all good at listening to what God has to say is another thing altogether. But I think that God would love for all of us to better God-listeners, and God is always reaching out to every one of us at every moment, asking us to respond. Why do some of us respond well, and others not so well? Why does anyone choose to do or believe anything at all? Why do some people think that Bush is a good President? The diversity of human responses to the world and to God's call is one of those facts of life.

  4. mystical

    Some year ago a Southern Baptist preacher said that God didn't hear the prayers of some other religion, I forget which. Since I believe in the omnipresence of God and the omnipotence of God I believe God hears everything everyone says or thinks. Therefore I think God listens to everyone's prayers.

  5. heather

    This may sound odd but I think both interpretations are correct. God certainly created us and we can't do anything on our own. In a sense we are all gifts of God to the world. On the other hand, being Reformed, I believe in the doctrine of election, which is what I was trying to express. As sinners we are unable not to seek God on our own but to FIND God on our own.

    Being Reformed is complicated, isn't it?

  6. Pastor Bob,

    **This may sound odd but I think both interpretations are correct.**
    Actually, if it helps, I find much of conservative Christianity paradoxical, so in a way, it doesn't sound odd. :)

    **As sinners we are unable not to seek God on our own but to FIND God on our own.**

    The thing is, I see two different lines of thought going on here. There's the idea that God created us, and part of that creation is being a gift to the world. But that seems to be seperated from the idea that anyone can find God on their own. I think the problem I'm having is the idea of "on my own" because in a lot of ways, the gift of faith seems to be presented as something that is given to a person not when s/he is created, but at later date when the person can comprehend. It's like you're given these certain characteristics at the initial point of creation, and then later a few more are inserted.

    To me, I would see everything given at the point of creation, and certain options "activated" at a point at which they could be comprehended. But to me, whether faith is merited or unmerited is a moot point, because you're either created with it or you're not. It's like trying to take credit for the ability to do good works -- you didn't create yourself. The good works you do are works that you were created by God to do.

    That, and I don't think it's just a matter of walking one day and finding God the way one would find a special rock. To me, God is always there -- it's just a matter of being able to recognize that, or seeing past the unfortunate circumstances. To say that we can or can't find God on our own gives the impression that there's an area where God can't be found.

  7. heather

    Very interesting. Sounds like a new way to talk about predestination.