Sunday, February 18, 2007

Codifying the Abstract

This post is a short break from the subject of Christian Sexuality, as I continue to consider, study and meditate on that particular subject which is of such great interest to many of you. ;-) Tuesday, February 20th at 7pm I will teaching on the subject at The Vault - 217 Essex Street, Salem, MA.

"For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost" (Romans 14:17)

Kelly from Sinners and Saints borrowed a book from me, and then brought it back for me to look through since I myself had not read the whole thing yet, and she said it fit our recent considerations about who we were, and what we were becoming.

The book was "The Orphean Passages" by Walter Wangerin. So, here I am already having to mention something he said in the book, although I am only in the second chapter.

"We desire nouns because they presume the general fixedness of things: general categories, particulars in a general category, variations on those particulars, stages in which the variations might be caught and assessed- but always, always at our meeting them, fixed. Named. It comforts us."

The passage in Romans 14:17 gives us a picture of things which can be codified in law, written in lists, and weighed in pounds in contrast to abstract characteristics which appear to be the primary values of the kingdom of God. The abstractions do not have the same quality of fixedness as "meat and drink." They are abstract nouns without the fixity of measurable things.

The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink. It is not found in measurable items of consumption, nor is it based upon the same commodities which make the world in which we live turn. We trade in hard goods, and the person with the most commodities is the richest, the most powerful, and considered the greatest success. Such is the way of the world as we know it. Commodities are its riches, but the kingdom of God takes the most precious commodities of this world, and will walk on them as overly common goods. So the streets, it is said, will be made of gold, and this illustrates the plainness of those things we honor as valuable in this world.

Righteousness, peace and joy are not measurable in the same manner. They will not tip the scales. The length, the width, and mass of them can not be measured. They are issues of the heart - not the beating muscled organ which pounds inside our breasts, but that unseen, immeasurable part of our being which holds abstractions such as peace and love. These abstractions are nouns which are not things. They can not be seen, heard, felt, weighed by scales, or measured by speed guns.

Yet, this is exactly where many church leaders fall short in their attempt to build the kingdom of God.

Codifying Righteousness

In order to make sure that righteousness is easily measurable, we establish rules for living. The Old Testament called these laws, and the Apostle Paul spoke to this issue of codifying righteousness in his Epistle to the Galatians, "This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?"

In G.K. Chesterton's funky and wonderous novel "Manalive," he creates a character whose, "spiritual power has been precisely this, that he has distnguished between custom, and creed. He has broken all the conventions, but he has kept all the commandments."

History is filled with rebels who broke the rules of convention, and changed society for good. The Christian Church remembers and celebrates the names of Wycliff, Tyndale, Huss, Luther, Knox, and Wesley; but never would we suffer their behaviors toward us today. We have codified righteousness into a definition which looks like ourselves, and that which falls short is something less than acceptable to God.

All this time we may not be realizing that righteousness and the kingdom of God are less like a science, and more like an art. It may not be measuring for a more weighty righteousness which is of value, but like art there may be a time when 'less is more,' and those who have shed our rules of conventional behavior may be the discoverers of deeper truths, and a more simple righteousness apart from the law.

Controlling the Peace

Like we seek to codify righteousness by rules, and law, we similarly seek to establish peace through controlling our environment. If we can remove the uncontrollable factors in our lives, we can establish peace - we think. So we remove ourselves from immediate contact with those things which make us uncomfortable, or if we have enough authority we control the circumstances by requiring those around us to do things our way.

This method of creating peace can be measured in the number of events which go our way, and the restriction of circumstances which upset us. Becoming a control freak in order to create peace is no different than becoming a Pharisee in order to establish righteousness. Yet somehow the control freak who builds a large ministry is celebrated, while the man who returns to the Mosaic covenant to define the Christian life would be called a heretic. I am not sure there is a significant difference between the two.

Paul defines peace as a inner attribute which power resides not in manipulating circumstances and events, but in existing despite circumstances which seek to destroy that peace. "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, [therewith] to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Phil 4:11-13) Here we see Paul defining his contentment by a response of the heart, and not by the circumstances surrounding his life, and even going so far as to describe his ability to put up with things rather than manipulate them as strength which comes from God.

Purchasing Joy

Whereas we seek to codify righteousness, and control peace, we find ourselves at odds with righteousness oftentimes as we attempt to measure joy as a commodity. In an attempt to create a general fixedness around this abstract value of joy, we begin to measure joy in events, and commodities we feel are joy producing.

This means of acquiring joy becomes the pursuit of the sensual. Not necessarily in a sexual sense, but in the classic definition of appealing to the senses. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel become the measurements of our joy. Though we need not become strict ascetics in order to attain a heavenly joy, we also can not discover joy in the acquiring of many things, and the experiencing of many adventures. So once again we find the apostle Paul speaking to this struggle to maintain a balance between discovering joy in the daily experiences of life, and seeking to find joy in the other kingdom.

"Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

So, these virtues of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost" must remain flexible abstractions measured by other abstract virtues such as love, patience, and temperance. Once codified, manipulated, or measured they become either legalism, or in the case of the pursuit of joy - licentiousness. Of course, some will insist that I am becoming a relativist (as Josh suggested this morning that some might question.) What do you think?


SDC's_Angel said...

Good morning Pastor!

This was an excellent topic for a sermon yesterday. It definitely gave me food for thought (there I go with the "meat and drink" thing again). There was one thing I slightly disagreed with you on, but only slightly. That had to do with peace and how changing something around you is not the way to have that peace. Sometimes, although not often, we must change a situation or circumstance in our lives in order to gain peace.

It is imperative that we do all we can to live within whatever it is and find that peace in the situation, for when we do we learn more about who God is and how He works in the world and our lives. But there are times when you absolutely must release a situation from your life and move forward in the life He has given you. This needs to be done only after much thought and prayer. It has to come from a very deep place of understanding and not from frustration or fear because it's not going OUR WAY.

From my own life and having faced this very thing, this is what I can say I learned: God loves me. He wants great things for me. He wants what's best for me. He wants me to understand that I cannot control other people or things, but rather learn to look at whatever it is in a very different way, with eyes of love, understanding and acceptance.

Once I moved to that place, my choices were more difficult: Continue in that life or release it and move forward. I had to think about four children at that time. My two boys were lost after experiencing what they did; I had to try to save my two girls.

Has it been easier? Well, it could have been a whole lot harder but it hasn't been a breeze. But we have something now that we have never had, and that's peace. A deep and joyous peace. To gain the abstracts that He promises sometimes comes at a price, but in the end it's worth it if you're heart and eyes are set on Him.

I believe this with all my heart and soul. Gotta run to Quincy today and take my mom out. Still so much to do before my brother's wedding this weekend. Hope you have a great day!!

Pastor Phil said...

I wouldn't consider that a point I disagree with, just an issue untouched by yesterday's message. The focus was on people who become control freaks, or who flee their circumstances in order to change them, and do not work on the issues of the heart.

Those who do not work on finding peace in the heart may never discover when it is time to cahnge the outward circumstances, and when it is time to rest. I agree with your point completely.

MickyMcB said...

Wow... another great post... words indeed carry an amazing power.

Take for example the word Torah, which is mostly called law, now. Originally, it carried more of a flavor of instruction or directios (on how to live as a people of God in the Kingdom of God on earth). It became a set of laws and we now look upon it mostly as laws. With the concept of instruction comes the idea that things go better when you follow the instruction. with law comes the idea of punishment. According to your choice of words (Torah or Law) comes your focus: seeking the kindgom of God or avoiding punishment... are we God focused or pain aversive... makes a big diff in the way we live and act.

Same with nouns, adjectives and verbs... nouns and adjectives are more likely to cause fragmentation and separation than verbs. When the church is a noun, people are either in or out of a static concept. When the church is a verb our actions toward each other and make the concept of church one of movement toward a goal.

Damn... wish I lived closer to your church, bro... I am getting quite bord of hearing about "my purpose" and would love to be in a community of seekers seeking real truths not mass marketing concepts.

Anonymous said...

Nope, you're not relativist in my eyes. But hey, to each his own, right? ;)

Seriously though, it is so true that once we start trying to measure our own peace, joy and righteousness instead of just plain following Jesus everyday, we start to lose them.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Carl,

Isn't it a strange thing that we fell as though we have simplified something, if we complicate it with rules and standards? But the idea that we can simply follow Jesus without defining what following is in minute detail seems to difficult for some.

I am not sure how we got the idea that detailed definition, and rules for every action was somehow simpler than following the law of love.

Anonymous said...

pastor Phil...great post once again. I don't see your position as relative at all.
I think of it like this...
Everyone is right in their own eyes.
This is relativism.

Cultures tend to reinforce shared beliefs into customs and traditions. The shared beliefs are still relativism, only it is group agreed relativism.

May folks recognize that humans are alike beyond individualism or culturalism. That is we love and hate, eat and seek shelter, etc.
Yet here, we run squarely into our own limits in the natural world, the death of fallenness.

Truth is the Spirit of Jesus and not of this earth. Living day to day connected to the natural environment but following inwardly the way of heaven, the Way of Jesus, cannot be codified. We must die to our individual relativism, relate to but refuse cultural relativism simultaneously, recognize our universal need and dwell, by grace, in an uncodified reality of the in-dwelling Christ, the source of righteousness, peace and joy.