All posts by Richard L. Smith

Credo ut Intellegam

I Believe So That I May Understand                                                                (Credo ut Intellegam)

It is well known that Anselm’s great ontological proof for the existence of God, the Proslogion, was the result of a prolonged process of perplexity and travail. His search resolved in a fit of joy, but only after deep prayer and contemplation. This attitude is evident in chapter 1. Consider these three excerpts:

What shall your servant do, tormented by love for you and yet cast off “far from your face”?; I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet accomplished what I was made for; How wretched man’s lot is when he has lost that for which he was made! Oh how cruel and hard the Fall!

Teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek You if You do not teach me how, nor find You unless You reveal Yourself.

I do not try, Lord, to attain to your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.

Anselm’s maxim, “I believe so that I may understand,” is associated with another expression  “faith seeking understanding.” Both sayings point to the basic role of faith and spirituality. Whatever else human beings are, a thinker, learner, questioner and wonderer, maker and builder, or producer and consumer, the Bible says that he/she is first and foremost a religious being, a worshipper. Why? Because human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, created for relationship with our creator and rulership over his creation. We all reason and act on the basis of our “faith” or worldview, even if we are clueless about our most basic beliefs.

Psalm 36:9 declares: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” For Anselm reasoning was an attempt, though feeble, to know God and understand the world in His “light” or to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” C. S. Lewis put it well: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I do not claim the faith, piety, or insight of Anselm, but I do seek to “see everything else” on the presumption of my faith.

This website and my blog—including my book—are meager efforts to think about ourselves and the world from the vantage point of the Old and New Testaments.  Whatever I write, post, and dialogue about in this forum the affirmation, “I believe so that I may understand,” serves as my starting point.

 

God Redeems Sinful Thinkers

The Old Testament declares that acquiring the knowledge of God is of paramount importance. Knowing Yahweh Elōhîm is the key to understanding everything in creation, including ourselves. In fact, the knowledge of God is the object of the verbal phrases “shall know,” “might know,” “may know,” and “will know” at least 114 times in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel the expression “know I am the Lord” occurs 80 times.

Understanding what God reveals about himself is akin to gaining a clear view from a very high point. From there one discovers the breath and beauty of the world. One can navigate the terrain better, so to speak, with less effort and danger. In this sense, knowing God is a compass, North Star or everlasting landmark to guide our way. This why John Calvin wrote: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”

But, as we know from the Bible, we are lost intellectually because of sin. We no longer climb the mountain to get a better view. Our minds are marred by Adam and Eve’s sinful folly with the serpent. We struggle with a Trojan’s Horse within, seeking to distort our perception of ourselves and dull our understanding of reality. We are subject to a continual barrage of deviant worldviews from our cultures.

Thank God, however, that he redeems sinful thinkers!

This poem by Michel Quoist as an imaginative depiction of thinking under grace (excerpts). It well expresses the motivation of a thinker who aspires to love God with his mind. This meditation is called “I Would Like To Rise Very High” from his book Prayers (1963).

I would like to rise very high, Lord, above my city, above the world, above time. I would like to purify my gaze, and borrow your eyes.

I would then see the universe, humanity and history, as the Father sees them . . . .

Startled, I will begin to understand, that the great adventure of Love, that started at the creation of the world, continues to unfold before my eyes.

The divine story which, according to your promise, will be completed in glory, only after the resurrection of the flesh, when you will come before the Father saying: “All is accomplished. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End  . . . .”

Then, falling on my knees, I would admire, O Lord, the great mystery of this world, your world, which in spite of the innumerable snags of sin, remains a long throb of love,
leading towards Love and Life eternal.

I would like to rise very high, Lord, above my city, above the world, above time. I would like to purify my gaze, and borrow your eyes.

Junk Food for the Mind

It is well known that a diet of junk food is not healthy for the body. It promotes obesity and disease. It produces listlessness and passivity.

There is also, I suggest, a kind of junk food for the mind. It, too, produces spiritual sluggishness, ignorance, and anti-intellectualism.

Let me provide an example. A friend of mine, a pastor of many years, decided to leave his pastorate because of ecclesiological pragmatism that stifled spiritual growth. He saw that “success” in the evangelical church merely required four aspects: a concert-feel worship service, simple practical how-to preaching on popular topics using humor with a non-confrontational challenge, a fun-clean-safe children’s ministry, and a similar teen meeting concurrent with the adult service. Another pastoral leader commented: “At one time our church was stronger in teaching and preaching, but the church was almost dead in that period. So, now we prefer to err by just doing, rather than by teaching and not doing.”

Recently however, I listened to another sermon by Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan) that clearly is not spiritual fast food. His sermons provide a great example of the kind of preaching that we lack in many evangelical churches. He avoids the pitfall of spiritual pragmatism or the false dichotomy between theology and ethics, thinking and doing.

Keller’s sermons (and I think the key to his broad impact) is that he teaches before he tells us what to do. (And, he makes it interesting. He doesn’t bore us.)

It seems that most preaching today, on the other hand, is junk food for the mind. It stresses application alone—evangelical pragmatism—and ignores the theology or biblical rationale for the application. The result is often just rules, religion, and legalism; not wisdom and discernment.

Consider 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.” Sermons today, I suspect, simply respond to the demand of the congregation: “Just tell us how to do it. Tell us how to love. Be practical. Don’t bore us with teaching that forces us to think or evaluate ourselves or our culture. Don’t explain to us in depth how or why God first loved us as the rationale for how and why we should love others.”

The bottom line, however, is that the church needs biblical teaching not spiritual fast food. Disciples need to learn. They need discipline. They need minds that are literate and fluent with biblical knowledge. The sad truth, though, is that many Christians are bored. They want less instruction and more biblical rationale, more worldview. They need a balanced diet.

To put it another way, ideas have consequences. Think about the right ideas—biblical ideas— and results inevitably follow.