In Part One of this series my discussion was developed under a heading with the question: “Faith: Is it all about the language we choose to use?” The discussion began with the thought that there is a widespread presumption that religious belief is simply about holding on to a peculiar form of words, the language we humans invent to facilitate our “fitness” in the face of threats, problems, risks. And if this be true then “faith-talk” is not, in the first instance, about talking to other people and explaining why one believes, it is actually a syndrome in which religious believers talk to themselves and thereby reinforce their beliefs – under this view the object of belief is simply a construction, a sharing between subjects. It holds out the allure of a false liberty, and since it is what humankind perennially embraces it simply has to be resisted.
This syndrome is not to be mastered, it is to be resisted and disgarded, a continuous effort to assert our subjective autonomy, to be over-ruled by some objectivity restricting our freedom. And so, my series is about how the Christian way of life is understood by this prevailing and dominant way of life – an underlying presumption is that language is the tool we humans have created in order to give ourselves meaning as we maintain control over our lives.
Now I am not wanting to suggest that everyone I meet has a well elaborated philosophy, let alone a philosophy of language and, even if they do have, I am not expecting them to have done so in the terms I have outlined. A way of life is taken-for-granted in human experience and hence is lived out unproblematically.
At this point I think of the thousands whose paths I have crossed in recent years, smiling at the palms of their hands, busily tapping on some gadget tightly held, seeming to talk to themselves and somewhat oblivious to the gaze of those walking or sitting nearby.
Adherents of a way of life do not easily develop an elaborate account of their life and will probably not even bother to do so unless they are confronted by others who are living sufficiently differently from themselves. And yet Christians can live side-by-side with people living other ways of life and not really see a need to develop an explicit account of who they are, how they live and interpret the world they share with their neighbours. They may not even talk about this distinctive “way” among themselves, let alone with their non-Christian neighbours.
Maybe, as I have suggested in the first post, we Christians in this part of the world have got so used to the idea that humans are primarily problem-solvers that it has become deeply rooted in our “Christian lives” – absorbed in the way we talk and think and act in our marriages, families, households, schools, churches, social welfare agencies and other groups and associations – let alone in our political responsibilities as Twitter beckons, with the endorsement of the utterly foolish (Psalm 14:1) incumbent of the US White House (along with, it must be said, the equally foolhardy endorsement of the founder of the fundamentalist US civil religion academy, Liberty University, at his side) ranting as if his “outsider” Tweets can ever be the way to “get things done” with public justice.
In this sense, there has not been an awareness of any real need to develop an “alternative” Christian account of “our way of life”. To ask it another way: Has not Christianity in Australia, by and large, been lived as just another “denomination” of the prevailing “problem solving way of life”? If the answer is “Yes!” then it makes sense of our national social experience in which Christians seeking to set forth a Christian political option are perpetually on the back-foot, perpetually fighting a rear-guard action. These days the “rear guard” character of Christian political action, may well find it comes to expression in an initial effort to simply reassure those who are listening that this is different, that this is not simply surfing with the civil religious crowd on their populist tide.
The Christian account of the Christian way of life has been that Christians somehow solve the “life problem” by membership in churches developing particular beliefs that have enduring impacts upon their “Christian language” that they share among themselves. Beyond that they are simply “problem solvers” like everyone else. Is it commitment to following Jesus Christ in all things that is embedded deeply, for instance, in school curriculum? Is it not “problem solving”. And is not that “problem solving” simply presented as a Christian icing on the educational cake, a mere resort to a new kind of language to be shared with an in-crowd? I therefore hazard the guess that the “problem solving way of life” has made its devastating impact on the curriculum of Christian schools despite any persistent appeal to “Christian distinctives”.
And now that church membership and church attendance has continued a precipitous decline, church authorities and councils faced with this problem have for decades been responding, just like any other business seeking to establish its own niche in the market-place, to find ways to staunch the flow and “keep the show on the road”? Denominations and congregations have increasingly adopted managerialist techniques and confirm the dominance of the “problem solving way of life”.
And so, to summarise: are we not encouraged to see the world as an intricate system of communication filled with the language we choose to use, the words by which we give voice to our inner-most thoughts and feelings? And our personal contribution – let’s not dodge the fact, including even a blog such as this – along with millions of other spoken and written communications become viewed as an enormous self-perpetuating system that professes over and over to be giving expression to the human race’s self-creation, giving an ongoing human shape to our earthly habitat, and all the subsidiary life-worlds we inhabit. And when we ascribe such autonomy to language how are we to think of ourselves?
Are we not going to discover that we are constrained, held in a vice of unfreedom, our choices today narrowed radically by the choices we made yesterday in yesterday’s language that we keep on using to ensure our control over what seems to be slipping away into the aether through our frantic fingers.
We have a dramatic and theatrical demonstration of this before our eyes at present. It is taking place on what appears to be a global stage. The almost 71 year-old incumbent of the US White House, cannot put his toy down and shouts at us through his Twitter account by which he tries to prove to himself – is anyone else paying attention? – that it has all been worth it (but consider Luke 12:13-21). Is this man not giving forth the yelping of one trapped? Is he not in perpetual self-correction, adjusting the words he made yesterday to the choices he says he will now emphasise today? And so his conduct may appear on the wild side, but it is a modus operandi consistent with the same crisis-ridden problem-solving way of life, except perhaps that yesterday’s solutions are perpetually becoming today’s problems requiring a new verbal formulation in order to avoid being trapped by what other people are saying one’s words meant.
We may tell ourselves that by the choices to which we have given voice we have created ourselves, but the words by which we assert such freedom become a frame by which our lives are order, and as soon as they are uttered in a fit of freedom, they entrap us bringing with them the immediate pain that life lacks any enduring meaning. or at least that is the view of our language that emerges from pragmatism, the problem solving way of life.
In response to all this we might ask: How did I ever get into this muddle? Can we ever get out of it! One way may be to turn to the Book of Psalms and sing Psalm 42:
As the deer, weak with longing,
Trembling in deep agony.
Searching out a creek of water,
So my soul will search for Thee.
Yes, deep thirst is why I cry;
Lord of my life, O when shall I
Standing firm then in your presence?
Living life with holy reverence
But it is not merely a retreat to the Psalms. This is the Biblical Book of Worship significantly updated by those recorded to have written New Testament Psalms in the Gospels. Mary, Elizabeth, Zacharias, Simeon, Jesus have all testified in musical psalmody to the faithfulness of the Lord God. The Psalms do not encourage retreat – they encourage complete capitulation to the Lord Almighty. They encourage whole-hearted bowing to the Majesty on High. They encourage our tears and our agony, our deepest search for what God had intended for us from the outset to this day! We are encouraged to enter joyfully with all our pain, all our sorrows, all our joys and emotional ups and downs into His Gates with thanksgiving. We learn to sing Psalm 42 and 43 slowly and using all our musical muscles to make each and every syllable count. With God’s blessing upon our heads we are encourage to “go on our way”, that is take up our way of life, following Jesus our Great High Priest, the Good Shepherd of the sheep of His pasture, with rejoicing in a complete way of life, a way of life He has offered to us and all humankind.
Can we truly live that life in these troubled times? And can such deep yearning for God and His ways find true expression in our lives as citizens, in our political lives? In this series of posts I want to explore these kinds of questions. Stay tuned.
11.5.17 (amended 14.5)