Cultivating Despair

You don't have to know everything to know something

Quite a few years ago, I engaged in a letter exchange with a friend of mine over some theological differences. My friend had come to believe that in theological matters, if we cannot know fully, then we cannot be confident we know anything at all. My friend wielded this point of view in a sort of stealthy attempt to undermine other people's confidence in their own understanding, and because he objected to dogmatism in all its forms. (Except, of course, his own dogmatic view of this particular issue. A sense of irony was not his strong suit.)

My friend was not without influence. The fact that his views often had the corollary effect of undermining people's confidence that they could read and understand the text of scripture was sort of just a bonus. I thought at the time, and still do, that such a view borders on the ridiculous. It is like suggesting that food only has nutritional value when consumed in quantities sufficient to fill all the available space in our body cavity. To insist that we cannot meaningfully understand things unless our understanding is comprehensive is to talk complete rubbish. Among other things, according to such a view, science is a waste of time.

I also thought at the time, and still do, that to despair of the possibility of meaningful understanding is to offer the back of one's hand to Jesus himself. Christians often think and talk of the incarnation of Jesus in terms of coming to earth to die for our sins. While he certainly died for our sins, it is much less clear that he had to do that on earth. Or, even if being on earth was required, it isn't clear that God's justice demanded 33 years of ministry culminating in flogging for Jesus' death to accomplish the legal demands of justice. No one flogged the Passover lamb. It was only the lifeblood that was required.

Jesus said simply this regarding the "why" of his time on earth: "The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth." According to my friend, such testimony would have no hope of eliciting understanding in the hearts of hearers if those hearers lack omniscience.

Pondering these words of Jesus and that long ago exchange with my friend got me to thinking about how often we claim to love someone yet withhold our love for the central thing that animates their lives. A wayward child will sometimes continue to say, and believe, that they love their parents even while rejecting the very things that make their parents who they are. I suppose there is a kind of love there, but it is a marred and altered thing. Where once was fellowship and admiration there is now something else. True intimacy is replaced by condescension and pity. What remains of the love that once was is only a specter - a ghostly apparition of the former thing.

Or perhaps it's like those politicians who say they "support" our troops while denigrating the very cause to which many have given their "last full measure of devotion". By saying they "support" our troops, they often don't really mean they admire the troops, or support the cause to which the troops have sworn their lives. Actually, they rather pity the troops, both in their circumstance and in their perceived lack of sophistication.

To cultivate despair in the hearts of our friends regarding their ability to comprehend truth, to scoff at the very legitimacy of ever having a confident understanding, is to make a mockery of Jesus' own stated purpose for why he came. It is to imply that he was wasting his time.  It is to replace a proper humble adoration with a prideful condescension, and to whisper that we know better than God.

It is the very temptation to which Adam and Eve succumbed in the garden.

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