Divide expressions

Divide expressions are ambivalent words whose meaning comes clear only when we know which side of a great divide the speaker stands on.

The End

There are several ways this word might be (mis)understood. A few years ago there came the book entitled in all seriousness, “The End of History.” In it, Francis Fukuyama tempted us to think of ourselves as the end, the culmination, the final product, the perfection toward which history has been striving.

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That Jackal, Faith

My friend Jon is an intelligent, thoughtful man who spent his career serving others. He reads seriously, listens to great music even more seriously; and yet finds Church irrelevant. (Maybe we should worry more about those who find it too comfortable.) At the end of a conversation I compared faith to a jackal that leaps onto a man’s back from a tree. Laater, I wrote to Jon as follows:

That image might be as misleading as any other description of faith, but it suggests several important truths. One: the thing comes from an unexpected direction. Two: we don’t necessarily like it. Three: it’s not our own doing. On the other hand, it doesn’t always arrive suddenly; looking back one can recognize stages of development, even if there is a single moment one sees as the turning point. Augustine’s Confessions are the locus classicus for this discussion.

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Owl overhead

A few Owl readers have commented on these posts, saying it they are hard to understand; they’re not sure they got the idea. Part of that is this writer’s fault. (Dropping the Owl persona for a moment and reverting to the vertical pronoun) I used to be a lot worse, flailing away at the keys. If the reader cared, it would be worth it to plow through my tortured grammar. That flies against everything real writers say: Keep it clear and simple; you’re not here to be clever; you’re supposed to be communicating a message. To my readers at that time I apologize, and I probably owe fresh apologies to present followers too.

Sometimes, I say. Because part of the problem is in the nature of the message. That’s what necessitates the item “What the Owl I Trying to Say,” and the sequels on the nature of faith, “What Faith Is Not,” part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s the rub. (I assure you I know it from the inside, because it kept me from understanding Karl Barth the first few times I tried him.) I thought I was already pretty well versed in Christianity—went all the way through seminary didn’t I? And I guess I was, if by Christianity we mean only the freight with which our so-called Christian culture has loaded our heads. But the Owl asks you to put all that in suspense, and that’s asking a lot.

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What Faith Is Not – Part II

The Owl thanks the readers who have borne with us so far. Here we will continue to ex[and on the post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered our definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Taking those five as our outline, we are still on Faith. Remember what the Owl said in that earlier post: “If only one thing is clear so far, let it be this: the initiative belongs to God.”

Belief Systems

Having reminded ourselves of that, it is safe to say faith is not is a belief system. It is not a body of knowledge about God, or how the world was made, or why evil exists, or anything else. Those things are beliefs, more or less cogent, that have arisen from people’s experiences; experiences worked over in thought and imagination. Some wag said opinions are like bellybuttons; everybody has one. Another says atheists are careful to honor God by keeping their backs turned to him. They have opinions about God, indeed very strong ones. They are very sure of what a god should be, and sure that God as people of faith know him doesn’t measure up. A person of faith might well answer them: I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in, either. Debating along such lines leads nowhere. Once a person identifies with an opinion on any subject, not just God, then it seems like disloyalty to one’s very self to give it up.

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What Faith Is Not – Part I

The Owl owes a debt of gratitude to the readers who commented on the recent post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered succinct definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Each of these words has a lot of colloquial meanings, but the Owl tries to be consistent, using them in his own way. As we said on the home page, day one, this means our language cuts across conventional understanding, because our thinking lies athwart that of our culture. It turns out that the more Christians remember our citizenship in God’s kingdom, the more we find ourselves aliens in our cultural settings.

Aside: This is the reason we ought to cultivate solidarity with aliens in our midst. It is not because we are historically a “nation of immigrants.” That is a side issue, to be dealt with by secular politicians, pragmatically and generously as we may hope. The more important truth is that people everywhere are in a sense alien to this world. Some who know of their true life, hidden in God with Jesus Christ, know how the love of God sustains them. Others—and not only Christians, but all others have the love of God too. It would be immensely sad to go through life not knowing this, but it maybe the majority do. Nothing else so well explains people’s fecklessness in action, their forlornness in spirit, their dread of anonymity, their displays of anger in defense of outlandish and sterile versions of Self.

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What the Owl Is Trying to Say

We are now about five months into writing An Owl Among Ruins. It would be understandable that our few readers don’t find much logical consistency in the thing so far. We may have created more frustration than clarity. That’s not good for one who is still trying, at 73, to get control his mother tongue. He knows all the best advisors on the subject say Keep It Simple; no extravagant turns of phrase, no complex compound sentences—you learned it in grade school. I’m slow. By now it’s fair to ask, What Is the Owl Trying to Say? Put it down in as few words and as plainly as possible.

OK, here goes. It will help to start with the key terms. Luckily they are few, but unluckily, from the first they don’t mean what people think they mean. Here they are: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, Obedience. These are things already alive in human hearts, maybe in all human hearts. Let’s take them one at a time, then see how they fit into a whole.

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Faith, Freedom, and Vocation

Properly understood, faith means freedom. By definition, there can be no prescribed content to freedom. Freedom is the sine qua non of love, and therefore of faith, and therefore of life in the free God. There are two aspects to Christian freedom. The first is a freedom from: freedom from any false god, whether that be the emperor, a statue, a secular cause célèbre raised to the status of a religion, Baal the storm god, or some other out of the mythic past. The second relies not on cultural constructs like those, but on the steadfastness of the God who set his bow in the sky where all could see it; the one who made his everlasting covenant with Israel, then the new Israel.

In his freedom, God might demand anything of us, issue any command or give any vocation to an individual. We may not recognize it as such. In the free God’s hands we therefore become protean beings facing an indeterminate future, free from the obsessions and allegiances of this world, and freedom to carry out our godly vocations courageously, even to the point of laying down life, knowing we have another that cannot be lost.

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The Faith That Lies Beneath Faith

There comes the day when one of Levin’s peasants describes a local  innkeeper who lives only for himself and his belly, whereas another of their neighbors lives for the soul: ‘He remembers God.’ At this, Levin becomes unaccountably excited. He discovers he has received a great blessing and reassurance. A few pages on, he says, ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I have just found out what I know.’

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Faith vs. Belief

Some of our unchurched friends think faith arises from an irrational will to believe. In truth, there is such a human tendency. It is the reason we have the law against idolatry, given by Jhwh at Sinai. The true God frustrates our will to believe by not showing himself, or showing only his backside moving away (Exodus 33:17–23). Any belief in the presence of this God is belief in him, not about him.

The difference between ‘in’ and ‘about’ is more than a rhetorical trick. It prevents us from domesticating God, grasping him to ourselves. The Phillips translation of the New Testament (1958) says “the kingdom of God is inside you,” a suffocating position for both man and God. Our beliefs about God are vain unless God has visited himself upon us first. Then we might have beliefs, and perhaps be able to speak of them; things we might never have thought were it not for our own private Jabbok.

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Elusive Perfection

Christian faith is comprehensive rebellion against the powers and compulsions of this world, and definitive acknowledgment of citizenship in the kingdom of God. However: glorious as that may sound, come the cold grey light of dawn, we find ourselves still in the same surroundings. We haven’t stopped being meat; nor have our neighbors changed. What do we do next?

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