The Sower – how bad theologies delay the Kingdom

The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily one might use the text to implicate varieties of Gospel-preachers rather than Gospel-hearers.

“…some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them…” (Mt 13:4)

Listen again to those words, and hear Jesus saying, “Anyone preaching a Kingdom that sounds like humdrum or humbug might just as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines lack the flavor of Christ’s spirit, and come off spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible – and therefore misunderstood.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil…” (13:5)

Can it be that Jesus is saying, “On the other hand, if you use emotional hooks to frighten or entice the people with threats of Hell or promises of cheap grace, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up…” (13:7)

Which is to say: “And it is just as big a mistake to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

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New thoughts on providence in regard to evil events

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?

I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

Warning:  Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth.   The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.

It was in the poem Assurances that I found this:

I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,

and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,

(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,

no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …

Leaves of Grass,  Book XXX)

It was while reading these lines with my own recent questions about divine providence in mind that I saw how a useful distinction might be drawn between provision for and provision against evil.

The concept of provision for evil strikes me as profoundly positive and theologically different from the common idea that God provides against calamity. In fact, theories of divine intervention which posit the availability of a supernatural power able to fend off specific material evils seem to reflect a view of deity so ancient as to be arguably of origin in the pagan superstitions of the various pre-Abrahamic religions.

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?  Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?

The idea that God provides for rather than against calamity suggests to me a divine intervention functioning not externally but at an existential level, as part of a deep inner experience of spiritual presence or ‘help.’ All that would be required is to posit its universal bestowal – at least a spirit aid that was there simply for the asking, and available strictly for the high task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

If God has bestowed a  spirit  of  presence  to be with  us  in all  our  afflictions,  even as  he  is  afflicted  with  us  (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.

This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil.  But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation.  It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it.  Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity.  This is a providence of  the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.

Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.

(to be continued)

The gift of ears

“I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me”

Thus begins Book III of The Imitation of Christ (Book IV in some editions). The words are actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – restated by the author in the pure gold of personal inner experience. The Bible verse is more general:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

In my opinion, Book III of The Imitation is the spiritual heart of the whole work. It contains writing so high and unusually bold that it is easy to imagine that it was purposely placed after the admonitions and warnings in Books I and II – so that potential readers might be ‘screened’ for humility.

“Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.” (Bk III, Chap 2)

I want to suggest that ‘the gift of ears’ ought to be among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul – which of course it is not. But I think the New Testament does much to suggest the importance of inspired hearing.

What is most important to understand is that the “divine whisper” is never given for group prophecy – they are never a means by which a listener may lord it over neighbor or church. Always are they to be received as personal admonition and enlightenment.

For example, a prayer like this one, which the author makes, clearly evokes a level of responsibility which everyone must choose for himself. It cannot be forced upon members of the group who are not prepared:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase. (Book III, Chap 2)

 

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is a likely candidate for an expanded list of spiritual gifts – I would go so far as to say it is the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit:

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth,

lest I die and prove fruitless,

if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within;

lest I be condemned at the Judgment

because the word was heard and not fulfilled,

known and not loved,

believed and not observed. 

(Book III, Chap 2)