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Friday, April 7, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 3: Childlike Faith

This is the third post in a six part series. You can find Part 1, Solus Jesus is HERE, and Part 2, Centered Set HERE

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name (you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.


The third "Blue Ocean Distinctive" is a belief that "childlike faith" is the best (only?) path to spiritual growth. Of all of the six distinctives, this one has probably been both the most important and the most counter-intuitive for me. It is also thoroughly intertwined with several of the other distinctives.

Kids are generally black-and-white, concrete thinkers, and I was no exception to this. For all of my childhood and adolescence and on into my early twenties, I was eager to find out "how the world works" and believed that my answers were out there. In terms of my relationship with God, this had the effect of driving me into the arms of theology and apologetics (for those of you who do not share my conservative Christian background, apologetics is the discipline of offering evidence, arguments, and proofs in defense of Christian tennets of faith). It was never enough for me to know that someone had apparently solved a particular problem, I had to know how they had solved it and evaluate the quality of their argument.

And I really enjoyed it.

To this day, there is little which I enjoy more that the rigorous back-and-forth of well crafted argument and response. I experience clarity of thought and elegance of expression as a particular beauty; I find it energizing and life giving. And I don't think that there is anything wrong with that at all, in fact I think that appreciating, critiquing, and crafting arguments is part of my vocation in this world.

But that is what makes childlike faith counter-intuitive for me.

Schmelzer opens this chapter of the book with the story of a conversation he had with a woman who approached him with questions about opportunities for academically rigorous classes as a means for spiritual growth. In the account, the lady is eager to get training in theology or apologetics based on her belief that these disciplines will effect spiritual growth. Essentially, she believes that spiritual growth consists in knowing more truths. In contrast, Schmelzer suggests that spiritual growth consists in knowing Jesus more fully. 

I have found that a linguistic distinction has been really helpful in getting my head around this—unfortunately it is not a distinction which exists in English. In many other languages though there is a distinction between the kind of knowing that has to do with fact and the kind of knowing that has to do with relationships or acquaintance. "I know that 2+2=4" would be an example of the first, "fact" type of knowing. The Turkish word for this sort of knowing is bilmek, (in German it is wissen, in French savoir) while the Turkish for relational knowing is tanımak (German kennen, French connaître). On one level, we could say that the woman in the story believed that spiritual growth is achieved—at least past a certain rudimentary point—by an increase in bilmek, while Schmelzer maintains that spiritual growth is all about tanımak.

In my own experience, the distinction between bilmek knowing God and tanımak knowing God, started to really stand out while I was in Bible college. Certainly before that I would have spoken sincerely about having a "personal relationship with Jesus" and I still believe that that relationship was a real one. But if I were being honest, even then, I would have had to say that the adjective "personal" in that particular trope really meant something like "strong" or "powerful". I had a relationship with Jesus but it didn't much occur to me that the relationship itself was the point. I sort of thought that being right about everything was the point (notice how intertwined this "distinctive" is with the first two?)  Facts-about Jesus rather than Jesus himself were what I thought really drove my spiritual life. And that led me to prioritize using bilmek knowledge to draw as accurate a boundary as I could around my bounded (rather than centered) set faith. 

This led, frankly, to me being a jerk on an unfortunately frequent basis. In my defense, it is really hard not to be a jerk when concerns of ultimate importance are all about which propositions someone does or doesn't accept as true. The sheer pressure to get people to agree with you has a tendency to turn differences of opinion into condescension, disagreements into quarrels, and debates into fights. When saving someone is the same thing as convincing them, friendships become incredibly difficult. I did manage it occasionally, but some  of my least favorite memories with my non-Christian friends in highschool have to do with our conversations about religion. Most of the time I just talked to them about other things altogether—and then felt incredibly guilty.

And it really wasn't much better with my Christian friends. Particularly once I started at Bible college, each discussion about God (a subject I genuinely love to discuss) was too frequently haunted by possibility that one or both of us might be falling into heresy. There were places our discussions simply mustn't be allowed to go, ideas which were simply too dangerous to explore.

And I think that is what saved me.

I still don't get it—there should be a black dot in the center right!?!
I have never been very good at just letting a question go. I remember getting in trouble once in middle school because I wouldn't be satisfied with any explanation of why I didn't see a black dot in
the middle of my field of vision when I looked through a Newtonian telescope. When the teacher gave up and told me to just drop it so that he could continue the lesson I must have said something rude about his knowledge base. It didn't end well.

The thing is, that impulse to keep pushing until I get an answer which actually satisfies me, ultimately led me to some pretty scary conclusions about the availability of bilmek knowledge out there. This whole process will likely get its own blog post one day, so for the time being let's just say that the biggest lesson I took away from Bible college is not only that we don't know nearly as much as we pretend to, but that we can't know nearly as much as we think we have to. I had gone to the very place where I was supposed to get answers (bilmek knowledge) only to discover that those answers which I had been assured I would understand with enough education, didn't seem to actually exist. At least they didn't exist in any form that satisfied me.

Three years later I went to a secular grad school where we played with ideas, asked questions, and did our best to discover what truth we could find. It was freeing, beautiful, and life giving. It turns out that the pursuit of truth is way more fun once you give up on needing to find all of it and instead "settle" for insights into Truth.

The upshot was that, as much as I love it, I discovered that bilmek knowledge wasn't especially helpful for my own spiritual growth. The most I can say for it is that it taught me its own limitations.

But what does all of this have to do with childlike faith? Schmelzer describes "childlike faith" using the analogy of a three year old child in downtown Manhattan. From the book:

Imagine that you're a three-year-old child in downtown Manhattan who says to your parent, "Hey, thanks so much for all your help to this point. I totally appreciate it! But, you know, I'm good at this point and I don't think I'll need you anymore. I can take things from here. I'll get a job, get a lease on a nice apartment, and set myself up just great. But thanks again for everything!
What I think is utterly critical here is the relational aspect of the faith in question. I am convinced that the God who wants to be tanımak known, is far less interested in us having high degrees of certainty when it comes to facts-about-the-nature-of-reality than in being trusted in relationship. It has become my nearly automatic habit to mentally replace the word "faith" whenever it appears as a command, with the word "trust". You see the difference? "Faith" has all to do with bilemk knowldege, where trust rests on tanımak knowledge.
Paul Ricoeur

Schmelzer works this through riffing of the the spiritual development model of Paul Ricoeur (he also builds out a terrifically compelling model based on Joseph Campbell's Monomyth using Tolkien's work as the primary example—you can find some of his best explanation of that HERE):
Now how Ricoeur uses this and how I'm using it are not one-to-one, but here's the central idea. When we first experience Jesus, were plunged into the first naïveté . Whatever anyone says about the Bible is awesome. Whatever insights we get in our own scripture readings or prayers are fantastic. Jesus begins to talk to us, and it's astounding. We're confident there are only good things in store for us in this amazing journey of faith we've just been invited onto!
But then, Ricoeur says, we enter "critical distance." We realize that things we'd innocently assumed to be true just don't hold up,either because we get a little learning about the Bile and churches, because we get pushback from smart people, or because life itself doesn't work out the way we thought it would. Our expectations have bee messed with.
At this point we have options. One powerful urge would tell us to stuff critical distance at all costs! Go back to the first naïveté! Ignore all that stuff you've been hearing or the experiences you've been having! All those insights about life aren't really worth having if they cost you the first naïveté! Do what you can to crawl back into the womb! In hopes of regaining the safety and security that we've lost, the price we pay when we make this choice is a sort of permanent opposition to everything that called us into critical distance. WE become combative, religious people, "standing firm" against challenges from ... well, from those lousy people who are experiencing critical distance.
Or, we could camp out in critical distance and become profoundly reactive to combative, religious people. That's another option.
But our goal is the second naïveté, which is this resurrection...The second naïveté is the "childlike maturity" that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13, or the author of Hebrews is talking about in chapter 5. ... Almost none of us gets this. The road is narrow that leads to life 
The second naïveté is, I would argue, the complex, relationally difficult (because it is relationship after all) discovery of tanımak based trust in a living, interactive Jesus who is far more profound, and far more fundamentally True, than any of the truths we sought through bilmek knowledge. The second naïveté is coming home, only to discover that "home" is a more terrifying, painful, beautiful, awful, awesome, glorious adventure than we could ever have imagined before.  

The surprising result of giving up my attachment to the pursuit of bilmek knowledge of God as an ultimate end and replacing it with a committed and (at least aspirationally) trusting relationship with the person who is Jesus has been that my intellectual life, my study of philosophy and theology, my enjoyment of debate and conversation has actually gotten richer. The quote (I heard it first from David Foster Wallace, but I don't think it is original to him) that "the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master" turns out to be true. Once we come to understand spiritual growth to be a process of learning to trust a loving God more and more—always deepening our relationship, our tanımak knowledge—we become free to explore our questions and posit answers with far more joy and freedom. It is one more iteration of C.S. Lewis' Law of First and Second Things:
Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.


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