Just who is in charge here, anyway?
I’ve studied enough history to know there is a kind of terror that befalls a region when competing armies contend for territory–when the only protection you might have against fickle martial law, plunder, rape, and murder is the conscience of a battle-hardened sergeant who has been living off the ground, with his men, for years. Even if, as human beings, we sometimes chafe at authority — at Dodge cops and other petty tyrants in the civil service — we don’t like the idea of waking up in a third world capital, to find out we’re in the middle of a jihadist insurgency or a drug lord bloodbath. The young folks these days, who speak lovingly of anarchy, don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve never seen it, and they likely have never read about it either.
I sense, when talking religion with some folks, a similar fear of spiritual anarchy. They take solace in their denominational principality, with their approved sources and hierarchies. They like to know that someone, somewhere, is authoritatively speaking to, and for, God. I’m not just talking about Catholics, Orthodox, or Mormons either. There are quasi-official “teaching authorities” that have been conferred by much smaller denominations without any laying on of hands. You find out who has authority if you contradict their favorite teacher, or their favorite dogma. Our need for meaning is very acute, and we like to feel we have fallen with the an organized, and powerful army, since our eternal well being is on the line.
On this divine front, I’ve always felt — immaturely, of course — that the cosmic system of salvation should have been set up something like the university system, with lots of course work, essays, research, and measurable goal posts — degrees, fellowships, professorships, fraternities, sabbaticals and all that. I like examinations and milestones and, most of all, certainty. We like this for the same reason we study military ranks as little boys — captain, major, colonel, general, field marshal. As human beings we take a kind of pleasure, or jealousy, at the prospect of seeing someone rise through the ranks of industry or entertainment and academics, because we get to see things. We get to measure progress. We very deeply want to know that something works, something has meaning, even if we haven’t tapped into it as fully as we would like ourselves.
When you stop to think of the studiously non-religious people in your life, isn’t this absence of clarity, this metaphysical fog, at the root of their disinterest? The material world, physical existence, offers up its share of confusion, but the various highways are well marked: “study hard and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll make a living as a doctor; four hours at the gym, well spent, will build the sort of muscle you’re after; this ad agency increased my business by 40%.” Nothing is for certain, of course, but because nothing is for certain we ache for as much certainty as possible.
I’ve found that, among those people whose sense of God is shaped by the Bible and the Christian tradition, a similar desperation for certainty. They simply must have an answer for free will, predestination, infant baptism, theodicy, the nature of the Godhead and a thousand other questions that run from the reasonable to the absurd. Celebrate Christmas or not? Kiss your girlfriend before marriage or not? Speak in tongues to prove your salvation or not? These folks feel enormous agitation if they sense their denomination has taken an indefensible position, but they take solace in obedience, and the fact that someone else is in charge of that department. “The army may be going astray, but at least I’m in the army.” “I don’t agree with my pastor on that, but I love the fellowship here.” “What you’re saying makes biblical sense, but if there’s a difference of opinion between you and John MacArthur, I’m going with John MacArthur.”
The odd thing about all of this is that, if we go by the Bible, the sort of certainty they demand doesn’t seem to be a part of the life God planned for us. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” It’s just not as simple as doing everything possible to get into Harvard, including knowing the right people and having the right associations and the right kind of stamps on your diploma.
Yes, we study, we discuss, we pray, and we seek to agree on essentials, but the human solace we feel knowing the elevator has been inspected in our hotel doesn’t apply to the world of faith. In fact the need for a certificate may be a distinct kind of idolatry. Jesus spent an enormous amount of time ridiculing the mere forms of religion — the elaborate tithes, the long robes, the greetings, the best seats in the temple. The church, like the chosen people of the old testament is not so much an institution as it is a spiritual tribe, a covenant people who are “called out.” God could have told His story by establishing a mighty temple, with a permanent priesthood serving up the certitude of an unbroken human tradition, but He didn’t. He tells His story with a long chain of interruptions and insignificant outcasts — younger brothers, and fourteen year old shepherds and faithful prostitutes and unlikely prophets. His men of God aren’t always attached to the temple. Sometimes they have to hide away and be fed by ravens, or preach in the wilderness. Jesus Himself chose not to manifest Himself as the chief high priest but as the son of a carpenter. He taught His followers so far away from the sanctuary that miracles were required to feed them. The early church operated out of homes, not elaborate temples.
Moreover, it’s a long, broken, story, full of gross sin committed by the very priesthood human beings might otherwise expect to trust. Aaron made a golden calf. His sons put strange fire on the altar. Eli’s sons slept with women at the tent of meeting. Ezekiel is commanded by God to excoriate a generation of false shepherds who grew fat eating their flock, as opposed to feeding them. We should never be particularly surprised by all the stories, ancient to modern, about “men of God” who fall, spectacularly, because spiritual authority is easily abused: ask all the altar boys and church secretaries. The trappings of the “church” are just that trappings: the building, the organization, the man up behind the pulpit are a mere shadow of the great, crusading army Jesus promised would break down the gates of hell. No earthly building is really fit to put out that shingle, and no seal of approval from any human institution can help you before the Great White Throne. Only one Friend can do that.
I want, in my humanness, to make it as simple as taking classes in college, but can you imagine a professor capable of appearing in one form and then another? Why did Jesus not reveal himself, immediately, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or to the Magdalene, at the tomb? Why does God, in the Bible, remain silent (in the canonized sense) for centuries? Why are those “who have not seen” more blessed than those who have?
I wish it were as easy as collecting merit badges and getting your Eagle Scout award, but this particular dimension of the universe seems to be about the authority of faith in things we cannot see, not in the authority of the colorful little embroideries we can.