Elephants all the way down: Why believe anything? (2 Timothy 3:1-6)

Being the single guy on staff, I don’t have kids.  So I’ve never been privy to the age of the endless “why’s.”  If you’re a parent, you know what I mean by this: it’s the age when your son and daughter moves from rapturous wonder to a bundle of annoying and endless questions. And every answer leads to more questions.

Comedian Louis C.K. has a hilarious (though profanity-laden) bit on this very phenomenon (I encountered it on a friend’s Facebook post, and edited it down).  He says that he used to imagine himself as the sort of father who would always be there to answer his children’s questions and help them explore their world.  But he quickly changed his tune:

“You can’t answer a kid’s question, they don’t accept any answer. A kid never goes ‘oh, thanks, I get it.’…They just keep coming with more questions, why, why, why…It’s an insane deconstruction, it’s amazing. This is my daughter the other day, she’s like: Papa, why can’t we go outside? Well, ‘cause it’s raining. Why? Well, water’s coming out of the sky. Why? Because it was in a cloud. Why? Well, clouds form…when there’s vapor. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know any more things. Those are all the things I know. Why? Cause I’m stupid, okay, I’m stupid. Why? … I’m gonna stop here to be polite to you for a second, but this goes on for hours and hours, and it gets so weird and abstract, at the end it’s like: Why? Well, because some things are, and some things are not. Why? Well, because things that are not can’t be. Why?”

Peel back enough layers, and you quickly realize just how much of what you call “knowledge” and “understanding” rests on a leaning tower of assumptions.  Go deeper still, and you soon find yourself at the “foundation” or starting point for everything else.  You might—like Louis C.K.—conclude that “some things are, and some things are not.”  But why?

 

ELEPHANTS ALL THE WAY DOWN

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The whole thing is like the story of the father trying to explain the solar system to his young son.  He tells him that the whole galaxy rests on the back of a giant elephant.  And what’s under that elephant? Under that elephant is another elephant.  And under that elephant is another elephant.  His son asks the obvious question: What’s under that elephant?  The father smiles knowingly and replies, “It’s elephants all the way down.”

We laugh at such stories, but the truth is everyone has some core belief in them, some way of looking at the world.  In his song “Belief,” blues musician John Mayer sings that “everyone believes in how they think it ought to be…Everyone believes, and they’re not going easily.”

So a good question to think about is: What’s our elephant?  Ok, so maybe that sounds weird, but…what do we believe about life?  About God?  About the world?  Because everybody believes something.

I would submit to you that there are really only three big questions that govern the world:

  • What is the world like?
  • What should the world be like?
  • How can the world be set right?

How do you answer those questions?  Because that’s your “elephant”—that’s your doctrine.  And let’s not shove those questions to the side.  These aren’t merely “religious” questions.  Answers to these questions bombard us from every angle: from religious leaders to politicians to movies to the advertising industry.  Each of those sources has their own way of saying: “Look, here’s the problem…here’s where we need to go…here’s how to get there.”  So the solution is something like: buy this product or vote for this candidate.  Even movies have their own internal moral systems.  The point?  Doctrine isn’t something reserved for religious types or the intellectual elite.  Doctrine is unavoidable, because everybody believes in something.

 

A POST-CHRISTIAN SOCIETY

Historically, Christianity has offered very specific answers to those three questions:

  • What is the world like?—The world is broken by human sin and man is separated from God.
  • What should the world be like?—The world is meant to experience healing, justice, and wholeness.
  • How can the world be set right?—The work of Christ invites us to come to the cross for forgiveness and personal transformation, and to look to the empty tomb for the promise of his return and the restored world at the time of Christ’s return.

Now, there are many associated “doctrines,” to be sure, but this is the essential framework of the Christian story—the most “non-negotiable,” so to speak.

But because we’re fallen, sinful creatures, we don’t naturally understand our world this way.  We need to be taught this story, to be sharpened and shaped into men and women who understand God’s truth and respond in repentance and rebirth.

We’re talking about what Peter Berger famously referred to as a “plausibility structure”—the webbing of social and institutional relationships that made Christian belief possible.  Paul told Timothy that the Church community represents the “pillar and support for the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  Christian community provides the structure, the relationships that help us understand the Christian story and our place in it.

These days we’re seeing an erosion of these structures.  In a world of “charismatic authority” and a network of “experts,” we do not share a common, Christian belief.  We’ve become much more like the false teachers that Paul encouraged Timothy to stand against in Ephesus:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1-6)

We should probably pay careful attention to the fact that they have “the appearance of godliness” without the “power” of genuine relationship.  Today we call this a “post-Christian” world.  It’s not that we don’t believe the Christian story (although that is true), it’s that we don’t even understand what the Christian story is.  Yet pieces of the story are everywhere—like when Kanye West shows up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine wearing a crown of thorns to promote his work “Jesus Walks.”  A better example might be the film Noah, a film whose resemblance to the biblical story goes no further than the title (!).  In other words, our culture still retains religious symbols and images, it’s just that their meaning has been lost.

Graham Ward of Manchester University says that in such a setting, “we need to reread and rewrite Christianity back into our culture:”

“This is already happening in the third form of the new visibility of religion, which employs religious symbols, idioms, and mythemes in films, books, television programs, and advertising. But this needs to be implemented by a more informed theological commentary because these symbols, idioms, and mythemes are being disseminated mainly to a public who have grown up through the secularization that occurred after the Second World War. To a large extent, they are unschooled theologically and therefore unable to read, and therefore be critical of, the religious material they are receiving. Hence the need for a reschooling, a rereading and rewriting of the Christian tradition in this instance.”[1]

Do you understand what he is saying?  It’s like the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch—where Philip finds a guy reading from Isaiah, without a clue what the story means.  Philip walks him through the story, and explains how it points to Jesus.  The man is saved and baptized on the spot.  So, too, do we have a world with the remnants and ghosts of Christian belief.  Doctrine helps us put the pieces together that they might see the face of Jesus.  Therefore, doctrine is especially important for a post-Christian era, and for those who have the facts or symbols of Christianity but not their meaning.

 

CONFIDENCE WITHOUT ARROGANCE

One of our great fears is that to stand strong is to be divisive.  No one wants to come across as “arrogant.”  But why not?  Not long ago G.K. Chesteron lamented that “we suffer from…humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition [and] settled upon the organ of conviction.” The result, he says, is that “we are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”[2] Everyone believes something, we’ve said.  If what you believe is true, then why should we be so afraid?  Confidence should not be confused for arrogance any more than timidness should be mistaken for genuine humility.  What we need are men and women to “name the elephant,” so to speak, to stand on their convictions, to proclaim what they believe is true—and to use their convictions to shape the minds and hearts of others.

 

[1] Graham Ward, Political Discipleship, p. 165-6.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 31-32.

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