Pastoral Backstory – July 23rd, 2015


(What is the Backstory and why?)


July 23rd, 2015

insideout2The Christian life is one of inward and outward facing.

It regularly takes stock of the self–the mind, heart, and body–scrutinizing it for alignment with the Life God offers us in Christ. Citing Isaiah, Jesus decries a people who honor God with their lips but whose “hearts are far from Him.” “Watch your life and doctrine,” Paul admonishes Timothy.

But the inward examination of the self naturally and necessarily includes scrutiny of one’s attention beyond the self. If it is “better to give than to receive”; if we “prove to be his disciples” by our love for one another; if we have been saved from the world so that we may be for the world, then there is no Christian Life without an outward orientation.

So this week we’d like to share with you two voices, each addressing one dimension of this Life.

The first is from Francois Fenelon, an 18th century French Catholic priest and theologian, who was a tutor to Louis XIV, and who at one time tried to dissuade Protestants of their protestations (but we shall not hold that against him.) In this devotion, entitled “Stop Striving,” Fenelon invites us to an interior examination without letting it devolve into a morbid, and ultimately counter-productive, introspection.


Francois Fenelon (1651-1715)

You are good, but you want to be better. I think you are trying too hard to use your inner life to change those outward things about you that are socially unacceptable. Deep down you are not really changing. Let me tell you what happens when you don’t let God deal with the deepest root of your old nature. You will become very critical, hard-hearted, and pharisaical. You will keep your actions in line according to some self-appointed rules, but deep within you will be unchanged. Outwardly you will appear to obey–but inwardly you will be in a state of rebellion. This is no place to be!

Pay more attention to your inward life. Take your deepest and strongest desires and put them in God’s hands. Ask Him to conquer you completely. Give Him your natural arrogance, your worldly wisdom, your attachment to your house, and your fear that no one will recognize your “greatness.” You also need to let God deal with your harsh attitude in dealing with things that don’t go as you expect them to.


Your temper is not your biggest problem because you already distrust it. In spite of your attempt to control your temper, it still gets the better of you. This humiliation does you good. So worry about your more dangerous faults. I would really rather see you obviously impatient, and lacking a certain amount of self-control. This is more humiliating for you (and better for killing your pride!). When you are too perfect at controlling yourself you can become harsh, judgmental, and too easily offended by others.


Through your weakness learn compassion toward the faults of others. Sincere prayer will soften your heart and make you gentle, kind, and pliable in God’s hands. Do you want God to be as critical of you as you are of others?


It is so easy to cling to your “good reputation.” Look carefully within yourself. There is somewhere within you a limit which you will not go beyond in offering yourself to Him. You dance around your reservations and make believe that you do not see them. If you let yourself see all your reservations, then you will have to do something about them!


If God ever breaks through your defenses, you will be cut to the quick and left to find all sorts of excuses to justify yourself. The more you hide from giving something up, the more obvious it becomes that you should give it up. If you were truly free you would not spend so much time arguing about it!


Don’t bargain with God to get out of this mess in the easiest, most comfortable way. Embrace the cross. Live by love alone. Let God do what He needs to do to root out your self-love. Pray within yourself all day long. Live in prayer–let it touch everything that you do. Be aware of God’s presence with you–even when you are busy. Do this and peace will be yours.


You will not become perfect by hearing or reading about perfection. The important thing is not to listen to yourself, but silently listen to God. Talk little and do much, without caring to be seen. God will teach you more than any book or person can. Do you need to go to school to learn how to love God and deny yourself? You already know much more about good than you currently practice. What you need is to put into practice what you already know. Don’t try to gain more knowledge before you practice what you already see.


Albert W. Alschuler is the second and more contemporary voice, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago who’s elsewhere written about the intersection of law and values. Here Alschuler writes of personal correspondence he’s had with atheists, and how in those conversations about the existence of divinity, those without belief in any transcendent realm encounter limits in being able to justify their most deeply held convictions.

Seated next to me at dinner was a man about my age. Like me, he’d retired to Maine. We hit it off, and after our dinner, we began an email correspondence.


At the dinner, my friend said he admired a book I didn’t like, so I sent him a copy of a review of the book I’d written. The review tipped my friend off that I was a Christian.


Albert Alschuler

Albert Alschuler

His response made clear that he wasn’t. He wrote, “No metaphysics are needed in my cosmos, thanks.” Although he respected his religious friends, his own views were “close to the occasionally strident and at times rude Brother Dawkins [Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion].” He noted, “We shall have some heavy lifting as workout buddies, you and I.”


I replied that a discussion of our religious differences probably would work better in a barroom than in an email exchange. “We could pretend to be college freshmen again, and it could be fun.” But my friend was not to be put off. He insisted that he had no need to “Godify the unknown or alleged unknowable.”


My new pen pal had sent me some of his writing about Acadia National Park. It spoke of “the profound responsibility of our consciousness: to use our understanding of nature to guide our conduct within nature,” and it added, “In this bloom of space-time, human reason can try to understand the development of all matter, from stars and galaxies to our own planet, fellow creatures, home island, and selves. It is our nature and duty to do so.”


I told him I agreed with these sentiments, but I wondered just why we had a duty to use our capacities for the various purposes he mentioned or, indeed, for any purpose at all.


I made it a multiple-choice question:


A) I made these duties up. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t exist.


B) My culture made them up. I’m just a product of my culture.


C) These duties proceed from a source outside myself and my culture.


Some weeks after I posed my question, my friend apologized for not answering it. He asked me to stay tuned and promised, “I’ll give you a fair if not satisfying (for you) response to your multiple choice question—re-posed as I wish.”


But he never did. There could be other reasons for his failure of course, but I like to think I confounded him.


What might my friend have said?


Answer A (subjectivism—each of us a small godlet of values) fails badly. An ethical duty that you’ve made up is no duty at all. It’s a “just pretend” duty. Willing yourself into an ethical void can’t fill it. If the only duties you have are those you’ve made up, the other guy’s only duties are presumably the ones he’s made up, and he wants to make Acadia into a theme park. Moreover, answer A leaves you with no reason to ponder or reconsider your ethical views and no reason to try to make them consistent. Your judgments can’t be mistaken, because they’re not about anything.


Answer B (conventionalism—culture as the god of values) isn’t any better. Some of your convictions differ from those of other members of your culture; all of your ethical views don’t proceed from toadying up to other people. Moreover, like answer A, answer B leaves you with nothing to say to the other guy, who now tells you that his culture has taught him to value building a master race.


Which leaves you with answer C.


One possible source of values other than self and culture is biology. Some biologists maintain that natural selection has programed us with the values that furthered our distant ancestors’ reproductive success. The biologists’ arguments transform moral values into something else—a reproductive strategy, an unconscious one—and these arguments leave us with no reason to prefer our nobler impulses to our baser ones. Rape in fact furthers reproductive success more directly than altruism does.


The remaining alternative is a source of values beyond self, culture, and biology. What name would you give this source of values if it existed? Proving the existence of an external source of values may be tough, but many of the people who pounce on the difficulty of making this case seem not to notice the difficulty of making an affirmative case for any of the alternative positions. They appear oblivious to the ethical soup in which they swim. They typically insist that there’s no relationship at all between morality and religious belief.


Certainly people who call themselves nonbelievers can be as moral as believers. How many of them, however, truly believe that they have made up their deepest moral convictions themselves, or that their culture has made up these moral convictions, or that their biology has programed them with self-serving intuitions disguised as moral values?


Even E. O. Wilson, the “father of sociobiology,” once wrote that he favors a “scientific humanism”—one that “imposes the heavy burden of individual choice that goes with intellectual freedom.” Of course the “heavy burden of individual choice” and “intellectual freedom” are inconsistent with Wilson’s insistence that free will is an illusion. Moreover, Wilson once declared, “Life has diversified on Earth autonomously without any kind of external guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next.”


Wilson’s contradictions led me to email him some questions too: What choices did he make as a humanist—those that furthered his own genes’ reproductive success? How could he or anyone else have evolved the capacity to do anything else? Was there a magic moment in the evolutionary process when natural selection gave way to culture and free will?


Like my recent dinner companion, Wilson didn’t reply. We hadn’t corresponded before, and there was no particular reason why he should. In his case, I don’t fantasize that my questions confounded him, but I’m curious what his answers would have been.


Examine the way people who describe themselves as nonbelievers talk about values, and you may discover an operational, everyday trust in a transcendent source of values beyond self, culture, and biology. Except when folks are in a funk, drunk, in France, or at a university, almost all of them seem to believe that some things are really right and wrong and not just right and wrong because they happen to think so today or because natural selection has programmed them with the illusion that some of their choices are more virtuous than others.


Fenelon encourages a fastidious attentiveness to even the slightest movements of the heart. But the inward scrutiny has manifestly outward implications. Alschuler demonstrates an unapologetic apologetic posture toward those outside the faith. But the manner of his outward engagement depends on a thoroughgoing consideration of whether his heart is motivated by genuine “gentleness and respect.”

This Sunday as we look at Acts 5:17-42 we’ll find the passage brings to the fore the synthesis of this inward/outward posture. I think its theme has to do with the mandate and message of evangelism, but also with the necessary motivation underlying it.

What’s your first thought, your first emotion, when considering the place of bearing witness to who Christ is among those who may find faith troubling? Indifference? Inadequacy? Dread? Or gratitude, even joy? The end of this week’s passage recounts the early church’s joy at suffering for Jesus by way of giving testimony among both the hostile and the curious. Is that joy possible today? We’ll see why it is and how it can be.

spiral-of-silence-communication-theoryThen during 2nd hour, Bill Harris will flesh out the art-form that is speaking of the Kingdom in a pluralistic setting, neither pandering to the culture’s preference for private religion nor pontificating in an ultimately self-defeating mode.


Community Notes:



Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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