When Psalm 1 doesn’t work: Where questions and answers come from…

Posted by on Jul 8, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

What do you do when Psalm 1 doesn’t work? Do you know the dilemma. Psalm 1 promises an orderly life that makes sense. Do the right thing, meditate on the Scriptures, keep the right company, love God, and in due season your life will flourish. It’s perfectly logical, and it works most of the time… probably 95% of the time. But what happens when you land up in the 5% territory – when nothing makes sense, and when you identify more with Asaph in Ps 74:1 who asks “Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” In the previous psalm he had been quizzing God as to why the wicked always seem to flourish and do well in life. Indeed, Asaph had no shortage of questions for God.

I am off to Melbourne to speak at the “Developing Christian Thinkers” conference – a conference aimed primarily at those involved in Christian Education. I am giving a few keynotes, the first of which is entitled “Questions, Doubt and Faith Formation: The Role of Robust Inquiry in Christian Education.”  In that talk I will be looking at where questions come from, and where answers might be found. Here is the opening part…

It was Jan 1988. I was pastoring my first church in Stellenbosch, South Africa. It was the night time service – being the University break a small and fairly informal affair. It was a time for open sharing about what God had been doing. Justine arrived at the service a little late, but was quick to stand up and share. ‘I want to give so much praise and thanks to God’ she said. ‘My mother was in a freak accident earlier today. She was driving behind a truck carrying metal poles. One slipped out and flew through her windscreen, missing her ever so narrowly. It would have killed her if it had struck. But she lost control of the car and it went careering off the road before her desperate braking managed to bring it to a halt. Shaken but unhurt, she got out the car and paled immediately. The car had stopped inches from a steep drop. Tyre marks showed the path the car had taken. She had also narrowly missed a power pole she hadn’t seen. There were so many things that had brought her to within an inch of death – but there she was. Shaken to be sure, but not injured at all. And’ said Justine, ‘I just want to give thanks to our amazing God who rescued her from that.

How would you have responded to a testimony like that? A high five and a hallelujah and an outpouring of praise. That would have been our usual response, but on that Sunday in January, it was at best muted – a subdued kind of ‘thank you Lord.’  Were we the most boring and ungrateful congregation in Africa? Not really – we were usually very responsive… but not that Sunday, because although Justine didn’t know it (having arrived late), earlier that day we had heard the news that one of our greatly loved church members, Francine, had been killed in a car accident on her way back from visiting her first grandchild. And as we heard of Justine’s mom’s miraculous rescue, we could only ask, ‘If God could do it for Justine’s mom, why not for Francine?’

It isn’t the first time people have asked questions like that. Perhaps you are familiar with Acts 12. It tells the story of the incredible rescue of Peter from jail on the eve of his likely execution. Even though the early church had been praying for his release, when he arrived at their door, their first assumption was that the servant who reported his arrival was out of her mind (v15) – how is that for believing prayer! However, when they realised that he had really been rescued, I wonder what they thought about verse 2 ‘Herod… killed James, the brother of John with the sword.’ Peter rescued – James executed. Why the one, and not the other?

Questions… You can’t be a Christian for long, and not have some. And sometimes it is more than some – they come flooding in from every corner.

It can help to categorise where they arise from.

The example above is essentially a pastoral question. Why does God answer some prayers with a yes, and yet firmly decline others? And of course the volume of the question goes up enormously when it is about the pain and suffering we often face in life. Why, why, why? In fact theologians have a name for that question… The theodicy question. If God is all loving, all powerful and all knowing (and each of the three are important) why do we suffer so? Surely it implies that at least one of the trio of love, power and knowledge is imperfect.

Sometime questions have a different origin – perhaps about scientific fact. They may come from a parallel reading of the Bible and a science text. The world made in 6 days… hmmm, hardly what the scientific community is saying. Or Noah’s ark – I think not. Or Jonah being swallowed by a large fish for 3 days and living to tell the tale… well, that’s more than a fishy story.

Often when people talk about doubt they assume that it is of the scientific validity of the Christian faith, and clearly there are questions to be asked here.

Sometimes it is not the pure sciences, but the social sciences. The moral vision of the Christian faith might be questioned. Take traditional Christian teaching about sexual relations – that they are to be between a married man and woman who have committed themselves to each other for life. Say that on Q and A and you can imagine the collective hiss that would result. Yeah, right, and as though every Christian practices that anyway. And what about people who are gay, or transgendered or bisexual or whatever… Is the answer of celibacy, celibacy, celibacy going to hack it?

But it is not just about sex. Aren’t the exclusive truth claims of faith inherently problematic? Don’t they breed intolerance? And aren’t they the underlying cause of much of the world’s conflict?

That starts to move us from the social sciences to the realm of ethics.

Indeed, if you are into apologetics, you will know that whereas in the past opponents of the Christian faith expressed their doubts in intellectual terms, it is now increasingly common for them to express their distaste of faith in moral terms. Put differently, in the past, detractors from faith accused it of being intellectually vacuous – now they say it is morally suspect.

Questions, questions, questions… they are everywhere.

And they always have been. The writer of Ecc 3 says that there is nothing new under the sun, and the observation remains true 3 thousand years later. Anselm of Canterbury (c1033-1109) famously spoke of faith seeking understanding – by which he suggested that faith comes first, but continues to ask questions but asks them faithfully.

Indeed, becoming a Christian is always an act of faith – and let’s remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty – for certainty does not need faith – it is certain… Nothing else required.

However, let’s remember that Anselm said that faith seeks understanding… How can we go about seeking understanding… and how can we help those who fall under our pastoral care to seek it as well.

First, let’s acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing.

Some things we know, because we know, because we know. To slightly vary the Pascal quote, ‘the heart has its reasons that the head knows not.’  Now while we might want to snort in derision and to dismiss this as a valid form of knowing, in reality, it is the form of knowing that most us operate from in our most important decisions. Like deciding that we are in love – or that someone loves us.

Sometimes it is about a personal revelation. God does something for you – and you can’t doubt the reality of God after that. Others might not believe it – but you know – you know deep within. I have had several such experiences in my life.

It is 2002. After some back and forth between the Baptist Union of WA and myself as to whether I would apply to be principal of the Baptist Theological College of WA, I have concluded that it will be too hard to move from New Zealand and have withdrawn my application. A few months have gone by. It is a few minutes before 11pm one night, I am standing in the kitchen and I suddenly have an overwhelming sense that I must phone the office of the Baptist Union of WA.

‘Why?’ I ask myself. ‘What am I supposed to say?’

‘Say anything’ a voice inside says. ‘Say you are interested to find out who has been appointed to the principal’s post.’

‘But no one will be there. There is a 4 hour time difference. They close office at 5pm. It is 7pm there now.

‘Phone and phone now,’ the voice says.

I do. The phone rings a while, but is answered just before I give up. Steve Smith, director of ministries for the BUWA answers.

‘Brian Harris here,’ I say. ‘Was just wondering who has been appointed to the principal post at the Baptist College.’

‘Funny you should phone and ask now,’  Steve replies. ‘We were really disappointed you pulled out of the application process for we had felt you were our person. I’m about to go into a meeting right now and we are about to finalise who we will interview for the post. It has taken us longer than we thought – but I would really like to tell the group that you are now available. If you had phoned even a few minutes later it would have been too late.’

The rest is history… I have been principal at the Baptist College (now named Vose Seminary) for well over a decade. It has been a time that has been more than a little blessed. If I had ignored that voice, my life would have gone along a completely different track. And that incident has always meant that I know, because I know, because I know, that God called me there.

Now if I was telling that to Richard Dawkins, he would quickly sneer, and immediately rebut – ‘coincidences happen… they happen to everyone. Christians always just want to add the name God to them. But actually, statistics are just that. If there is only a 1 in 10 000 chance of something happening, it still happens 1 in 10 000 times. You have had more than 10 000 experiences in your life – this was your 1 in 10 000.’

Hmmmm, perhaps… perhaps… Actually no. Not perhaps. I know it was God. I might or might not be able to convince you of that – I probably wouldn’t be able to convince Richard Dawkins of it – but that is irrelevant. I know because I know… it is personal knowledge. And actually, it is not the only personal knowing story that I have. The Bible actually expects us to have stories like that. It is why one of its repeated refrains is ‘remember’ – for you will have something to remember. 

What am I saying? Do not dismiss the category of personal knowledge. Studies show that when most people are pushed as to why they believe in God, they reply with a story that in some way parallels mine. And if God exists – isn’t this exactly how we would expect it to be?

After all, in the book that God has given us, the Bible, the Psalmist writes ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’ (Psalm 34:8) It is not ponder and decide if the Lord is good… it is taste and see. And at our heart we are experiential communities… communities that teach that God can be known – and we keep on saying that because around the world hundreds of millions of people reply – that is right, I have experienced God. And in Christian schooling, more than anything we want our students to have a personal encounter with God.

Is this the lazy way out of facing intellectual questions?

Philosophers Alvin Platinga and Nicholas Wolterstorrf speak about ideas and beliefs that are truly basic – so basic that they need no verification. A belief is basic if when you live in the light of it, things hold together and work. The fact that it works is self-verifying – you need no further justification for it. Put differently, if you believe in God, and life essentially works for you, and that belief helps you make sense of life – it is for you a basic belief.

A silly example. I clean my teeth on auto pilot each morning. I don’t agonise over it. Why? It works. Perhaps if my teeth started to fall out or I had major problems with them or with my breath, I might review my practice, but until then, automatic teeth cleaning is a basic belief that I feel no need to verify. My life (and teeth) work when I do it.

Now it is true that sometimes in life a belief we have held to be basic suddenly doesn’t work – and we are forced to question it. People do sometimes have a crisis of faith. They have always held something to be true and have believed in it strongly, and then something happens and they have to think again. It is those times when Psalm 1 no longer seems to be true.

At that point, Anselm nods sagely and says ‘yes, faith must seek understanding. Don’t abandon faith – but keep on seeking.’

And so the talk goes on and I apply some things more directly for Christian educators.

For this post, I just want to raise a few queries… Where do your questions come from – the ones that really trouble you? Are they when Psalm 1 doesn’t work – and life seems unfair… or because life seems unfair to others – or both? Such questions can broadly be categorized as flowing from the realm of experience.

Do you questions have another origin? Do you wonder if science contradicts the Bible, or if miracles are possible, or if the resurrection could have happened? Nothing new about those questions, and apologists have been addressing them for centuries. But they might still be your questions.

Perhaps they arise from the realm of history. Has the Church been a force for good or ill in the world? There clearly have been some significant mistakes – are they of such an order that they render belief in God problematic (“if there really is a God”, you might ask “surely the outcome of belief in God would be essentially positive?”) Actually, though an increasing number of people now cite this as a reason for disbelief, they are on really dodgy ground. Any fair evaluation of history clearly (very, very clearly in my mind) demonstrates that mistakes notwithstanding, the overall impact of Christianity on world history has been overwhelmingly good. Actually, I don’t think the question “has the church been a force for good or ill in the world” has much import. The far more important question is “will the church continue to be a force for good in the world, or has it reached its use by date?” That question is far more open to debate, and must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Which brings us to a related realm – the realm of ethics. Perhaps you wonder if the church has the ethical integrity to genuinely provide guidance in morally perplexing times. Can it provide a way forward on global poverty, migration, gender issues, the gay question, questions surrounding the end of life, questions about genetic engineering and so on.

Over 900 years ago, Anselm was writing about the importance of faith seeking understanding. We still need to seek – but lets keep seeking in faith. We will be given enough along the way (often in the realm of personal knowing) to keep us true to the journey. Perhaps we will be like Asaph, who in spite of his many questions, was able to affirm “what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” Ps 78:3-4.

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. Thanks Brian, a really thoughtful and interesting post, as are most of your posts!!

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