Vestiges of despair

I have several thoughts from the week I would like to scribble on, but obviously no time. I will indulge myself with this one scrappy note though.

I have often struggled to bring together the sticking points where I struggle with faith, in ways that are sometimes perhaps characteristic of my personality, but in other ways so common to evangelicals. I will begin describing the strong, violent struggle of despair, then note how common the issue is under other guises, and finally permit myself a ponder on how to proceed.

Why art thou so disquieted, O my soul? (Ps. 43) Above the inner turbulence, why is it so hard to talk about what we think and feel? Thinking about Kierkegaard with a friend this week sparked off some strong thoughts and reactions, and I could question why I felt so strongly about the way we communicate with and respond to our internal dialogue. I fear the attractiveness of the abandonment of the mind, the inner struggle, and even though I understand his work so little, I almost instantly able to empathise with him. He too was too afraid of his bouts of melancholy restless fear to contemplate marriage, was deeply upset by lack of discipline in the church, fiercly internalised, and racked by doubt about whether he understood himself, whether his perceptions of his emotions were real, and whether the feelings themselves were true. The fervency of my reaction to Kierkegaard is only as strong as my rejection of what he ended up embracing, as far as I can tell: the inner insecurity, the interiority, the void detachment as the ability to think, really think in a way strongly to connecting to the world, is absorbed by introspection. In the end, our hope in God for the psalmist is in returning to praise him according to his plan for salvation. Whenever we feel cut off, we can once more be restored to the fullness of the body. After all, if even Strauss could be suspected by some of satire in his Heldenleben, can we persist picturing ourselves as little Kierkegaards?

This is extreme, but how more subtle and similar is this? Consider that attraction so many of us have to the wrong tools for extricating ourselves from a milder fear of self. One of the most ESV-happy people I know is a former intermittent atheist, with a long history of battle with doubt, recently come out of a few years of unbelief and desperately keen to hold on to reality rather than slip back into the descending tunnel leading nowhere. He also has a chunky Grudem. I know the feeling, and the disquiet. This is really just an illustration that makes a point in its vagueness: it could describe a lot of people I know. We cherish so highly our oracles, which is perhaps why KJV-only makes so many evangelicals twitch, because the safeness and cosseting of the right books is so immanent for us too. Luckily, Grudem is highly reliable, and the KJV also is able to excellently communicate God’s word. However, when we find our solidarity in the culture around us, we do need to be gently weaned from that support, gently as Jesus is as tender towards the scars of doubt leaving us reluctant to open out as he is willing to be seen and make his own scars palpable. I so want Grudem to be right, want to be able to explain and exegete like he does, but that is no more the goal and compass of our faith than the res of history is writing essays.

So what? As evangelicals, whether we have moments of internal crisis or not, many of us particularly in booking Cambridge do have difficulty with faith in ways we are often very clever at hiding from ourselves. Whether we hanker after abstruse knowledge ourselves, or take comfort in knowing our church is sound, has the right basis for its teaching, or is generally good at engaging with the world and gives us confidence that its apologetic will not disgrace us; whether indeed any good thing like these, there is a very real danger that our trust in Jesus shifts to these things (or never started there). [I could make a remark here about moving new believers on from classical apologetics, because there is a strong similarity in argument.]

Now, here I will make a tentative conclusion. Caveat lector (a familiar theme for college group; do I ever pronounce in confidence?). What we see here at the heart of each difficulty goes back to the psalmist’s existential struggle, ended each time by looking out to the person of God. Yet, the resolution for many of us is to focus on the word. What could possibly be wrong with that? I am tentative here because any discernment I may have ran out long ago, but so many of the mature Christians I know actually talk about the Word more than they do about the word. Could it be that subtle shift, the irksomeness of our relationship with theology and rationalisation, comes when we de-personalise God down to a book? A living, active book, but the words of Scripture are distinct from the Son and Spirit whom we touch. Scripture testifies to God, is active in its testimony, is eternal and universal in its declaration of the character and work of God, but is not the object of our worship. Books have an author, so cannot themselves be the Author and perfector. The inclination towards bibliolatry is perhaps apparent in the way students seem to know more of the epistles than the gospels, while in the past attachment to the gospels was a sign of healthy piety in the liturgies.

I want no neat recapitulation and eloquent sentence to end on. Our battles with truth are ongoing, and God’s word and more importantly his Spirit arm us for that fight so Wittgenstein’s existential train can burst out into light. It is not clear either how we can help each other with these things. If I struggle to write coherently things I could never hope to articulate in speech, how can we be an encouragement to one another? Clearly the church’s work is hard and hard to describe, but somewhere lurks the Comforter to assure that doubt will be no more when we see not in a mirror but face to face. To avoid that neat ending, I will write this sentence.