Monday, March 29, 2010

An Artist and A Lawyer

On this date in 1806, the Federal government authorized our first national highway.

It was to begin in Cumberland, Maryland, cross the Allegany Mountains and connect the east coast to the western city of Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). The road would then proceed to the unthinkable westernmost part of the country: Vandalia, Illinois.

I know a little about the National Road. I used to drive on it every day. Trish and I pastored a little church in Wheeling for a year. Sometimes, while stopped at the traffic light, I would read the historical marker about how I was on the very first federal highway of the Unites States.

Local people claimed that President Washington had a lady friend in Wheeling. That is why the National Road ran right past her front door!

I didn’t jump to conclusions about whether the father of our country had any connections with a certain lady in Wheeling. I did speculate about how or why such an enormous sum of federal money had been spent building that road to Wheeling. It was a good thing for the country, I suppose. So I will just leave it there. The interesting part about this old gossip is that great events and notable projects are often influenced by personal experiences. By the time the National Road was authorized, Jefferson was president. He had a rather expansive idea of national life. So whether the father of our country had anything to do with how that road project evolved is a mystery.

I have been talking about the Holy Spirit in my recent blogs and have noted how difficult it is to speak about Him. That is why most Western Christian theologians have been silent about the subject.

It is worth noting that Western theologians have often been lawyers. Naturally, Western theology has often revolved around definitions of words and the structure of language.

In contrast, Eastern Church theologians have often been artists. In the Christian east, theology was not just about intellect.They were also expected to manifest lives of piety and holiness. Not surprising, Eastern theologians tended to use artistic metaphors when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Churches have been much more comfortable with emotional prayer and mystical experience than Westerners. This resulted in a theology that was more accessible to everyday believers, and which tended to be directed toward the cultivation of one’s spiritual life. Western theology – with some notable exceptions – has tended toward intellectual refection on the meaning and analysis of the natural world. From late medieval times, Western Christianity became increasingly rationalized and therefore resistant to the role of emotion and mystical experience in spiritual life. This changed last century with the eruption of the Pentecostal movement in the United States, first among African-Americans and poor Whites, and later within the historic denominations.

A huge component of Western intellectual tradition is the aim of separating one’s emotions from his arguments. This serves a very useful purpose. No one will give great consideration to a man who claims that fine coffee cures cancer, dries up warts, increases fertility and releases endorphins in the brain just because he breaks down in tears while he makes these assertions. We will probably ask him for charts, statistics, studies and so forth. We are trained to discuss such matters in as non-biased, emotionless atmosphere as possible.

Science has taught Western people to examine theory in this way and it is an important cultural habit.

On the other hand, there are situations in which such an approach is out-of-place.

Imagine a woman asking her fiancee, “do you love me?”

Now imagine her lover replying like this: “Well, lets first define our terms. What do you mean by love? Aristotle and other great philosophers made precise definitions for love … well, on the other hand there are the opinions of many modern scientist who believe that what we call love is a trick our genes play on us in order to get us to reproduce. Now, now dear … don’t get so emotional, we’ll never get to the bottom of this question unless we approach this scientifically!”

(How much money will you be willing to place on the odds that this relationship will never become a mutually enriching one?)

This is the way much of Western theology comes across to the people of God.

When theologians are considering the linguistic roots of a Bible word because they are trying to translate it accurately, they should approach their task with as little of their own private emotion and opinion as possible. If they do that, we are more likely to arrive at the original writer’s intent than the opinion of the translator.

When we speak about the Holy Spirit however, we are talking about love and fire. We are discussing wind and breath.

We are talking about life.

In this situation, the Eastern approach, and dare I say the Pentecostal approach – with all its excess – is more in keeping with the subject at hand.

When married people talk about how to pay the bills, a non-emotional, rational approach is best. When they are making love, too many words get in the way.

I’ll just say it: experiencing the Holy Spirit is more like making love than like paying the bills.

One doesn’t meet the spirit by treating Him like a scientific problem.

Of course, the difficulty of expressing who the Holy Spirit is exactly, or what He is like, is not just a problem for theologians. Listen to Jesus speak about the Holy Spirit in John, 3:
“The Spirit blows where He wishes; you hear the sound but you cannot tell from where He is coming or where He is going.”

Definitions, formulas and explanations about the Holy Spirit are difficult, even for Jesus.

How could it be otherwise?

Who can explain the wind? Oh, we gain something from knowing how wind is created by the variation of global temperatures, the planet’s inclination toward homeostasis and all of that. But for most of us, the wind should be felt and experienced, not merely explained and defined.

In 1806, after making its way through the inevitable messy process of political life, an idea became a thing as some unknown worker scooped up a shovel of dirt in a field. Thirty-three years later, another generation of workers would pound the last shovel of gravel in Vandalia, Illinois over the road they had just completed.

It’s a spooky thing – the way experiences impact thinkers and politicians, moving from mind to mind; from discussion to discussion; meandering through legislation and committees until, finally, someone shovels some dirt.

You can’t see where it comes from and you don’t know where it’s going.

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