Friday, September 11, 2009

Spiritual Epistemology

The following is sermon #7 from my long-ago First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 2:6-16


I think it was Good Friday, 1970. I know it was during the Spring migration that took college students to Florida. My college was only 60 miles or so from Ft. Lauderdale, and I was part of a group of fellows who drove down one night to witness to all the kids whose lives needed to be straightened out. We were ready to do just that.

I remember joining a group sitting on the sand engaged in animated discussion. I discovered my gang of Bible college students was not the only Christian presence there. A girl about my age was arguing that no one could absolutely know anything with another girl from Young Life. I still remember her question, "How can you prove to me that this sand I'm sitting on is really here?"

It was a philosophical question coming out of the study of epistemology. Epistemology asks the question, "How can we know that we know what we think we know?" It's really an important question. What is our foundation for believing anything? Where does knowledge begin? Is anything always true, everywhere and every time? Or is everything relative –– always dependent on the perception of the individual person? Can I decide, based on my experiences, that something is right or wrong or very important, while you decide from your experiences just the opposite? Is truth limited and relative to each person's perspective? Does the question of truth begin with each individual person? Or if the individual approach is too narrow, does the quest for truth begin with common human experience?

In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies and contrasts two types of wisdom.... two approaches to knowing –– in fact, two lines of humanity. One tries to know truth –– to gain wisdom and knowledge –– by starting with and building on the perceptions and abilities of Man. The other recognizes that truth, knowledge and wisdom have their origin in God, and if Man is going to have understanding, it must begin with God.

Now to us in the church, that is not a radical statement. Of course we must begin with God, we would quickly admit. But that general understanding is not enough if we are going to be strong Christians in a world that is no friend to true godliness, and that general understanding is not enough if we are serious about helping non-Christian friends and neighbors know why Jesus Christ is so important.

Another title for this sermon could have been, "Why The Gospel Is Bad News." There is a reason why living our lives unto Christ is not the cool thing to do in the eyes of the world. We might think Paul is overstating the case that Christ and the cross is foolishness to the world, but our understanding and response to that affects so much who we are and what we do.

It affects our pride. Can we make it on our own or do we need someone else? The serpent convinced Eve she could have truth, wisdom and knowledge independently of anyone else, and all of humanity has tried to believe that ever since.

It affects our values. Do I make choices based on my own opinions? Do I start with my own pleasure, comfort and safety, or do I recognize that my Creator and his ways get first consideration?

It affects the way we try to answer those two questions of self-confidence and values. Can I make those decisions that concern me so intimately by myself, or do I need some outside source to come into my private world and tell me what I need to know?

The Christian answer to all of this is not self-affirming. It is bad news. The foundation of all that Jesus Christ is and does is that we cannot know truth, we cannot have wisdom and knowledge by ourselves. Both individually and collectively, Mankind is limited, twisted and helpless. Those are three of Paul's points in these verses.

Now the overall context is still wisdom, or the lack of it, as the case may be. The Corinthians were buying into something that is very much with us today –– the prestige of appearing brilliant. Christians need to understand why that is foolish. The wisdom of the world is not wise at all. Does that mean, then, there is no intelligent basis to what Christians believe? No, we have a wisdom –– a foundation –– for what we believe and live by, but it is a wisdom that natural Man cannot understand. Why? Because natural Man is limited, twisted and helpless.

How are we limited? In v6 there is a phrase which says, "the wisdom of this age." "This age" is the here and now; it is the world of sensory perception and Time. A wisdom based on such a view of reality is limited, and yet that is where natural Man gets his understanding. The girl on the sand was right. By ourselves we can only hope that what we think we know is not illusion. Or in the case of the tragic –– sickness, death and cruelty –– we can try to say it is illusion. That is what "Christian Science" does with illness. That is what some Eastern religions do with all of life. But good or bad, that answer does not satisfy because it is not true. How can we know what is true? How can we answer our spiritual longings?

Most people run from that question. They do not care how they know or even whether they know, as long as they are, for the moment, comfortable and secure. They refuse to see the conclusion of their lifestyle. Paul describes it in three words in v6: coming to nothing.

A few people search for answers. Apart from becoming a Christian, the options are few: get lost in the process of searching, become cynical, live with inconsistency, or commit suicide. Francis Schaeffer, the evangelist/apologist who became famous in the late '60s and throughout the '70s for his writings and his work at L'Abri in Switzerland, understood this as well as anyone I know. He told a story about a man he met on a cruise in the Mediterranean. The man was an atheist, and as Schaeffer talked with him, it was obvious the man was a thinker, one who understood the abandonment of thinking Man is merely a biological machine.

I offer the rest of the story in the words of Schaeffer himself:

I noticed [his wife] was very beautiful and full of life and it was easy to see, by the attention he paid to her, that he really loved her. Just as they were about to go to their cabin, in the romantic setting of the boat sailing across the Mediterranean and a beautiful full moon shining outside, I finally said to him,

"When you take your wife into your arms at night, can you be sure she is there?" I hated to do it to him, but I did it knowing that he was a man who would really understand the implications of the question and not forget. His eyes turned, like a fox caught in a trap, and he shouted at me, "No, I am not always sure she is there," and walked into his cabin.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we humans are very limited.

Not only are we limited, we are helpless to do anything about it. We need to understand the reality in which we live, but it is too much for us. If we were ourselves responsible for our own existence, then perhaps we could furnish some answers. But to get real answers, we are dependent on the One who is behind all reality. How can we know truth and how can we have wisdom? Not by seeking those things on our own initiative, but by seeking to know the One who is behind them.

Here in the church, if you see a brother do something you do not understand or if you hear a sister say something that bothers you, how do you try to understand it? Do you go to someone else and report what you heard or saw and with a third party try to conjecture what is going on? Or do you go to the person and ask for an explanation? That is a real situation that we need to think about, and it is also an illustration of two ways to try to get truth and understanding about our own world and existence. We can pool our ignorance with other people who know little more than we do, or we can go to the One who made us and seek the wisdom that only he can give.

That is Paul's point in v11: For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We are helpless to get wisdom on our own; we are dependent on the source of wisdom.

That seems so simple. Why would everyone not turn to God for that wisdom? The answer is in the distortion of “natural” Man: we are twisted. There is a spiritual condition in humans that causes us to reject help. We want to be free to make up our own minds. We want to be independent. We follow right in the footsteps of Eve, still saying "I want to be able to do it all by myself." That is how we are twisted. It is why we are cut off from God. It is why people do evil things. We do not want to admit our limitations, and we struggle to prove we are not helpless. In doing that we prove the worst thing of all –– we are twisted. We are pessimists when we should be optimists and we are optimists when we should be pessimists. We hurt ourselves and others.

My father-in-law once told a story which illustrates through a common incident a larger spiritual reality. A surgeon was traveling back and forth between two hospitals on a regular basis. One day he stopped at a small barber shop along the way, and as the barber cut his hair and they talked, he noticed a place on the barber's lip. Not wanting to be too intrusive, but also caring, he asked about it and suggested the man go to a specialist the doctor knew. The barber knew the place was there, but had not thought much about it. He would see.

But instead of making a doctor's appointment, the barber went to see the druggist. The druggist suggested some salve which both covered it and provided some antiseptic help. Some time later the surgeon was by the barber shop again, and not seeing the place on the barber's lip as conspicuously, thought it had been taken care of, and he said nothing.

Another span of time passed and again the surgeon stopped to get his hair cut. This time he could see a protrusion under the make-up job. He again asked the barber about the place, whereupon the barber pulled out the tube of salve. The surgeon jumped up and looked more closely and told the man to get to the specialist immediately.

Again another span of time passed and the surgeon one day stopped at the little barber shop. This time it was a new man behind the chair. His old acquaintance had not seen the specialist in time.

There is that in all people which does not want to face hard things. It is no less true spiritually than physically. Some people think their values and opinions and decisions are okay as long as they are getting by. One view on moral and spiritual issues is thought to be just as good as another. In fact, the one wisdom that is most often rejected is the way of Jesus. A "natural" mind will always choose power and position over something that appears weak, despicable and threatening.

That is because a “natural” person is not a complete person. The only way we can understand who we are as people made in the image of God is for God's Spirit to live in us. Without God's Spirit in us, we are without understanding; there is no truth and no hope.

That is part of the meaning of v14–– The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. There are only two types of people in this world: natural and spiritual. People who are "natural" do natural things. They understand their world and its events in natural ways. All it takes to be natural is to be born into the world.

But to be spiritual, the Holy Spirit has to come inside a person. And the only way that can happen is through Jesus Christ. We are going to find that in itself does not end every problem, but it provides the only foundation on which anything lasting can stand.

At this point though, the one issue is what you and I are looking at to judge the issues of our lives and to make our decisions. Maybe we find it hard sometimes to believe the non-Christian who lives next to us is lost. Maybe we even find it hard to see our own brokenness. I talked with someone recently who was wishing he had a dramatic conversion story. His life before he asked Jesus to come in was basically good. Outwardly, one would hardly notice any difference after his conversion than before. How are people like that supposed to see their own twistedness?

Well, first there is a difference between behavior and and disposition. An evil disposition is there long before evil behavior surfaces. When God's Spirit comes to our heart's door, he helps us see that, regardless of our behavior, our situation without him is truly limited, twisted and helpless. We all are proud and selfish apart from a new disposition that can only come from God's Spirit. That is one way we can know something has changed –– when we become sensitized to our self-orientation.

Everyone who has God's Spirit can sing "He brought me out of the miry clay." All of us who know that the foolishness of Christ crucified is really the most wonderful thing that has ever happened can sing with Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed thee.

Amazing love! How can it be,

that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Until we can sing that song, we are all too like the girl at the beach, not even able to be sure the sand she's sitting on is real. What things do you “know” today, and how do you know that you know? Is it because God's Spirit has changed you? Is the world's idea of what is "natural" a foreign and dangerous stranger to you? Once the Spirit of Jesus comes in, we know "all other ground is sinking sand."

1 comment:

levi said...

Just terrific! Thanks for a faith-building exposition.

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