Monday, July 6, 2009

"Do You Not Know? Have You Not Heard?": On the Non-Inevitability of Christian Faith

If one were to fashion a credo to hang over every story, every command, every poem, and every person of the biblical canon, of the varied tellings of the creator God's history with his people Israel, with his Son Jesus, with his Spirit-led church, it might be:

Nothing is inevitable.

To anyone familiar with Scripture, this maxim is self-evident. From any ordinary perspective, it was inevitable for the world to collapse into ruin after Eden, after Cain, after Babel; inevitable for Abraham to die childless; inevitable for Jacob's descendants to die in slavery; inevitable for the wilderness to triumph; inevitable for the nations to swallow up little Israel; inevitable for the exiles to vanish into history.

From any rational, even sympathetic, prediction, it was inevitable for foreign occupation to sever Israel's future; inevitable for a lunatic baptizer to remain at the margins; inevitable for a virgin to be childless; inevitable for a Galilean prophet to die abandoned and alone; inevitable for a nonviolent, sectarian, ethnic movement centered on the poor and oppressed to wither away upon their leader's execution; inevitable for the further execution of that movement's later leaders to lay the groundswell finally to rest.

Inevitability, simply and straightforwardly, is not in the vocabulary of Israel's God.

One would think, then, that any people constituted by or grounded in the witness of Scripture would not fall prey to thinking in terms of inevitability -- but that is exactly what happens. Christians no less than anyone else speak the language of inevitability. Other terms under this heading include "realistic," "responsible," and "just wait and see."

For example, one might respond to Jesus' economic teachings by saying, "Well, that's not responsible." Or, in response to Jesus' lived pattern of nonviolence one might say, "Well, that's not realistic." Or, upon hearing a young couple share their intention to follow Jesus in x or y way, an older person might admonish, "Well, you're young now; things are different when you're older. Just wait and see." Such responses may even be claimed by their speakers to be biblical.

On the contrary, the Bible summarily responds on behalf of God: "Do you not know? Have you not heard?"

Do you not know that the one God does not act in accordance with your limited imagination? Have you not heard that Israel was brought up from slavery in Egypt? that Jesus is alive? Do you not know that the gospel is promise and miracle and freedom? Have you not heard of the martyrs and saints? of Maximus the Confessor, of Francis of Assisi? Do you not know that the Lord reigns? Have you not heard that he is mighty to save?

And so on and so forth. The biblical God, the God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not constrained by or limited to what we happen to call "realistic," " responsible," or -- God help us from even thinking it -- "inevitable." As surely as the Lord lives, there is no such thing. It is therefore nothing short of idolatry to speak in such a way. For if this sort of economics or that sort of politics, this sort of coercive arrangement or that sort of unjust circumstances, is truly inevitable, truly intrinsic to human life, truly insurmountable in the broad scheme of things -- Jesus is no longer Lord, but a new and more powerful god has usurped him. Whether it be the Market or the Government, the Flag or the Gun, a Theory or a Gender or a Race, Baal or the Nation, Satan or the Family, the triune God has been defeated in the last, and is finally no deity at all.

But we know that no such thing has happened: no such god has won. As those who belong to the one who truly reigns, while "at present we do not see everything subject to him," still "we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor" (Heb 2:8-9). We are the ones who know that the world did not collapse into ruin, that Abraham was given a child, that Israel plundered their taskmasters, that the Lord made a way in the wilderness. We are the ones who have heard and believe that John prepared the way, that the virgin was with child, that the Messiah hung on a cross, that Israel's God raised his anointed from the dead. We have been given the eyes to see such things, and insofar we are those who see Jesus. And because we see Jesus, the Logos become flesh, we know the truest logic of the world is not that of nations or generals, of Wall Street or Washington: instead, it is in the crucified and risen flesh of the Son of God. His Spirit is the freedom of history. In that same freedom, we cry to God that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And just so, that what seems inevitable would not obtain.


  1. This is inspiring.

    I've had thoughts along these lines before, more singly resurrection-centered. The way I've thought about it is that in the Resurrection, the impossible becomes possible; the idealistic, pragmatic; the unimaginable, immediate. This seems roughly equivalent to what you're talking about here, and like you I had explicitly related this to the efficacy of Christian nonviolence in the "real world".

  2. Thanks for this reminder.


  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. Matt, are you here at Emory for the YTI? I met Beth Cooper and told her you emailed me. Hope that is going well.