“Thou, my Fellow Traveller as I Go”

Normally, I use this blog space to rant about random thoughts that cross my mind. The random thoughts are still there, but I could not write as much as I would have loved to. Partly, it is because, over almost the last couple of years, the thoughts have turned inward– toward failings, disappointments, and inabilities.

Becoming acutely aware of the need for a mentor, I went ahead and found one. He passed on to me an old copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, which has since become a treasure. Tucked in this morning’s prayer, I found these sweet words.

It has pleased Thee to withhold from me a perfect knowledge; therefore deny me not the grace of faith by which I may lay hold of things unseen. Thou hast given me little power to mould things to my own desire; therefore use Thine own omnipotence to bring Thy desires to pass within me. Thou hast willed it that through labour and pain I should walk the upward way; be Thou then my fellow traveller as I go.

So then, I reflect. The epistemic humility that we are forced to acknowledge, for “our knowledge is imperfect” and so are we (1 Cor 13:9), need not be resisted. The calm assurance of the fellow traveller will suffice.

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A Prayer

When one is at a loss to write anything edifying, one draws from the greats who’ve gone before.
A Celtic blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Incommunicado in SK’s Fear and Trembling

For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself. You do words. Can’t you improve on that? Can’t you face down death — well you won’t ever face it down, but can’t you at least protest against it— more interestingly than this? – Julian Barnes

Intelligibility is vital to speech; social intelligibility to action. There was a time when it was so. Therefore, he didn’t do words. The knight of faith is silent– he is sworn to secrecy.

There’s another– a drifter who became a leader. By his idiocy, he sacrificed his daughter: ~ Oh Jephthah, you fool. You made a reckless promise and were in turn imprisoned by it. You should’ve known better– to make an oath is to not be silent. No. You just don’t do words!

But the knight of faith is silent– he is sworn to secrecy. No one will or can understand him. It would be much easier if they did. If someone did. His test had layers and his call to silence is as hard as the command to sacrifice his son.

There’s another, a tragic hero– Agamemnon, who became great via his tragedy. The sacrifice of his daughter would grieve him; yet, it fit a scheme– made him worthy of applause. ‘Iphigenia, my dear daughter. This is for the greater good. Our purpose is, after all, to please Artemis. Your death will save thousands. A commoner dies for nothing, but we nobles die for a cause. You will live in the hearts of those, who, by your death, will live.’

~ This is very intelligible, Agamemnon. It is very noble indeed, that you are willing to sacrifice your daughter. But you at least can grieve openly. And the louder you weep, the greater you are! Your greatness at the far end of grief is your reward. But the knight of faith– he cannot grieve, he is silent, he is sworn to secrecy.

He did speak or so we should imagine– but only in a manner of concealing. “Stupid boy,” he said,

do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God’s command, no it is my desire….” But Abraham said softly to himself, “Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me to be a monster than that he should lose faith in you.

Grace, Works and Kierkegaard

Now that we have fully embraced Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and have left behind a penitential version of Christianity, we love to hate the term ‘works’. Unsurprisingly, we have various phenomena such as ‘free grace’ and ‘hyper-grace’ that are shaping the theological landscape of the contemporary church, where only ‘grace’ finds a mention within its vocabulary. One may ask how the concept of grace can be overstated given how central it is to Christian faith. After all, isn’t Christianity all about grace?

The error is not in the emphasis on grace in the life of a Christian, but in how today the term is construed to mean something totally different. To many a Christian, ‘grace’ seems to mean a ‘lack of requirement’, which, at the practical level, often translates into a casual approach to Christian formation or a license to define sin in culturally acceptable terms.

“There was a time” (read, before Luther) Kierkegaard writes,

when the Gospel, grace, was changed into a new Law, more rigorous with people than the old Law. Everything had become rather tortured, laborious, and unpleasant, almost as if, despite the angels’ song at the advent of Christianity, there was no joy anymore either in heaven or on earth. Through petty self-torments, they had made God just as petty—in this way it brings its own punishment! . . . . Everything had become works.[1]

As a corrective to a culture of ‘earning’ redemption through atoning penitential works, Kierkegaard thinks, Luther’s Sola gratia was necessary.

The error from which Luther turned was an exaggeration with regard to works. And he was entirely right; he did not make a mistake—a person is justified solely and only by faith. That is the way he talked and taught—and believed. And that this was not taking grace in vain—to that his life witnessed. Splendid![2]

However, 300 years since Luther, Kierkegaard fears the world of Christianity has swung like a pendulum to the other extreme—the exaggeration with regard to grace. “The world”, writes Kierkegaard, “is like a drunken peasant, who, if you help him up on one side of the horse, falls off on the other side.” He laments that unlike Luther, the Danish church had lost “the conception of the unconditioned requirement.”

The moral reasoning of Kierkegaard’s times is echoed by contemporary Christians. So we ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.”[3] In short, we have changed the goal post and redrawn the rules of the game, morphed Christianity to look like secular humanism; we have abandoned the transcendent and have turned Christianity into an immanent human project.

Correlation between Grace and Guilt

Characteristic to today’s culture of autonomy and individualistic thinking, we define the ‘requirement’ of God according to our likes, tastes, and orientations. When self-interests conflict with the scriptural teaching, we either pretend indeterminacy of scriptural meaning (this, of course, is easier if you have a PhD! Continue reading