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Rock bottom

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 27 November 2015


But how is this one a stranger to us? How is a man conceived of as transcendent? It is here that we must think in terms of paradox (not contradiction) and understand that while this one is a total stranger to us He is also closer to us than breathing. This is the tension of our relationship to Him.

We come to this conclusion by reading Scripture. It is only after this reading that dogma is formulated, not the other way around. Dogma is the development of our understanding of what we have seen when we have read Scripture. It is not the bogey in the woodpile that many make out it to be but the formulation of the identity of the transcendent. It is only within the framework of the dogmatic that we can understand who Jesus is and how he exists in communion with the Father and the Spirit.

Indeed, the trend towards immediately accessible and personal religious experience falls by Feuerbach's critique. Is not this private religion designed with ourselves in full view; made in our own image and thus the very opposite of transcendence? Can this not be thoroughly seen through?

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So the transcendent is not longer "other" in terms of an immaterial being who can nevertheless interact with the material world, the transcendent is "other" in that Jesus comes into our world and destroys it, a reality that Christians discover particularly in the season of Advent. Jesus is the anticipation of the end of us and of our world. This is how He is a stranger in our midst. As the seventeenth century English divine, John Owen has written:

"He is light, and we darkness; and what communion has light with darkness? His is life, and we are dead, - he is love, and we are enmity: and what agreement can there be between us?"

The necessary property of transcendence in Christianity cannot be found in the order of the material and the immaterial or even in the dualism between body and soul but in the fact that when we read Scripture we recognise a One, who has come among us who is pure humanity and hence pure divinity. In Him the breach between heaven and earth has been overcome. This new Adam will restore us to the lost Garden of Eden in which the enmity between the truth and us is healed.

Hence transcendence is not to be found in the order of nature but in the order of culture. It also cannot dispense with the idea of truth, the truth about being human and subject to death

This is how Christianity escapes from its nineteenth century detractors. It is obviously not just a projection of human fear and desire but has its foundation in an actual historical figure that we could not expect and who turns all our "religion" on its head.

This is all to say that it is not so easy to see through Christianity. Rather it stands as a challenge to modern men and women who are not irrevocably destined to live at rock bottom.

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The Church must take its detractors seriously. But those detractors must also do serious work. It is not good enough to take a one-sided view of history by which the dark times of the Church are used as proof of its transparency. We admit that the Church was often in the control of evil men and women who could not be called Christian. It is certainly not good enough to point to a supernaturalism that is no longer relevant to the Church, although, embarrassingly it continues to be the ground of faith for many.

It is significant that C.S. Lewis speaks about another academic, a philosopher indeed, who lives as though he has seen through everything and thus lives, as they say "with no visible means of support." He is not alone among the intelligentsia and the creative. They seem to be more than usually subject to such nihilism. It is not that they think too much or are too bright to be taken in by what has been called the mumbo jumbo of theology. Rather, they have inherited a tradition of scepticism that cuts away the possibilities of faith before any understanding may be built.

Christianity is so out of favour in academe, especially in Australia, that any prospect of something serious is to be found in it is suffocated before it gets off the ground. It is amazing to me that such a divide can exist in intellectual life. While scientists may be uninterested in say, French poetry, they will give it the benefit of the doubt that it is a respectable pursuit. The same may be said of the friction between other university departments, but none of this adds up to a full denial of the very basis of a discipline, as is often the case for the study of theology.

I can only conclude that the guise of intellectual openness and truth-seeking boasted of in academe is often a sham, overrun by shear prejudice and wilful blindness. What happens, of course, is that even more bottom dwellers are produced in the student body who must grope their way through the darkness hoping that something will turn up that will make some sense of their lives, something that will not be torn down before their eyes.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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