Friday, September 21, 2012

Problems With Piper

In the past week I've been reading two books - one for a class, one for my own edification - and have found the interplay of the two in my thoughts both surprising and compelling. Or, more accurately, I've found it interesting to watch the ideas of one writer (as far as I understand them) bring unforeseen critique upon the other (as far as I understand him), in a way that I had never before considered.

The first book is John Piper's The Supremacy of God in Preaching. As far as Piper's books go, this one is more or less par for the course, in ways that are both good and bad. You have the deeply good and true conviction that the end of all things is God's glory; that humanity plays a part in this glory, a part that encompasses the totality of their being (but especially their affections and desires); that the task of sharing the word of God not only involves but is singularly devoted to impressing upon hearers the true greatness of majesty of God in such a way as evokes their reverence and awe and humble adoration.

On the other hand, you have the usual difficulties with Piper that stem from his attempt to situate any and every biblical idea within his own scheme of "Christian hedonism" - for example, a totally non-biblical definition of the concept, "the righteousness of God"; the reduction of authentic spirituality to certain feelings about God in apparent opposition to actions taken in obedience to God; also the myopic focus on individual spirituality which follows from this reduction. (One is left wondering, at times, what really distinguishes some of Piper's views from the German liberal Adolf von Harnack's diminishment of Christianity's "essence" to the solitary interplay of "God and the soul, the soul and its God.")

My interest is not so much in this particular book by Piper as it is with Piper's scheme of thought more broadly. I used to be quite enamored of our Baptist brother from Minnesota, embracing his scheme of "Christian hedonism" more or less wholesale, believing that it offered a wonderful freedom to Christians who were perhaps inclined to see their deepest desires and God's glory as being at odds with one another. This, he shows, is manifestly untrue. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" is the continual refrain of Piper's book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and at least at the time, I fully agreed with him.

But this pairing of superlatives (God is most glorified when we are most satisfied) is markedly incomplete. As I said, this is a myopic outlook on God's glory - it centers in on one thing and one thing only, the individual interiority in its apprehension of God, and situates the glory of God there, in radically exclusive terms. No wonder Piper speaks very little in Desiring God (or in The Supremacy of God in Preaching, or in most of his other books for that matter) about the Christian community, about the corporate context to which Paul is speaking when he talks about "Christ in you [plural] the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). His vision of what is the core of the Christian life can never make the (I would say irreducibly) collective dimensions of that life anything other than incidental. Worse still, the exclusivity of this pairing of God's glory with my emotions has the ultimate effect of generating an all-consuming concern, not with God himself, nor with the neighbor whom I am to love in God's name, but with how I myself "feel" about God. If the be-all and end-all of Christian life is God's glory through my satisfaction in him, it seems that my sense of satisfaction cannot but become the center of my attention, because all else depends on it.

And this is where the other book I've been reading this past week becomes relevant. The second book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. Though the book remains incomplete in its final form (Bonhoeffer died before he could finish it), I am certain that it is nonetheless to be counted among the most significant theological works of the twentieth century. Particularly the first chapter, with its opening punch to the ethical gut of the modern man ("The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge."), issues a challenge to all human thinking and acting in the world, but not least to presumptuous Christians with a penchant for fabricating their own legalistic structures of piety. At the heart of Bonhoeffer's understanding of the ethical life lies the conviction that "the good" is not something the human mind is capable of apprehending apart from the revealed knowledge of God, because any form of knowledge, however noble and admirable, which does not recognize everything that "is" to be what it is within the unity of knowledge that is God the creator, is (a) fundamentally out of touch with reality, and (b) a reflection of my mastery over existence by my own intuition and understanding, rather than an acknowledgment of the dependency of all things on God for definition and direction.

In connection with this, Bonhoeffer warns away the attempt of Christians to "know their goodness," particularly by constructing a conscious scheme within which they might perceive how fully and successfully they honor their God. There is, for Bonhoeffer, one thing and one thing only when it comes to being in a right relationship with God: accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, and choosing to "know thyself" only and ever only as one who is, at base, "chosen and loved by God" (we could say, 'justified by faith'). Within this secure self-knowledge which is really just one aspect of our broader knowledge of God, we become hearers and doers of God's word, and we become shameless in our doing of it - that is to say, our repeated question is not "what is the principle for which I must strive, that forms the basis of God's glory in my life, and of which I must continually fear falling short?" Rather, knowing ourselves to be totally accepted in Christ already, we then ask, "What is the will of God?" and we do it as it becomes clear to us, not giving thought to standards, schemes, and measures that might try to evaluate the purity of our action or intention. Within this picture Bonhoeffer includes the love of God - his love for us in Jesus Christ, the very same love that becomes our own as we receive it and respond to it in faith. To love God and others, for Bonhoeffer, is to think, feel, and act out of our acceptance of God's love for man in Jesus Christ, not simply to "reply" to God with some separate and independent love of our own, whose quality we are wont to measure and tweak and tend and keep.

Bonhoeffer's picture, even of the Christian's affections, centers in on God's lordship over us through Jesus Christ, and our apprehension of that lordship as the ground of all our affections. In contrast with this, Piper confuses God's lordship over us with our affections. In his scheme of "Christian hedonism," what occupies center stage is not the Lord of lords himself, but my emotions about this lord; accordingly, this scheme in practice has more to do with my lordship (my mastery over my emotions about God, who will not be glorified unless I feel really, really, really, really good about him all the time, and who is being horrendously dishonored if I feel anything less) than it does with God's. For all his knocking of Immanuel Kant (whose view of the matter he misunderstands, incidentally), Piper's "ethic" of the Christian life is every bit as duty-based and liable to enslave, even if Piper is able to make convenient additions about how God forgives our failure and how the Holy Spirit empowers our affections by grace.

To illustrate, let's consider how this plays out within the act of worship. In the days of my enthusiasm for Christian hedonism, I became increasingly concerned with the degree to which I found God desirable during church services. That, after all, seemed to be the "objective," in light of what Piper was saying. Now of course, one finds that the quickest way to obliterate an emotion is by focusing all attention on the emotion itself. (C.S. Lewis said something like this about anger, I think?) Many a worship service, therefore, became a wrestling match, an all-out war for my attention in which I was held in suspension between the awareness of two realities, both of which drew my attention, ironically, away from the God I was worshiping: (1) that I could only feel emotional about God if all my attention was fixed on him, and (2) that deficiency in such emotions amounted to dishonoring God. The nagging sense of these twin realities would turn many a worship service into a frantic, affective triage. What seemed at first glance like freedom became, instead, slavery.

Bonhoeffer invites us to something different. His proposal does not have fundamentally to do with our affective capacities, but delves deeper into that on which all our affections should be situated: the knowledge of God, and the knowing of all things only "in him." God is not most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him - he is most glorified in us when we forsake the knowing of good and evil that is involved in scrutinizing whether our love for him is satisfying, and take hold of his love for us in Jesus Christ, knowing ourselves and all our feeble affections only within that love that embraces us no matter how we are feeling at present. Our self-awareness in worship then becomes a way of being aware of God and his goodness and his grace. And, wonderfully enough, the issue of this awareness is thankfulness and gratitude to God (something, incidentally, that Piper lambastes as a driving force for religious affection in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals), and this in turn issues in joy - the joy of knowing this God's unfathomable love, and of knowing myself and all my affections within that love, needing to do nothing to earn or obtain it, capable of doing nothing to magnify or diminish it. This kind of self-awareness, the self-awareness of the justified man, readily widens itself out to include others - not only I, but we, the justified, adopted and loved children of God, worship the one who loved us and freed us by his blood, contrary to the muddle of affections (to say nothing of our other sins and flaws) in which we daily live out our lives. How true and how freeing is this love, and how much more evocative of my delight than a distracting preoccupation with my emotions about God, needlessly endured because of my ignorance of the antecedent reality of God's incorruptible glory in the acceptance of sinners (such as myself, however I feel) in Jesus Christ! 

Maybe Piper would agree with everything I just said. But the point is, whatever his intentions, I fear that people will (as I did) put down Desiring God with the impression that their own emotions and experience of God rather than God himself occupy pride of place in the Christian life. Surely this is not what Piper intends, but it is nevertheless where I feel his emphases (at least in his book) incline us. For Bonhoeffer, a maxim like "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" would be inherently dangerous if it were meant in any way to constitute a directive for our spiritual lives - such maxims pose the danger of demanding of us an ongoing self-reliance whereby we differentiate ourselves tirelessly from ourselves again and again, scrutinizing our emotions and actions to determine by our judgment whether they are pleasing to God. We quite simply do not need schemes and principles such as this, because the business of our lives as Christians is not to take the temperature of our emotions and flagellate ourselves according to their deficiency (as Piper revels in doing, it seems, in a number of his books), but to know that we are loved by God in such a way as delves far beneath our temporary abilities and inabilities to feel a certain way about him. His acceptance, his love, and his glory are equally often magnified, it seems, in that he embraces us and draws us near to himself in spite of what we feel, and does not allow the transience of our emotions to impede him.

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