The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

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Glorious Anonymity

Pop artist Andy Warhol once predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A look at modern culture suggests that Warhol was almost right. It would be more accurate to say that now everyone “wants to be” world-famous for 15 minutes, to “go viral.” To be famous, or even infamous, seems to be the pinnacle of individual achievement. Somehow we must set ourselves apart from the crowd.

Though we struggle to imagine conceiving of ourselves any other way, this striving for individuality and recognition is a relatively recent development in Western society and doesn’t exist in many other cultures even today. Just a few centuries ago, the individual was not the basic unit of society, groups and classes were.

One manifestation of this absorption of the individual into the collective is the anonymity in which clerks and artists plied their trades. Legal documents bear only the individual’s position not their name, or at best, an initial. The design and execution of major public works was accomplished without attribution. With exasperation, Walter Ullmann, a medieval historian rants:

Who conceived Ely Cathedral? Who was the architect of Strasbourg Cathedral? Who were the builders of the dozens of magnificent monuments? To be told that this work comes from the school of Reichenau and that work from the school of St. Albans, and so on, is really no substitute for an identification of the individual who composed and executed or illuminated this or that manuscript. (33)

For our self-soaked mindset, it seems impossible that these people would leave no trace of their involvement in these magnificent works. We must have recognition and we must have it now.

In general, Ullmann writes with an historian’s circumspection. But on this point, the stark difference between that time and our own prompts a brief, damning editorialization. He writes, “Today when a new apartment house goes up, the name of its architect is splashed all over the papers but in coming ages neither the architect nor his building will be remembered, while after so many centuries medieval productions still evoke justifiably great admiration” (33) Compared to the art and architecture of earlier ages, our modern world creates very little that anyone will still be marveling at centuries hence. But we always know who did it. We make plaques listing donors, name legislation after its proponents, and turn artists into household names.

There are two types of glory at work here. One is broad, brief, and evanescent. The other is lasting and deep, but anonymous. As Christians we are not immune to the thought practices of our culture. Are we looking for recognition now of who we are and what we’ve done, even religiously? If so, Jesus would say, “You have your reward.” Or are we willing to work anonymously to contribute to the building of a kingdom that will not fade away?

*The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Time will Tell

There is an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. It is a helpful reminder in a culture that attempts to prove or disprove everything through “scientific studies.”

It is tempting for Christians to overestimate the value of studies that purport to support things that we believe, like, say, a study that finds that children from intact families fare better in life. “See, the Bible was right all along,” we say.

But statistics cut both ways. In From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel Paul chronicles how many studies showed that children raised by same-sex partners fared as well (or even better!) than children in heterosexual homes. This evidence was used to weaken arguments against same-sex marriage and parenting by showing that it had no deleterious effects on children. Critics of same-sex marriage and parenting were left to question the validity of the studies in some way or offer counter studies.

How do we think Christian-ly about this issue?

First, we should be circumspect in our appreciation or rejection of purported scientific findings. Reports of the health benefits of good marriages no more prove the truth of Scripture than those showing the resilience of children from single-parent homes disprove it. By using a scientific study as part of our “evidence” for the truth of Christianity, we place ourselves at the mercy of the latest “scientific” findings.

Rather than being discomfited by supposed scientific findings contrary to biblical ethics we should expect them. Why?

We are limited. While our studies may approach truth in the “hard” sciences, in areas such as psychiatry and sociology, we are simply incapable of taking in and evaluating all the relevant data. Findings are necessarily provisional.

We are sinful. Data does not interpret itself and our sinfulness implies that our assessment and evaluation of data is not just limited but distorted, sometimes obviously, other times not.

Truth is revealed over time. Scripture indicates that sinful ways can be seen to prosper for a time. Psalm 37:1-2 instructs: “Fret not yourselves because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.” The Psalm argues that while it may appear that their ways are prospering now, “They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”

We believe that God’s judgment is final. The ultimate assessment of all things is not the current apparent status of behaviors and their outcomes. Rather, all things must be evaluated through a look back to the unchanging truth of God’s Word (his “judgments”) declared in the past and a look forward to “end of the story” when truth will finally be revealed (judged). It is then that those who have lived according to God’s word will be vindicated and those who did not will be exposed.

Only time will tell.

Trust Fall

In his book The Problem of Trust, Boston University Professor of Religion & Society Adam Seligman analyzes the condition of modern social interaction. One of the major shifts in modernity is the weakening and multiplication of social roles. That is, compared to earlier ages, there is increasing flexibility in how we behave in social roles such as employee, citizen, spouse, etc. and we inhabit a broader range of such social roles.

A unique feature of modern social interaction under these conditions, he argues, is the number of interactions that require trust. Trust, for Seligman, is needed because our interactions are increasingly “free” in that they are not clearly structured by shared social expectations of specific roles. The people we interact with are free to do just about anything. To interact with them we either must prepare ourselves for a range of responses, or we must trust that they will interact with us in mutually beneficial ways.

We all know this by experience even if we wouldn’t have put it in Seligman’s terms. We have experienced the unexpected explosion of rage from what we thought was a simple social interaction. We have seen the list of taboo topics grow from politics and religion to include race, gender, holidays, and even the weather (think environmentalism).

The effects of all this are many. We increasingly isolate ourselves (often with headphones). We view interaction with others as uncertain if not dangerous. We retreat to safe relationships (tribalism). We signal our affiliations quickly to control interactions (MAGA hats). We seek to have interactions controlled by externally applied codes of behavior rather than courtesy (campus speech codes).

These shifts in interaction have an impact on the church as well. As a church we are called to be the body of Christ, to be the family of God, to be united, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. But we bring relational exhaustion to church with us. Wearied by the uncertainty of daily interactions we come to church relationships trust deprived. Add to that deficit of trust any history of having had our trust abused and the stage is set for church to be nothing more than a series of surface, guarded interactions—just like society.

What must we do? Every age of the church has had specific ways in which the cultural climate challenged their efforts to live out the faith. This may be one of ours. G.I Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just being aware of our trust fatigue can help awaken us to the need to push back against this minimalist-relationship tendency both within the church and without. Within, because we cannot be the body of Christ effectively without meaningful interaction with each other and without, because we cannot hope to evangelize without pushing beyond the safety of minimal social interaction.

Reverse Renaissance?

In The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200, Colin Morris discusses some of the effects of the growth of education and rediscovery of classical and Patristic texts during the “French Renaissance” of the 11-12th centuries. One was the discovery of a theological subtlety not characteristic of the simple creeds of the day. He writes:

The reading of the Fathers in the light of the better knowledge of logic revealed that the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was immensely more complex and sophisticated than the simple creeds which had been accepted as adequate in the immediate past, and that it raised a variety of issues which required consideration. (58)

He notes that theological and practical reform movements arose in response to the now obvious conflict between these sources and the present thought and behavior of the church.

Morris notes another, related challenge. That is, 12th century readers of these ancient sources discovered that in many cases, the ancients did not speak to issues that they themselves were facing. This left them in the position of needing to think things through on their own.

As an example, Morris notes the development during this time period of more sophisticated theories of atonement, like those of Anselm and Abelard, in contrast to the less precise conceptualization of the Patristic period.

Morris notes the most distinctive difference between the periods: “The doctrine and discipline of the Western Church was modified to meet a new situation…presented by the fact that Church and society were now identical in membership” (59). In contrast to the Patristic period and the time in which canon law had first been formulated, there was much greater continuity between church and society by the 12th century. So much so, that Morris quotes Otto of Friesing (c. 1114-1158) to the effect that Augustine’s Two Cities have become one.

Morris had earlier noted that as the church came to dominate society, she found less resonance with the biblical presentation of the situation of the early church and turned increasingly to the Old Testament depiction of Israel as a religious society. What is clear is that the striking change of fortune necessitated a deep reconsideration of certain aspects of the church’s thought and practice.

For some time now, the Western Church and especially the church in America has been experiencing the reverse of the Medieval trend. Whereas at one time one could reasonably consider citizenry more or less coextensive with religiosity, that is no more the case. America remains “spiritual” in its unique way, of course, but the direct relationship between Christianity and society that some like to imagine was once the case is no longer tenable.

What doctrinal and practical challenges might this reversal present to the contemporary church? To be sure, changing cultural norms and intellectual fashions have frequently forced the church to clarify or nuance its positions on various topics. Issues of human and personal identity, gender, and marriage are obviously much to the fore currently.

But the shift away from a predominantly Christian culture in the West will force more specific questions about the relationship between church and society, church and magistrate, than the West has had to negotiate for some time. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if the best resources to understand our situation are found in the historical experience of the church in other eras and in the contemporary experience of the church in hostile areas.

Personality Pastiche

Early on in The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen suggests that our relational saturatedness, especially that experienced through mass media, means that we increasingly “know how” to act in certain stereotypical situations. He writes,

If a mate announces that he or she is thinking about divorce, the other’s reaction is not likely to be dumb dismay. The drama has so often been played out on television and movie screens that one is already prepared with multiple options. If one wins a wonderful prize, suffers a humiliating loss, faces temptation to cheat, or learns of a sudden death in the family, the reactions are hardly random. One more or less knows how it goes, is more or less ready for action. Having seen it all before, one approaches a state of ennui (71).

Of course, we have always been habituated by our culture in these things; there is nothing new about that. But in the past one would have been “trained” in these reactions by a much smaller and closer community. Now, as Gergen’s quote indicates, the narrative that informs our reactions in these situations is far more often the product of a distant media rather than a local community. This both homogenizes responses as it depersonalizes them.

Gergen argues that, somewhat ironically, in this age in which we increasingly tout our powers of personal expression, “as the century has progressed, selves have become increasingly populated with the character of others” (71). That is, as we are confronted by more and more people and ideas, we pick up more and more information that gets subsumed into our behavior.

From a Christian perspective, this reality challenges us to think hard about the “dramas” that we expose ourselves to and points to the importance of inclusion of the biblical narrative and characters in the biblical drama in the panoply of “relationships” with which we are saturated.

Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.