A few weeks ago during one of our Sunday live streams, my friend Steve commented on something I said. Now for the last several weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Steve’s comment. To be more specific, I can’t stop thinking about a particular word that he underscored – the word ‘allegedly.’ That one little word has now gotten under my skin. As Morpheus would say, it has become “like a splinter in my mind, driving me mad.” So, for the next several paragraphs, I will attempt to dig out the splinter.
To provide a little more context for the above mentioned, “splinter”, earlier that week, someone had posed a question regarding God and the chasms that we face. “Well, doesn’t Jesus close the chasms in our life?” My reply was, “Well, yes. . . allegedly.” I was later recounting this conversation in our Sunday live stream when Steve commented, “allegedly is the perfect reply sometimes.” I then replied to Steve’s comment saying, “I would even say, ‘most’ of the time.” Well, that’s the story. So, what’s the big deal? Why does this word “allegedly” continue to haunt me?
Let me just say that in most religious circles I have traveled in over the years, using the word “allegedly” when describing our faith in God and our understanding of scripture would be problematic. In the past, if someone were to ask me, “Does God love me?”, I would never have considered replying with “allegedly.” And why not? Well, for starters, I can already hear the voice of the incredulous, “For God’s sake Chris, don’t be so mean! Give this person the assurance they need!” Well, that is simply peer pressure and good old fashioned people-pleasing.
Another problem with replying with anything other than an enthusiastic “yes”, involves the nature of ‘objective truth.’ I am personally persuaded that knowledge in the form of objective, rational assent is ultimately meaningless. And theories that cannot be harnessed and put into the service of changing our “down to earth” lives (change in our capacity to know God, ourselves and others, change in our actions, or change in our capacity to work or serve others, etc.), are the equivalent of a hot air balloon without a basket. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that all truth is merely pragmatic or industrial. My point is simply to say, objectivity and theory are tools for exploration, lenses for making new discoveries – but they are not the discovery itself.
There is a Papua New Guinea proverb that reads, “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” This sounds a lot like John’s quotation, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” A Christian view of knowledge suggests that all truth must find its home not just in the operations of rational thought or reason, but in the faculty of our affections. For as Pascal writes, “The heart has its reasons that the reason knows not of.” But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about our “affections”?
The doctrine of the affections (diagram below) describes the way musical keys correspond to different feelings or moods. For example, according to the “doctrine”, C Major denotes feelings of both “rejoicing and impudence.” D Major expresses “stubborn, noisy, warlike and rousing.” E Minor is “pensive, grieving, but not without hope.” Where the “theology of the affections”, made famous by the puritan preachers, Jonathan Edwards and Richard Sibbs, focuses exclusively on love, the musical, “doctrine of the affections” recognizes a wide spectrum of feelings expressed through variegated styles of music.
An argument can be made that the poetry books of the Old Testament canon (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) function as Israel’s “doctrine of the affections.” For, throughout these ancient poetry books we encounter people who are expressing powerful feelings and dramatic expressions of the “heart.” And while the church historically tends to deny or suppress feelings that are considered “negative”, the Hebrew poetry books are shamelessly uninhibited from this kind of emotional censorship.
The Hebrew psalter or, the Psalms, is essentially the songbook of Israel and consists of 119 songs or psalms. Like the other books of poetry in the Hebrew canon, the Psalms are typically written in the first person and involves the author’s thoughts or feelings related to topics such as his relationship to God, his nation, his enemies, and his personal failures. The language and the mood of these psalms range from ecstatic praise to dark depression, joyous celebration to bitter laments. Consider the following examples:
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” Psalm 9
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Psalm 13
“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Psalm 18
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Psalm 22
The book of Job is a poetry book as well. Written in verse style, what we encounter in Job is the sound of suffering. The language and the tone of Job is bound up with what can only be described as deep sorrow and negative emotions. Job is a case study on the articulation of feelings and sentiments associated with suffering, betrayal, and injustice. Again, the church typically suppresses or simply ignores such complaints and laments, dismissing them as too “negative.” But Job is the champion of every many or woman who has ever had the experience of being disappointed with God.
“Then Job answered and said: “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words? If indeed you magnify yourselves against me and make my disgrace an argument against me, know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me.
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped from me my glory and taken the crown from my head.
God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.” Job 19:1-10; 30:19-31
Jesus himself a Jew, regularly quoted from the book of Psalms in his public teaching, including his personal expressions. And on the subject of the “heart”, Jesus taught that the heart is not simply a perpetual fountain of love and positive affections. According to Jesus, the heart is the faculty responsible for a whole range of feelings, motives, and passions, some “good”, and some rather “evil.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Mt. 5:8
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Mt. 15:19
Perhaps, the most notable of all Jesus’ quotations from the Psalms occurred during his crucifixion, when Jesus cried out in anguish while quoting the following words from Psalm 22.
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mk 15:34
The book of Ecclesiastes is a book of naysaying, for it calls bullshit on what is commonly referred to as “conventional wisdom.” The book titled, Song of Solomon is filled with the language of unbridled romantic and erotic passion. So, what we learn from all this Hebrew poetry is that the people of God have always had a full spectrum “doctrine of affections.” And by fearlessly engaging in this tradition and learning to express our own affections, we are following in the footsteps of our spiritual forerunners of faith.
When we embrace the “doctrine of affections” we are embracing life, or what my friend Bob refers to as “daily stink’n life”! Say “good-bye” to the antiseptic, stainless steel version, and “hello” to life in all of its emotions, complexity, joy, and pain. With the doctrine of affections, we understand that God is not the least bit threatened or put off by the variegated expressions of the human heart. Thus, we no longer need to act like we are God’s press secretary, restricting our language to only “positive words.”
When we learn to talk like Job, David, and Jesus, we will stop censoring and denying our “negative” and painful emotions, and we will begin to recover our deep hearts. And when we recover our deep heart, we will start living full-heartedly before the God who sees our hearts. And when we live full-heartedly before God, we can risk being real with each other.
And what does all this have to do with my reaction to the word, “allegedly”?Well, if you were to ask Job or the psalmist of psalm 22 the question, “Does God love me?”, rather than providing you with a scripted or “church approved” answer, they would provide you with an honest answer. Isn’t that what we want, or at least what we need? As Professor Norman Cornett asks, “Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?”
With a biblically informed “doctrine of affections” we can put an end to this harmful practice of divorcing the “right” answer from the “honest” answer. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and poets, we are free to express our deep heart to God and to one another, even if that means using “negative words.” Which means, sometimes “allegedly” is both the “right” as well as the “honest” answer to the question.