Experts on God

The greatest of these is love. What are the practical implications of Jesus saying that love is the primary way to identify his disciples, and the Apostle Paul elevating love as the Christian’s greatest aspiration, even above knowledge? Ironically I gained some insight into this through a piece of well-crafted fiction, explained by a widely respected scholar, at an event emphasizing the intellectual robustness and credibility of our faith.

This weekend I moderated a panel at the C.S. Lewis Foundation Faculty Forum. (www.cslewis.org). It was an exhilarating event focused in the issues of Academic Freedom and Religious Expression. Dr. Dennis O’Brien, President Emeritus and Professor of Philosophy, University of Rochester and Bucknell University was one of the keynote speakers. In a brilliant paper titled “Ex Corde Universitatis: From the Heart of the University,” O’Brien argued persuasively for an understanding of an epistemology of the religious tradition, one he felt could take a stand along the naturalistic and artistic epistemologies currently at use in the academic community.

Tucked away in his paper was a story he used to illustrate a knowledge about God that transcends and differs from the intellectual, theological knowledge often offered by religious academics. I quote from O’Brien’s paper as follows.

[In my projected 35 volume Collected Works, I would at this point launch an extended metaphysical excursus on theological epistemology. However, a morning lecture should conclude on the same morning that it started, so I want to take a radical short cut by looking directly at the problem of witchcraft and its presumed partner, theo-craft. The notion of “craft” assumes that one can be better or worse at some recognizable task. The problem with witch-craft is that we think there is no craft. There is no Hogwarts Academy for the training of wizards. Harry Potter has passed his Owl levels and may look forward to the NEWT level: the expert wizard level. But there really are no experts in witching and wizarding. If there is a genuine theo-craft in contrast to witch-craft, there should be experts on God.

“An Expert on God” happens to be the title of a short story by John L’Hereux, a faculty member at Stanford. At the conclusion of the story a disbelieving priest chances upon a deadly auto crash on a lonely road. Reverting to his official role, he manages to rip open the car and anoint the teenage driver.

“He began to pray, aloud, which struck him as foolish: to be holding a dying boy in his arms and reciting rote prayers about our father in heaven…What could he do? What could he say at such a moment? What would God do at such a moment, if there was a God?

His doubts became a certainty and he said, “It doesn’t matter,” but it did matter and he knew it. What could anyone say to this crushed, dying thing, he wondered. What would God say if he cared as much as I? …at once the priest, faithless, unrepentant, gave up his prayers and bent to him and whispered, fierce and burning, “I love you,” and continued until there was no breath, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

L’Hereux’s title is marvelously ironic. The priest is “disbelieving,” he is “faithless and unrepentant,” he gives up his prayers. In sum, this priest is anything but a believer in the conventional sense, an “expert” brandishing a doctrine. Yet, of course, he is “an expert on God.” Was it foolish, did it matter? In the end he knows that it matters, he knows that he must hold this “crushed, dying thing” and whisper, “fierce and burning,” “I love you.”]

Jesus story of the Good Samaritan is about an unbeliever (from the Jews perspective) who understood the loving nature of God better than believers. It is an important cautionary tale, because though I define the Culturally Savvy Christian as a believer and an “expert on God,” with Paul I confirm that if the CSC does not have love, he or she has nothing. Unfortunately, the idea of “expert on God” as currently defined in evangelical apologetics, almost always refers to intellectual knowledge (which Paul warns can ¢â‚¬Ëœpuff up’) and is seldom measured by the essential quality of love, which Jesus says is an ultimate test of whether or not one is a disciple. Jesus demonstrated in life and teaching that most people will be loved into the kingdom not “out-knowledged” into the kingdom. People need to hear God loves you in our words and deeds.

‚© CRS Communications, Dick Staub 2003

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