I both agree and disagree with the author, Dr. Everett Piper.
I agree that we cannot be ruled by our feelings, and that feelings can be misinterpreted or misread. Our feelings, in other words, cannot “go it alone.” Yet neither, for that matter, can any other human faculty—reason included.1 So the claim that “feelings” mislead or distract us (because, as Dr. Piper notes, “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience”) seems both shallow and potentially false.
Further, I find it interesting that this notion of feelings-as-conscience is couched in the language of anti-selfishness and anti-actualization (or actually, of selflessness and “confession”). Here Dr. Piper seems to be expressing the idea that we “give up” ourselves entirely, as though we are monolithic beings rather than integrated beings. This, to my understanding, is really problematic.
In other words, part of what it is to be an adult (and to my mind a Christian, clearly) is that I do forego certain parts of me—certain ways of being or inclinations connected to certain aspects of my personality and makeup. Yet I also embrace others. And I do this not simply because a collection of ancient texts prescribes this or because I am promised great riches in ‘the after life’, but because this other way of living represents better ways of being in the ‘here and now’.
So it seems to me that the author (like many, many evangelicals, I fear) has not understood the way in which real life / human experience is necessarily integrated with biblical teachings on who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate to each other (and consequentially, how human beings are best to relate to themselves, their fellows, and the world around them).
On the one hand, as I’ve argued in my graduate thesis, this lack of understanding often stems from a failure to incorporate other, necessary dialogue partners into the discussion.2 The Protestant rallying cry of sole scriptura is never really possible, then, because we are always reading from our situatedness: viewing the matter from our own perspective. In this way, our interpretations of the world (and our experiences of living in it) are always already at play in terms of our interpretations of texts—biblical or otherwise.
Given that we are unavoidably multiple (the author’s very notion of a “conscience” that may cause me to doubt my own actions or intentions highlights this), situated (while we can sometimes imagine matters from a different perspective we cannot, unlike God, see things from any / all perspectives) and integrated (our interpretations of existence effect our interpretations of texts, just as our understandings of texts impacts our lived choices), Dr. Everett Piper’s orientation is not simply incomplete or one-sided: it is impossibly reductionistic.
I see two problems stemming from this reductionism.
First, such reductionistic messages are at odds with the complex portrait of human beings in the biblical text (and as such, these messages misportray the Christian God and vastly “under sell” what it is to be Christian).3 Second, our life experiences of “living better” also inform us on such matters with the result that a messages such as this one, by Dr. Piper, leave themselves open to easy dismissal by the very non-Christians to whom we Christians seek to present evidence—a witness—of the reality of the Christian God and the veracity that human life is, above all things, best lived when we live in right relationship with this God.
Allow me to expand on the implications of ignoring the necessary integration between “real life” and the Bible in terms of my second point, for non-Christians.
On the one hand, everyone—not simply Christians—can come to understand the importance of truth and love (and so the essential nature of such virtues as forgiveness, patience, honesty, etc. even where we fail to practice them, or practice them well).4 So humans are able to understand that these virtues are essential to right living, and that these virtues not only apply to me but also stem from me.
Yes, we pretty much all have the experience, no matter how meagre or fleeting, of making right and good choices.5 And whether these are choices that I make for myself or that others make in my regard, or whether they are choices I make with regard to others, the making of such choices deeply impacts me.
On the other hand, where Dr. Everett Piper’s message effectively misportrays the Christian God/Christianity by mis-presenting the Bible’s complex portrait of human beings, it also does so by broadly ignoring the vast body of learning and study undertaken in other areas related areas related to human nature and development, such as psychology, sociology, biology and anthropology, to name a few.
So by failing to understand that such notions as “self-actualization” (which Dr. Piper seems to reject as unbiblical) includes the self-understanding and self-valuing that the Bible itself presents as being essential in order for human beings rightly to engage their most fundamental orientation (as being in a love relationship with God), the author loses credibility not only with those who know these things through their experience of living in the world, but also with those who understand the workings of human nature / development through study and examination.
Allow me to sum this up:
It appears to me that the author is presenting a picture of appropriate / ideal human being that is neither biblically, experientially, or scientifically viable. No wonder so many non-Christians hear such a message and simply disregard it, as irrelevant.
- Rather, it seems to me that our faculties—reason, emotions, the will, imagination, etc.—are designed to be both complimentary (such that one may corroborate another) and conflictual (so that one may critique another). ↩
- Dialogue partners such as philosophy, biology, psychology, etc., and of course how we interpret our experiences and emotional responses to those experiences. The notion that theology can “go it alone” is simply untenable, as I hope this post and the following posts help to demonstrate. ↩
- In brief, I see the biblical portrait of human beings as indicating both capacity and weakness, understanding while lacking full understanding, virtue while remaining morally flawed etc. And ultimately this picture is presented as being “at its best” when human beings are in a love relationship of dependent-independence with the Christian God. ↩
- This is not to claim that Christians necessarily do come to understand these things and embody these understandings, regardless of what they may claim. ↩
- As I’ve argued elsewhere, this claim need not fall prey to the overly simplistic notion held by many Christians that any “good choices” must have salvific implications. In other words, the reality that I make some good choices in my life does not amount to claiming “complete moral goodness” in a way that would imply that I am able to enter into right relationship with the Christian God “on my own,” without relying on the full implications of the life and death of Jesus. ↩