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THE COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS


Gene Edward Veith, Jr.




Having explored some of the intellectual and moral disagreements between Christianity and modern thought, we can turn from the negative to the positive. The Christian life and the Biblical world view can not only withstand critical inquiry, but they can inspire critical inquiry. Christianity is a positive advantage to the person who seeks knowledge and truth. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego proved themselves “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters” at the University of Babylon (Daniel 1:21). Not only were Daniel and the others allowed to study at Babylon, but they excelled. Modern Christians may not be able to attain the same ratio over their unbelieving colleagues, but the principle seems to be that those faithful to the God of the Bible have an actual advantage in the pursuit of knowledge.


The intellectual resources of Christianity are vast and rich. Christians, though, must learn to draw on those resources; if they do not, it will be difficult for them to stand against the onslaughts of the unbelieving mind.


One of the Christian’s most precious, and often most underused, resources is the Church. The Bible teaches that a group of Christians becomes greater than the sum of its parts. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). When even two Christians come together in the name of Christ, Jesus Himself is there. In fact, groups of ordinary Christians make up no less than the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).


It is difficult to be a Christian by oneself, especially in a hostile environment. Christ ordained that the Christian is to be nourished and supported by other Christians. The local church, fellowship with other believers in one’s profession or field, the solidarity with the Christian Church through the ages, with its store of wisdom and with its great intellectual tradition—all of these manifestations of the universal Church can be a bulwark against the intellectual and moral temptations of the modern age. The Church can also offer support, direction, inspiration, and a rich, complex source of ideas that can provide a context and a foundation for one’s own studies. Christian students and thinkers need to take advantage of the spiritual and intellectual interplay that can be found in what the creeds refer to as “the communion of the saints.”


WORLDLINESS


Being a part of the community that is the Church is extremely helpful in battling what may be the most subtle and damaging temptation of them all in academic, professional, or intellectual circles: worldliness. The desire to be accepted by colleagues, to be fashionable, to fit in with the dominant social or intellectual circle, is very powerful. Such desires may be innocent at first, but after a while they can make the Christian faith seem embarrassing, then an obstacle to full acceptance by the group. The desire to be intellectually respectable can lead to hybrid breeds of secularism and Christianity as seen in modern liberal theology or to sheer unbelief. The desire to be socially respectable can erode the sternness of Biblical morality into a free and easy tolerance that can come to excuse, both in others and in oneself, the rankest immorality.


Such peer pressure (which is just as common in adults as in young people, by the way) is what the Bible means when it warns against the temptations of “the world.” The Church can offer a counterweight, a good peer pressure, so to speak, that can keep a person from sliding away into conformity with an unbelieving world. Such conformity not only can be caustic to faith, but it is also stifling intellectually.


One form of peer pressure common in academia and other professions is that of social class. Peter Berger, the great contemporary sociologist, argues that there is a new elite in American society, a social class that is based not upon wealth, as in the old social classes, but upon information and the manipulation of symbols and knowledge. This new elite social class includes educators, journalists, artists, members of the helping professions, social scientists, and government workers. This new class tends to stress liberal social, intellectual, and moral values. It is thus in conflict with the old business class, with its more conservative, business-oriented values. Because academics and intellectuals find themselves in this particular social class, they will experience pressure to conform to its beliefs and symbols.


Berger points out, for example, how difficult it is for a faculty member in a typical modern university to admit having conservative values. Friends, colleagues, and the academic institutions themselves exert pressure upon the faculty member to exhibit the class values of moral libertarianism and progressive social theories. Such acculturation is casual and informal, but the small talk in the faculty lounge, the jokes, and the social atmosphere tend to enforce an ideology. Certain opinions and attitudes become symbols of right thinking, of solidarity with the world of intellectuals and scholars. As Berger points out,


The symbols of class culture are important. They allow people to “sniff out” who belongs and who does not; they provide easily applied criteria of “soundness.” Thus a young instructor applying for a job in an elite university is well advised to hide “unsound” views such as political allegiance to the right wing of the Republican party (perhaps even to the left wing), opposition to abortion or to other causes of the feminist movement, or a strong commitment to the virtues of the corporation.1


Believing in abortion has thus become a shibboleth for the new elite. The young instructor may never get a job at that elite university if such “unsound” views are detected. If the instructor does get the job, in a few years of acculturation in the faculty club, those “conservative” views may very well give way to ones that are more socially acceptable. The same pattern is no doubt behind the political phenomenon of conservative officeholders becoming more liberal to the extent that they become involved in the social life of Washington, D.C.


This class struggle, as Berger describes it, is also manifested in the contemporary Church. The mainline theological establishment—theologians at prestigious universities, Church leaders who manage large bureaucracies, and ministers grounded in the social sciences or helping professions—is also part of the “new class.” Berger goes even further:


One of the easiest empirical procedures to determine very quickly what the agenda of the new class is at any given moment is to look up the latest pronouncements of the National Council of Churches and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of the denominational organizations of mainline Protestantism.2


Berger does believe, at the same time, that “the Christian New Right represents the agenda of the business class (and of other strata interested in material production) with which the new class is locked in religious battle.”3


It is probably inevitable and, to a certain extent, theologically indifferent for political beliefs to be shaped by social class, special interests, and other secular concerns. The moral and religious beliefs of a Christian, on the other hand, need to be shaped by the Word of God, not by the world. Christians need to be critical thinkers and to use discernment, forging their own ideology based on Scripture, not the social class that they aspire to. Christians should not be so easily labeled. “Thus,” says Berger, “one might conclude on grounds of Christian ethics that the new class is ‘more Christian’ in its resolute antagonism to racism, but ‘less Christian’ in its uncritical allegiance to the cause of abortion.”4


The point is, social pressures can and do erode Christian orthodoxy, probably more than any actual intellectual arguments. Ironically and tragically, the temptations of the world increase in direct proportion to one’s success. When a Christian starts to succeed—academically, financially, politically, or professionally—the world will become more and more seductive. With prestige comes dependence upon the opinion of others. With status comes the invitation to join the “inner circles.”5 With the feeding of one’s pride comes self-deification. I do believe Christians can be successful, but they must beware of what temptations they will face. They will also need the ministry of the Church.


DANIEL AND CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP


When Daniel was in Babylon, he relied on the support of his fellow-believers. Four Hebrews bound together in fellowship and prayer were able to withstand the temptation of conforming to the status and glory of Imperial Babylon. Daniel’s experience as described in Scripture gives a model for how a Christian in a hostile environment can draw on the spiritual strength of other believers.


After Daniel’s formal education was completed, the whole academic community of which Daniel had become a part was almost put to the sword. It began when Nebuchadnezzar had a bad dream. The king had the feeling that the dream was important, but, as with most dreams, he could not even remember what it was. He summoned the academic community and insisted that they tell him what his dream was and what it meant. “Tell us what the dream was,” they replied, “and we will interpret it.” The king would not make it so easy:


The king answered the Chaldeans, “The word from me is sure: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” . . . The Chaldeans answered the king, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand; for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and none can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.” Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. (Daniel 2:5, 10-12)


Nebuchadnezzar was asking for the impossible. His “wise men,” however insightful they might be, could not read his mind. Nebuchadnezzar exploded. “What am I paying you people for if you cannot answer a simple question that it tormenting me?”


Even today people are infuriated when intellectuals cannot answer questions that are impossible for them to answer: How can we decrease crime? Why are our children misbehaving? When does life begin? What should we do about genetic engineering or the threat of nuclear war? How can we establish the perfect society? Such questions of values and the mysteries of the human condition ever elude confident answers from human wisdom, and we become frustrated when our great “thinkers” are, as they must be, as mystified by all of this an anyone else.


The result of Nebuchadnezzar’s frustration was the threat of an anti-intellectual bloodbath. In the Red Guard frenzy in China, scholars and teachers were routinely rounded up and brutalized simply for being intellectuals. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia at one point killed anyone with glasses because that was evidence that the person could read. The same sort of violent anti-intellectualism breaks out from time to time. Christians are usually also victims in these crusades against anyone who thinks.


So the decree when forth that the wise men were to be slain, and they sought Daniel and his companions, to slay them. Then Daniel replied with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to slay the wise men of Babylon; he said to Arioch, the king’s captain, “Why is the decree of the king so severe?” Then Arioch made the matter known to Daniel. And Daniel went in and besought the king to appoint him a time, that he might show to the king the interpretation. (Daniel 2:13-16)


Daniel was one of the “wise men” condemned to be slaughtered. He replied with courtesy and respect even to his executioner, another striking example of his submission to authority. This bought him some time. Daniel made the appointment with the king before he had any idea what the dream was about or what he would say. He acted in faith.


Immediately, he went to his fellow-believers:

 

Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy of the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not perish with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. (Daniel 2:17-19)


Daniel prayed, a valuable weapon in the believer’s arsenal. He did not just pray by himself, though. He asked his three friends to pray for him. He “told them to seek mercy of the God of heaven concerning this mystery.” Certainly God answers solitary prayer, but there seems to be special power in the prayer of a group. “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). At any rate, Daniel himself felt a need for the support of the group. Immediately after he was confronted with this insoluble problem, he sought out “his companions” in the faith.


That night God gave Daniel exactly what he needed to know. This crisis led to Daniel’s great prophecy of Christ triumphing over the world kingdoms (Daniel 2). The outcome was an opportunity to witness for the true God that made Nebuchadnezzar himself acknowledge the God of Israel (2:47). What looked to be disaster led to the advancement of God’s people as Daniel was made ruler over all of the pagan wise men and his companions were made rulers in Babylon.


The principle here seems to be that Christians in a hostile environment need to seek out other Christians in that hostile environment to support each other in fellowship and prayer. Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian friendships can be spiritual anchors. On a college campus, that might mean getting involved with organized campus ministries or informal Bible study groups or simply getting to know other Christians in one’s dorm or classes. At work that might mean finding out about other Christians in the company or in one’s profession.


To meet together with other Christians for Bible study and prayer is to tap enormous spiritual power. This will seem especially true when confronting hostility to the faith. Encountering spiritual opposition can make a Christian hunger for God’s Word, drawing from it nourishment that is constantly renewing and life-giving. When a person is engaged in spiritual combat, the Bible seems to speak most clearly and most intimately. A text will sometimes almost leap up out of the page. My college Bible is marked to tatters by underlining, notes, and dates referring to situations and problems that were directly spoken to in my daily Bible reading and in the insights of my friends as we studied the Scriptures.


Praying with and for other Christians is also a vast spiritual resource. Few of us realize how powerful prayer is. To share one’s needs and to accept the prayers of others is to experience true spiritual intimacy. Conversely, to take not simply one’s own needs but those of another person before God in prayer is to experience selflessness and true love for another person. God answers those prayers and in so doing builds up the solidarity of His Body, the Church.


It is a mysterious fact of history that the Church is always at its best when it encounters the most opposition. When the Roman Empire was slaughtering Christians by the thousands, the Church seemed most real, most pure. The Age of the Martyrs is always the Golden Age of the Church. During the Reformation, people were given the choice of either renouncing the gospel or being burned alive. On the mission field, many missionaries have been killed because of their message. In many places, to be baptized means a death sentence. Today, in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and other places of religious oppression, the Christians who meet together secretly, treasuring worn fragments of the Bible and risking their very lives to worship Christ, are heroes of the faith. Whenever the Church encounters persecution, the true power of the Holy Spirit is made manifest.


The opposition is not so severe on modern campuses or professional circles. Still, the hostility of the modern intellectual establishment to orthodox Christianity can and does create Christian fellowship that is purer and more alive than one often finds in less dangerous environments. There are few who are Christians in name only in campus fellowship groups. Those who band together in the face of opposition are highly committed to their cause. Nominal Christians and the uncommitted will not bother. As a result, the Christian fellowship one experiences in college, for example, tends to be unusually vital, rich, and inspiring.


College Christians often experience a crisis when they graduate and move away from the campus. They become used to an intense kind of fellowship, Bible study, and mutual support that is difficult to find in an ordinary church. The point is, the Church thrives in a hostile atmosphere, not only in spite of the opposition in encounters, but because of the opposition.


THE LOCAL CHURCH


Informal fellowship as experienced in Christian friendships, Bible studies, and prayer groups is no substitute, however, for the local church. Modern-day Christians often prefer to meet with people just like themselves in informal settings, disdaining the institutional Church. This can be a dangerous mistake. The best safeguard against elitism, which is the sure mark of worldliness, is intense involvement in the local church. Most churches contain people with whom we would never associate on our own. Yet in the Church, something wonderful and profound takes place. People from every age-group, every occupation and social class, will all come together on Sunday morning to unite in worship of their Lord: the wealthy banker, the farmer, the elderly widow, the four-year-old; the well-educated, the illiterate; the highly sophisticated, the naïve and uncultured. In the Church the infinite variety of human beings—all ages, occupations, interest, and personalities—are united in Jesus Christ.


It is natural and desirable to associate with people with whom we have things in common, to form homogenous groups based on age, interests, social background, or academic field. This can have its value, as long as relationships with the rich texture of humanity are not neglected. The “ordinary” people of one’s local parish ought never be despised.


Christianity calls into existence a diverse community of believers. The Christian ethic is based on love, and love implies relationships. Although it may be easier to love if we never have to actually deal with anyone, Biblical love is that messy kind that means getting involved with real people. This requires people meeting together and sharing their lives and faith with people who are as different from each other as a foot is from an eye (1Corinthians 12:14-26). The problem with private Bible study groups alone is that they can tend to be made up of all feet or all eyes.


The ordinary church on the corner, if it holds to Scripture and proclaims Christ, has been established by God for the sake of His Kingdom. Worship of the living God is to be done not only individually but corporately, as the whole body of believers in all of their diversity comes together to hear the Word of God proclaimed and to sing praises to God. In corporate worship Christians also take part in the Christ-ordained rites of baptism and Holy Communion, in which our union with Christ and with each other is made manifest most intimately. Christians, no matter how intellectually sophisticated they might be, should submit to the discipline and the fellowship of a local congregation, and in doing so they will find a precious spiritual resource.


THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH


The Body of Christ includes not only one’s Christian friends and local church. It includes all believers in Christ around the world. It extends also back through time to include the believers in Christ who lived and died hundreds of years ago. Someone who believes in Jesus Christ is unified with all other Christians, living and dead. As organic members of Christ’s Body, we become part of the company of all the saints. Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, John Hus, Martin Luther, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, the Christians in the Soviet prison camps—all of these Christians, in all of their variety, partake of the same Holy Spirit who has drawn us also into the Christian faith. This universal Church, with its rich intellectual tradition and its heritage of spiritual wisdom and example, is a strong ally for someone trying on the modern secular establishment.


According to the Bible, each individual believer is made part of the entire company of saints:


So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

 

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jew or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:12, 13, 26)


There is certainly variety in the universal Church—different personalities, different cultures, different traditions. Biblical unity is not drab uniformity, neither the nothingness of Eastern religions which eradicate individuality and uniqueness, nor a bureaucratic lowest common denominator. Instead, the Bible stresses a unity of things that are very different from each other. This unity amidst diversity is imaged in the human body. The lungs are nothing like a toe, the spleen is not even close to an eyeball, but all of these individual organs nevertheless work together and make up one body.


The same is true in the Church. The usher standing in the back of the sanctuary passing out bulletins may not seem very similar to Justin Martyr who was killed for his faith in the second century, but those differences should not obscure the very real unity they have in Jesus Christ. Even in the discords and theological disagreements which mar the outward unity of the church, there is a fundamental oneness among true believers in Christ.6


The Christians of the past constitute a heritage of spirituality and insight which can be especially helpful for present-day Christians in academia. Through God’s great gift of writing, ideas can be stored and passed on to other generations. Even after an individual dies, his or her mind and insights can live on, preserved forever in the pages of a book. When we read, we can tap in to a great Christian’s mind, sharing in the person’s faith, experience, and wisdom. Reading the works of Christians through the ages—Augustine and Eusebius, Aquinas and Dante, Luther and Calvin, Herbert and Milton, Wesley and Johnson, MacDonald and Chesterton, Eliot and Lewis—is similar to the commerce of minds and faith that one finds in an unusually lively Bible study. The same kind of nourishment, the same kind of “communion of the saints,” is possible, working not only vertically through people in our own circles, but horizontally through time.


Modern-day Christians are heirs to a great Christian intellectual tradition. This tradition of active thought and practical problem-solving is a vital ally for Christians fighting against the intellectual trends of the modern world. Drawing on the insights of the past can give a valuable perspective on present-day issues. We can thus be freed from the tyranny of the present, the assumption that the way people think today is the only possible way to think.7


If confused by modern atheistic and nihilistic philosophy, read some classic Christian philosophers. By any criterion, who is the better philosopher, Nietzsche or St. Thomas Aquinas? If troubled with modern theologians who deny the truths of Scripture, take a look at the Church Fathers, the theologians of the first few centuries after Christ. Notice along with C. S. Lewis how the “new” theologies turn out to be simply old, worn-out heresies that real theologians dismissed a long time ago.8


If interested in the arts and literature, but disturbed because your artistic friends despise your faith, saturate yourself in Bach, Rembrandt, and Milton. Or, if you need someone more modern, study Poulenc, Roualt, and T.S. Eliot. How do these Christian artists measure up? Aren’t they rather impressive, even to your nonbelieving friends?


If you are interested in science, but having difficulties reconciling science to Scripture, read almost any of the founders of modern science, who were also usually devout Christians. Read Sir Isaac Newton, or, for a real jolt of spiritual energy, read Blaise Pascal. Notice how religious faith and scientific knowledge can actually build on each other.


Whatever your field of study or interest, do some extra research and find the Christians who were also involved in that field. There are almost always some; often they are the pioneers, the intellectual giants of the discipline.


In addition to the thinkers of the past, make contact with the Christian thinkers of the present. For a time it seemed that Bible-believing Protestants had abandoned the battleground, leaving the academic debate and the great questions of the modern world to the secularists. That is the case no longer.


When I was in college, I remember looking for a Christian response to existentialism and other ideas I was confronted with in college. The best resource I could find was The Catholic Encyclopedia. It was genuinely helpful. Catholicism’s rich intellectual tradition has kept abreast of modernist ideas and subjected them to a Christian critique. As a Protestant, I wished my fellow-Protestants would do more. Later I discovered the world of evangelical scholarship, which is continually growing more vigorous and more sophisticated. Subscribing to Christianity Today helped put me in touch with this kind of thinking. I also started hanging out at a good Christian bookstore. I found writers such as Francis Schaeffer taking on the whole Western tradition from the point of view of Biblical Christianity. I discovered theologians such as Carl Henry, who magisterially answered my questions about philosophy and modern theologians. I was already familiar with C. S. Lewis, that most indispensable of modern Christian writers, but I found author after author, book after book, that dealt in a Biblical way with topics and issues I was facing in academia.


I discovered whole publishing companies devoted to exploring the relationship between the Christian faith and every area of life—Crossway, InterVarsity Press, Baker, Zondervan, Eerdmans, etc., etc. There are also scholarly journals that relate one’s subject specialty to the Christian faith. Christian Scholar’s Review offers a broad-ranging sampling of Christian scholarship with reviews that can alert one to the latest books on nearly every topic. In my field there is Christianity and Literature, and similar specialized Christian periodicals exist for almost every profession and field of study. There are also organizations in which Christians of the same profession—scientists, nurses, attorneys, business executives—can make contact with each other for mutual fellowship and support.


Today it is possible to find the Christian point of view on nearly every topic of debate, in nearly every field of knowledge. The social sciences and the hard sciences, the humanities and the vocations have all been sensitively explored by Christian writers. Subjects such as clinical psychology, creationism vs. evolution, the dynamics of the arts, the foundations of political action, the ethical problems in the fields of nursing or business have all been treated in a helpful way by people applying the Word of God to modern thought and experience.


A special manifestation of the Church engaged in the pursuit of knowledge is the Christian school and the Christian college. Here Christian faculty and Christian students can join together in a fellowship that is both intellectual and spiritual. Here the integration of Christianity with all areas of knowledge and of life is the daily work and the basic assumption of the whole institution. Here Christian scholarship and Christian thinking is encouraged and nourished. Strong, excellent Christian colleges are an important arm of the Church as a whole.


There is still a great deal to do. The Christian intellectual tradition needs to be passed on to new generations of thinkers. It needs to be reinvigorated. There are still many questions that have not yet been fully answered. There are errors that need to be challenged and truths that need to be defended. The Christian community needs the support of Christian thinkers, and secular thought needs persuasive, effective applications of Biblical truths.


The individual Christian can find nourishment and support in the Church. In a hostile climate, the company of fellow-believers is essential. Christians today may draw on and become a part of the Christian intellectual tradition that has had such an impact on the world. One of the keys in resolving the dilemmas that a Christian will face in the modern world is to realize that no Christian need face any problem alone.


1Peter Berger, “The Class Struggle in American Religion,” Christian Century, 25 February 1981, p. 198.


2Ibid


3Ibid


4Ibid., p. 199.


5For a good discussion of the spiritual dangers of “inner circles,” see C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 53,54.


6I do not intend here to minimize the importance of theological disagreements. I refer not to the “visible Church,” which is marred by serious theological schisms, but to the “invisible Church,” which is united in Christ.


7See C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 200-207.


8C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1952), p. 120.



 

Taken from Loving God With All Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith, Jr., copyright © 1987. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for personal use only.

 

 

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