I recently watched the movie Pacific Rim. I quite enjoyed the flick but as of late I have become more and more sensitive to those hopeless worldviews which are so prevalent in our time and so the movie actually bothered me to a certain degree. Now I know that the entire movie was completely fantastically. There really is no invasion of Godzilla like creatures trying to destroy the planet and civilization; nevertheless there was this bold hopelessness that was weaved through the entire movie. This is not isolated ideology. Most of the apocalyptic movies that we have seen in the past have had this type of hopelessness in them. In every one of these movies humanity is pitted against some world ending threat. Again in most cases, humanity rises to the challenge and against all odds thrives and succeeds where there is no hope. Now I believe very much in the idea of an unquenchable and unbeatable human spirit, but only if God is the one that gives that ability and sustains it. We are born with a desire and will to survive, that I believe have been demonstrated throughout history; however, short of Him carrying the load, we will fail and success will be very limited. That is the nub. Our world has bought into an ideology that is diametrically opposed to the existence of God or His being the source and the measure of all things. The latin phrase HOMO MENSURA (man the measure) is the clarion call of a vast number of people in the western world today. Here are a couple of phrases from the 2nd Humanist manifesto ( a document that ultimately has follows the idea of homo mensura) to consider:
"No deity will save us; we must save ourselves."
"We are responsible for what we are and for what we will be"
"Traditional moral codes and newer irrational cults both fail to meet the pressing needs of today and tomorrow. False "theologies of hope" and messianic ideologies, substituting new dogmas for old, cannot cope with existing world realities. They separate rather than unite peoples."
Frankly I find this ideology arrogant and ultimately hopeless because it removes the existence of God from the picture. Though this ideology doesn't scare me (because I know it is a crock of fecal material at best), I am very concerned about the way that elements of this ideology have insinuated themselves into the church. The effects of this are perhaps somewhat hard to actually see but they are there. Let me try to explain.
If man is truly the measure then man has become self seeking and self centred (I don't think many people looking at the last century can make a great argument against this statement). Yet, Christian worldview doesn't allow for this type of thinking. Firstly we believe in a deity above all things. Secondly, He is to be the centre. I find it incredibly interesting, how so many pictures in the natural world point to this type of relationship. Consider for a moment our solar system, it is a wonderful picture of God's order of things. Science has shown us repeatedly that the centre of our solar system is the sun. It has the biggest mass and the most pull gravitationally. Essentially it keeps our planets from floating away into space. Using our solar system as a comparison for moment, consider how God is like the sun at the centre of the solar system; the planet Earth for the sake of our picture is like humanity. As long as the sun is at the centre there is order and uniformity of sorts. Now lets manipulate the picture. What would happen if the earth was the centre of the solar system? First of all this is simply impossible. The earth is not big enough and does not have enough gravitational pull in order to pull the the planets into orbit around it. In fact the moon is probably the biggest thing that the earth could hold on to in terms of gravity. However the humanist philosophy would argue that we are the centre. Everything else revolves around us. Their ideology though is rooted in the idea that there is no God at all- there is nothing transcendent. Do you see the problem? We as orthodox Christians cannot and will not deny the existence of God- it is fundamental to the entire faith so (to use the analogy still) our solar system has to have a different make up. We try to adopt some of their ideology-but not all. We have to make ourselves the centre (after all it is really about us) and God takes a role as one of the bodies orbiting around us. However in order for this to work (at least in our own minds) God necessarily must be smaller and less influential. This is essentially the logical conclusion of buying into a humanist type ideology. We must deny the power and scope of God's role in everyday life in order for our fantasy solar system to work. It reminds me of some words that Paul wrote to Timothy about people he would run across within the church. Paul said that there would be individual that ares:
holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; (2 Tim 3:5 NASB)
The erroneous thinking is that we can do something to control, fix or maintain the all the problems that humanity may be experiencing (whatever they are). However humanism has not solved any problem. This is a fallacy at best. Has anything in the world really gotten better as a result of us being in control (being at the centre and governing the orbiting bodies?) People would argue "yes" but this is ultimately because there is still a transcendent God who is still really in control despite the humanist denial of His existence. Modern humanists have an optimistic view that humanity can make a difference or tip the balance. Unfortunately this is the not case. I mean humanistic ideology dates back to Protagoras (a pre-socratic philosopher) and many subsequent philosophers disagreed with his views and those who have agreed have not seen their false religion really make a difference. Keep in mind that the 1st Humanist Manifesto dates back to 1933 (post WWI but still pre WWII). The second world war was essentially a kick in the teeth to Humanists because all that was not good about humanity was displayed over that the course of that war. Don't get me wrong, some of the ideals of humanism are fantastic, yet they are untenable because the onous is put on humanity to solve the problem. I agree we play a part but God carries the lion's share of any good that comes about as a result of the actions of humanity. The 2nd manifesto (written in 1973 and somewhat of a response to how the first manifesto was flawed) still didn't work and so a subsequent 3rd one has been written 11 years ago. I can't help but laugh when I hear at least one of its themes: it basically states that humans are a key element of the evolutionary process in nature which is an "unguided process". I laugh because if humanity is unguided how can we expect to guide humanity in the future. We might learn from our mistakes but ultimately we can only ever guide or control based upon what we know which is limited to our own experience..... what about the stuff we haven't experienced? Is there something else or someone else that might guide us to dealing with problems and issues before they arise (dripping sarcasm from my lip)? The crux of the issue is that we are flawed and broken to begin with. How can those with a flawed core expect to fix anything. This would be like trying to perform an eye transplant with one blind eye and no mirror to give us a reflection to see with. We simply cannot get outside of ourselves in order to look objectively at the problem.
Re-aligning The Centre
What we need is a re-aligning of our centre within the church. Which brings me to Paul's letter to the Colossian church. Now when it comes to answering the question of whether or not Paul was addressing Gnosticism in this letter one will find those who support and those who deny this idea. The biggest argument against interpreting Colossians as some partial polemic against Gnosticism is that formalized Gnostic thought appears to be a later development then the date of the writing of Colossians would allow for. That being said Humanism has been at its most formalized state in the last century, and yet elements of it have existed since before the time of Socrates. I personally lean towards the idea that Paul was indeed addressing a basic form of Gnosticism in the letter. What is most fascinating to me is that regardless of whether he was or wasn't, the practical application of the text has far reaching implications when dealing with any godless ideology that would insinuate itself into our Christian worldview. Consider the following text from Paul's letter:
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. (Col 2:1-4 NASB)
Let me start with the last statement in the preceeding text. Paul's concern was that they would not be deluded with persuasive arguments. What types of persuasive arguments? I will come back to this with a subsequent text in this passage. For now it imperative that we understand that the early church was not impervious to the wiles and sharp tongued philosophers of the day. I believe this is also an implication that there were already "wolves in sheep's clothing" posing in the church and influencing ideas and values that were not in line with God's word (NEWS FLASH: we are in the same boat today). If vs. 1 is any indicator Paul was already struggling against these people and ideas which were popping up in the church community. Which begs the question how was he struggling against them? In chapter one it is clear from the opening verses that he was obviously wrestling in prayer on their behalf. Specifically Paul says that he hadn't ceased to pray that they would be filled with the knowledge of the will of God. This is a key point. He wanted them to know God's will. A knowledge of God's will wasparamount. A revelation of God's will places God back in His rightful spot. To quote Jesus "Not my will, but yours be done." God is to be the centre. Now in the opening verses of chapter 2, Paul's desire is that their hearts would have a full assurance of understanding. The result we are told is a true knowledge of the mystery that was being revealed by God: Jesus. Now regardless of whether Paul is making statements against pre-gnostic ideology or not there is a key element here which is in agreement with Paul's words in chapter one about the will of God and has great implication on the problems with having a humanistic worldview today. Christ himself is ultimately the revealer of all hidden wisdom and knowledge. The humanist says "we can figure these things out for ourselves- who else will show us for there is no God" and claims to be optimistic and hopeful. In reality there is no clear promise that the pursuit of knowledge will lead to success nor is there a clear statement that one will overcome whatever might threaten. There is simply a fool's hope that humanity has what it takes to clear the next hurdle. As I reread my last statement I was suddenly reminded of of a discourse between Pippin and Gandalf in New Line Cinema's "The Return of the King" movie. When asked about the real state of the war of the ring and the probability of success Frodo and Sam in destroying the ring, the only thing Gandalf can respond with is that "there never was much hope... only a fool's hope." A worldview centred on humanism is a fool's hope at best. This is in direction opposition to the scripture which promises that when God is the centre, His messiah Jesus, will reveal the vast treasures of knowledge and wisdom and by extension a realistic hope which will last through whatever storms may threaten humanity. Therefore don't be deluded by persuasive arguments. There are things that humanistic worldview proposes that sound like great arguments and are incredibly appealing, but at the end of the day they are fruitless because humanity is hopeless with out God at the centre.
A Few Words About Persuasive Arguments & Elementary Principles of the World
Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; (Col 2:6- 10 NASB)
I want to state again that regardless of philosophical issue that Paul was addressing (though I believe it was indeed pre-gnostic thinking), we can apply this text with great ease to our 21st context. Some very poor applications can be made and I think we must avoid the poor ones. Paul exhorts the 1st century Colossian (and by extension the Laodicean church) to not be taken captive through philosophy and empty deception. There is a dangerous application that can be made here. I had a friend once that made an argument to me that I shouldn't take philosophy classes in University because it all it did for him was destroy his ideas about God. He had many reasons and some were quite persuasive. People could use this passage to suggest that we stay away from philosophy, however this is a problematic interpretation because it is clear in Acts and other writings of Paul that he was extremely disciplined in philosophy. I have come to see that my friend's perspective was most definitely wrong. The truth is that the philosophies of the world are as Paul says "empty deceptions" and they often have some of the most persuasive arguments (often even enough truth to make them seem plausible). Humanism champions ideas and theories about meeting human need and taking care of the sick, the poor, the environment etc. and even show some signs of success; none of these issues however have ever been eliminated. These goals I think at the heart of them are not ungodly, but they can never succeed or be classified as godly either unless God is the driving force behind them.
Paul also mentions "elementary principles of the world". What does this mean. There are number of interpretations of this which I will not deal with. However, based on the context I suggest that elementary principles (at least in this passage) are referring to pagan religious ideas and philosophies. The Colossian church was in great peril, standing on a knife's edge if you will because they were starting to buy into other pagan religious ideas and philosophies. Essentially they were tainting the pure waters of Christian ideology. I had a gentleman come to my office at the shelter the other day. He was formerly a believer and follower of Christ (thankfully after a discussion which God was very much at the centre of of, this gentleman is walking with the Lord again) who had begun to listen to the persuasive arguments of the world and elementary religious and philosophical ideas which were being preached by science and non-christian religious people. Sadly he bought in and it led him astray. He hadn't removed the idea of God, but his faith was so shaken he didn't see how God could help or that God even cared anymore. His words to me were "There is not hope for me outside of God" and yet he was unable to trust in Him anymore. He had aligned his centre differently- god was no longer it. It started with reading the wrong stuff but not reading it critically or with the Spirit's guidance and his faith dematerialized beneath him. Yet he held on to one truth the whole time: Without God there is no hope for the world. So I ask you these questions: Who is your centre? If it is not God there really is no hope left for the world.