Above and Below

I often watch Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) shows like Nova and American Experience. Or in the UK I’ve turned to BBC Four for similar programming. And in both settings I expect to find droves of programs with one common quality: a view “from below.”

It’s also true of public education. We don’t find teachers today puzzling over the incredible complexity and intricacies of reality. Instead we have constant celebrations of the brilliance of “evolution” and “natural processes”—proclamations of faith in how disorder births order. Even though nothing in current science or experience explains such a progression. What we do know is that intelligent design is behind the complexity of every human device we now enjoy: our radios, cell phones, cars, airplanes, and more.

But it’s not a new debate. Jesus, in John 3, charged Nicodemus with living life “from below” with a life based on “earthly things.” Jesus by contrast offers life “from above” based on “heavenly things.” One is a life “of the Spirit” and the other is life “of the flesh.” One offers light; the other features darkness. One instills faith and the other is dead and empty.

Jesus restated these points later in the gospel (in 8:23-24) to some of his critics: “He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”

What Jesus told Nicodemus and his critics two thousand years ago is still true today. We all live either from below or from above. And many still miss the implications of his warnings: the ultimate point of reference for every life is critical. Do we live with a confidence that God really exists and sustains every part of our existence? Or do we live as functional atheists?

Let’s press into this. Jesus set out a two-part opposition by pitting a providential world against a world without God. Another pair of labels would be a “supernatural” world versus the mundane world of “naturalism.” More broadly we either have God’s life “from above” or we live without him, “from below.” Naturalism treats God as a mythology: a story now out of vogue with informed and intelligent people.

Needless to say this is a contest with a long history! In John 8 we read that the guiding figure for the life-from-below viewpoint is God’s nemesis, the Satanic Liar. And Paul wrote about this sweeping moral irrationality—the blindness of “the Lie”—in Romans 1:19-25. He shares that “futile thinking” is the fruit of the human refusal to honor God as our creator or to “give thanks.”

So the practical question for everyone is still active: what is our own approach to life? What version of reality guides us? Are we in the darkness or living in light?

I’m conscious of this divide when I come to the Bible with deep confidence. I still see it as God’s reliable words. And for many my approach is called pre-modern or pre-critical. Academic critics presume that those who take Bible content at face value are out of touch—not informed by new Enlightenment values. So even in Bible studies a prevailing bias favors human reason above God’s revelation.

Yet it wasn’t always so. Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), for one, was aware of Enlightenment skepticism—the fount of current world values—but he still trusted the Bible as God’s reliable word. Yet others fell. In March, 1787, Johann Gabler displayed a new view in a lecture he offered at Altdorf University. In his talk Gabler, a theologian, treated the Bible as if it was just the same as any other book. The lecture illustrated a turning of views as he and other Bible scholars no longer saw Scriptures as God’s inspired words. The Bible, instead, was simply a collection of human ideas about God. In other words the Bible is not a book “from above”—what God is offering us. Instead it’s merely a collection of human ideas generated “from below.”

It’s not that Gabler caused the shift. He simply reflected the growing skepticism of his age: the Age of Reason had come into the Church. And by now the world of theology is increasingly divided between the “naïve” folks like me—who still believe God is an effective communicator—and those who agree with Gabler. And who miss the absurdity of Nova programs that insist that incredible order can accidentally grow out of disorder.

The question then is “so what?” Is there anything we can do when the tide is so clearly against those of us who embrace what Jesus tells us about life from above? Yes! We can treat the Bible as God’s provision: as his living and reliable truth. And we can live by the Spirit and love Jesus with all our hearts, minds, and strength.

So that the question Jesus once raised, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” can be answered: “Yes, Lord, we’re right here!”

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