Paul is essentially first and foremost a hero of religion. The theological element in him is secondary. Naivete in him is stronger than reflection; mysticism stronger than dogmatism; Christ means more to him than Christology, God more than the doctrine of God. He is far more a man of prayer, a witness, a confessor and a prophet, than a learned exegete and close thinking scholastic.–Adolf Deissmann, writing on the Apostle Paul
The intellectual Christian begins, in his beginning, with the tools he used to put God off and even dismiss Him altogether. That is, he begins with his mind, that instrument by which we categorize, analyze. Yet as we do this we place experience at a distance, which of course makes it psychologically “safe.” The danger of the immediate, which is where experience encounters our being, is that we have no room to maneuver.
Religion, then, is at its safest when we are able to postulate it clearly in terms of propositions, either/or statements of true/false, right/wrong, biblical/unbiblical. That process has real value in that Christianity does in fact have propositions embedded within it. Christ, for instance, was either the God/man or he was not. Yet saying that much does not offer any more to us than a proposition — it does not give us Jesus.
At this safe distance our minds create for us from the God of the biblical narrative, we find most offensive those religious “characters” today who speak as self-proclaimed prophets. “Thus saith the Lord” is a phrase guaranteed to put a Christian intellectual on edge. One imagines a Flannery O’Connor character, grossly uneducated yet with a mad sort of religious mysticism filled with dark fiery images and warnings he or she sees as literal, not symbolic. Such characters today are as close as the TBN channel.
Yet as the Christian afraid of this modern-day prophetic stream may find out, his own rationalizing stream is perhaps even more alien to human beings. The safe distance he has between himself and the God of Immediacy becomes less and less safe as time passes. The beginning made sense; use what one is used to. But the tools of intellect, no matter their sharpness, do not necessarily draw one any closer to the heart of things.
We cannot endure forever looking at God as though we are looking at the Grand Canyon. His vast vistas streaming into infinity are, for a time, enough. We look at Him, and believe we are with Him. Of course, in some ways we are. God’s patience for our feeble minds is as great as his patience for our sinful acts. He can wait. Yet we cannot.
At some point, the immediate is all that will do. And like a preacher alone in a southern swamp, or like that solitary individual Soren Kierkegaard, we do finally break past the safety net of reality neatly kept at arm’s length. The words that pour from us, like tongues, are objects of derision or perplexity to our audience (if there is even an audience apart from God). We begin to speak of that we’ve begun to know – the immediate rather than distant. And love transforms the truth we thought of as being in safely categorized lines and sentences and paragraphs and books. Truth becomes experienced love, and love as experience in the very moment “Now.” We speak as prophets because we begin to hear God in this present place and time.
I do not dare say we speak as the prophets of old spoke, inspired by the Spirit to utter words utterly authoritative and true which became so burning they remain still in the Book of the Immediate we call Scripture. But I do increasingly understand how the apparently non-reflective, even naïve, voice can speak words which if only we hear we can begin to call God’s word for us in this time. There will be liars, as well as those deluded, who speak for only the experience of brokenness they labor under. But there will be real voices, often unknown to many past their immediate circles of acquaintance, who speak the immediate and with such authority our hearts burn inside us.
It may be that one day we too will be used in this way. But it is not for us to say or seek. Rather, what we bound by our intellectual safety-nets need to seek is the Lord who gets too close. “Come!” he says. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And when we get that close, it is too late. There is only the yes or the no. The moment of decision. And it is now.