Credible Faith

Some Thoughts about the Future and Topics of Study

Some thoughts concerning the future and on what one spends time reading or researching, shared in a March 2011 email newsletter.

Text Publication: March 2011

Author(s): Paul Larson

Hello Friend,

We're a team. We can not do it all. We must rely on each other. That was the message of Dr. Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He had come to Charlotte Chapel as a speaker for the True or False Conference on the reliability of the canonical gospels, and afterwards met with me and some other PhD students privately. That is where he fielded a question that had occupied me for so long. How ought I to focus my research and reading after the PhD, when there are so many fields of interest and importance?

The question seems innocent. Who, after all, would disparage the questions of foresight? But a part of it was only a semblance of innocence, I suspect, and the other akin to annoyance that God habitually gives light enough just for the next step. We ask for knowledge of the future, which never comes, and the past never comes back. The present, that final promotion of the future to reality, this is where God works. I was reminded of this by my recent experience as a speaker for St. Andrews University Christian Union's mission week, in which I gave a message on the New Atheism, one on suffering and evil, and was a panelist for four Grill-a-Christian Q&A events.

Three people stand out in my mind. Behind one girl's question about reading New Testament texts as the Word of God lurked her reading of the skeptical scholar Rudolf Bultmann. A student of ancient classics from Denmark found in Roman history and ancient cults objection to his believing in Christianity. A girl from Singapore asked if Jesus had to die the way he did. Not having read much Bultmann, and with only a sliver of knowledge on history of the Imperial cult and other ancient cults, I was hamstrung. I could answer why New Testament texts should be treated as the Word of God, but what about Bultmann? How can you engage what you don't know? Contrast this with the relative ease with which I was able to handle theological and philosophical questions, and how readily the Old Testament sacrifical system and pronouncement(s) explain the nature of Jesus' death, and there you will find God's answer to the question I posed to Peter. It was not simply read Bultmann, or sift through ancient religious cults. It was this, but it was so that I might engage people. You will not save a lost hiker without venturing into the forest yourself. God saved the world by becoming part of it. To the Greek, Paul became like a Greek.

Books may be dry, but people read them, and change. If for no other reason, I have one now, why participation in the academy and teaching must be central parts of my future. Teaching invests in people, and people are impacted by the academy. Week upon week of reading and PhD work may seem the epitome of a disconnected scholar, but such seemingly ethereal scholarship, if it removes the stumbling block of a real human being, a man with a face, a name, that is when the ivory tower suddenly seems a bastion for belief. But belief in what? What do you tell a girl from Singapore with little knowledge of the Bible, or one who admits in a time of Q&A a belief in God but not in Christianity? As good as arguments for God's existence are, they tell you only that he exists, not who he is. The story of the Old and New Testaments, sixty-six books in all, that tells you who he is. Few are those who know it so well that they can walk you through its links and make sensible its many and varied connections. One of those persons is N. T. Wright, now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University and formerly Bishop of Durham, who spoke at New College not long ago. He was an inspiration. If the Lord wills, I hope one day to inspire those who come after me, but it will require a long trek through valleys and hills, and woods and meadows of Biblical scholarship. But through what region of this Biblical country ought I go, when it is so large? Once again, I come back to the seemingly innocent question. What was the answer? Do not worry about tomorrow; each day has enough scholarship of its own. If there was a lesson in the faces of those in St. Andrews, it was this. God works through people. Invest in them. Be a part of the academic discussion. Maybe they will guide you, and your hurried uncertainty about the future, like a mirage, will evaporate on arrival.

One might say that God had nothing to do with such fortunate encounters in St. Andrews, my little take on them being nothing over than pious philosophizing. Perhaps. But perhaps not. G. K. Chesterton, writing for a different purpose, said the following in his famous treatise Orthodoxy:

The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism, for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.

I leave to the reader to search out Chesterton's next paragraph, one of the best in all English literature, but for now, I merely ask to return to one sentence. 'So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot.' One extraordinary encounter seems random; a series of them smells of the divine. Yes, it's only a hunch, but I offer the latest in this series. The day after the Ravi Zacharias Dundee conference of which I wrote in my prior letter, I ran into Michael Ramsden, a speaker for Ravi's organization, on the sidewalk in Edinburgh. That led to the invitation to participate in the Cambridge Scholars Network this July, a gathering of Christian PhD students and scholars in Cambridge, England, where some of the finest minds from different fields will be on display. If the cure of the super-scholar complex is the comfort of comrades, this may be my antidote. We've got it covered, Paul. Be a great scholar in your field. We've got it covered. What should I study, I asked Peter? His answer was immediate. God's answer, however, came before I even asked Peter, on a sidewalk in Edinburgh.

A few last items. The Acts presentation in December was very well received, and I was again pleased at the power of the Word to capture and hold an audience's attention for hours. Luke knew what he was doing. Before attending the Cambridge Scholars Network, I will attend some of the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting at King's College, London. Also, I wrote a review for the Evangelical Quarterly of David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. If you want to read what I submitted, my review is included. I now have a PhD topic, but need to have material for the PhD review board submitted by some time around May 12. The PhD review board itself would take place on Friday, May 27. Please pray that I have the necessary diligence to get done what I need to and that I pass the review board. I was in St. Andrews when Prince William and Kate Middleton visited. She shook my hand, but Prince William went and greeted people on the other side of the road.


Paul Larson

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