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Truth and Grace Together

Susan S. Phillips's The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy and David Skeel's True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World
Truth and Grace Together

41uvS5sZTZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the magisterial prologue to his Gospel, John the Apostle writes of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” As we seek to be like Jesus, the Christian life is a constant balancing of the dualities in that last phrase. We work, empowered by the Spirit of God who works in us the miracle of transforming our mind, our reason, our logic alongside our will, our emotions, our intuition. We are always aware that these are but names for parts of our personalities that are never really separate from each other, but need to be thought of separately at times for the purpose of properly ordering our lives. Neglect of any of these brings spiritual peril.

Two small books, both published by InterVarsity Press, have come out in the last year, which tend to different aspects of the truth and grace we find in our Faith. David Skeel, Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has given us a book of what used to be called “apologetics”, a defense of the faith for the unbeliever. In fact, believers need this book just as much because their faith is often built on simplistic answers to complex questions, answers that simply don’t satisfy in an age of immense information bases that demonstrate daily how complex the world actually is. Skeel has not spun out all the complexities of the answers the Christian faith has to the questions he catalogues here, but he has treated the complexity of both the questions and the answers with a respect and clarity that will satisfy the lay questioner. Reason, informed by Scripture and tradition, is sensitively employed to serve, as it should, the heart’s quest for truth.

Skeel’s main device is the idea of paradox. Applying it to five different areas of contemporary human existence, all raising questions for seekers about their understanding of Christianity, Skeel shows how Christianity makes more sense of the inexplicable, from mathematics to human suffering, than any other view of reality, particularly materialism, which he describes as the chief opponent to a theistic world view. Human consciousness, or “idea making” as he calls it, simply makes more sense from the perspective of humanity being made in God’s image than it does from a purely materialistic perspective. Similarly, Beauty and the Arts, Suffering and Sensation, the paradox of the human sense of Justice, and Life and the Afterlife, all have their complexity dealt with better by the common sense answers of Christian faith than they do in the materialism of Richard Dawkins, for instance.

True Paradox is not a perfect book, and it is not, as I wrote above, an attempt to provide comprehensive answers to the questions it treats. But it is a fine book to give to the young Christian or to the undergraduate unbeliever in order to help them on their journey toward faith.

Similarly, Susan Phillips, for many years executive director of New College Berkeley, and professor of sociology and theology at New College, Regent College (Vancouver), and Fuller Theological Seminary, has given us a book encouraging the grace-filled life, a book that answers the “how” of finding Life in a consistent, “cultivated” way. Following the two metaphors of the circus, a description of life as it is lived in our secular world, and the garden, where God cultivates in us through spiritual practices a way of being in the circus that allows us not to be dominated by it, she tells personal stories, explains biblical parables, uses underlying Greek and Hebrew ideas, all to weave a tapestry of spiritual formation.

Phillips divides her book into chapters that seem to flow into one another seamlessly, each one equal to the next but building upon the last. Her style of story telling—as Eugene Petersen puts it in his preface, “There is an austere, spare quality to these stories…They leave a lot of blanks in the narration, an implicit invitation to hear the story ourselves just as we are and find how we fit into it.”—keeps us off balance and makes us pay attention, but we want to: the stories are so interesting and real, the reader always wants to know what’s coming next.

Phillips delves into the following aspects of spiritual development:

  • personal life practices (e.g. praying in the shower as a means of spiritual refreshment)
  • cultivating listening in a variety of forms
  • stopping and reflecting on the world around you and within you
  • Sabbath keeping
  • developing “attentional practices” especially in contrast to the distractions of modern technologies
  • the Benedictine practice of lectio divina
  • cultivating attachment to people (the always important relational aspect of spiritual formation)
  • the importance of seeking spiritual direction
  • friendship (two chapters)
  • and, finally, the fruit of cultivation found in joy and exaltation.

 

She concludes the book with a meditation on completeness, a set of acknowledgements, and an extremely helpful appendix entitled “Guidelines for Practices”, a set of suggestions for practicing contemplative listening, Sabbath living, lectio divina, cultivating friendship, and finding a spiritual director.

These two books are very different, approaching two very different subjects in two very different ways. Each is filled, however, with a great deal of wisdom, wisdom that will lead to grace and truth.

 

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