The Jacob to Israel experience

Many of you will be happy to hear that this post is not about preterism (check the category and tags!). It’s more about the importance of developing the Christian mind. It was, however, my recent discussion of preterism that brought this to my thoughts, so I will use my struggle with full preterism as an example.

I certainly didn’t come quietly into full preterism. Since my first encounter with it, I kicked against the goads for about five years before I could no longer say that I struggled against full preterism.

This is not to say that I do not still struggle with it. There are some things one cannot understand about a subject without first accepting it on its own terms. I have accepted full preterism fully, and will now continue to wrestle with it for the rest of my days. Even before being entirely convinced of preterism, I had to accept it provisionally in order to see more clearly what claims it was making and why. This sort of engagement with things we are at odds with is an important stage and a necessary component of maturing as a Christian.

This is very similar to what Lewis in “Meditation in a Tool Shed” from God in the Dock called “the difference between looking at and looking along”:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The light was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dusts floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly, the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

He goes on to give an astounding anticipation of the post-modern critique of modernism with the following observation:

A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

This case is not likely to occur, because every man has felt pain. But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go explaining what a thing is without knowing what it is…

I draw the parallel with Jacob wrestling with God: he was not wrestling as an enemy of God, but in an effort to gain every possible advantage of knowing Him, resulting in God changing his name to “Struggles with God” — Israel.

An application of all this is that when we are confronted with a different theological viewpoint, be it Calvinism, universalism, or theistic evolution, we are not being good judges unless we evaluate it for its own merits, resisting the instinctive reaction of immediately going on the defensive for our own point of view. This highlights a vital component of any fair analysis: equally important as attempting to evaluate an issue “objectively” from the outside is accepting the argument on its own terms and evaluating it from there as objectively as possible, too.

This does not mean that we sing “Kum Ba Yah” and avoid forcefully arguing our beliefs. Too many Christians get hurt because someone was so insensitive as to disagree with them and (what’s worse) actually present an argument for their position! It does mean that we should avoid forcefully arguing our beliefs before we put in an honest quantity and quality of research. This putting oneself in the other guy’s shoes does not always show up in the rhetorical (presentation) phase of the argument, but should have been an essential ingredient of the dialectic phase of the argument, i.e. the formulation of the viewpoint being argued through logic. Strawmen and misrepresentations are all but eliminated when this is done, and their existence in an argument is a tell-tale indication that this step was omitted.

Most preterists would never have arrived at preterism if we had remained as knee-jerk about eschatology as we are about so many other subjects. For many of us, preterism was the beginning of the destruction of mindless fideism and theological prejudice. Many of those having started the process are unfortunately unwilling to engage the other side of other theological issues up close as they did with preterism, preferring to lob shots from afar.

Remember, in a time in which one’s name was considered to define one’s destiny, renaming someone was tantamount to redefining his nature: God renamed Jacob to Israel not to tag him as someone who had struggled with God once a long time ago – instead, Jacob’s whole existence was redefined in terms of this kind of interaction with God, as was the existence of the people that took his new name. This was no harmless scrimmage wrestling match: Jacob continued holding on to his opponent even after his hip was dislocated. He persisted because he recognized that he didn’t have it all, and that the One he was striving with did.

That sort of struggle — not the struggle to beat the opponent but to gain as much as possible from him, not holding on tenaciously and hard-headedly to something accepted a long time ago that we have too much pride to scrutinize — that is passion for Truth.

If our position is true, it will hold up to intense scrutiny. If the other position is true, it’s worth fighting to attain. As Henry Blackaby observes, “Truth is a Person.” The more we love truth, the more we love the Truth.

Are you dedicated to carrying the work out to completion? Are you willing to struggle not only until daybreak, but for the rest of your life? Do you want the truth so badly that you’ll take painful and permanent wounds in order to have God rename you “Israel”?

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