String Theory

February 14th, 2011

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Christians have their own string theory but it doesn’t make sense.

String theory is science’s most recent stab at developing a Theory of Everything. It suggests a universe composed entirely of vibrating filaments (strings) and membranes (branes) working in compatible ways. While largely impenetrable, it’s instructive for the faith community, which has another string theory. It’s called knowing God’s will but it’s flawed since it essentially says the string operates in two incompatible ways.

Knowing God’s will is a weighty issue. Many sincere Christians struggle to discover God’s plan, which is odd since there is no record of anyone in the Bible struggling to discover God’s will. There are many who have difficulty with what they discover to be God’s will, but no one has trouble discovering God’s will. For those who struggle in today’s world, the problem is not a lack of sincerity. The problem is the string.

Many Christians use a sort of string theory to know God’s will. Imagine a stretched string representing the entire range of decisions we make over the course of a lifetime. On one end are momentous ones such as career choices. On the other end are minor decisions such as selecting a breakfast cereal. Most Christians have an imaginary line of demarcation. Weighty decisions such as selecting a spouse require knowing God’s will. Whimsical decisions such as selecting socks require a simpler calculus—we do what we want to do. They draw a line and say the string operates two ways: simply by desire in the little things but by seeking to discover God’s will in the big things. But what if there is no line of demarcation? What if the string operates entirely by desire, or delight?

This is what scripture suggests. Delight is how God makes every decision. “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever delights him” (Ps.115:3). “Whatever the Lord desires, he does” (135:6). We are created in God’s image (Gen.1:26-28). We’re designed to do whatever we delight in. “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can,” wrote C.S. Lewis.1 Blaise Pascal agreed: “All men seek happiness without exception. They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it.”2

Doing what we desire often spooks Christians. That’s because their understanding of the gospel starts with the fall—the way it is—versus creation—what ought to be. Granted, fallen beings can fall over the edge when it comes to desires. This doesn’t change our basic design, however. In forsaking the “passing pleasures of sin”, Moses recognized we sin because we love to (Heb.11:24-25). But the cure is not ginning up more willpower since this only shapes five percent of desires. To shape the other 95 percent, look at Psalm 37:3-4: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Trust is confidence in God’s definition of reality. “It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent,” writes Dallas Willard.3 “‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’”4 Doing good, dwelling in the land, and ultimately enjoying safe pasture are pictures of shalom. The progression is confidence-serving-shalom-desire: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Properly shaped desires are mostly the product of properly shaped cultures. James K.A. Smith reinforces this in Desiring the Kingdom: “Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, those desires are shaped by… the rituals and rhythms of… institutions.”5 The faith community is to seek the flourishing of institutions, since they shape upwards of 95 percent our desires.

Even eternity is a matter of desire. “God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it,” writes Dallas Willard.6 The new heavens and new earth are the destiny of those whose desires, or loves, will be in perfect alignment with God’s. This is why Augustine wrote, “My love is my weight: wherever I go my love is what brings me there.”7 The quest is not trying to discover God’s will, but asking: What do I love? It is not the weight we give to decisions but the weight we give to our delights. This is why, in considering the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (I Cor.13), Augustine concluded: “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.”8 If we know someone’s loves, we know their actual beliefs and hopes.

The ordering of our loves requires discerning “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it,” wrote C.S. Lewis.9 That’s a mouthful. Lewis is essentially saying we’re to love everything, including such things as recognition, success, and significance, in the order in which God loves them. When we love anything too much, it’s idolatry. We deify God’s good gift. When we love anything too little, it’s ignorance. We disdain God’s good gift. We’re to love everything in its proper order “for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected” (I Tim.4:3-5). This is why my wife Kathy and I routinely pray one prayer for our children: that they would grow to know God’s will by loving the things God loves in the order in which he loves them. If, by the grace of God, they appropriately order their loves—or even approximately order them—they’ll be free to do whatever they delight in. But this ordering will require more than willpower. It will mean shaping the institutions that shape 95 percent of their affections.

If you think about today’s institution, Valentines’ Day, it prompts you to act on your desires. If you love someone, this desire acts as a weight. Wherever you go and whatever you do today—send a card, enjoy a romantic dinner—it is your love, your desire, that weighs decisions and makes you act on them. Decisions follow desires. It’s a string theory that acts as a Theory of Everything with no line of demarcation. Whatever we love will ultimately lead us to whatever decisions we make everyday, all the time.

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1 Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 189.
2 Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, trans. by W. F. Trotter (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 113.
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), p. 94.
4 Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 95.
5 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), p. 25.
6 Willard, Divine Conspiracy, p. 302.
7 St. Augustine, Confessions 13.9
8 St. Augustine, The Enchiridion §117
9 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Simon & Schuster [First Touchstone Edition]: New York, 1996), pp. 28-29.

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9 Responses to “String Theory”

  1. Dr. Bill says:

    Challenging article today Mike, and Valentine’s day appropriate to boot.

    Your references to 5% willpower and 95% affections outside willpower – that is based on the percent of choices we make that are conscious decisions vs. actions influenced by the myriad of non-cognitized forces to which we are submitted?

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Yes it is, Dr. Bill. Spot on.

  3. Kat says:

    You always make my head tilt and then there comes the clarity and understanding. Great blog today – thanks for challenging our biblical worldview thinking and believing. I’ll be re-posting this one today!

  4. John Graff says:

    This is wonderful. Our adult forum is re-visiting the bible—many participants having admitted that they have not read it in years. This essay gives what for many will be new meaning to the whole of God’s story—-old and new testaments.

  5. Maria Cochrane says:

    Reminds me of John Piper’s central thesis – that we glorify God most by enjoying him forever. Why are we Christians so spooked by desire! Thank you for writing this.

  6. Alan Reid says:

    Your blog resonated with the talk I shared w/ our church yesterday which was based upon Deuteronomy 30:11-20…”I put before you blessing & curses…life & death…choose life.”

    Life is a constant presentation of choices and since Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, perhaps we should be praying about more of the more mundane choices we must make, which we typically determine based upon our own desires rather than asking that we make God’s desires our own.

    The prayer you & Kathy have had for your children is consistent with that we have for our daughter as well.

  7. Ben says:

    Practicing life by holy desire can have the appeal of avoiding pain. With the dissonance of desires in conflict and the purging of lesser loves, I am not sure.

  8. Stewart says:

    Mike, when you refer to “institutions” (e.g. “flourishing of” and “shaping the”) what are those references to?

  9. Mike Metzger says:

    Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow writes that culture, as the sum total of all our shared meanings, is produced and disseminated by “reality-defining institutions,” such as the media, business, publishing houses, schools, universities, and the entertainment industry. This means cultural production takes place within institutional contexts. While not all institutions carry the same weight within each field, institutions will always be the channel through which the cultural capital is invested.

    Of particular concern is how the modern faith community has tended to isolated itself from the wider culture. It is often out of touch with the day-to-day proceedings of the national institutions shaping culture. For example, evangelical “reality-defining” institutions are typically located in such places as Wheaton, Colorado Springs, and Orlando, whereas the national “reality-defining” institutions are found in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. Culture-shaping ideas are always mediated through reality-defining institutions, which are themselves controlled by gatekeepers who have gained the prerequisite cultural, social, and economic capital.

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