Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power
According to the Bible, the Kingdom of Heaven is not of this world: it is not centered in palaces and thrones, but in the hearts and lives of God’s people (Luke 17:21). It came to earth in the symbolism of the Jewish sanctuary (the Tabernacle and the Temple) where God’s presence dwelt. It assumed a fuller form when God himself entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem sinners. The Kingdom of God is here and now because the Holy Spirit lives in Christ’s believers from all over the world, changing their minds and hearts and making them fit to live, move, and have their being in God’s universe. It is a work in progress, for eventually the Kingdom of God will push outward until the whole world has been exposed to God’s plan of salvation. The Kingdom of Heaven will be fully realized in the future because Jesus will return as king to judge the world, abolish evil forever (Revelation 21:22), and let believers share in His eternal glory. This is the “thick” Christian worldview imbued with objective value, purpose, and meaning that J. P. Moreland proclaims boldly to be the solution to the serious spiritual, economic, political, and moral problems of Western society in his new book.
The book is divided clearly into two parts. The first part is a lucid and thorough analysis of the current crisis of Western society which is due to the marginalization of the Christian worldview and the dominance of scientific naturalism and postmodernism in the centers of power in Western culture. The result is a “thin” world, a world “with no objective value, purpose, or meaning. It is a world that is just there; it wasn’t made for some purpose. There’s no real essence to what counts as a proper flourishing human life, and there is no life after death” (26). It is a world of “empty selves,” in which the absolutization of immediate gratification and desire of satisfaction replaces fidelity to objective truth and value. Dominated by moral relativism, this world perpetuates hopelessly fractured individual lives and decadent social structures that lack “the resources needed to resist the drift towards the proliferation of empty selves” (105). When ultimate values, truth, faith, and intuition are eliminated from the field of knowledge, young people cannot receive a robust education because
there simply is no established, widely recognized body of ethical or religious knowledge now operative inthe institutions of knowledge in our cultures, for example, our universities. Ethical and religious claims are placed into what Francis Schaeffer used to call the “upper story,” and they are judged to have little or no epistemic authority compared to the authority given to science in defining the limits of knowledge and reality (76).
Power and politics have replaced candid dialogue and the search for truth: “political correctness so rules our universities that they are now places of secular indoctrination, and one is hard-pressed to find serious classroom interaction from various perspectives on the crucial issues of our day” (12). Moreland correctly identifies five disturbing paradigm shifts that greased the skids from a “thick” Judeo-Christian world to a “thin” world.
The first paradigm shift pits knowledge against faith: while “insights gained from various disciplines from chemistry to literature deserve the cognitive label ‘learning’, biblical assertions are named faith” (93) and are not taken as items of knowledge that reflect reality. As a consequence, the main assumption within our culture is that “we should only believe in what we experience, plus what the accredited sciences certify to us” (94). The second paradigm shift refers to what people mean by “the good life”: while in Old Testament times and ancient Greece “happiness was understood as a life of virtue, and the successful person was the person who knew how to live well according to what we are by nature because of the creative design of God” (94), today “the essence of happiness becomes the unbridled satisfaction of desire” (95). This focus on fun and pleasure creates a culture of “self-absorbed narcissists who cannot live for something bigger than they are” (95). The third paradigmatic change is due to the loss of belief in the existence of absolute moral knowledge and truth. It consists of a shift from a life of duty and virtue to a pitiful life based on minimalist ethics. The concept of “minimalist ethics” was introduced in 1981 by Daniel Callahan while describing the main features of contemporary American culture: “the transcendence of the individual over the community, the importance of tolerating all moral viewpoints, the autonomy of the individual as the highest human good and the voluntary, informed consent contract as the model of human relationships.” Minimalist ethics is expressed in the widely accepted moral axiom: “One may morally act in any way one chooses so long as one does not do harm to others” (96). The fourth shift is from classical freedom, meaning the power to do what one ought to do, to contemporary freedom, meaning the right to do what one wants to do (99). If minimalist ethics is accepted, one is free to do as one pleases in one’s sexual, professional, and social life, providing one does not harm others. The last paradigm shift Moreland notes is from the classical notion of tolerance to contemporary tolerance. According to the classical conception of tolerance, one tolerates and respects persons but not wrong ideas. The contemporary notion of tolerance is connected closely to moral relativism, a doctrine holding that individual agents ought to act in accordance with their society’s code (or, perhaps, with the agent’s own personal code) (100). With so many moral codes in circulation, it is easy to see a paradoxical consequence of moral relativism which “does allow for the principle of tolerance, but it also allows for the principle of intolerance in the same way” (104). In other words, one ought to be tolerant if the principle of tolerance is in a person’s social code and one ought to be intolerant if the principle of intolerance is in that person’s social code.
Where are the Christians in this picture? With a saddened heart, Moreland discloses that “Christians haven’t always done a good job of living their faith with authenticity, love and…drama” (32); that is why non-Christians often see Christians “as a whole as shallow, intolerant, and hypocritical” (32). In 1974, the Year of the Evangelical, “Evangelicals were not ready to step into the vacuum and lead our culture to higher ground” (12). How could they have done so when, according to Mark Noll, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (93)? Yet, in spite of this bleak picture, Moreland remains optimistic and has two reasons for being so. First, he thinks that signs in Western culture indicate that there is today a window of opportunity for Christians to seize the moment and, through their lives and thought, show their culture the way forward:
Signs indicate we are gaining momentum and may well be ready to manifest our Lord’s true character in away appropriate to the crisis of our age. Our Christian schools are already out performing our secular counterparts. More and more churches are recovering our rightful role in racial reconciliation, in caring for the poor, and in being a presence of light in a dark place. There is a growing dissatisfaction with playing church. The Intelligent Design movement cannot be stopped. Christians have substantially recaptured lost ground in the discipline of philosophy in universities around our land. Rumors of miracles are starting to trickle out of our churches. We are figuring out that the Holy Spirit didn’t die when the apostle John was martyred. Tools for spiritual formation are available as never before in my lifetime (13).
His second reason for optimism is the undeniable fact that “the Kingdom is exploding today in a way that has not happened in the two thousand years since King Jesus inaugurated its most mature form to date” (192). He is right. The Kingdom is advancing among Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan and among Buddhists in South Korea. According to one of the latest issues of The Economist,
By 1995 Christianity had surpassed Buddhism as South Korea’s most popular religion. Roh Moo-hyun, the current president, and his two immediate predecessors are all Christians. In recent years Korea’s religious zeal has crossed its borders, sending a flood of salvation to destinations beyond. With roughly 16,000 Christian missionaries abroad, Korea is second only to America when it comes to spreading the gospel.1
In the second part of his book, Moreland develops a strategy for Christians to “return to the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) in the hope of restoring the influence of Kingdom life in the world. He considers that, though there is a unique form of God’s Kingdom that will be manifested in the future, “the Kingdom is here now, and learning to live according to its nature and from its power and to proclaim and extend that Kingdom is our primary business” (173). Drawing insights from the explosive success of Christianity in the first four centuries, he outlines three essential elements of this strategy which constitute the Kingdom Triangle: recovering the Christian mind, renovating Christian spirituality, and restoring the power of the Holy Spirit.
Discussion of the first leg of the triangle starts from the assumption that reality includes both a material and an immaterial world which can be known as they are. Knowledge is defined as the “ability to represent things as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (114). This definition is wide enough to include spiritual and moral knowledge as epistemic items. If by reading a science textbook or just observing nature we get knowledge of material reality, by reading the Bible or experiencing God we get spiritual and moral knowledge about the nature and proper functioning of the self, the family, and society. More importantly, we acquire knowledge about God and how to develop an interactive relationship with Him: “Just as the history of chemistry provides us with knowledge of reality, so the history of Christian thought on these topics, rooted in the inerrant Word, provides knowledge of God and these related matters” (114). Trying to demonstrate the human ability to gain non-empirical knowledge of immaterial reality, Moreland discusses three general features of knowledge: knowledge does not require certainty, for there are few things that can be known with certainty; we can know something without knowing that we know it, or we can gain confidence from knowing that we possess a certain type of knowledge; we can know something without knowing how we know it. This feature is discussed in connection with the thorny issue of the criteria for knowledge as advanced by skepticism, methodism, and particularism. Moreland’s conclusion is that humans can know many things, directly and simply, without possessing criteria for how they know them and without having to know how or even that they know them (124).
Next Moreland describes three types of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance, propositional knowledge, and know-how. He emphasizes knowledge by acquaintance or knowledge by simply seeing. He considers knowledge by acquaintance to be the basis for all other kinds of knowledge in that “experience or direct awareness of reality is the basis for everything we know” (127). Yet, he does not limit direct awareness to sensory awareness, since we may be aware through introspection of our souls, feelings, and desires. He mentions also that knowledge is not conditioned by presuppositions, concepts, language, and cultural standpoints, as demonstrated by babies who become aware of things before starting to talk. Yet knowledge by acquaintance, described by Plato as “rational awareness”, is dismissed widely by postmodernists today. Moreland’s analysis of knowledge by acquaintance is an important step in the recovery of this type of knowledge, which is of crucial importance for the Christian life because “it places us in direct contact with God, physical and spiritual reality, our own souls, and a host of other things” (129). How is knowledge related to faith? Moreland correctly explains that “faith – confidence, trust – is rooted in knowledge” and “confidence is inextricably wrapped up with beliefs – the rails on which our lives run” (131). He underlines the importance of beliefs for our character, behavior, and destiny:
The actual content of what we believe about God, morality, politics, life after death, and so on will shape the contours of our life and actions. In fact, the contents of our beliefs are so important that, according to Scripture, our eternal destiny is determined by what we believe about Jesus Christ (131).
By developing a theory of knowledge that underwrites the reality of non-empirical knowledge, Moreland demonstrates that knowledge of God and spiritual life is not only possible but also essential for humans to deal successfully with a reality that they did not create and which is not under their control. At the same time, he provides Christian believers with tools for their growth in the knowledgeable confidence in God and His truth, in the hope of giving them courage to “shine as Christians” in the world by living vibrant Kingdom lives of “supernatural colaboring with God” (135).
The second leg of the triangle deals with spiritual formation for Kingdom life. Moreland compares the boring life of the empty self, a self-contained, infantile, narcissistic, and passive individual, with life in the Kingdom, characterized by human flourishing, “well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness and goodness” not in one’s own power but in the “power of the indwelling Spirit and the resurrected power of Jesus himself” (144). It is a supernatural life which starts when a rational creature surrenders voluntarily to the life of Christ by accepting His paradoxical invitation: “If anyone wishes tocome after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Giving up one’s life for Christ’s sake and finding one’s life imply more than finding one’s true self. Christ’s words portend becoming not a better you but an altogether new creature centered on Jesus and the Kingdom’s cause. The new creature “is to become like Jesus himself and have a character that manifests the radical nature of the Kingdom of God and the fruit of the Spirit” (145). Moreland states that the decision to choose a lifestyle of self-denial for Jesus’ sake is the most important decision that someone will ever make, as “the path of self-denial for Jesus corresponds to the way we were made to function and to reality itself as God created it” (148). This decision will make the believer fully alive and busy in the Kingdom; he will reorganize his long-term focus and his life goals:
If authentic spiritual formation, character, and deep well-being are your goal, then you will learn to see yourself in light of a larger cause, the outworking of God’s plan in history. You will be absorbed by wanting to make Jesus famous and respected by everyone. You will be preoccupied with finding your role in the body of Christ and with developing the gifts and talents required to fulfill that role with excellence…. Your long-term focus…will be on giving yourself away to others for Christ’s sake (148).
Moreland considers healthy, biblically informed self-denial an art that can be taught in church and mastered by daily practice. He hopes that Christians will “form a passion for the daily practice of giving up on the failed project of making one’s self the center of focus and, alternatively, to live hour by hour for God’s Kingdom” (146). He recommends that churches foster the regular practice of spiritual disciplines of both abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality) and engagement (study, worship, prayer, confession), as “the Christian life requires habit formation as a central part of transformation And a spiritual discipline is a tool for laying aside bad habits and forming new ones more consistent with the nature of God’s Kingdom” (155). The ongoing process of spiritual formation refers also to the taming of one’s emotional sensitivity. “It is possible,” states Moreland, “to develop a healthy, ongoing awareness of one’s inner life that avoids being unduly introspective on the one hand and out of touch emotionally on the other” (156). He notes the important role played in the taming of our emotions by classic writings in spiritual formation as well as by trained Christian therapists and counselors or by spiritual directors. He also recommends the practice of meditation in our hearts to supplement meditation in our minds, because “the heart is the deepest aspect of one’s soul, one’s inner self” (159). The value of this chapter is its clear articulation of methods of progressing in Kingdom life. While Moreland mentions the involvement of the spiritual world in the workings of our souls, he is convinced that humans need to do their part in their own spiritual formation through “cultivation of an inner life, developing emotional intimacy with God, engaging in classic spiritual formation practices, [and] absorbing the great formative literature in the history of the church” (196). However, he warns against faith that is just a mild form of mental assent coupled with repeated attempts to be more committed: “raw, brute exercises of will to be more committed seldom do much for folks, unless they are combined with a growing confidence and trust in God and his Word” (197).
The last chapter deals with a question that Moreland thinks might come as a shock to his readers: does God intervene daily in everyday life? He thinks so and presents a series of contemporary miraculous manifestations of the Spirit’s power which provide evidence for the presence and the supernatural power of the Kingdom of God. The most obvious manifestation are the signs and wonders, such as healings, demonic deliverances, prophetic utterances, and dreams which are a key component of the Third World revival in the last 50 years: “A major factor in the current revival in the Third World – by some estimates, up to 70 percent of it – is intimately connected to signs and wonders as expressions of the love of the Christian Father-God, the lordship of his Son, and the power of His Spirit and his Kingdom”(168).
These miracles are just stories hard to believe for Western Christians who, according to Moreland, have absorbed more of a secular worldview than they may like to admit. As a consequence, the Western church has grown too dependent on words, forgetting too often that “the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power” (I Corinthians 4:20). But attitudes towards miracles have started to change, notes Moreland, for there has been a growing consensus among evangelical New Testament scholars that certain biblical themes, such as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) or Jesus’ public ministry, provide a mandate for the Spirit’s miraculous power. Referring to Jesus’ miracles, Moreland makes the interesting point that Jesus did not do them from his divine nature but as a perfect man, fully dependent on God the Spirit, in order to teach believers that they can exercise the miraculous power of the Spirit in the service of the Kingdom as well: “when Jesus said that ‘greater works than these he [i.e., the one who believes in Jesus] will do, because I go to the Father ’ (John 14:12), he meant it in the ordinary way these words would be interpreted” (174). Another change occurred with marginalization of the cessationist viewpoint: fewer and fewer Christian scholars believe that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, healing and demonic deliverances) ceased with the death of the apostles and are no longer available today. Moreland, himself a former cessationist, thinks that the time is ripe for all Jesus’ apprentices “to seek with greater intensity to believe God for more of his supernatural, miraculous power” (179) in and through their lives and ministries. He challenges Christians to become more “naturally supernatural” by being intentional about their spiritual growth. At the same time he recognizes that “you cannot create faith by simply trying directly to believe something more strongly than you do” and recommends gentleness, humility, and patience in the process (183).
Moreland writes with insight and passion about a very difficult subject which is dear to his heart. He knows that before Christians in the Western traditional churches can become efficient at proclaiming and extending the influence of the Kingdom, they must put their inner house in order. This is what he has done, and this book is evidence that he is living and acting through the power of the Holy Spirit. I urge everyone to read this book. It has greatly helped me regain the vision of human life caught up in the divine conspiracy constituted by the progressive spread of the Kingdom of God. It has encouraged me to believe that God can use any of His children for His purposes when He recognizes His Son in their minds and hearts.