The Cognitive Collapse
Like a wily eyed grandfather, the Apostle Paul often teases as much as he teaches. To the Corinthians, he goes so far as to name himself a “Steward of Mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1). Peaking behind many of his propositional truths are statements that most of us prefer to avoid. We have no problem slapping “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:17) into a picture frame and hanging it in our office. The waters become quite murky if we keep reading his defense of this statement, though. Two chapters later, he refers to a man who was “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Cor. 12:3). Steward of mysteries, indeed. One passage in particular has haunted much of my life in Christ:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? -Romans 7:15,18-19, 24
In this same section, Paul says he loves God with ALL his heart…and yet he still doesn’t do what he knows to be good, true, and beautiful. If the Steward Himself was entangled in this mire, what hope have we?
The Milk and the Meat
In the Old Testament, you will be hard pressed to find language of “baby” Jew or “mature” Jew. Like a Divine Funk Diva, God looked to his people and said, “here’s a shovel, can you dig it, fool?” There was no Law-lite and Law-heavy. You kept the law, or you broke it. In the New Testament, though, we find new language. Again speaking to the Corinthians, Paul says, “I had to talk… as though you were infants in Christ. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The author of Hebrews employs similar language: “you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).
One of the most profound mysteries of the New Testament is that there are two kinds of Christians: milk-drinking Christians and meat-chewing Christians. The distinction the Scriptures make between the two may surprise you. Hebrews says that spiritual milk consists of, “the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God… [of] baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2). Today, we would describe this as systematic theology or doctrine. The Bible seems to be telling us that all the thick theology books placed on the shelf belong in the children’s section of the Lord’s Library. This should not move us to look down our noses at volumes of doctrine and dogma, but it should cause us to re-evaluate the marks of solid-food spirituality.
Hebrews describes the mature as, “those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). Notice the shift in language:
- infants know the good things of heaven, the mature experience them
- infants have a doctrine of the Spirit, the mature have shared in the Spirit
- infants understand the goodness of the Word, the mature have tasted it
- infants confess the power of the age to come, the mature wield it.
This kind of distinction is not foreign to Jesus, either. “On judgment day,” he warns, “many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you’” (Matthew 7:22-23). Jesus is telling us that the hallmark of mature faith is intimate relationship with him. It is not mere confession and powerful ministry, it is a knowing of Jesus.
The Cognitive Collapse
Cognition will not carry the day for the Christian. There will come a time when, like Paul, we will be entirely fed up with ourselves. What we know is not changing how we live or what we love. This reality in no way undermines the importance of doctrine and information. It does, however, help us better understand what they are for. Our cognitive abilities have been bestowed on us by God for the sake of relationship with him and each other. Our thinking and doctrine are all intended to increase our capacity for those relationships. You can’t skip over confession and get communion. Babies will die if you try and feed them meat. And yet a 35 year old maintaining a steady diet of mama’s milk is equally deadly. Sophisticated theology does not a mature Christian make.
Paul does not leave us in the dark when the collapse comes, however. “Thank God!” he shouts, “The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). The answer is Jesus himself. Not more in depth understanding of him, but rather more intimate relationship with him. The cognitive collapse is part of God’s developmental plan for the Christian life. It, too, is in service of relationship. When our right answers stop working, we must once again enter the warm embrace of Christ himself. When our confession has changed our behavior but not healed our souls, we must learn to feed on the greatest mystery of all, the hope of glory, Christ in us (Colossians 1:27).