Brian Zahnd is one of my favourite preachers, so I was looking forward to this, his latest book. It is
When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd (IVP, 2021)
It has a foreword by Canadian Orthodox theologian Bradley Jersak.
I have not been disappointed. This is one of the most telling, and moving, books I have read for a long time. In an age when hope is scarce and the world in deep turmoil, Zahnd shows how it is possible to maintain a robust Christian faith. It will appeal to the multitude of Christians going through some form of ‘deconstruction’ of their faith, but it also has a preventive aspect that will appeal to a wider readership.
I like the way the author refers to Descartes, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Derrida and Dostoevsky, plus other thinkers and writers, to show how their views have shaped modern attitudes, and he skilfully exposes both their strengths and their weaknesses. At the same time, Zahnd recounts some of his own experiences to illustrate his conviction that there is hope for the future, and that we, too, can encounter God in similar ways.
The book is in two parts. The first looks at aspects of the current world situation, while the second points the way forward. The loss of faith being experienced by many is more a reaction to fundamentalism (and especially biblical literalism) than to authentic Christianity. The need is to get away from faith seen as holding to a set of doctrines and to experience God. Modernism frowns on this, but it is central to the way God works. We also need to see the key differences between Jesus, Christianity and the church. The latter two undergo change, but never Jesus himself.
In finding our way forward on the journey of faith, we will need to un-learn some things, just as Paul did after his encounter on the Damascus road. This can be a dark time. But the Jewish day begins at sunset, not at dawn, and ‘dark before light’ is the usual pattern in our own spiritual progress. Happily, God specialises in revealing himself, and he will do that for the earnest seeker. Zahnd encourages professed atheists to step out and approach, by prayer, the God they claim not to believe in.
Modernism is still a factor in people’s awareness today, making human reason the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality. Postmodernism, for all its weaknesses, has at least opened people up to the spiritual dimension, and it’s there where the vital experience of God is to be found. We should seek to be ‘mystics’—people who have such experiences. Contemplative prayer is one avenue of exploration to follow.
On this journey we will likely enter a ‘second naïveté’, particularly in our reading of the Bible. After starting with a childlike approach, we move on to a more analytical, scholarly attitude to Scripture—which is both useful and commendable—but then come back to a more simplistic reading, where God can speak to us.
Zahnd’s conclusion is that the way forward is through an appreciation of the bottom-line fact that ‘God is love’. That enables us to have real hope for the future and be able to dream dreams of better things. The author spells out some of the dreams he has for the church of tomorrow, and they are big ones.
This is a warm and hope-inspiring book. It is deep, and sometimes provocative. But whether we are in a process of faith-deconstruction or not, it has something of value to say to us all.
Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.
Is Christian faith still viable in an age of unbelief? Yes, it is possible. I can bear witness. My own faith has passed through the flames of modernity and is alive and well. (p14)
Being angry with modern people for losing their faith is like being angry with medieval people for dying of the plague. (p14)
[Nietzsche] was a towering intellect, a tremendous writer, a savage polemicist, and the most formidable critic of Christianity in the modern era. And if one is offended by his hostile disposition toward Christianity, it should be remembered that his caustic assaults were more of an attack on moribund Christendom as a cultural artifact than on a faith centered on the life and teachings of Jesus. (p17)
In recent years, we’ve seen believers, pastors, and well-known Christian leaders publicly lose their faith. This phenomenon is happening with increasing regularity. (p23)
Sometimes biblical literalism and angry atheism are just two sides of the same fundamentalist coin. (p27)
I do my best to nurture my grandchildren in the rich soil of historic Christian faith, which in its healthiest forms has always been comfortable with mystery and nuance, metaphor and allegory, candid questions and honest doubt. (p29)
From the very beginning, Christians have understood that faith and reason are not rivals but compatible ways of engaging with the mystery of being. A thousand years ago, Saint Anselm gave us the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” and the phrase still has currency. Advances in cosmology and quantum physics have only increased our sense of mystery, thus inviting faith to join the conversation. (p30)
I know what it is to let go of anti-intellectual theology, doom-oriented eschatology, ticket-to-heaven soteriology, hyper-individualized ecclesiology and discover that something far, far better had been there all along. (p31)
I suspect that many who think they are done with Christianity may not be as done as they suppose. (p41)
The center of the human being is the heart—not the mind. I didn’t think my way to faith, rather I encountered Christ with my heart. Ultimately, the witness of my heart is as credible as the reasonings of my mind. And if you say the heart can be deceived, I will say the mind can also be deceived. A pure heart can be trusted. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). My conversion was mystical, not rational. But that does not make it any less credible. (p45)
Theories of eschatology, theories of atonement, and theories of final judgment I had inherited or picked up along the way now seemed to clash with the beauty of Christ. An unavoidable eschatological megawar in the Middle East, the cross as the Father’s violent anger inflicted on his Son, hell as God’s eternal torture chamber—these theological ideas had become too ugly to be endured. (p47)
I believed in Jesus, but in midlife I became aware of how much of my theology was incongruent with the one who was the true object of my faith. I was willing to sacrifice my theology for my Lord. (p48)
We’re not going to find Jesus in an archaeological dig but in the place of prayer and worship. (p53)
Passing through periods of doubt is a necessary part of spiritual growth and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. (p54)
Within the broad borders of the historic creeds there is plenty of room for creative theology and rigorous debate. (p60)
Disdain for received religious tradition is more akin to every individual left to discover the wheel and harness fire on their own. Without shared religion, we cannot build on the spiritual progress achieved by those who have gone before us. (p61)
We train people in prayer by giving them well-crafted prayers because the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do but to be properly formed. (p62)
There is a remarkable degree of flexibility and capacity for change within the Christian religion. Among other things, this means that we can rethink and even modify Christianity without losing Jesus. (p63)
[Re Mark 3] Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is the only way we make spiritual progress. Just about the time we think we’ve got Jesus figured out, he goes missing. We may fear that we’ve lost Jesus, nevertheless if we seek him, we will find him. But in the rediscovery we will be required to rethink some things. (p73)
The sense of being abandoned by God, losing Jesus, is all part of the long spiritual journey. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross described it as the dark night of the soul. These are the trying times when God plays a mischievous game of hide-and-seek. But it’s all designed to draw us out of our cozy spirituality and onto the hard road of an earnest quest. Christ is found by those who seek him, not those who presume him. (p74)
In Genesis, the new day doesn’t begin at sunrise or at midnight, but at sunset. Reflecting this, the Jewish Sabbath does not begin at sunrise on Saturday but at sundown on Friday. Each new day begins with new darkness. Newness is not heralded by the rising sun but by enfolding darkness. This is counterintuitive. The new day does not begin with being able to see, the new day begins with being unable to see. Newness is born in nothingness. (p75)
Complacency, not doubt, is the great enemy of spiritual development. (p77)
There is a journey of unknowing that is mostly about un-knowing or unlearning. It’s not the learning that is hard but the unlearning. In the first half of life, we tend to think that all we need for spiritual progress is positive addition. Just learn some more God stuff. But in the second half of life, spiritual progress is more often obtained through the apophatic process of negation. We begin to know about God by realizing how very little we know about God. (p79)
If we think doctrine is more important than love, we already have bad doctrine. (p86)
The revelation of Jesus Christ cannot be proven (or disproven), it can only be proclaimed. And the proclamation can either be believed or disbelieved. But Paul insists that the capacity to believe is inherently present in the proclamation—the proclamation is self-authenticating because it is the word of Christ. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17 NASB). The capacity to believe is ontologically present in the proclamation of the gospel. (p91)
If from the outset you insist that if God doesn’t show up in the telescope like Alpha Centauri or in the microscope like a DNA molecule, then God doesn’t exist, well, guess what, you’re going to “prove” that God doesn’t exist. (p95)
To begin with the Bible and make that the foundation of faith (instead of Jesus!) is to put more weight on the Bible than the Bible can bear. (p97)
Since the canon of Scripture is closed, the soil of the Christian faith is unchanging. But that doesn’t prevent the living Christian faith itself from growing, changing, developing, and maturing over time. (p98)
My Christian faith is bigger than the Bible—and dare I say, better than the Bible. Jesus Christ is the only perfect theology and the only enduring foundation. (p100)
As modern Christians, we are conditioned to be embarrassed by a claim to know something by a revelatory experience, so we are tempted to pretend that our faith is based on something everyone can agree on. But this is a departure from the apostolic understanding of how and why we believe in Jesus. It’s quite amazing to me that it took me decades to admit what I knew all along: I believe in Jesus because I know him. (p101)
Most atheists I have had conversations with seem to think about God nearly as much as I do. (p103)
The rational mind is capable of amazing accomplishments, but it is not an organ suitable for experiencing God. Attempting to use the rational mind as the organ for experiencing God is rather like trying to smell a rose with your ear. (p110)
Jesus is clear that the only way to know if his teaching is from God is a resolve to act. “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (Jn 7:17). You’ll never know if Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life by sitting all alone upstairs in your head thinking about it. You have to act on it. (p118)
Mystical experiences are not foreign to scriptural tradition but are the norm within scriptural tradition. (p130)
The goal of spiritual practices like prayer, worship, scripture reading, and the like is to become properly formed as a being who bears the imago Dei—the image of God. Thus, the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we want God to do but to be properly formed—to become the person God created us to be. (p131)
Through practices like disciplined Scripture reading, liturgical prayer, formative prayer, listening prayer, contemplative prayer, spiritual reading, and spiritual direction, we form our soul in healthy ways and increase our capacity to experience God. (p136)
Forty years ago, I read a book titled Knowing God, but as I look back these many years later, I realize that Knowing God isn’t actually about knowing God but knowing doctrines about God—a presentation of Reformed systematic theology. (p137)
Today, if I’m reading the Bible in the morning as part of my daily spiritual exercises and I read about the walls of Jericho falling down, I don’t muse upon the fact that archaeological evidence does not support this. I know this fact, but now that I know it, I can set it aside and allow the inspired storyteller to tell the story. Because, although I know what biblical archaeology says about this story, I also know there are walls that need to fall and that the people of God need to march around these walls believing they will fall. (p143)
I hold the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be a historical event. Though the precise nature of the resurrection may lie beyond our understanding, I believe it happened. I believe it because the living Christ has been revealed to me and because of the witness and creedal confession of the church. (p145)
I actually believe—though I cannot prove it—that God is in a constant state of intervention in the world. I hold to the seemingly outrageous idea that God is never not intervening in the world! God is love, and God is always loving the world. God’s intervention is God’s love. God’s intervening love may rarely (if ever) be coercive and controlling, but the intervention of love is there nevertheless. (p149)
In a time when everything is on fire with fear, hatred, and violence, the temptation is to fear the fear, hate the hate, and react with violence to the violence. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that our fear is warranted, our hate is righteous, and our violence is justified. (p152)
The house of fear exists only because its inhabitants don’t yet know the single greatest truth of our existence: God is love. The universe is not benign, but God is love. Cruel vagaries abound, but God is love. Harms are hidden among us, but God is love. An awareness of God’s love is the secret to facing the world as it is and still abiding in peace. (p155)
Our blessed hope is that the Father’s house will finally subsume the entire cosmos—that the universe itself will become the house of love. But the particular good news in our present moment is that Jesus invites us to live in the house of love now. (p158)
When we follow the Jesus way, embrace the Jesus truth, and live the Jesus life, we are on the road to the Father’s house, the house of love. And do I believe that some, drawn by the Holy Spirit, are on this holy way without yet knowing the name of the way? Absolutely. They are what Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians.” (p158)
We need to live with both an anticipation of the imminent return of the Lord and with a suspicion that the parousia might be many millennia in the future. (p163)
[Re Moses and the burning bush] Learn to sit in some kind of wilderness until something catches fire. (p170)
Other books by Brian Zahnd that I have reviewed: