Discover more from Seeking the Hidden Thing
Breaking the Habits of Western Thinking: Cause and Effect is Not a Thing
There are a lot of patterns of thought which seem to us universal and just the way things are. One of these is "cause and effect." But there is another way to see the world, older, more powerful.
For most of us, we are so deeply immersed in our own culture that it is hard for us to distance ourselves enough from our own situation to assess all the ways in which the west influences us. In some ways, this is a good thing. Detachment from one’s own culture has its price. It is necessary, though, when we begin to make attempts at understanding our time, trying to figure out what is happening within our society. For the most part we are largely unaware of the cultural software, so to speak (which is a very modern western way of talking about culture for what it’s worth), that our society runs on. The deeper you bore down, to the myths and symbols that drive us as a society, we often find that they are so much a part of the way we think and act that we are blind to the idea that the things we take so for granted are not really the way things are for everyone, everywhere in all times and places. Things we think of as “universals” (like the idea of “universals” for instance) are often just part of our western way of thinking which we project onto everyone, assuming they think like us. Instead, they are merely western ways of thinking. One such pattern, one of our root ideas here in the west, is that of cause and effect.
As the west began to mature in the period of the Enlightenment, various ideas began to come together and solidify around scientific and rationalist ways of thinking, including ideas like philosophical materialism, that is, the claim that there is nothing other than matter. Pure materialist philosophy has largely been discredited, but that does not mean its core ideas are still not tremendously influential. Most of us living in the west tend to be practical materialists. In other words, even if we acknowledge that there is more to the world than mere matter, even if we profess a belief in God, we tend to live our life as if there is nothing but matter.
My Christian readers would likely push back against this. Of course, there is a God who created everything. Of course, we have a soul. Of course, there are spiritual beings we cannot see all around us. But, when you are sick, what is your first instinct? To book a doctor’s appointment, or to call the pastor and elders together to pray over you and anoint you with oil?
How do you renew a church? Looking at things materially, you change the style of songs and the types of instruments. You start new programs. You do reorganization. You do budgeting. You do “visioning” and planning sessions. But when was the last time your church went through an extended period of fasting and prayer for renewal? It is unfortunate that far too often we as Christians live functionally as philosophical materialists while holding onto a whole language of faith and spirituality. It’s not that we don’t believe. It’s just that a lot of the time we act like we don’t.
Why is it so important to understand the significance of how rationalism leads to some form of functional materialism? Because materialism changes how we think about the world, how we understand phenomena we encounter all around us. If we functionally live in a world in which God and the supernatural are not really real, how do we explain life, the universe and things? How did we get to this moment where we are contemplating all things? Into the breach comes a simple, but powerful idea: cause and effect.
Much of the power of science and scientific thinking is based upon this idea of cause and effect. It is simple really. If all there is in the world is matter, then everything we see today can be explained as an unbroken chain of cause and effect back to the very beginning of all things. Every action has a reaction. You do something and it has an effect. If I drop something, it falls to the ground. If I punch you in the nose, your nose will get broken and start to bleed. It is this idea of cause and effect that is foundational to the idea of human progress. By making small incremental changes to ourselves and the world around us, we can have progressively greater positive effects on the world, step by step. It’s foundational to the idea of evolution. But it is a profoundly western idea. It is an idea that runs counter to and undermines Biblical ways of thinking. Understanding this also, in my mind, helps us as Christians to draw ourselves apart from the broader culture, to understand the ways in which we are, or should be, thinking among our own ghetto nation. This, then, has real political implications, as I discussed in my most recent piece before this one.
Because of this idea of cause and effect, we tend to look at our moral and spiritual life this way as well, through this lens of progressive improvement. In life we face countless choices every day. All we need to do to become better people and more Christ-like is to make those choices in a way that is God honoring and in harmony with his commands. Each choice we face gives us an opportunity to put in motion a good action, “a cause,” that will lead to a positive “effect” in our lives. As the positive effects accumulate in our lives, we will become ever more Christ-like. This is a deeply western and materialist way to think about “spiritual” growth. In fact, it isn’t really spiritual growth at all. It is materialist self-improvement jargon smuggled into the church. It is a form of self-salvation.
Why is this idea of cause and effect so problematic? Because it places a burden upon us to always be making the right choices. But we tell ourselves that this is what the spiritual journey is. It is about making good life choices that have positive upbuilding effect in our lives. It sounds great. And this is familiar territory for all of us. There is a whole industry of Christian self-help advice offering their two-cents worth, helping us make good choices. But, unfortunately, its pretty much all wrong. We do make choices and we should make good choices, but the direction is all wrong. Because of this, we end up with a doctrine of self-salvation prettied up in fine sounding Christian God language. God helps me make good choices and because of the choices I make I become a better person.
But in biblical ways of thinking, the effect determines the cause. The end of the journey you are on determines the choices you make today.
For most of us, that just sounds bizarre. Effect determines cause. That is totally backwards and counter intuitive. And that is because spiritual realities are not the same as scientific realities. This is the danger of rationalism that ends in practical materialism. We have become so dominated by scientific materialism that it is almost impossible for us to actually read many biblical passages and really hear what they are saying to us and the implications for our lives.
At the same time, many of us carry around a tremendous burden that we never measure up, we are never good enough. We carry this burden around with us in large part because we are trapped in a modern scientific worldview. We always feel like we never measure up, that we cannot make enough good choices. We beat up on ourselves for making bad choices. But we don’t have to do any of this.
We need to learn to think biblically, as a Christian. So how does this biblical way of thinking work? These biblical ideas are very old ideas. We see it most clearly at work in books like Proverbs in the contrast between wisdom and folly. We see it in Jesus’ teaching of the two paths, the narrow and the wide. The idea is fairly simple. There are two paths in life, the path of wisdom and the path of folly. You must choose one path or the other.
In modern scientific, cause and effect thinking, there are thousands of branches along the path of life. If you make foolish choices, you will get farther and farther from the path of life. If you find yourself in that situation, what you need to do is to make better choices and your life will slowly regain its order. It seems like a sensible way of thinking. But it’s incorrect.
In the thinking of wisdom literature, there are just two paths, no branches, no thousands of forks. You are on one path or the other. What happens when you step onto the path of folly, you may not realize it yet, and you may deny this to yourself and the devil may seduce you into believing that this is not the case, but once you step onto the path of folly, of disobedience, the end of that path will start determining your choices. The end of the path begins to reveal itself in the choices you make today. The end may remain hidden to us today, and Satan will work overtime to keep that end hidden from us, but that choice you are making today is not really the choice right in front of you, but rather the hidden end of the journey that is revealed in this choice. You are not choosing the beginning of what might be potentially a long series of bad choices; rather you are choosing the end of the path which will now begin to determine all your other choices. The effect will determine the cause, so to speak.
The end of that path will begin to reveal itself in your life in the choices you make. Do you ever wonder why some people’s lives can spin out of control with self-destructive behavior with frightening speed? It is because of this reality. Once you embrace the path of folly, you are opening your life up to chaos, death, and destruction. Once you embrace that end, its pull can become overwhelming. Because your choice was in fact a choice for death, destruction and chaos, if you lack the strength, that end can force itself upon you with frightening speed and power, overwhelming you quite quickly.
This is why dabbling in sin is never just dabbling. This is why God says, the day you eat of the fruit of the tree, surely you will die. One step onto the path and the end of that path will determine your actions. One step onto that path and the outcome is already fixed and will begin revealing itself in your life. Once you have bitten from the apple, your death has already happened. You are just waiting for it to be revealed, for your lived experience to catch up with your reality. This is why you cannot experiment and dabble with sin.
This is why original sin is so problematic. Going back all the way to Adam, that first step was already taken for you. Without divine intervention the end is already determined. You are just waiting for it to be fully revealed in your life. From the moment you were born, you were born into a world that was bound over for “death.” This is the reality within which you live, the reality that is being revealed all around you.
This is the bad news. There is an accompanying good news as well. That good news is Jesus. He died for you. He was raised for you. We are saved by believing in Jesus Christ and what he did in his death and resurrection.
But there is a piece that is often glossed over. There is a two-fold action: repent and believe. That word repentance does not mean “well, I have made some bad choices, sure, but I can get on track if I start making better choices and Jesus can help me do that.” No, as we have been saying, because the end of the path is revealed in the choices we make, the change within us must be total. We must shift from one end to another. We must move from a life bound over and determined by death and destruction, to a life that is determined by everlasting life and the goodness and wisdom of God.
Repentance is that deep knowledge, not of discovering every little sin in our life and surfacing it, which because we lie to ourselves, is impossible to do; but rather, it is the acknowledgment that without a complete and wholesale change in our lives, our life will end in eternal death. Repentance is recognizing that without an intervention from God we are on the path to eternal judgement.
Repentance involves that deep life altering desire to change the full orientation of our lives. It is a sorrowing over the recognition that without God’s help we cannot change the path we are on. We cannot. This is the deep fear. Not, I have made some bad choices but there is still time to get on the right path by making good choices. No. It is the knowledge that our life is on the wrong path and the end of that path is slowly consuming our life and there is nothing we can do about it on our own. We are bound by this end.
So, we repent and believe? Now what happens? The work of God’s Spirit is to join us to Christ. Our repentance and faith lead to a new wholesale condition for our existence. A new mode of being. We are now “in Christ.” Being “in Christ” gives us a new end to our life. And this new end now begins to reveal itself today, in the midst of sinful reality.
What does this look like? 1 Peter 1:3 says that we are given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. It is kept in heaven for us. We are shielded by God’s power through faith. And this new reality, this inheritance, is waiting for us to be revealed in the last time. Our whole life now is guided by and pointed to this new reality. Hidden “in Christ” is this great treasure. Everything we do today is pointed to this treasure. This treasure guides all our actions and controls who we are what we do today.
Paul says the same thing more boldly in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. We no longer look at anyone from an earthly point of view. We regard them as they are “in Christ.” In Christ we are a new creation, the old is gone and the new has come. Paul does not say that in Christ we will start making good choices and will be renewed little by little every day and become a new creation. No. In Christ you are fully, 100% completely new. Your life now participates in a new reality. That reality is determined by Christ.
This is why Paul tells us that when we gaze on Christ, we see but, in a mirror, dimly. Today it is not possible to fully see that new reality, but it is there, and it is revealing itself more fully all the time. Our scientific way of thinking always wants us to think that in our spiritual journey we are becoming something that we are not. Whereas the biblical message tells us the opposite. Everything we do in our spiritual journey is about revealing who we already are in Christ. What this means is exactly what Paul tells us to do in Colossians 3. “Since you have been raised with Christ…” In Paul’s mind the resurrection has already happened because it has already happened “in Christ.” The resurrection is just waiting to be revealed. Because you are already raised in Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is.
In our materialist view we tend to see growing in Christ something that involves a lot of effort or work on our part as if it involved participation on our part, doing the work, making good choices. Spiritual growth is not really about us doing anything. This is what grace means. Faith is a form of seeing, of believing God when he tells us who we are in Christ. Then, rather than making our life about focusing on our actions today, what we do instead is that we focus on Christ and who we are in Christ. We meditate on the end of the journey. We direct our heart and our minds our spirit towards who we are in Christ, and we believe that this self is our true self.
We no longer get discouraged if our actions don’t always seem to line up with that reality of who we are in Christ. Just as you should not get deceived by thinking that just because I didn’t go to hell today and my life didn’t immediately spiral into chaos and oblivion that the end of a life of folly and disobedience is not going to end in destruction; so too, if your life does not immediately evidence the fullness of God’s salvation, do not be discouraged. Trust in the forgiveness of God that you have in Christ. Trust in who you are in Christ.
Trust that it will be revealed in good time, in God’s time. Trust even if today we must endure trials, temptations and even failures, the end is already determined. We are in Christ. In Christ we are a new creation. That is your true identity. That is the path of your life. Direct all your energies, all your focus, your heart, your soul, your spirit to that new reality. See it with the eyes of faith. Let that new reality press itself upon you. Let that reality reveal itself in your life.
It is all in Christ. This is the good news. This is why Christ came. He came and did what he did to change the whole of your life. Christ came to set you on a different path with a different end, of life, goodness, newness, purity. It is all there, in Christ. Repent, and believe and in Christ all things will be made new for you.