Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Disillusionment and Illumination

One thing I have noticed about many young Christians (myself included) is we are weighed down by a sense of disillusionment with the church. We feel put off by the dogma, frustrated with the leadership, and rejected by the conservative culture. There are too many questions that we're not allowed to ask and too many thoughts that we're not allowed to think--there may be freedom in Christ, but we've been stifled by the church.

It is because of my own experiences (as well as many discussions with friends) that I understand God to be latent. Despite a few personal interactions with God, for the most part God seems so far removed from normal life. Although God occasionally shows up in the small things, God seems totally absent from the heavier issues. My feelings toward "the God question" waver between hope and despair--and I know I'm not the only one.

I ran across the following poem by R. S. Thomas (as reproduced in Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin) that really captures some of my darker thoughts. This poem is about disillusionment, futility, and questioning. . . .

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

I don't know why I still search for God--but I can't seem to give up. So I continue to strike prayers like matches, hoping that the small lights will illuminate "someone greater than I can understand."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

As I was reading a book today, I was struck a possibility that I had never considered before: God might be gone.

I don't mean that God mysteriously disappeared or that somehow we misplaced our conception of God. Rather, I mean that God may have become fed up with certain parts of our world and simply withdrew from them. While we were busy preserving our institutions and self-absorbed ideations, God slipped out the back door.

This was not an act of exasperation, where God lost control of the world, threw a tantrum, and walked away from the mess. It was an act of power and an act of judgment. God declared that what we were doing was not okay, so instead of enabling our misdirected ways, God left. And I don't mean that God left the whole world to its own devices. Perhaps God has chosen to leave this misguided church or that corrupt institution, but God was probably intimately involved with some other group of people at the very same time.

And really, I don't mean to assert that God has actually left at all. I just mean that God could have left. And that God still can.

There is no reason for us to assume that God is involved just because a church calls itself Christian or an organization claims to be faith-based. And to a large extent, I think that most of us realize that. I don't know anyone who actually believes that God was involved with David Koresh or with Heaven's Gate. It is pretty apparent that God is not involved with everyone who makes that claim.

However, we tend to abandon that skepticism when it comes to anything familiar. We see churches along the streets of our cities and towns and we just assume that God is active there. Unless we have reason to suspect foul play (or unless we are particularly radical/hardline) we believe that God is there. In fact, it is almost unthinkable that God would abandon the flock--God is faithful, right?

Now, I'm not advocating skepticism toward religious institutions, nor am I trying to malign God's character. It just seems arrogant on our part to assume that God will bless any endeavor we do in God's name. Surely God has the freedom to choose where to be involved and whom to bless.

Since we are seeing problems on a large scale, both in our churches and in our culture, it seems important for us to face the possibility that God may be gone. Perhaps God has moved on past our current traditions and institutions. Perhaps we have wandered off the path. Perhaps we aren't as right as we think. Perhaps we need to examine ourselves critically and ask a hard question: "Has God left us?"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Call It for What It Is

I wish I could go back to the way things used to be. Growing up I was taught the historic truths of Christianity--things that were undebatable and absolute. I read books and went to Bible studies that proved the existence of God and gave undeniable evidence for the Christian faith. I remember feeling humbled, fortunate, and empowered because I was one of the few who really knew the truth. I felt compelled to prove to both friends and strangers that Jesus is the way. And that's what was important to me--proving Christianity--and I genuinely believed that I could succeed.

Later on, I remember getting frustrated when things stopped being so clear. There were debates among Christians in my hometown about baptism, predestination and salvation that shook up my neatly framed theological world. I began to realize that the tidy little explanations that used to explain everything actually didn't explain anything at all. Things that I had once known with certainty started to become fuzzy and gray. The theological masterpiece that I had been given in my youth turned out to be little more than a simple paint-by-number.

What I've come to realize is that Christianity at its core is non-rational (i.e., not based on reason). That really should be an obvious statement, but it came as a surprise to me. If faith were something that could be arrived at through reason, those proofs from my childhood would have worked--but that's not what faith is all about. I can't step logically from cogito ergo sum to crucifixus etiam pro nobis.
I can't prove Christianity. I can't prove salvation. I can't prove God.

And that's frustrating. I could pretend that it's actually wonderful because it allows me the opportunity to show God how committed I am--or something like that--but that would be a lie. Really, I just find it frustrating. I don't like that faith is something I can't wrap my head around. I don't like that it's all shades of gray. But that's all I've got to work with--something that is unclear, uncertain, and unresolvable.

What it all boils down to is that all the evidence, arguments, and proofs in the world can't help me make the leap of faith. I guess I just have to call it for what it is: Christianity is non-rational.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Relating to God

When I think about God I tend to think in terms of relationship. I've always been taught to believe in a God who loves me and wants to be involved in my life. The image I have of God is of a benevolent deity who is concerned about my daily choices, actions and attitudes. Further reinforcing my relational understanding of God is my tendency to understand the world through the lens of subjectivity. The way I see it, any knowledge that I can have of God is available to me only by personal experience. There is no way for me to know anything about God objectively, so the only way I can know God is the way I know other people--through interaction. Because of my background and my personal inclinations, I often conceive of and speak about God in terms of relationship.

Relationships are funny things. Even though we think we know our friends objectively, most of what we know about them comes to us subjectively, through things like inference and personal experience. Sure, we may know how old they are, how many siblings they have, where they grew up, and many other objective facts, but when we say we know someone, those factual details aren’t really what we’re talking about. When we say we know someone, we’re talking about their personality, attitude, and character. We know how people would act in given situations by making inferences from past experiences we’ve had with them. We can vouch for people’s character because we’ve gone through difficult times with them. When we say we know people, we aren’t talking about things that can be tabulated in a spreadsheet—we’re talking about subjective, relational aspects of their personality and character.

It is through this kind of subjective relationship that we come to know God. Since we can’t really see God or have conversations with God, we don’t really have the option of knowing any objective facts about God. Our knowledge of God comes to us only by subjective means. I suppose that really isn’t a problem, though, because those objective details aren’t really important in the relationship anyway. Who cares how tall God is or what God’s favorite color is? What matters is God’s character—God’s commitment to faithfulness, honesty, justice, and love. And those are things that we can only know subjectively—through the experience of a life lived with God.

But there’s a problem: If we aren’t certain that God exists, how can we have any sort of relationship with God? If we’ve already acknowledged that God is latent—that in our experience God exists as potential—where can we go from there?

Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), the answer to that question is faith. If we want to try to know God, at some point we have to start by trusting that God is there. We must take that leap of faith with the hope that, if we operate from the assumption that God exists, eventually we’ll rack up enough experience to know God subjectively. We start by trusting that God is there, and as we journey through life we have experiences that teach us who God is—and these become the foundation for our relationship with God. The more we experience God, the deeper our relationship becomes and the more we understand who God is. God is increasingly revealed to us through relationship.

It may seem like we’re trying to build a castle on a toothpick—trying to build a solid knowledge of God on a risky little assumption—but that really isn’t the case. What we’re trying to do is to replace the objective assumption of God’s existence with the subjective knowledge of who God is. The assumption of God’s existence isn’t a foundation that we’re trying build upon—it’s the starting point of our journey.

But all this talk about relationships brings us to another important question: Is this latent God relational?

We can only hope.