Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Finding Intimacy With God (and some of the difficulties we face in finding it)

A couple of readers have asked me to say something more about the proper place of rational thinking in Christianity, and I'm working on it. But for background, if you are interested in this topic, please read the following first. It's a transcript of one of Matthew Gallatin's podcasts, and the subject is Finding Intimacy With God. It is Part 20 of his series, Sola Scriptura and Philosophical Christianity; and if you prefer hearing it to reading about it, you can hear the podcast here. I believe reading or hearing this will make what I am going to say much clearer.

When we finished last time, I mentioned that punishment based salvation theories, which we’ve discussed in depth, represent just the first of three obstacles which I’ve suggested awhile back that anyone seeking to get back before Augustine has to overcome. Today I want to begin dealing with the second obstacle, which has to do with finding intimacy with God.

Now of course Western Christians profess that their God is love. And yet the philosophical god they’ve inherited from Augustine and his successors cannot really be accurately described as one who seeks intimacy with us. After all, he is a God, according to Augustine, who sees us as one great lump of sin. He arbitrarily separates out a portion of that mass to which he applies saving grace and the rest he leaves under condemnation. Plainly, it seems that such a god is not really interested in establishing an intimate connection with individual persons. He simply desires to morally balance this substance called humanity so that it can fulfill its place in his perfectly ordered universe.

This image of God is reflected in common Western descriptions of the salvation process. For instance, there is a particular expression of the substitution theory, though I think it could equally serve as an illustration of the satisfaction theory, which one hears frequently in Evangelical circles. I used it hundreds of times in my Evangelical life and I’ve heard it at least that many more. Anyone raised in the Evangelical world has been told this: because Jesus died on the cross, when God looks at me, He no longer sees me. He sees Jesus instead. Now that sentiment is supposed to convey God’s intimate love. But on close inspection, it doesn’t at all. What it tells me is that even after Christ performs His saving work, God has no relationship with me, just with Christ. If He doesn’t even see me, how can he be intimate with me? How can he give His living energy to me and bind Himself to me as a cherished lover? Someone once tried to answer this question by pointing out that it’s only God the Father who remains reserved and distant from us. He accepts us only in the substitutionary shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice, but we can enter into intimate fellowship with the saving Son. The trouble with this explanation is that it rests upon the notion that the Godhead is capable of variation within itself. To pit a coolly distant, objective Father against a close and intimate Son violates the truth of the Trinity. There can be no such difference in the attitudes and orientations of Father and Son, for Jesus says, ”I and my Father are one”. (John 10:30)

Another tell-tale sign that their God stands at a distance is the emphasis Western Christians generally place on attaining God’s forgiveness. I was reminded of this just yesterday by a very common bumper sticker which says, “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven.” For the majority of Western Christians, the crux of the Gospel message is the efficacy of Christ’s death in securing God’s forgiveness for humanity. In their view, being forgiven is the primary need of human beings, the deepest emptiness of soul that must be satisfied. And certainly God forgives us, and that forgiveness is essential for our salvation. So why would I say that treating forgiveness as the end-all and be-all of the Good News implies a God who is distant? Well, it’s simply in the fact that forgiveness is not necessarily a relational act. That is, it does not require the involved parties to enter into any sort of union, let alone an intimate one. If you wrong me, I can completely forgive you without ever developing an interpersonal bond with you.

Now it makes perfect sense that forgiveness would be the ultimate objective of an Augustinian god who sees us all as one lump of sin and whose chief aim is to erase the dishonor he has endured at our hands. Forgiveness would be the deepest need of our souls if we just required a reprieve from punishment. The picture I get as I think of this is one of God and humanity standing on opposite shores of what I like to call the Great Gulf of Being. From across that Gulf, God eyes us now in a new light. He decides not to incinerate all of us. But He remains removed from us.

The truth is, though, that through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, The Gulf of Being between God and us has disappeared. God has embraced us and has joined His divine Life to our humanness. In God’s view, our supreme need is not just to be forgiven; it is to fulfill the purpose for which we were created: to experience love with God so profoundly that we become one with Him and with each other in the same way that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one, as we have read many times in John 17:21-23. God is One, and He is Love.

I think that honest-hearted believers within the Western traditions have always sensed this in their souls. And that is why, over the centuries, they have constantly sought some new way of being with God. They have diligently searched for a faith that brings Him nearer than their inherited, philosophical theology allows. And that’s why the history of the Christian West is written in movements; the Reformation movement, the Puritan movement, the Methodist movement, the Advent movement, the Charismatic movement, the Emergent Church movement and so on. This spiritual longing is also the reason behind that phenomenon within Evangelical Christianity which even many Evangelicals refer to as “Christian faddism”. Believers move from Promise Keepers to What Would Jesus Do to the Purpose-driven Life to … dream interpretation, and other popular spiritual programs which they hope will enliven their experience with God with some new degree of intimacy.

The problem is that even as they seek to connect with God in a deeper way, Western Christians are thwarted by their philosophically grounded tradition. For it has left them without the resources for genuinely experiencing the loving intimacy God wants us to know with Him and with each other.

In fact, the essentially philosophical nature of their faith has left them with a misunderstanding of what it means to love God. How so? Well, for Western believers, loving God is like practicing philosophy. That is, it is, at base, a rational process. Our relationship with Him is grounded in our knowledge of Him. More knowledge results in better relationship. And that’s why life with God for so many in the Western churches centers on the study of the Scriptures. One meditates on truths about God. By doing so, one comes to new and more sublime thoughts about God. These, it is hoped, will produce new and deeper feelings about God. In the traditional wisdom of the West, this is how human beings will relate to God even in the Kingdom of Heaven. There, they will participate in what is commonly called the Beatific Vision, an exalted state of rational contemplation in which the righteous are granted special grace to meditate upon the Essence of God’s Being. So, even in the eternal realm, according to this view, our experience with God will be centered in our minds. This is as platonic as a religion can get.

And for many Western Christians, it is not enough. They want to meet God on a more sensitive and emotional level. For some, this means leaning upon the power of imagination, rather than upon the contemplation of theological concepts. These folks try to form mental images of biblical scenes. They portray for themselves Christ being beaten and broken before His trial or hanging on the Cross, or rising from the dead. They envision themselves sitting at Christ’s feet or watching the damned in hell or beholding the beauty of the heavenly kingdom. Pondering these images generates emotions that feel like love.

Others take up charismatic practices. They seek a deeper experience of God in overt manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Speaking in tongues, inspired utterances of prophecy, and miraculous healings provide what they take to be a rapturous sensation of the divine. For these Christians, this is what loving God is all about.

But all these ways of approaching God – rational contemplation, imagination, or charismatic phenomena – have one common problem. That is that none of them represents love in its truest sense. Why? It’s because none of them are actually relational activities. What do I mean? Well, consider an image I employed earlier, that of God and humanity facing each other across an immense Gulf of Being. It seems to me that the West understands Christian experience like this: God does something for us on His side of the Gulf, and in response, we do something for God on our side of the Gulf, but we never really touch each other; we never interpenetrate one another’s lives like the members of the Holy Trinity do, and that’s what we are meant to experience; that’s the life we are meant to know with God.

For example, think about what occurs as people rationally contemplate the Scriptures. Now, I’m sure those who anchor their connection with God in the study of the Scriptures would argue that this is most certainly a relational activity. They open the Word of God in faith and God provides inspiration for understanding it. They take the principles they learn and apply them to their lives. The result is that they live for God more completely. To their mind, that’s relational. And in a sense it is, but when we compare it to the sort of relation that God ultimately desires with us, it falls short. God wants us to be one with Him, one like the Father and Son are one. Love within the Godhead is a mystical interpenetration of lives. The Father doesn’t simply inspire the Son, nor does the Son simply act like the Father. Rather, the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. The Son doesn’t rationally grasp the principles His Father teaches Him and then apply them to His life. No, He lives His Father. He surrenders Himself to the life-energy of the Father, which fills Him and allows the Being of the Father to move Him, to will, think, feel, and act in Him. As a result of Christ’s work in the world, God has given His Spirit to indwell all who will receive Him. To love God is to yield to the Spirit in the same way that the Son yields to the Father and the Father to the Son. Living in love with God, then, requires our complete self-denial. Self-denial: this is the key to life with God, and we’ll discuss that more next time.


Anam Cara said...

I have listened to this entire series more than once. But I am a visual rather than auditory learner. Where did you find the transcript? I'd love to get those for all his lectures so I could ponder them better.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Anam, I spent a long time this morning transcribing the podcast myself. And now I'm glad I did, for you.

Anam Cara said...

WOW! Thank you so much!

I think this whole series is so amazing. I have it downloaded from iTunes to both my computers and it is on my iPod.

We have adult four children. The second wanted to go to a Bible college and become a youth minister. We had never heard of the school before (it is on the west coast and the furthest west we have lived is Kanasa), but one of the youth ministers we knew in Germany had gone there and his brother was on the faculty and we relented and let him go. He came back to Germany to do a summer internship between sophomore and junior years and we saw a change - subtle, but a change. By the time he was a senior, he had "lost his faith" and become agnostic. This is a young man who had been "on fire for the Lord" as the Evangelicals would say since he was in junior high school.

His explanation is that he didn't really see a difference at the school between those who were Christian and those who weren't. He also has a hard time accepting some of the Protestant doctrines (he grew up with them, but his eyes were opened).

I converted to Orthodoxy while he was in college, so he wasn't home for all of that process. I have tried to share different books, doctrines with him. I reccommened that he listen to this series of podcasts, but I doubted he would take the time to do it. He has said that if he ever became a Christian, it would probably be Orthodox based on some of the things we've discussed, but he is making no moves that I can see toward Christ at all. So for Christmas, I converted them all to AAC so he could listen to them in his car, burned the discs (I think it took 9) and sent them to him. I haven't asked him if he's listened to them. I am a bear of very little brain, and I find that if I start talking too much about this to him, I am afraid I misrepresent things and make it all worse. That's why I try to listen over and over - if I can get his wonderful explanations totally imprinted in my brain, perhaps I can explain better.

Another really good series of podcasts is: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick. I've listened to each of those at least twice, too.

Thanks again - and I covet your prayers for Dan and his family.

DebD said...

Anam Cara, I will also pray for your son Dan. It must be heart-breaking.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I'll pray for Dan, too.

Neither of my children will darken the door of any church.

Kacie said...

I agree with the gist of what you say here... after all, when the veil was ripped it was because of the forgiveness of God through the sacrifice of Christ. What it allowed and what it was intended for, though, was to unite the place the worshipers and the One who was being worshiped. Finally - intimacy was and is possible.

I suppose I have a question - do you believe this intimacy is possible outside of the Orthodox Church? I agree that often Protestants and Catholics get it wrong, but if some DO understand the relationship between truth and intimacy... can they find it without joining the Orthodox Church?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Kacie, I personally know people, like my dear next-door neighbors, who undeniably have true intimacy with God and who are not Orthodox. One of the reasons I was attracted to your blog was, your own intimacy with Him shows through. NO, we do not believe you MUST be Orthodox to have that intimacy.

We do believe, though, and we converts experience this, that this true intimacy is best fostered within Holy Orthodoxy. One reason for this, Orthodox doctrine supports it, whereas the intimacy we may have had with God before, we now find was more in spite of our doctrines.

On a side note, to this day I am unable to assess how much of what I experienced as a Protestant was real, as some of it most certainly was, and how much was imaginary, all in my head, as some of it equally certainly was.

Kacie said...

Indeed. How much of it was fostered? I question that about my own teen years. I take comfort in knowing that my experience will always be fallible, but the transcendence of God over my experience is a steadying truth.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, our individual experience is always to be questioned. That's what our spiritual fathers (or mothers) are for. That's what the Church is for, with her 20 centuries of corporate experience.