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Spiritual Conversations: Understanding The Cultural Language by Ron Martoia

I rarely see afternoon TV, but recently hit a twenty-minute segment and wow - was it compelling. Through sobbing and tears, person after person began recounting how after watching a TV show one month earlier their lives had instantly and forever changed. “Instantly” and “forever” definitely caught my attention. They went on to talk about how they were now in charge of their lives, bringing to themselves any outcomes they chose. The teachers of the phenomenon made it clear it was all because “you create your own reality, and that as a spiritual being you bring your spirit to bear on the circumstances of life.” I paused long enough to take in the details because of the confessed monumental change it brought. This was my introduction to The Secret, the most recent craze to hit American culture and propelled to cult status by current spiritual and philanthropy diva, Oprah.

Finding spiritual conversations in American culture is not hard. The Secret holds the number 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list in the “advice” section. PBS airs Wayne Dyer also a best selling author, talking about his brand of spirituality. Tom Cruise and John Travolta unashamedly speak of their belief in Scientology. Madonna and a host of other celebrities espouse Kabbalah. While conversations about spiritual things seems acceptable and maybe even sexy and in vogue, conversation about the Christian God is a different story. People don’t seem to be nearly as open to that. Why the distinction? Yes to spiritual conversation, no to Christian conversation. Why is spirituality a raging interest but the Christian version so marginalized?

I want to suggest that the Christian church, particularly the evangelical Christian version, is in a rut with the starting point for these spiritual conversations. It is this starting point and its ensuing perspective that cuts us out of a good deal of productive conversation. We essentially have a message that says you are screwed up and you need to be fixed. This is what we have classically referred to as the Fall-Redemption story. We are all sinners and God, who is holy, comes in and rescues us from the mess we have made. This conversation immediately leads us to talking about God in the 2nd person. In other words, the way we view God is as “Other” or “out there” as completely separate from this world.

While it is true that God is “Other”, this 2nd person conversation about God doesn’t seem to be connecting with our current culture. Why is that? Maybe because it’s not even connecting with us.

Let me ask you a question. I want you to answer based on how you reflexively feel, not on cognitive thought. When I say “God,” do you reflexively feel a God who will help you soar, buoy you up, love you and have your best interest in mind? Or do you instantly and reflexively feel, when you hear the word “God”, someone who is “keeping track”, watching how you will do, monitoring your basic performance?

If you are like most Christians who have participated in my ad hoc (meaning unscientific) surveys over the last year of so, you probably said your instant reaction was to the latter image of God as Judge not to the former image of God as Love. In settings where I have done this little exercise the vast majority of the people (75-95%) said God as Judge was their “no-thought-reflexive” response. What is interesting is these business people, artists, musicians, church staff and full time stay at home parents acknowledge that this is not the image of God they actually try to teach or model to others. Nor is it what they publicly affirm or give verbal assent to. But it is reflexively what they feel. So we have a collision of what is deeply and reflexively believed and what is verbally stated as the “right answer”, so to speak.

We have no time to analyze the roots of this situation but we do need to note a couple implications which I think may go a long way to helping us understand our culture a bit better. If God, the Other out there, is perceived as a Judge by those of us inside the club, then what would you guess those outside of the church assume about this Other? Is it surprising that we are perceived as representing a judgmental, negative, non-accepting, non-loving God? Is it any wonder people outside the church have negative views about the version of God propagated by those inside the church? No wonder the challenge seems so formidable.

So here is the summary of the problem, God out there, God as Other, is God perceived as judgmental and ready to crack you when you get out of line. But the God out there, God as second person is the only conversation the church knows how to have. Let’s reflect on this God as second person for a minute.

God as “Other” is clearly part of the Christian understanding of God and is not being challenged. But if it is part of the Christian understanding is it possible it is only a part? Is it possible there is more? Clearly this second person concept of God is not connecting in our culture. Is it possible that we have more available in our Christian repertoire, more theological material we can bring to the conversation? Is it possible we need to eventually get to the second person discussion but start in a different location? Could we start with the current understandings and gravitational pulls that people already seem to have?

THE REST OF THE STORY

The Fall-Redemption story is part of the story, but it is really an abbreviated lo-cal excerpt of the fuller version. And here is the problem; to start the conversation with the Fall is to start talking about God’s Story at Genesis 3. Starting the conversation here and omitting the opening salvos of the first two chapters has locked us into having only one conversation about God: the 2nd person conversation. I would like to suggest when we start the conversation with a fall-redemption paradigm we only can talk about God in 2nd person. In other words the only way we can view God is as “Other” as “out there” as another person. While that is totally true about God our inability to see God from a couple other perspectives may be debilitating us.

Part of the way through this impasse is to start at the beginning of the story instead of chapter three. When we start the story in the creation narratives, the truncated Fall-Redemption story expands to the Creation-Fall-Redemption story which really leads to a fourth concluding part, which clarifies the reason for redemption and that is for the express purpose of getting us back to Eden, the creation. This fourth part we might call re-creation or restoration. This leads to a four part story that is full slice thick narrative; Creation-Fall- Redemption-Restoration.

In Genesis one and two we actually have grounds for God conversations that start in a different place. In Genesis 1, we have God creating humanity imago dei (in the image of God). Here is a picture of God breathing into humanity his Spirit. What shape might a conversation take that has the imago dei, which is present in every human, as the starting place? In other words, what would a conversation look like that said you have god-stuff in you? This is what we might call the 1st person conversation about God. And what is quite obvious is culture seems to be having the conversation all around us, but not with us.

Further, as God breathes into humanity, God’s charge to humanity was to selflessly serve and oversee the created order, that includes the animals they named, the flora they cultivated, the birds they sang with and the fish that introduced them to the aquatic world below. Creation may provide yet another conversation entry point. Every time we “see God in the sunset”, acknowledge “God in nature”, recognize God’s presence in the complexity and wonder of the oceanic ecosystem we are seeing God “out there” as 3rd person, as creation personified so to speak. More on this later.

START AT THE VERY BEGINNING

When we start with creation and Genesis 1 we instantly enter into a world where every person has been invested with the image of God, with God-like authority and qualities and mandates. Notice, it is everybody, not just Christians filled with God’s Spirit. In theGenesis account all humanity has the very breath of God. Everyone finds resonance here because these are things deep within the human psyche that are incontrovertible. They are intuitive soundings that “I am somehow made to be god, or divine or connected to the divine.” The benefit of this starting point for spiritual conversations is it is as universal as the Fall conversation, but it holds one huge advantage; it is the beginning of the story and it is a positive starting point. Is it any wonder people don’t gravitate toward the “You are heading to hell in a handbasket” conversation but do resonate with a “You have been made as the crowning glory of creation (Psalm 8)” conversation?

For some of us what I’m about to suggest may be a foray into unknown waters. But my guess is that most of us have read material or been influenced by other flavors of the Christian tradition, and maybe at times not even knowing it. I want to suggest we may be able to learn from others that fall outside of our small tribe, denomination or fellowship, and realize heaven will be populated by people of all stripes of the Christian tradition. With this in mind, our brothers and sisters from the Eastern Tradition of Christianity may be able to substantially help us along in understanding the 1st person conversation about God. In the West, the journey toward God is a journey out to the Other, a journey out there, outward. In the East, the journey toward God can be an inward journey to the quiet place where God has placed his image and spirit.

The idea here is connection to imago dei, the image of God in every single human. It is a connection to the original breath of God in us, and it is that which animates our very existence. I want to be quick to note I am not suggesting that a journey inward will somehow enable a complete and biblical understanding of the Christian God. Nor am I suggesting that humanity being made in the image of God implies humans have the same power or attributes of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am suggesting, however, we may have missed a valuable and universal starting point.

GOD IN US

In our Protestant church tradition we don’t have many categories for understanding this first person, God-within pursuit. But Scripture teaches this first person perspective. Consider these passages in light of this 1st person conversation. (Emphasis added.)

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:27)

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own… (1 Cor. 6:19)

“We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:33-36)

Of course, there is no way for us to do full commentary on these passages. But we do need to note these passages are read in other Christian traditions in ways that make it sound as if a journey inward toward God, first person, is just as legitimate as a journey outward toward God, second person. For many of us in evangelical Protestant Christianity we have no room for these sorts of alternative readings, but I would suggest this is one of the precise reasons we are at a massive impasse on the spiritual conversation front within our culture.

The last passage quoted seems very tough to swallow, as does the 2 Peter 1 passage. If there are passages that really point out this first person understanding of God these are two very tough ones to get around. And what is most disquieting about the John 10 passage above, isn’t just that the word “god” was used of humans, but that those being spoken to in the passage are the Pharisees, not Christ- following, “filled with the Spirit” disciples. While the other passages are presumably aimed at Christians, the most flagrant first person passage isn’t. Looking at the background for Jesus’ Old Testament quotation from Psalm 82 is also interesting. In this Psalm God is distraught because the Jews were not defending the cause of the weak and the fatherless. He calls them ‘gods’ because, having been given the Torah, they should know what is right and act accordingly in their culture, shaping it by principles of justice and righteousness.

LITTLE GODS

And just so this jars you a bit more I want to give you a couple quotes from one of the most often quoted defenders of the Christian faith of the last generation. I want you to hear what he says about this John 10 passage.

Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be remade. ... we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.

(God) said that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.

Shocked at C.S. Lewis? Many people are quite shocked to realize he has a very developed first person perspective. In our Protestant tradition we have a variety of words or terms we would use to describe this idea Lewis is getting at. We would call this becoming more like Christ, or using the Pauline term of “being conformed to the image of His Son,” or “more of Him, less of me”. The idea of “union with Christ” is in focus. In a wide variety of our Christian traditions including the theology of John Calvin and the Wesley brothers, one of two words often crop up in describing this idea of union, the words are theosis or divinization.3 I quote Lewis here, to help us all see this first person understanding of God isn’t relegated to some far off monks in an Eastern Orthodox Monestary in Siberia. This is a topic that finds lots of outlet and expression in much of our Christian history both ancient and modern.

I think we are reticent to engage a concept like this, and maybe even fearful, because it is risky language. But when we recognize that God wants us to be little gods, then we begin to come to know God in new and fresh ways. In other words a question arises: are we letting our current cultural conditions and fear influence how we read passages of scripture that those in other time periods seemed to see so clearly?

I think the best way for us to safeguard ourselves from the charge of this being too New Agey is to recognize that while we are called to be gods, our god-ness is always derivative and therefore diminutive. This is a critical distinction that prevents putting humanity on the same level as the Triune God but at the same time acknowledges and engages what appears to be the full intent of the biblical material. Whatever it means that we are made imago dei and have the breath of God within us, it is certainly does not mean we are in every way shape and form identical to the Triune God the Creator of the Universe. There is a distinction between Creator and the Created. There is a qualitative and unique difference between the Maker and the Made. As the Created and Made ones, whatever similarities, likenesses, and whatever imago dei fullness we have, is derived from the God who made us. As a result of being derived it means we are less than the Creator. This is the safeguard and clarification of how we can have the first person conversation while allowing the Triune God to remain God and yet at the same time we can be imago dei, little gods, as Jesus says.

Lots of issues could be raised here and lots of material commented on and debated, but here is my hope. Is it possible the imago dei, as the common thread of all human beings, is the best starting point for spiritual conversations because it is something intuitively present? All of the current cultural conversations on spirituality have deep first person god tonality and it seems most people instantly gravitate toward and understand them. Most people ‘get’ they are somehow god, or have God within, or have a seed of the divine.

I am not saying these first person understandings people have about being god or having God within them are entirely accurate understandings. But we are crazy not to wonder what theological basis there might be for this universal sense. And while we may not think people have this first person god thing right, I think we have already demonstrated that many Christians, who are long standing Christ Followers, have very inaccurate views of God being primarily a Judge and have a hard time seeing God as love (I John 4.8 and 4.16). In other words inaccurate first person understandings don’t make more traditional second person understandings automatically more accurate. I think we need to radically rethink and reconsider all possible arenas of inquiry into how we think a journey toward God must proceed. These sorts of “reading the Bible again with a different perspective” exercises require significant humility and a willingness to realize we may not have it all figured out.

GOD IN CREATION

So let’s review. We in the church are more than willing to have the second person, God as Other conversation with people. Our culture isn’t so interested in that, and is quite convinced the church is a pretty judgmental and negative place. So while many remain spiritually interested, the church probably won’t be the primary laboratory for their exploration. Further, culture is having all sorts of conversations about the god within, a sort of first person understanding of God. Those conversations are happening on the national best seller list, day time TV and chat boards across the Net. But the church? Well, we are uncomfortable with that conversation because it is New Age mumbo jumbo and it isn’t the second person God as Other conversation, which is the only one we are familiar with.

There is yet another God conversation the culture is having: the third person conversation about God. God as “It,” God as something out there, God as found and experienced in creation. Alongside the books and conversations about these first person god topics, there is a huge contingent of people who are increasingly concerned about the environment and Mother Earth and the living breathing organism of creation. This is the third person “it” view of God if you will. Whatever you think about the environment is secondary. Adam’s quite literal physical connection to the dirt (adamah in Hebrew, with Adam’s name being adam), and he and Eve being given a mandate to take care of the earth, should be enough for us to recognize people are hovering over material we should be willing to have God-conversations about. Certainly one of the more hopeful conversations going on in the church recently is the need for us to be tuned into the creation, the environment, God’s earth he’s given us to steward.

Again we need to learn to read the Bible with this new view. We have lots of passages that seem to indicate an intimate connection between God and creation. Consider Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens

and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.

Creation here is so intimately linked to God. In a passage like this, creation is personified as speaking, as God actually telling us something about himself. Romans 8 seems to be the New Testament counterpart to a passage like Psalm 19.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:18-22)

Again creation is personified as living, breathing, longing and injured.

Of course other passages could be listed but the point is clear: God has a deep connection with creation. And note we didn’t say God is creation. Just like the first person God caveats we noted, we need to offer third person God caveats as well. We need to maintain a view of God that says God is distinct from creation but intimately invested in and working in and through creation. And the issue is getting momentum these days. If Oprah is the goddess of the first person god conversation I would guess we would have to say people like Thomas Berry and more popularly Al Gore are the apostles of the third person god conversation.

Until recently the Christian conversation about ecology and God’s creation was mostly relegated to those who were considered tree-hugging liberals. But not so anymore. This is a huge issue that more and more people in the church are starting to realize is part and parcel of the very story we have been invited to live, a story that starts in the Garden of Eden. Again I need to say I am not suggesting God and creation are one and the same. But I am suggesting that for all the cultural conversation where creation is personified and nearly deified, we have within our Christian tradition and theological repertoire adequate and legitimate resources to enter into powerful conversations.

I can talk to any of my investigating friends about being made like god or having a charge from God to take care of creation, and every one of them instantly gets that and understands what I am talking about. When I use that entry point into the conversation I am starting where they are, not where I wish them to be. When I start there, I then open the possibilities of entering into second person conversation about God as Other, about the God who made creation, about the God that put this intuitive sense in them that they are divine or somehow connected to the divine.

I am afraid as long as Christianity is primarily understood as a batch of propositions where God is judging how well you execute them, we will have problems getting people interested in the story. And I would suggest their lack of interest may be a good thing. Their lack of interest in our truncated, abbreviated Fall-Redemption story may be the very thing we have needed to get us to re-read the story to see if we have it right.

READING THE SIGNS

What we have been talking about here is an exercise in what is called semiotics. The Greek word semion in the Gospel accounts is the word for sign. You may remember Jesus in Matthew 16 saying, “You can interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot read the signs of the times.” Semiotics is reading the signs of the times.

As we have read culture, we have seen a couple signs that give us hints and clues to entry points into conversations we just haven’t understood how to have. My experience as I have talked about this with many Christians, is while there might be initial resistance to think in these ways, they are simply looking for “biblical permission” to think and interact around these topics because they are so common in the cultural airspace.

Semiotics is exactly what Paul used in his now famous Mars Hill interaction. And I want to make sure we touch on it because I think it is another permission giving touch point for us as we head into a spiritually interested culture but one largely hostile to the Christian version.

I realize that for many of us, we have come out of conservative Christian contexts where conversation like this might not only be perceived as off kilter but worse than that, out right flirting with the devil himself. Some of you will giggle, others of you are saying “no kidding,” and are hiding this Fermi Short lest another staff member see it and get you fired. But let’s look at Paul’s semiotic approach.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

Paul entered into a spiritually interested area and then started where they were. I want you to note how Paul’s approach differs quite dramatically from that of many of our churches today. Paul doesn’t demonize their ignorance at worshipping at an altar to an unknown God. He doesn’t say all of you that have worshipped here are probably demonically influenced now or in need of deliverance of an unclean spirit. He actually took a totally different tact than that. He said something I think is often missed and is important for us entering the conversation our culture is already having and it is this. He started where they were and expanded their understanding. He affirmed, “You have something right going on here. Can I fill in some of the blanks?”

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” (Acts 17:24-29)

Note the missiological move made by Paul here. He started where they were, expanded on their current understanding and then used a national best selling poet to confirm his approach. We might even suggest that Paul here broached both the first person and third person understandings of God. I am intrigued as we read this again because this is not the reading we usually engage as we look at this Mars Hill dialogue. We overlook, or deselect for some reason, that Paul was not only conversant with the cultural material at his disposal, he was more than willing to get into the current and swim around a bit. For Paul this wasn’t compromise; it was a commitment to semiotics and a spiritual conversation engagement that met people at the intersection point of their interest and journey.

JOINING THE CONVERSATION

What would spiritual conversation look like in our culture if we joined the dialogue where it is already going on? What if we trained our people in a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration story? What might happen if we developed a fuller understanding of God in all dimensions, that considered first, second and third person understandings?

As Christ followers we have to ask a number of searching questions.

1. Do we have a full orbed understanding of God’s story, one that includes Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration? Or are we fencing only the abbreviated lo-cal Fall-Redemption version?

2. How well have we developed a fully biblical understanding of God as a God of love and compassion as opposed to the judge out there keeping track of the rules? In other words, for all our commitment to the second person view of God how well have we really developed that and passed it on?

3. Do we have a full view of God and his Spirit’s interaction in the lives of all of humanity and creation? How well have we developed, reflected and then integrated into our worldview first and third person perspectives of God?

4. How are we doing at thinking through and applying Paul’s missiological move? Where do we see the conversation and how do we then join it and expand people’s understanding to move toward a conversation that includes second person dimensions?

It seems to me these are the sorts of questions that need to occupy some of our reflection time if we really want to make inroads into our current cultural context. May these conversations continue in our midst so we may be better equipped to join what God is already doing in the culture around us.

END NOTES

1 C. S. Lewis, The Grand Miracle, p. 85.

2 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 174-5.

3 For a great web link that will help fill in some of the details for those of you new to this idea see the wiki entry on theosis: http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Theosis