Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
September 29, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
What do we mean when we say God? We use that term, and others that are more or less synonymous with it like Lord, a lot in our worship service. But what exactly to we mean by it? Itís not a frivolous question. Theologians of whatever stripe tell us that our understanding of who God is makes a real difference. It makes a difference in how we see each other. It makes a difference in how we see ourselves. It makes a difference in how we think we are to live our lives.
Let me give you one example that I take largely from Marcus Borgís book The God We Never Knew. One of the dominant images of God in the Christian tradition is the image of God as monarch-God as king, lawgiver, and judge. In this image, God is the Ruler of the universe, and he (this God is always he) acts much as earthly rulers do, except on a much larger scale, a cosmic rather than merely a national scale. This God establishes laws and demands our obedience to those laws. The law may be simply to believe, or it may be a complex set of behavioral norms. In either case, the law is a requirement that must be met in order to merit this Godís grace. This God judges us on how well we have obeyed these laws and hands out punishments and rewards based on his evaluation of our performance. This god rewards obedience with eternal bliss and punishes disobedience with eternal damnation. When we make this God our God, faith gets to be about obedience now for the sake of salvation later. This God tends to be remote, sitting up in heaven on a celestial throne, look down and judging the earth. This God is easy to fear but, for me at least, difficult to love or to praise.
My reading and my personal experience tell me that this image of God was nearly universal in American Christianity until at least the middle of the twentieth century and that it maintains its hold on huge numbers of Christians yet today. I believe that it is ultimately a harmful image of God. It makes faith not a matter of trust in God but of fear-fear of eternal damnation if we displease this God, whose grace is always conditional on our meeting Godís demands. I am convinced that belief in such a God does not lead to spiritual health and wholeness, not at least for those of us living in the mainstream culture in North America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. What many of us may not realize is that, while it may have predominated in Christianity for a long time, the image of God as monarch is not the only divine image to be found in our tradition, nor is it necessary to hold this image of God in order to be Christian. Today I want to suggest a different way to thinking about God that may be new to some of you. Whether itís new or not, I hope many of you will find this other way of thinking about God helpful. It isnít the only other way to think about God, but it is one that I find particularly compelling.
This other way of thinking about God has a big, fancy four bit name-panentheism. But letís not worry about that right now. Rather, letís start with a basic fact about human beings. For as long as we have any record of human cultures, every human culture we know of has believed in the reality of a plane of existence different from that which we ordinarily perceive with our five senses. The best name I know for this other plane of reality is "the world of the spirit," or perhaps better, simply Spirit. It can also be called the numinous (a favorite word with some theologians), the divine, the sacred, the holy. Or it can simply be called God. It is a spiritual dimension of existence, imbedded in the world we perceive with our senses (or rather, in which the world we perceive with our senses is embedded) but different from it, existing in and along side ordinary reality but not normally perceptible in the same way as that ordinary reality.
That this other level of existence, or level of being to use a theologically more correct term, is real is the universal experience of humankind. It is experienced in visions, dreams, and in feelings that defy expression. Those who have experienced it say that it is more real than the reality we ordinarily perceive. Yet we are, for the most part, unaware of it. How can that be? If it is so real, if, as those who have experienced it universally believe it is in fact Ultimate Reality, how come we donít know it? Well, the explanation that is most compelling to me comes from several different authors. One of the best statements I have seen is from the British writer Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God. Near the beginning of that book, Armstrong writes:
[M]any of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the physical and material world in front of us. This method of looking at the world has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the Ďspiritualí or the Ďholyí which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world.As I think Iíve mentioned here before, Joseph Campbell says we arenít aware of this level of reality because our rationalistic, scientific culture as caused scales to grow over our eyes. The problem isnít that it isnít there; the problem is that we keep ourselves from seeing it. In other words, the culprit is the secular, rationalistic, and materialistic worldview that we all acquire simply by virtue of the fact that we were born into and grew to adulthood in a secular, rationalistic, and materialistic culture. The reason we are so numb to the reality of the sacred, of God, all around us is that we are children of the Enlightenment. And it doesnít have to be that way.
Which brings us to our Epistle reading this morning from Paulís letter to the Christians at Philippi. There at Chapter 2, verse 5, Paul urges those ancient Christians, and he urges us, to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...." Now, Paul goes immediately into an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that espouses a doctrine known to theology as kenosis, or emptying. That fine, and very important. I may preach on it the next time it comes up in the lectionary. But today I want to step back from that doctrine of kenosis and ask more broadly: What was the mind that was in Christ Jesus that we are supposed to let be in us as well? Claiming to know the mind of Jesus Christ is a very risky business. After all, as more or less orthodox Christians we profess that at the same time that he was fully and completely human, he was God incarnate. We cannot really know what was in his mind. All we can say with any certainty is that the Gospels give us a certain picture of him (actually, certain pictures of him) that reveal something of what was in his mind and more of what the early Christian tradition perceived to have been in his mind.
When we read the Gospels together with some of the best contemporary scholarship on who Jesus was as a matter of historical fact, at least one thing emerges about him as essentially undeniable. He was remarkably, extraordinarily open and sensitive to the reality the Spirit, of the spiritual, numinous, sacred dimension of reality. Scripture says that he is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that Jesus lived and moved and had his being in the realm of the Spirit, in the realm of God. He was filled with it. He radiated it out to those around him. His life truly was life in the Spirit. He was so filled with it that our tradition came to profess that he was (and is) transparent to it, that is, that if we want to know what the realm of Spirit, what God is like, all we have to do is look at Jesus. As Christians, we claim to follow Jesus Christ. If we really are going to do that, we need to try to open our selves to the realm of Spirit, the realm and reality of God, the way he did. To use Armstrongís image, we need to edit back in to our consciousness that sense of the reality of the sacred, the reality of God all around us. To use Campbellís image, we need to peel the scales from our eyes so that we can see what is really there.
OK. Thatís lovely. But how in heavenís name are we supposed to do that? I mean, itís not like we can just snap our fingers and suddenly have a different sense of reality, a different understanding of what is and isnít real. Well, I donít have any magic answers. Iíve been working on it for a long time myself, with only modest success. All I can do is share with you what has worked at least a little bit for me. The first thing is simply to become aware of the limitations the scientific world view puts on our view of reality. Science says that only that is real that can be observed with the senses, measured, and tested. The larger, more universal experience of humankind says otherwise. We need to open ourselves to the possibility that that broader human experience has something profoundly true to tell us. We need to open our minds and our hearts to the possibility of God.
Then, we need to pray. Prayer doesnít come easily for many of us. It doesnít come easily to me. But it is the best way we have, the most direct way, the most immediate way of connecting our normal reality to the greater reality of God. If you find prayer difficult, try reminding yourself that whatís causing the difficulty are those scales on our eyes, our built in resistance to the reality of God that comes not from our human nature but from our culture. Try working through the difficulty. Keep at it. Over time, it will help.
For me the other thing that has made a difference is regular attendance at and participation in Christian worship. Worship of course includes prayer, but it is larger than prayer. In worship we hear the sacred stories read week after week. We hear and sing music, which can move us in a way mere words cannot. We hear the Word proclaimed from the pulpit, with greater or lesser success from week to week, but still someone is up there trying to bring the faith alive for us. And, at least once a month, we participate in the Holy, in the Spirit, in the universal sacrament of the Christian Church, the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Communion is an occasion like no other for us to open our hearts, our entire being, to the reality of God. This isnít a rational activity. Science canít prove that there is anything to it. Yet those of us who have been moved by it know that it connects us to Ultimate Reality, to God, as nothing else does. So if you want to open your heart, your very being, to the reality of God, attend worship regularly. Do it here or do it somewhere else. Do it wherever you get the most out of it. It can truly make God real for you.
When we see God this way, as the deepest reality all around us, as the Spirit in which we live and move and have our being, our whole understanding of the faith changes. Suddenly, it isnít about appeasing some judgmental monarch in the skies. Rather, faith comes to be about living into a deeper awareness of the Spirit, a deeper relationship with God, who is always present, sustaining us, loving us, offering us Godís unconditional grace. Seeing God this way really does make a tremendous difference.
And so, let us commit ourselves to striving more and more to live life in the Spirit. Friends, God really is all around us. I have experienced Godís presence in my life, and I know many of you have too. Let us take those experiences seriously. Letís not let our rationalist, materialistic culture convince us that those experiences must not be real. They are in fact the deepest reality there is. Letís commit ourselves to trying to edit the presence of God back into our understanding of reality. If we can do that, we can know a strength, a courage, a peace that we can know no other way. We can in short know the ever present grace of God in our lives. That is indeed a knowledge worth striving for. Amen.