OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
Part I: God
There is a new spirituality emerging on earth. We see aspects of it in both the religious and secular realms. For example, in the religious arena we see the (mostly) protestant “Emerging Church Movement”, the (mostly) Catholic liberal theology of universalism and the southern hemisphere revival. In the secular realm we see an apparent ending of European and North American dominance, a strong rise in Islam, economic globalization and media/web connections that have given a sense of global community. We must then examine the historic visible church, with all its connections to secular power, the pilgrim/remnant church, the claims of the major world religions and the form of the emerging new spirituality.
We start with an examination of the concept of God. Who is God? How do we know Him? What is His relationship to religion? How does He relate to humans?
The first thing we must realize is that God is not easy to understand or encounter. At least not for most people. Human reason and normal human experience do not bring much understanding of God. Although there are exceptions, such as some of the ancient Greek philosophers, usually unaided reason does not find God. So, for example, if Plato realizes that there is an immutable reality behind the visible worlds, he is an exception to this normal human experience: merely thinking about God doesn’t bring knowledge of God. Likewise, the beauty of nature often brings a sense of creation, but it is rare for a person to find God through nature. In the same way the noble aspects of humanity, such as loyalty, self sacrifice, honesty, sharing and humility are usually overshadowed by the blatant evils of “human nature” and all of its resultant destruction.
Of course, all societies develop some sort of religion. The existence of religion could be taken as evidence of God, and its common features could be used to form a concept of God. If, however, we include all religions, even primitive religions, the degree of commonality starts to disappear. Worse yet, a study of history shows how often religion has been central to great evils, both personal and corporate. The visible religious institutions are often corrupt, hypocritical and connected to secular power abuses. The history of evils such as conquest, war, imperialism, colonialism, slavery and the like are closely tied to the history of religion.
So, we need to realize that reason, nature, human nobility and religion are not going to be very useful in forming a concept of God. So what is left? The answer is that we must examine revelation. That is, God has to reveal Himself to be understood. Only those who receive the revelation can understand God. Or, put another way: God only reveals Himself to certain people. From the perspective of Christianity, God revealed Himself to the Jewish nation first, and secondly through Jesus. From a more global perspective we would have to include the major figures that dot the path of Hinduism. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.
Obviously where major religions differ we will have to decide individually how to incorporate or reject central tenants of these faiths. Some people will deny any validity to a religion other than their own, others will see some features in common.
GOD IN CHRISTIANITY
In the revelation of Jesus we have a unique claim. This author is coming from the perspective that Jesus was a real person and that His followers gave us a record that is accurate enough to be trusted. Thus, if we study the record of Jesus and His early followers we can examine His unique claim. Furthermore, this paper is coming from the perspective that a person can receive direct and personal revelation from Jesus even now. That is, His claim was that He was God Himself on earth. He claimed He was an incarnation of God, or as one of His followers put it, He claimed that He was “God in the flesh”. He also claimed that He would be killed but come back to life. That He would live forever and be in authority over all of heaven and earth. He said that while we are still living on earth that He would send His Spirit to those that know Him and give them direct and personal revelation. These are all unique claims in the arena of world religions.
Obviously then we have a problem. If Christianity has also been a corrupt, hypocritical and abusive religion how can we trust these claims? The answer is that we must divide Christianity into 2 parts: the visible, historical part and the hidden, authentic but persecuted part. We will use the term “Christendom” to describe the visible church and the term “Kingdom of God” to describe the authentic part. It is as John said: “we are of God, those that know God hear us. Those that are of the world do not hear us, because they are of the world”.
So then, we learn about God in the revelation of Christianity, but only from the kingdom perspective, not from the worldly perspective. If we take any era of Christianity, and we read the history of that era, we must search to find the kingdom perspective and we must reject the worldly perspective. For example, in the middle ages we have the corrupt state church, with ecclesiastical abuse, and we have the hidden monastic church with true revelation of God. Or, again, in colonial America we have the corrupt slave trading/witch hunting visible church and the hidden advocates of true Puritanism. There are no lack of examples once you know how to recognize authentic Christianity: the history of Christianity is a journey of repeated sliding into compromised institutions that are revived or reformed by fresh returns to the teaching of Jesus.
GOD AS REVEALED IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD
God has revealed enough of Himself to insure that we can safely and properly relate to Him. He has revealed all necessary information as regarding His nature, attributes, plan for humans, future of the universe, authority structure of the kingdom, etc. Even a brief summary would take an immense amount of writing. In this paper we will describe parts of this revealed information as it relates to the new spirituality. We will call this revealed information “doctrine”, or “orthodoxy” (right doctrine).
It is all too clear to any mature Christian that doctrine is often a source of division. If we categorize doctrine into essential doctrine and non-essential doctrine we can gain some hope for unity. That is, essential doctrine would include all revealed truth about God that is necessary to define a Christian. Thus, to say that “Jesus is God” (or Jesus was the incarnation of God) would be essential to defining Christianity. If someone reads the bible and concludes that Jesus was not revealed as an incarnation, but, for example, just one prophet in a long lines of prophets who reveal something of God; then that person cannot call themselves a Christian. The divinity of Christ is essential to inclusion in the Christian grouping, and separating and dividing from people who don’t believe that Jesus was the incarnation is a proper response to their teaching. On the other hand, the question whether water baptism should be by immersion or sprinkling is non-essential doctrine: 2 Christians (or churches) can stay in fellowship while holding opposite views on the method of water baptism. Of course, non-essential doctrine is often still very important doctrine. If 2 Christians differed on important (but non-essential) beliefs they will still have conflict and disagreement. The challenge to Christianity in these times is to disagree and debate without hate, ambition for power, disrespect, or division.
In addition to doctrine God has revealed to us that He intends to interact with us on a personal basis. That is, one of the doctrines revealed by God is that He is a personal God who wants to relate to us. He wants us to know Him personally and to “walk” with Him and abide “in Him”. He is not a distant God who merely reveals Himself in history, but an intimate God who wants to join with our spirit and live inside of us. Thus, for example, we find that He desires to send His Spirit to live within us. He desires to give us “a new heart and mind” to know Him directly. We shall “all know Him, from the least to the greatest”. This experiential side of God, and of Christianity, is different than the objective doctrinal truths He has revealed. The experiential side is personal, subjective and often beyond mental understanding and doctrine. Now, subjective experiences cannot be used to form doctrine. The reason for this is that personal experiences are often misunderstood by the person who has them. Thus doctrine should be objective. Still, the personal, intimate, inward relationship between a “believer” and God is important. For example, if during worship or personal prayer a person experiences God speaking to them, then they will be transformed. This transformation will not be mental or doctrinal but it will be life changing. To experience first hand the love of God, the acceptance of God and the forgiveness of God, for example, will greatly alter a person for life.
This personal inward relationship with God differs from person to person: it is personal. So, for example, one person is called to be a missionary, another to study and writing. Some people have been wounded prior to finding God and He will personally take these people on a healing journey of memories. One person believes it is wrong to own a television, others are taught by God while watching a secular show. Some find the presence of God in formal liturgy, others at a picnic. The only common denominator is that each person must honestly believe in what they are doing. We all must sincerely respond to what we are fully convinced is true. Now, again, this type of individual leading and conviction cannot be used to form doctrine. Doctrine is not private and individual. It is not subjective. The relationship between subjective experience and objective truth is an important area of study and an attempt to describe this relationship is an one of the current challenges in this time of new spirituality.
Another aspect of God that He has revealed is paradox. That is, God has revealed truths about Himself that contain apparent contradictions. For example, He has revealed that He is infinitely powerful and that all authority is His. No one can stop Him or successfully oppose Him. He has also revealed that He is good. That He is love. There is no evil in God, no darkness. Now, to the human mind this leads to a seeming contradiction: if God is all knowing, all good and all powerful then why does He tolerate evil? In fact, where did evil come from? Or, take for example the revealed truth that God chooses certain people to be His own person. God makes the decision who will be given enlightenment and grace. And yet He also reveals that humans must choose Him and obey Him. He holds humans responsible for their choices. How can election and free will both be true at the same time? This is a paradox that has no human solution. We cannot understand how 2 truths can seem to contradict each other. Much of the historic division in Christianity is a result of people lining up on one side or another of a paradox. Each side can easily prove that they are right. Each side can easily prove that God has revealed their position as true. That’s the problem: He has revealed both sides as true. We must stop dividing over paradoxical truths.
Finally, God has not only revealed objective truth, given us subjective personal relationships and challenged us with paradox, but He has revealed Himself as transcendent. He has revealed to us that there is much we cannot know. What we know of God we know because He has revealed it. But there is much we do not know and cannot know. We see now “through a glass darkly, but then we shall know as we are known, because we shall see Him face to face”. Our knowledge on earth is limited. Our relationship on earth is limited.
Nevertheless, humans can be given experiences with the transcendent God. We can have experiences of God that cannot be described. Experiences that are beyond the mind. This is the mystical realm. A mystical experience is real. It can bring great transformation. But the method to, or of, transformation is unknown. The “knowledge” gained by a mystical experience with the transcendence of God is “beyond knowing”. The great mystical writers of the Catholic monastic movement have given us some help and insight into these experiences, but in general, it comes down to this: these experiences must be experienced to be understood. Words at best can only point to the transcendent reality. In the catholic tradition the prayer form of contemplative prayer, coupled with the monastic disciplines, allows for a pathway to mystical union with God. In the protestant tradition the mystical side of God is comparatively ignored or avoided, but the historic protestant moves of God found in revival times and renewal times have mystic elements. Direct encounters with God that transcend doctrine and personal knowledge of God are found in all Christian traditions to some extent. Whether it comes about by contemplative monasticism or by a sweep of God’s Spirit during a revival/renewal the shared feature is that people know they have encountered God, but they have great difficulty in describing their experience. They are changed for the good, but they cannot transmit what they received by normal human channels of communication. They can only tell you to seek and find.
Needless to say mystic experience cannot substitute for personal leading, maturation, training, fellowship, community, etc. Obviously mystic experience is a poor candidate for developing right doctrine. The church universal needs all that God has for us, not just one part. We need revealed truth, a personal walk with God and transcendent experiences.
GOD OUTSIDE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Now, what about God outside the church? The bible has less to say about God outside the church than within it. It does reveal though that God is ultimately deciding all outcomes. It says that “even a sparrow cannot die without God’s knowledge” (and permission). The entire universe is sustained by “His word and power”. There are many unanswered questions however. For example what is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and mankind’s free will? How can Satan be called “the god of this world” if Jesus has been granted “all power and authority in the universe”?
One answer is that God is responsible for “every good gift”. That truth and justice for example always come from God. So, if mankind makes a scientific or philosophical discovery then God was the source of that revelation. That “Jesus is the light that bring light to all men”. Or, if someone is moved to make a just and fair decision then that capacity and direction are from God. Thus human existence is an interplay between the “forces of good and evil”. God on one side and Satan and sin on the other side.
We are also shown that beyond any current struggle on earth at this time there is a higher mysterious plan in operation. That evil is permitted now to produce an eternity that is perfect. There is a plan of God in place that is allowing for the existence of evil in spirits and in humans; but that ultimately it will work for complete good. Evil then eventually serves the purposes of God.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHRISTIANITY AND THE NEW SPIRITUALITY
We are now in a position to start to answer some difficult questions about Christianity and the new spirituality. In this series we hope to eventually give our best answer to these questions. We begin here and will add more to each answer as we progress through the series.
The new spirituality shares certain common features. In general the new spirituality is a rejection of historic Christendom. Therefore, we see a reaction against the form of Christianity that is European, with male dominated authority, that is historically connected with corrupt alliances with secular powers and that played a major role in evils such as imperialism, colonialism, chauvinism and racism. The selfish use of power in the name of God is rejected, and with it the form of Christianly must change. Spiritually and theologically this means that the forms of virtue and truth must change. For example, if in the past (and present) a person claims to be following Jesus but does not have the character and spirit of Christ then that persons spirituality is now suspect. Doctrine divorced from love and justice has been rejected, and with it doctrine alone is threatened. So, the new spirituality tends to be much more inclusive of other religions and cultures. With this tolerance though comes a shaking of important foundational truths. For example, the idea that a person can only be “saved” by being a “Christian” can be heard to be another ethnocentric demand that all other cultures adopt Christendom. As the absurdity of previously unexamined beliefs is now being revealed there is a tendency to overreact and abandon all Christian truth. Thus, when someone today, in our global community, speaks from a now outdated belief and says something like this: “71% of Americans are Christian, and less than 1% of Iranians are Christians and so 71% of Americans are saved and are going to heaven but less than 1% of Iranians are saved and are going to heaven” we know that something is wrong. But what? Should we then conclude that Jesus is just another prophet and that “all religions lead to God”? We have a lot of questions that need answers. Here is a list of questions that we shall try to answer as honesty and completely as we can as this series progresses:
At this point we give these partial answers: