Relationship with God, 1: Introduction (5/1/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Many of you have asked me to speak about the subject matter of my doctoral thesis, and today I being a short series on that subject.
Most people who enter seminary have doubts about their “calling.” Am I really supposed to be doing this? Who am I to think I should become an ordained minister? The first year of seminary is when people sort out their feelings, and a lot of people leave during that first year.
At a discussion during my first weeks of seminary, one of the students said he was convinced that God had called him to save souls. He believed that his preaching would result in hundreds, perhaps thousand of people who were bound for hell to be saved. I mentioned that I was unsure about my thoughts on preaching to save souls, but that I did not see that as my purpose for entering the ministry. And he said, “If you don’t preach to save souls, why in the world would you preach?”
That haunted me. Why preach? Was it all some sort of ego thing? Do I like the outfits? Is it some kind of narcissistic need to be heard? What purpose could there be in standing in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday if you are not attempting to save souls? I soon arrived at my answer. I preach to point people toward a relationship with God. I maintained that conviction throughout my seminary experience, and when I entered a Doctor of Ministry program at Chicago Theological Seminary, it became the focus of my doctoral thesis.
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Paul’s words to the Athenians that we heard read from the lectern this morning are important and powerful. When we talk about being in relationship with God, we’ve got to understand that God is not something we can easily get our minds around. This God with whom I claim a relationship is so important—this is not the bearded man on the clouds who moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. This is not some abstract philosophical concept that one must be a genius to even begin to understand. This is the Living God. This is the reality in which we live, and move, and have our being.
One of my favorite New Testament scholars, Marcus Borg, provides a way of thinking about God that I find helpful. He says that God is everything that exists, and something else. God is everything that exists, and something else. That something else is the power that holds the universe together. Theologians often call this “the ground of being.” But the point is not that difficult when we free ourselves of trying to come up with a precise definition of God, which is an impossibility. Simply put, God is everywhere, in everything, and God is also the power that moment to moment calls creation into being.
But how could a person be in relationship with this…this…power? What words could be used to even describe such a power? The word that comes closest is love. Love is the power that called creation into being. Love is the power that holds creation in being. Love is the reason the universe exists.
And love is always relational. We might say we love a movie, or a painting, or a symphony, but that is not really a proper usage of the word love. We can’t be in a relationship with works of art. We can appreciate them, and take joy in experiencing them, but they can’t love us back. Real love is always relational.
Some say the opposite of love is hate. Theologians often say the opposite of love is fear. I believe that the opposite of love is selfishness. Theologians call this type of selfishness sin, but however we label it, we have a tendency to be selfish. We each want for ourselves and our small circle of family and friends more than an objective view of the universe would indicate is fair. We view the world through a selfish lens. The decisions we make in life are usually based on self-interest.
We make dozens of decisions every day, some important and some mundane. But it is not our nature, when confronted with a decision, to think to ourselves, What will bring forth the greatest good. What decision will provide the most benefit for the six billion plus people on this planet? How will my decision affect future generations?
We don’t think that way. Our decisions are almost always based on what provides us and our little circle of family and friends the most benefits. This is not a bad thing. This does not mean we are vile creatures unworthy of living in this creation. Actually, all it means is that we are human beings. That is our nature. It’s not even something to be ashamed of. But it is, I believe, something we should acknowledge.
We center the universe around ourselves. We build our lives around our minds, our personalities, our individuality. But there is something else that makes us human. It is the ability to love. It is the ability to see beyond our selfishness and do good things for others, without the hope of reward. There is something deep inside us that recognizes we are all in this together. We are all part of the same universe, made of the same stuff, and the lives we live are as much a matter of chance and luck as the reward for our own efforts.
How often we see a person who is suffering and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But really, there is something inside of us that says, “That is me.” That suffering person and me—we are in this together. We are part of the same reality. It’s like smashing your thumb with a hammer. The other fingers don’t say, “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me.” We’re all part of the same body. We are all one, at least when we push beyond our minds and move toward the very center of who and what we are.
And that center is called the heart. Kierkegaard said the longest distance in the universe is the distance between the head and the heart. And it’s true. The natural inclination to center our lives around our egos—around our individuality, our self-interest—is a powerful force. It is not easy to center our lives around the heart—around that place deep within where we are all connected and all that matters is the greater good.
For me, being in relationship with God involves trying to find that healthy balance between head and heart. It is living life with one’s mind fully engaged, but being driven by a deeper purpose than pure self-interest. It is seeking that power of love that calls the universe into being. It is realizing that power is real, and is alive inside each and every one of us.
This is what I call relationship with God, and I think it is the most important thing in human life. And it is the reason I preach.
Now, back to my doctoral thesis. As I attempted to sort through this notion of relationship with God, and questioned how to preach in such a way that the people of a congregation might actually be enabled to move into a closer relationship with God, I developed a thesis regarding preaching. And over a three year period, I tested that thesis from this pulpit. Over the next few weeks, I plan on recapping that experience, and in the process explaining my doctoral thesis, which all of you have been such a big part.
The basic idea is simple. I believe there is a process a person goes through in order to be in a strong and empowering relationship with God. I call this process wrestling, surrender and congruence. We’ll look at this process in the coming weeks, but for the balance of this morning I want to talk about some of the theological assumptions I make as a basis for my thinking. When I say theological assumptions, what I mean is this: In theology, every little point can be argued endlessly. I recognize that everything I say or propose could be debated and contested. So in my thesis I state up front the assumptions that I make. If one does not accept my assumptions, then I recognize that my thesis will not be valid for that person.
Let me warn you—the balance of today’s sermon will be by far the most challenging part of this series. The basic ideas behind the process of wrestling, surrender and congruence are quite simple. But the theological assumptions I make prior to my thesis are not so simple. So please don’t think the next few weeks will be anything like the next few minutes. But this is a necessary part of the process. These are some of the theological assumptions I make, with my justification for those assumptions.
My first theological assumption is that human beings are “hard wired” for relationship with God. When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). This reveals the primacy of relationship with God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Even those who reject the very existence of God acknowledge the primal nature of our search for God. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach reduces religion to the objectification of human feeling, insisting the notion of God is an illusion of the human mind. But even Feuerbach acknowledges that the search for God is a part of human nature.
In Sigmund Freud’s view, religion is little more than childish wish-fulfillment in the face of hopelessness. This, however, does not detract from the fact these religious “illusions” are, in Freud’s eyes, “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of humanity.”
The search for God has framed the existence of the human race. Archeological studies reveal that religious ritual and the embrace of supernatural ideas are archetypal in even the most primitive of civilizations, dating back as far as 200,000 years. Ranging from those most primitive of minds to the most brilliant scientific minds of modern science, such as Einstein and Schroedinger, human beings have pushed reason to its limits and then fallen silent before the mystery of God.
A cover story in the October 25, 2004 edition of Time reports that many scientists believe the search for a higher power is a part of our genetic structure. So I believe that both faith and reason support my theological assumption that human beings are hard-wired for relationship with God.
My second theological assumption is this: While postmodernism importantly reveals the cultural biases upon which traditional notions of truth and meaning are based, there remains an eternal truth: God is the Loving Creator of reality. Postmodernism tends to hold that truth is relative to the situation. What is true for you might or might not be true for me. I make the assumption that God is the loving creator of reality. I make the assumption that this is a truth that is true for everybody, everywhere, at all times.
While I hold this as an eternal truth, I also accept Kierkegaard’s contentions that divine truth is beyond the reach of human reason, that belief in God requires a leap of faith, and that God’s existence is a truth discovered subjectively through heartfelt worship and not through rational proofs. In other words, it is okay to preach about Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God, but such reasoned arguments cannot serve as the foundational basis for the Christian religion. It’s a heart thing.
My next theological assumption is this: God’s truth is a reality that transcends human understanding, but which can be found within human beings. Plato argued that truth is real, eternal, and present within each person. I say the same of the Christ event: it is the truth on which God has structured reality. Now, that is a huge theological assumption—that Christ is central to God’s plan for all creation.
In the 20th Century, two theologians—Karl Barth and Emil Brunner—famously argued about God’s place in human life. Brunner contended that human beings have within them, by nature, a spark of the divine. Barth said humanity is totally depraved, and God enters into a person only when the Holy Spirit is placed there by Jesus Christ.
It’s a problem for the preacher! Does one preach as if the people in the pews are lost souls in need of the intervention of the Holy Spirit of God; or does one preach as if God is already waiting inside each person, longing to be discovered? My thesis is dependent on the acceptance of Brunner’s assertion that there is a “point of contact” between God and humanity within human nature.
Another theological assumption: Traditional theology in America is patriarchal and Eurocentric, and feminist and liberation critiques of that theology demand that other perspectives be broached from the pulpit.
In the modern church, the primary focus of the Christian faith has been the salvation of an individual’s soul. This theology is based on the white male interpretations of Christianity that arose in Europe during the Reformation. Feminist and liberation theologies reveal the self-centeredness of that traditional theology, and call into question the notion that the primary focus of the Christian faith is personal salvation. These newer theologies reclaim the communal and relational aspects of the Christian faith. They demand a more critical reading of the Bible, and they reclaim justice as a necessary element of Christianity. To reach all people, preachers must move beyond the notion that Christianity is strictly about confessing your sins and begging for forgiveness. That is a part of Christian theology, but it is not the whole of it.
And finally, my last theological assumption: Of the three general Christian attitudes toward other religions (exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist), the inclusivist approach is the most appropriate for the modern world. This is a key assumption for my thesis. Preaching “relationship with God” is not appropriate if one believes that an individual’s soul is bound for eternal torment unless that person makes a specific confession of faith in Jesus Christ. In that exclusivist approach to other faiths, the focus of one’s preaching would be proselytization and conversion.
The pluralist approach on the other hand says that all religions are equally valid, and reduces the Christian faith to one faith among many equals. With this approach, the centrality and uniqueness of Christ is lost. The inclusivist approach maintains the uniqueness and importance of the Christ event, while acknowledging that God’s grace is at work in other faiths. This is the approach best suited for my approach to relationship with God.
Taken as a group, these theological assumptions give the preacher the freedom to point people toward a relationship with God without bogging down on the theological differences people bring to the pews on Sunday morning. The preacher trusts God with the care and condition of each soul when that person seeks this relationship. Jesus said, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” It is not the role of the preacher to explain exactly how to knock, or to predict what will be found once the door is opened. It is the preacher’s role to point people toward the door and encourage them to knock.
Okay, let’s come up for some air. It gets much easier from here. Next week we’ll start looking at this process of wresting, surrender and congruence, and concentrate on what it means to wrestle with God. Between now and then, don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. Even if it involves tough questions, doubt and anger, I feel certain God prefers some honest wrestling to being ignored.