Christian faith is not built on theory or speculation. It is based on experience; and not on some imagined or other-worldly experience, but on the experience of real events and encounters with real people. In the first instance it was built on the experience that some people had with Jesus during his lifetime and in his resurrection appearances. The First Letter of John starts off with, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” Acceptance or forgiveness has to be experienced for it to become real. Doctrines need to mean something in terms of our own experience for them to come alive. “The Bible says” is not sufficient; we need to be able to relate what the Bible says to our experience. Equally any authority that the church has when making pronouncements relies on their making sense to the experience of those who listen. The Gospel invitation is not then, first and foremost, to accept certain truths, but to enter into certain experiences.
Two Modes of Experience
Without lifting his eyes from the page, John commented to his wife that he needed to go back to the optomotrist, His eyesight must have detiorated, he said. The words on the page were blurred. Without looking up from what she was doing, his wife gave that sort of noise that indicated she had heard him but was more interested in what she was doing that in his complaining. But when he said a second time that he was not able to see as clearly as he used to be able to she looked at him and exclaimed, “Why, you’ve got my glasses on!” That’s why so many people can’t recognize the spirituality around them or the presence of God. They have the wrong glasses on! They are looking with their active, rational, controlling minds. What they need to do is to change glasses: put on the intuitive, responsive mind. You see there are two different modes of consciousness: one is active, the other is reactive. Sometimes we operate in an active manner – thinking, talking, probing, initiating, controlling, building, discovering, reasoning and impacting on the world around us – but on other occasions we operate in a responsive manner. We are shaped by forces impacting upon us – forces like culture, society, ideas, fashion, history, language, heredity – and God. The active, probing and controlling consciousness so successful in exploration, research and invention is useless when it comes to our awareness of God. God impacts upon us. We do not discover or manufacture God. The active consciousness comes into play as soon as we have sensed spiritual realities so that attempts are made to explain, describe, criticize, and think out the implications of the experience. However the actual awareness of God is open only to that side of our consciousness I call responsive.
I don’t believe in God.
‘Backpacker’ wrote in the church visitor’s book, “I’m sorry. I don’t believe in God.” Of course backpacker had well and truly moved on by the time I read that so I had no chance to say, “That’s OK. It isn’t going to make much difference to the universe whether you believe in God or not, but what you really ought to know is that God believes in you. How can you say that? You ask. On what basis can you be so sure that God believes in me? Well you’re alive, aren’t you? You didn’t ask to be born. Your life is a gift. I know you’ll remind me about the birds and the bees and human reproduction that can even take place in a test tube. But you have been given the privilege of living on this planet as a unique individual. Someone must believe in you. I can’t believe that you are just an accident. You are somebody and not a nobody. You are of value. And where does that value come from? From society? From your family and friends? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. God believes in you. God believes that you could become a better person than you are. You feel that, don’t you? You are alive, but you want to do more than just exist. You want life, full and free, top grade. Where does that yearning come from? I say from God. Where else? Someone believes in you and in what you can become. Someone believes in you and weeps over your failures to be all that you could possibly be. Someone believes in you and gives you the basis on which you can believe in yourself.
God Without Boundaries
It’s a tragedy that so much time and effort is spent by Christians arguing over superficial matters. For example, how much sweat and tears have gone into the argument whether or not Jonah really was swallowed by a big fish! To get caught up in that squabble is to miss the whole point of the Jonah story. It’s a story about a prophet being directed by God to preach God’s message in a pagan, gentile city – a city that stood for worldly power and imperial rule. The Israelites say, ‘Do you mean that God cares about the people of Nineveh! He’s our God. We are true God-fearing people; the people of Ninevah don’t even believe in God.” But the message of the Book of Jonah is that God chose Israel, not to be the teacher’s pet, but for the sake of the whole world. Transpose that message to our situation today. God is the Lord of all people; not just those who identify themselves as Christian. Atheists and agnostics, Buddhists and Muslims, capitalists and socialists, Africans and Europeans – they are all within God’s love. God seeks to rule in their lives too. Don’t be surprised if God does a work among non-Christians that he is unable to do among Christians who have grown tired of the Gospel or lost their way. Don’t be put out when non-Christians live lives of generosity, kindness, justice and reconciliation. God’s sphere of activity is not limited to those who are part of the church.
The Divine Glory
God is not just another chap/bloke that we bump into along life’s way. While we might use colloquial expressions like, “The man upstairs”, and we have to use terms borrowed from human relationships to talk about God, God is more than a person in the sense that we normally use that word. Any encounter with God will bring with it a sense of awe and wonder. Many writers, including notably a man by the name of Rudolph Otto, have pointed out that the beginning of all religion is to be found in this sense of awe and wonder. An encounter with the divine is associated with a sort of fear or dread. It is overwhelming. It is beyond description. It is unsettling. This challenges us to examine our God-experiences. Do they fill us with reverence and awe? Or have we so domesticated God that we have lost the sense of awe and wonder? Have we reduced God to human dimensions? It is true that we can experience God as one who is intimately close, breathing into us a sense of acceptance and calm, but the One who is imminent is also the transcendent One, beyond our understanding and beyond our control. In our humanization of worship let’s not forget the holiness, the awesomeness, the glory of God. In God’s presence we cannot be other than humble and reverent.