December 4, 2020

Church: Not Where We “Find God”

BrightAbyssGeoffrey Hill:

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love?
What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?

– from “Lachrimae Amantis”

Religiously secure. A brilliant phrase, and not simply because it suggests the radical lack of security, the disruption of ordinary life that a turn toward Christ entails, but also this: for some people, and probably for all people for some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience — all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is…

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
– Christian Wiman

* * *

One great misconception about the Church is that is to be the place where people go to “find God.” It is natural to think this way in a consumer society, where it seems you can always go somewhere to find what you’re looking for. The Church is the place to go to find God.

Except — everything in the Bible protests against that notion. For God is Creator of the world, the Giver and Sustainer of life. In him we live and move and have our being, and he is not far from any of us. The idea that there are particular places where we go to access God, specific places where God “lives,” waiting for us to come and find him, is the essence of idolatry not genuine faith.

For spiritual seekers, churches and faith communities function (or should function) more like signposts, pointing their neighbors to the God who made them, who knows them, who is at work already in their lives, and who loves the ordinariness of their daily worlds every bit as much as he delights to hear praises in the sanctuary.

For people of faith, who have found a home in the Church, this means learning to view our gatherings as only a small part of the story. For God is with us, close to us, speaking and working as much when we scatter into our communities to work and play as he is when we come together. We do not “leave the world” to “come into God’s presence.” I am not denying that there is something special about how God meets his people in worship, especially in the Word and Sacraments, but I am protesting the common assumption that our services are somehow more “sacred” than our daily lives.

Unfortunately, local churches try to make hay on this bad theology all the time. In fact, they go further than calling people to “the Church” to find God. They then identify what is happening in their particular congregations and church programs with God’s presence and activity. That in turn unleashes the tendency to compare and compete with other churches, and the message easily becomes: God is here in a way that he is not in other congregations. Come here = find God. Go there = be disappointed (and risk your soul!)

All of which guarantees that Christian Wiman’s words will be verified. Church is the last place in the world where many people are going to find God.

Before you jump all over me (or Wiman) for promoting a kind of spirituality without religion and encouraging people to abandon the Church for a fuzzy, undefined “personal faith,” please know that Wiman dismisses that notion as a “modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief.” He commends definite beliefs and practices as necessary, steady spots from which we may glimpse the truth, give some form to the mysteries of life and faith, and withstand the sufferings that threaten to uproot us. I agree, but religious practices, such as involvement in a church, are meant to enrich our lives, not take over our lives.

My big point is simply this: we don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just “church life.”

If any church tries to tell you God is present in some special way among them and you need to go there to find him, smile politely but shake the dust off your feet. Hard.

Comments

  1. So so true.

  2. So, definitely taking a low view of the sacraments…

    But on the flip side, that’s what makes a theology of vocation so life giving for the church..

    • Ironically, I find that holding a high view of the sacraments has led me to appreciate the immanence of God beyond the Loaf and Cup even more.

      What I suspect CM and Christian Wiman are critiquing is the unspoken belief that God is present in these churches, not in the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of Communion, but in their music, their doctrinal purity, their zeal for the moral law, their “fellowship”, their programs… IOW, just about everywhere than where He is most likely to be found. And once you make *that* the focus of where “God can be found”, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.

      • Yes. A high view of the sacraments is designed to increase our appreciation for and involvement in the affairs of daily life. The prayer after communion anticipates the sending of the congregation into the world so that, just as God has fed us with the Bread of Life, so too we may become bread for the hungry in Him.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    My big point is simply this: we don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just “church life.”

    That’s something I’ve always noticed about Judaism. It’s earthiness — the emphasis on “live your life” instead of hiding away in a super-spiritual bubble. (Though you do get that among the most extreme Orthodox Jews.)

    And St Therese’s “Little Way” of God in everyday routine.

  4. Christiane says

    There are many questions about how the Lord of Life, of all Creation, could be incarnated as the baby Jesus. And how could it be that Being Itself, the great ‘I am’ could be born in a tiny stable at a small village called Nazareth . . . C.S. Lewis even wrote about it:
    “Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

    And it is known that there are some among Christians whose eyes have been opened to recognize His Presence ‘at the breaking of the bread’ . . .
    there is a precedent recorded in the Holy Gospel of St. Luke 24, this
    “. . . But they urged Him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while He was with them at table, He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. . . ”

    The mystery of God’s presence . . . of ‘God with us’ is something that has long occupied the great theologians, although little children would have no trouble at all coming to that stable long ago and kneeling in wonder. We are told that it gives God pleasure to see the wise confounded while He opens understanding to the little ones.

    I like this post because it provokes thought, and people will have much to share,
    and I look forward to reading and learning from what they write on this topic.

    “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
    ? Thomas Aquinas

  5. CM, as a Lutheran, don’t you think that in the sacraments God finds us through the Church in a unique way?

    • See my comment above to Pastor Brendan and Eeyore, Robert. And also in the post, I said I don’t deny that God meets with his people in a special way in worship through Word and Sacrament. But this is designed to send us out into the world with God, not to make us think that we can only find him in the sanctuary.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In the Middle Ages, the idea went around that the only place you could find Him was in a monastery, convent, or Holy Orders — the more separated from real life, the closer to God. In Evangelicalism, it’s “full time Christian work” — pastor, missionary, or kickin’ worship band leader; failing that, it’s sealed in the Christianese bubble — in church whenever possible, and immersed in Christianese pop culture knockoffs when not (“Only drink milk if it comes from a Christian cow”). And according to Orthocuban, among EO the preferred way to flake out is the “Monk-a-bee”, adopting all the external traits of an EO Monk (except actually taking vows or placing themselves under the authority of an abbot) — the more extreme and ascetic, the closer to God. All of these different forms of going into the Sanctuary and nailing the doors shut behind you.

        • Columba Silouan says

          That idea wasn’t just found in the Middle Ages.

          The Desert Fathers believed that for some, leaving corrupt society and journying into Monasticism was a strong way to go. Others stayed behind, Like Saint John Chrystom and pastored large churches.

          Either-Or thinking fails to work here. Try some “Both – And.” Some are called to find God in Monasticism and some are called to find him in “secular” life. There is a place for both. That’s why we have SECULAR Clergy and MONASTIC Clergy, for example.

          The Monastics pray for the whole world and do many works of charity that impact the world. The word Monastery simply means “House of Repentence.” We ALL find God through repentence wherever we are. For most of us, our marriages our the “House of Repentence.” In the Western Rite in Orthodoxy, since you bring it up, we have Benedictine monasticism and for our local monstery in the making, we even have a Benedictine “Prior” / Abbot.

          That’s why I invite all you Western Evangelicals to hop on board. We could use your influence to build up Benedictine Monasticism in the Orthodox Church to go alongside the other Mt. Athos kind. Our prior is a Great Schema monk, by the way. “Hear oh Isreael the Lord Your God is one God and you shall love Him, etc.”

          The Stylites seem extreme to modern sensibilities, but some of them were Saints of the Church. The Church needs its oddballs, after all. Ever hear about the “Holy Fool?”

          Some get so beat up by the world that a monestary is a good place to go to recover and live out the rest of your spiritual life. The doors are never nailed shut behind you because you are PRAYING for the world, like the Saints do and acting as “spiritual fathers” to others.

          To quote Steve Taylor and Some Band. “You’re hypocrites! You’re such a bore. Oh come on in, there’s room for one more!”

          Steve Taylor was AWESOME in the 1980’s! It’s fun to go back and listen to those albums.

          Blessings,

          Columba SIlouon

  6. Interesting piece. Many, many moons ago, I might’ve disagreed with it. There was a time when I went to church to find God and DID find Him, often in the silence of the sanctuary or in the music or in the sermon. Then came my five-year long spiritual desert when I didn’t sense God’s presence at all – not in the silence, not in the music, not in the sermon, not in the trees or the mountains or nature – and it was a period made even more frustrating and bleak because the church WAS where I was supposed to find Him.

    Curiously, I found God again, or maybe He found me, but wasn’t AT the church or IN the church or THROUGH the church. It was through a few people (granted they were “church” people) and Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” (sorry for the shameless plug). And my experience of reconnecting with God has led me to my current view of the church: I go to church to WORSHIP God, not “find” Him. And sometimes I connect with Him, sometimes I don’t, but that feeling of “needing to find Him” isn’t as prevalent as it once was.

    • And just to be clear, I’m not saying that one CAN’T find God in church. I’m just trying to dispel the notion that one MUST find God there.

      • Yes, that was loud and clear to me. In the words of advertising and marketing, “your experience may vary.”

    • “I go to church to WORSHIP God, not “find” Him. And sometimes I connect with Him, sometimes I don’t, but that feeling of “needing to find Him” isn’t as prevalent as it once was.”

      I am not sure that we mean the same thing by it, but this comment really resonates with me.

      At one point, I was quite anxious about Finding God. There was a whole program this was supposed to involve: Going to church. Studying the Bible. Getting all the right ideas out of Scripture and into my head. Arranging Biblical ideas into a system. Maintaining intellectual confidence in the veracity of my system. Extracting and applying Biblical Principles to life. Finally, one cannot forget: Maintaining a set of experiences or feelings that were supposed to attend all this Striving to Find.

      I scrapped the whole formula. Perhaps that’s not the fault of the formula, so much as my own doubts and failings. All I know is that it made me into a terrified mess. But after despairing of not being able to get the system to work, I gradually came around to seeing faith as something I practice, and belief as something akin to trust that God can find me. Finding God is over my pay grade. Somehow, this makes me a lot more grateful for what I do experience, and I don’t feel so much need to force it to be a proof for anything.

      I do a lot less flailing now.

      • Danielle wrote, ” I gradually came around to seeing faith as something I practice, and belief as something akin to trust that God can find me. Finding God is over my pay grade. Somehow, this makes me a lot more grateful for what I do experience, and I don’t feel so much need to force it to be a proof for anything.”

        Those comments seem filled with wisdom, Danielle. Thank you.

      • Yes, that’s pretty much what I mean too, Danielle. I do a lot less “formula,” and a lot less “flailing.” Heck, my approach to reading the Bible even reflects “less flailing.” In days gone by, I would approach my daily devotionals with stern resolve and try to churn through a chapter every session. I could blow through Galatians or Ephesians within a week, but did I LEARN anything? No. Was I any closer to God? No. Did I FIND Him? No. Then one day (I would say “led by the Spirit”) I approached Bible reading in a different manner, in a slower, more patient way. I decided to read the same section over and over until I got something out of it. And when I tested this out, it took about 4 days, but indeed, something that I’d been reading for 3 days suddenly took on new meaning. That was “finding God.” That’s how I do my devotionals now. There’s a lot less pressure to “read something new every day” (aka “formula”) and a lot less flailing (aka “why am I not getting anything out of this!?”)

    • Rick Ro wrote, “I go to church to WORSHIP God, not ‘find’ Him. And sometimes I connect with Him, sometimes I don’t, but that feeling of ‘needing to find Him’ isn’t as prevalent as it once was.”

      I like that very much, Rick Ro.

    • “Disappointment with God” was a blessing to me in so many ways. It was raw, real and unlike anything I have heard previously. It was so helpful. But you can find God in many places. You know what I find comforting?

      1. Something awful happened in my life from someone who I once considered a friend. And I experienced an awful betrayal. My life hit bottom last year. In the midst of trying to pull my life together it slowly dawned upon me that some of the key people in the Bible experienced a betryal at one point in their life…i.e. Joseph and his brothers, Peter and Jesus, Judas and Jesus, etc….

      2. In the midst of my faith crisis God was pursuing me and I found him in the most un-expected places. One of those was attending the largest atheist ralley in the United States a few years back. Called the “Reason Rally” on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. but it was there that I learned that I had traded the fundementalism of John Piper for the fundementalism of someone like Richard Dawkins.

      Many evangelicals miss the boat completely….you can find God in the places you least expect. It caused me to look at things in a whole new way. Bars, frat pads, parties, crack houses, even brothels in Nevada…they are all places where people could find God. I think this narrative I am suggesting would go along and help explain why the Lord loved people like David, Rehab, Noah, etc… And I think this would help explain why many churches would not welcome many of those kinds of people. A prostitute like Rehab or an alcoholic like Noah would be far too messy for many evangelical churchs today.

      Sometimes while I go to church/small group today I am okay with missing it because I think you can sometimes meet someone in their needs. One aspect to the parable of the Good Samaritan which isn’t explored all that much is of the religious offical who rushes to get to the temple who leaves the injured person along the side of the road. That religious person could describe many Christians eager to get to church, small group, church program, men’s group, etc… who in the process neglect their co-workers, friends, family, neighbors, etc…

  7. Luther said that “God is present in the tankard of beer”…and “in the horse, the cow, the pig…in my pea soup.”

    But how can you know that this God is ‘for you’?

    You can’t. That is the God “not preached”, as Steven Paulson says in (his new book) “Lutheran Theology”.

    You find the “God preached”, in preaching…in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.(and the Bible)

    Where do you find those things?

    At the mall?

    • At the mall? Maybe not……But I wouldn’t underestimate the Holy Spirit’s ability to plant a seed through a kind gesture and/or loving word, even at Orange Julius.

      • You are so right. The Holy Spirit can…and does work anywhere and everywhere.

        But where are we going to hear and receive those promises and gifts on a regular basis?

        Hopefully, the church. But that has even become iffy nowadays.

      • I’ve actually found God at the mall once, while watching the people in a food court. I wrote a poem about it a while back.

    • I’m with Steve on this one. The only God whose being found matters is the Christ delivered through the means of grace. The Christ lying beaten on the side of the road in need of our good samaritain-ship is secondary. His goodness, for us, given to us, first, and above all. Apart from this, we have no eyes to see the suffering Christ in our neighbor in need, only an ego in need of stroking by our good works which prove to us the legitimacy of our faith. My faith is made legitimate by what Christ does for me, and to me, not necessarily through me.

      • No question its about what Christ does for us. And its Christ that makes everyday life more than what it seems.

      • Christiane says

        I’m wondering about this, MIGUEL:

        ” The only God whose being found matters is the Christ delivered through the means of grace. The Christ lying beaten on the side of the road in need of our good samaritain-ship is secondary.”

        I’m not sure I agree with you here. Probably I’m seeing it from a different perspective.

        • Your good works cannot save you. Christ’s good works do. There’s a world of difference.

          • Christiane says

            I was referring to the way you seem to ‘separate’ how we encounter Our Lord. I suspect ‘good works’ that are connected with love of neighbor are also very much connected to how we respond to Christ in faith.
            Saying ‘Lord, Lord’ won’t matter at the judgement if we have not sincerely shown love for others, especially for those at the margins who suffer, those are placed by the side of the road on which we sojourn as His followers in this life? . . .

            Christ saves us. Yes. We cannot save ourselves.
            But where does ‘love’ come from? What is its holy Source? And isn’t our salvation itself rooted in an act of Christ’s sacrificial love so filled with compassion that it breaks our hearts and brings us to our knees? And aren’t we, by our faith in Christ, brought to share in His great love and compassion for those who suffer ? I can’t see that separation.

            This may help explain my thoughts a bit. It comes from an address by Pope Benedict XVI:
            (Pope Benedict spoke on 2008-11-19 at a General Audience)

            “For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, IF it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to His life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into His love.”

            http://catholicchampion.blogspot.com/2009/02/pope-benedict-and-martin-luther-on.html

  8. In the Pixar movie The Incredibles, there was a line that stood out for me, because it ran so counter to the prevailing monism of our age. The boy, who is fast, is scolded by his super-strong father for using his super-speed and making ordinary children feel bad about being ordinary.

    “Everybody’s special”, says the father, who has bowed the knee to the regime that has outlawed the peculiar talents of his family.

    “That’s just another way of saying nobody’s special.”

    In the same way, too much insistence on pointing out that “God is Everywhere” led directly to a sense that “God is Nowhere”. I remember participating on a heavily Reformed board where the idea that there should be Holy Places and Holy Seasons was either ridiculed as superstition or warned against as spiritually dangerous. I asked whether the almost universal tendency among religious folk to have special places, special days, and talismans was a part of the fallen nature to which we need to be crucified, or whether its part and parcel of the created order which shall be glorified.

    I never got a satisfactory answer to that.

    There are some coincidences that cannot be overlooked. St Columba founded his monastery on the island of Iona, which is a geological anomaly – a spur of pre-Cambrian rock thrust up through younger formations. It makes sense to me that if the saint wished to commune with the unbodied intelligences, he would pick a place familiar to them from when they roamed a mostly inorganic Earth. In the same way, the Most Holy Theotokos appears to St. Juan Diego on a hill devoted to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin.

    Here’s where I’ll probably get into trouble. Practicing the immanence of the Blessed Trinity requires a lifetime of effort. It doesn’t come naturally to any of us, least of all to me. So yeah, God is “everywhere and filleth all things”, but there are places where the lines cross in space and in time, and He condescends to be encountered most frequently at the confluence of His people, His word, and His sacraments.

  9. The question raised here is an interesting one to me, I am drawn to two ideas that sound contradictory at first pass. First, there is the idea that there are specific places or seasons—objects and places in the physical, experienced aspects of the universe—that are special. Or, if you prefer, that become special because God decides to use them. For example, despite coming to faith in a “low church” background, I now see the sacraments as actual means of grace. I regard standing in a church as standing a special kind of place; I regard ecclesiastical life, however problem-ridden, to be the locus for something. If I were to walk out of church one day and decide never to return, I’d feel that something important had been lost to me.

    Second, there is the idea God is everywhere and that common things are means of grace. Ordinary people, who are image-bearers. Aspects of creation. Moments in time. Daily life, grime and all. To diminish this is to stop looking for the beauty in life, and to imagine that God is somehow shackled to the “sacred”. The wind goes where it pleases. You could knock down every church and temple on earth, and God would not be diminished.

    These ideas exist in some tension, but I think they are ultimately compatible and mutually reinforcing. To expect God to show up in Word and Table, but also when you and I merely sit down to eat hot rolls and coffee together, has this in common: the belief that God is hidden inside the ordinary, and makes the ordinary into means of grace, and likes/blesses/redeems creation. Both ideas involve the expectation that the divine bends itself toward creation and meets us there. That’s a mystery that we don’t quite understand, but it’s a very immediate or even “practical” mystery. It also happens to be a mystery that calls my attention to God’s agency and purposes, and away from mine. And it cuts against the temptation to view myself/my community/a particular place as “pure” and everything “out there” as corrupt. If the ordinary is redeemed, if God is hidden there, then one should expect to find beauty and grace in all kinds of places. I find that heartening: it’s an invitation to trade confidence about what I think I “know” for receptivity and wonder.

  10. “We don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just ‘church life.'”

    Makes perfect sense to me. I did not find God in the Church of my youth (Roman Catholic) nor in 12 years of Catholic schooling. I do not say this in detriment of Roman Catholicism, for I believe God is there just as He is in other traditions. Rather, at first I was looking for the wrong thing and later on I just gave up looking for any thing, there or in any other church.

    It was about ten years after I ceased looking for God that I found Him, or rather, He found me. This took place not in a church building or any place special but in a small apartment where I lived at the time and where I took a moment to read a Bible given to me by someone who was trying to convert me. Somewhere between studying for finals I read the following,

    “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10.9-10)

    “That’s it?” I said to myself. Yes, that was it. No fanfare, no clapping, no “hallelujahs” from an excited congregation. Just a quiet evening at home.

    • A good Arminian verse if I ever did see one! 😀

      • Beautiful story, Cal. And surprisingly similar to my father’s.

        But no, Mike, that verse is CLEARLY a Lutheran one. It’s why we always say “believe, teach, and confess.” 😛

      • At the time I first read Romans 10.9-10 I had no idea who Arminius was and had barely heard of Luther or Calvin. I have since come to believe that ALL verses are Calvinist. 🙂

        • Except for, of course, 1 Timothy 1:19 and the parable of the sower. I can argue women’s ordination from the scriptural text better than you can argue the TULIP from those. 😛

          • But… As you well know we Calvinists have a ready-made answer for every argument against Calvinism! But you have to be a Calvinist to download the app. 🙂

            BTW & FWIW… The Parable of the Sower is the perfect anti-antinomianism parable and a compliment to Hebrews 6.4-8 and 10.26-31. These passages also help explain why “rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith” in 1 Timothy 1.19 is not an indictment against the “P” in “TULIP.” And in this regard I find myself–in my own church and association, even–in between two opposing views in this respect, Arminians who teach that these passages “prove” that one can lose his/her salvation, and run-of-the-mill “Cafeteria Christians” who insist that “once-saved-always-saved” (a poor synonym/substitute for “perseverance of the saints”) means that once you have “prayed the prayer” (sincerely, of course) you have in effect purchased (free, of course) eternal fire insurance. My response is that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7.21) and that “the tree is known by its fruit.” (Matthew 12.33)

            So, Miguel, I am curious as to what Lutherans believe in this respect. I would assume they have a different perspective altogether but probably closer to the Reformed perspective than the Arminian perspective.

          • Yeah, we reject the “P” in TULIP quite strongly, on the basis that you haven’t used Hebrews to interpret those passages, but rather, to stand them on their head. Let’s start with Matthew: What is the will of the Father? It is not that we obey. It is that we believe. If we believe, we are then free to obey. Apart from faith, our good works are still sinful. The fruit that God looks for in Matthew 12 is faith, in Christ, and his teaching, in both testaments, of Law and Gospel.

            With Hebrews: Nobody can crucify Christ again because one you are baptized, it never needs to be repeated. Can you walk away from it? Only if you come to believe that Christ has not died for your sins and risen form the dead. Even then, if you were to come back around, you would not have to be baptized again. The one death of Christ applied to you at your baptism is still valid where you have faith (which also comes through the means of grace). From chapter 10: be careful how you interpret this. “If we go on sinning deliberately,” at face value, includes all Christians (except John Wesley 😛 Sorry, couldn’t resist). What is being described is a rejection of the law as not applicable to our behavior since we are covered by grace. Classic antinomianism. For us, faith in the Word means believing as true the words of Law (which are not helpful, but only condemn us) and Gospel (which is purely something done to us by Christ in which we play zero part).

            The Calvinist interprets all the passages in Matthew as referring to obedience, and thus they look to their good works to comfort themselves in the assurance of their election. Lutherans understand that “these things are written that you may believe” (in fact, we sing this verse on many a Sunday), and therefore we are free to believe what the parable of the sower and 1 Timothy 1:19 actually says, without having to bend them to fit our theological system. Everything God requires from us is given to us in Christ. Those crying out “Lord, Lord” if you read the context, are actually the ones offering up their good works and obedience to the Father! If that isn’t His will, what is? Faith alone. Notice that those who had faith ask “when did we do all these good works?” Either they didn’t, and Christ’s good works are credited to them, or the knowledge of this came out in their lives in ways they did not even notice. This is where the thief on the cross actually plays into our hand: What works did he have to offer? None.

          • Thank you for your reply. I will give it some thought. Here are my thoughts:

            I would agree with you that the “fruit” spoken of here is faith. However, faith is not not something a thoroughly sinful person (the “T”) can muster on their own; rather, it is the result of God’s sovereign grace on His elect. Genuine faith, in turn, leads to obedience or it is not genuine faith. Obedience, in turn, is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23). And all of it is derived from the gospel–repenting and believing it (Mark 1.15).

            Now, I’m not into formulas when it comes to matters of the faith, and I hate over simplifications of these things, but in order to illustrate what I’m getting at I would describe it as follows (flowing one way from left to right):

            Gospel, grace, faith, obedience.

            So, good works are the end result or final outcome of why were created in Christ (Ephesians 2.10) and a natural outflow or fruit of faith. Good works are in no way the cause of our justification or standing before God.

    • Romans 10:9-10 strikes me as something of a summation statement by Paul near the end of a long and somewhat convoluted argument.

      In my Pelagian CofC years I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.

      In my TULIP years I understood it as an affirmation of my Election.

      Now, in these years–I don’t know how to label them yet–Paul’s statement awakens me to the reality of Christ’ immanence. Whether we realize it or not, ALL OF CREATION IS IN CHRIST. ALL things are alive and sustained within him/her–always has been and always will be. Basic Colossians 101.

      When I acknowledge/confess (“agree with God”) that reality–when I can heartily say that Christ is risen and is Lord–I have not “earned” anything or changed anything–except my own thinking and attitude and opened myself to see the world in the way that God sees it.

      ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts:
      the whole earth is full of his glory.’

      In some places or circumstances I see that better.

      • “Romans 10:9-10 strikes me as something of a summation statement by Paul near the end of a long and somewhat convoluted argument.”

        I agree wit you. Still, it says what it says,

        “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10.9-10)

        This is a conditional statement and I understand it as such, now just as when I first believed. As I see it, is says, in effect, “If you confess and believe, then you will be saved.” The contrapositive is also valid, “If you are not saved, then it is because you do not confess and believe.” This is the essence of justification by faith alone stemming from grace alone.

  11. Sometimes the sacredness of a church space is born not out of us finding God but out of His finding us. It is a place where we can be helped, only of we choose and only if we desire, to stifle the ego banter and enter in. Without that personal dying of sorts it’s just another ritual performance where the only thing to be found is boredom. Sometimes I ‘find’ my wife over an intimate dinner out with low light and a bottle of wine but if that’s the only time we can commune we are acquaintances at best. Marriage is much, much more.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Sometimes the sacredness of a church space is born not out of us finding God but out of His finding us”

      As I understand Karl Barth, this is basically the way he might state it. However one must be careful in reading him, because of the paradox and dialectic in his writings.

      • Thanks for your thoughts David. I’ll look him up.

      • Thought I’d share a quote I came across in my researching Barth.

        “The mature and well-balanced man, standing firmly with both feet on the earth, who has never been lamed and broken and half-blinded by the scandal of life, is as such the existentially godless man.”
        ? Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
        Easy to pass by that phrase “scandal of life” but it’s packed with meaning which he obviously intends.
        Thanks again for sharing this lead.

      • And one more:

        “It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart.”
        ? Karl Barth
        That’s funny!

        • David Cornwell says

          Barth’s favorite artist was Mozart, and his writing style bears marked similarities. This has been noticed by more than one writer, in that Barth used complex recapitulation, modification, and allusion,

          And he refuses to settle in to a stale apologetic that starts with our reasoning.

          • I’ll have to look and see if he interacted with Jung. It seems to me there was some documented correspondence between them (Barth sounded familiar when you mentioned him) but I’m not sure. They are from the same town, Jung being roughly 10 yrs older. Rich stuff!

          • Turns out Jung and Barth were the yin and yang of Basel. Largely oppositional in thought and yet I found a book on pastoral counseling that tries to synthesize the two.

  12. Randy Thompson says

    ‘My big point is simply this: we don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just “church life.”’

    This post and the responses to it have been wonderfully thought-provoking. I wonder, though, if a better way of stating your point, Chaplain Mike, is to say that we find God in our response to life rather than in life itself. I’m thinking here that if we are to meet God, we meet God primarily in our hearts,so that if we do come across Him in “real life,” we recognize that it’s Him. In short, it seems to me that if we “see” God in life, we’ve seen Him first in our hearts.

    For church people to be overly focused on finding God in “church life” leads too often to a marketing, “look at me! look at me! mindset, where the church draws attention to itself rather than to Christ. (I’m thinking of an area church that is planning to drop Easter eggs from a helicopter, by way of example.)

    I have often thought that the church, in our time at least, should be invisible as an institution and visible only through its members, who, like it or not, are very much part of “real life” and thus God Bearers for those around them–each one a Theotokos in “real life” I suspect it’s easiest to meet God in real life through a person.

    However, who knows where God will show up.

    (Keep your eyes open.)

    • Randy Thompson says

      Ooops. There should be a period at the end of “. . . Theotokos in “real life.”

    • Interesting thoughts Randy, thank you. Hopefully nobody is harmed by the falling Easter eggs.

  13. “But now that you know God, or rather have been known by God, how can you turn back again to those powerless and bankrupt basic principles? Why do you want to become their slaves all over again? ” – Galatians 4:9.

    I think we evangelicals get this backward. We go to church to find God or conjure his presence with our sacrifices of praise, then recite our spells to coerce him into doing our bidding.

    I agree that faith is lived in the real world. Faith is a called life. As Jesus told the disciples in John chapter 15, they did not choose him but he chose them and called them to bear fruit in his name. Eklesia, or what we translate “church”, means a gathering of those called out. Church isn’t an entertainment center or a self help clinic. It is where the called are fed and sent. What puts context on real life is that call.

  14. What this calls into question is the meaning of “finding God.” I think most people use that phrase to describe a certain type of experience. In that case, then yes, church is the last place you may likely have the experience of encountering the kind of transcendence that overwhelms us to the point of believing it to be divine. It can happen in church, but more often than not church methods and programs are the enemy of this, making it so much easier to “find God” (or a bear, for that matter) on a hike through the woods.

    I am convinced that many of the people looking to “find God” are completely missing the God right in front of them. God does not promise to come to us in a transcendent experience. Believe it or not, a faithful Christian can live their whole life through without a single one, and make up for lost time in the next life. God comes to us through word and water, bread and wine. That is how He “finds” us. So much of the desperate search for God has its root in the denial of his immediate presence in the ordinary means.

    I mean, honestly, if one were to truly “find” God, are we absolutely certain we would know it for sure? To answer this question is to take the conversation into quasi-new-age mindlessness or appeal to the certainty of emotional revelation. I’m not looking for God anymore. He knows where I am, and if he wants to show up in some spectacular way, I’ll try not to argue with him. In the meantime, I will draw my comfort and reassurance from where his promises are actually delivered to me. And who knows, perhaps he’ll even open my eyes to see him in the world around me.

  15. This is such a cliche though, the phrase is entirely empty of meaning now.

    In the Psalms we are assured there is nowhere we can go where we are hidden from His sight. What on earth would it mean to “find” God?

    • God is everywhere and in everything.

      But the God ‘for you’…is only found where He wants Himself to be found…in His Word and sacraments.

  16. My philosophy prof used to always illustrate the difference between pantheism and panentheism by holding aloft his coffee mug and saying: God is in the cup: to a pantheist, this makes the cup divine. We would say that God is in the cup, but the cup is not God.

    And then R. C. Sproul taught me that is putting the cart before the horse, it is more precise to say that the cup is in the immediate presence of God. Therefore, we define the location of the universe relative to the foundation of its being, the Divine Being, and not the other way around.

    So in other words, in the communist Russia version of Christianity, you don’t find God in the world: God finds you. And, I would add, when you had no legitimate pretense of actually seeking Him in the first place. He isn’t a mystery for spiritual detectives to solve.

    • Actually, a pantheist would say that God is the cup, and the cup is God, because God is everything, and everything is God. So if you were drinking from the cup, a pantheist would say that it was God pouring God into God, to paraphrase J.D. Salinger’s Zooey.

    • In Soviet Russia…

  17. Gloria B. Wright says

    I like the focus of the article: that while church MAY be a place where a person and God connect, it does not have to be the only place that happens. And sometimes, for us who have been for a time outside of the church buildings, it is a welcome relief to find that God still meets us.

  18. “…religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience…”

    Well, if spiritual experience is not merely reduced to the personal, but is rooted in a community’s experience together, and theology, as well as institutional structure and organization, arises out of this community experience, then church may in fact be located at the point of primary Christian spiritual experience. It seems that Wiman is using language grounded in an Enlightenment model of what spiritual experience is, wherein I first have a private religious-mystical experience and then institution arises out of that, rather than language wherein spiritual experience occurs in community, in church as assembly worshiping together, and then development of structure and institution spread from that primary experience that we have together.

    • This

      Emm-anu-El “God with us”, not Emm-ani-El “God with me.”

      • In fact, primary spiritual experience for Christians is of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation offered in the name of Jesus Christ through the church as community. This is what Christian Baptism and Eucharist, as practiced in church, make real and effective in the life of the people of God, however imperfectly human the church may be as an institution. We don’t have our private spiritual experiences and then come together to form a community of consensus that reflects the sum total of our experiences; we have our experience of Jesus Christ in the midst of the community that is charged with proclaiming him, in Word and Sacrament, and in life together, and start to live the transformed life, to the degree that we do, out of the resources with which God has gifted the church as community. The church is both essential and primary to the experience of Christian spirituality, because it is located at the source from which revelation springs, and it is the place where the Kingdom of God is lived on this earth. In fact, church is a word for describing how and where Jesus Christ reveals and incarnates his life among his people, and how and where they live the redeemed life given by him to them. With this understanding, primary Christian spiritual experience can only occur in church.

        • Maybe it can justifiably be said that all primary Christian spiritual experience is conciliar, and the locus of this conciliarity is the church.