January 16, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: May 17, 2015

rorschach_test 2

God is like a Rorschach test. You know, the ink blot test, where you look at an image that really presents nothing coherent, and you describe what you see. Kind of like looking at clouds and talking about what you see.

The Rorschach test is outdated and was always controversial, but it does yield one agreed upon result: There are a limited number of common responses to each image, and they do demonstrate that we don’t just purely see the world, but we bring a complex grip of presuppositions and assumptions to what we see, and this influences how we interpret an image.

I’m wondering why certain kinds of people seem to identify with particular expressions of Christianity. I don’t have to do this exercise for you, do I? Charismatics. Calvinists. Warren-style Boomers. Traditional Southern Baptists. Emerging church twenty-somethings. Social justice liberals and Jerry Falwell fundamentalists….they really aren’t the same kinds of people. They are different. Though they read the same Bible, hear the same stories about Jesus and talk about the same God, they are different from one another, and similar to those with the same label.

Is this really because some are smarter than others? Some are better at hearing God’s voice? Is it all a matter of social and family context? Or is it- at least partially- a matter of psychological factors that we don’t really want to look at, because they take away the veneer of “being right” and confront us with the fact we’re not quite the free-choosers and serious disciples we think we are?

Was Arthur W. Pink unable to find a church where he could minister because of his study of the scriptures? Did his eventual withdrawal to write a magazine at home with his wife, living almost as a hermit, come from the God he came to know in Jesus? Perhaps Pink was a hermit and a loner for reasons that we don’t know, and he interpreted Christianity in a way that made his withdrawal from other people a necessary protest against the weak Christianity of the age.

Are Rick Warren’s members and disciples really taken by Warren’s preaching and writing? Or do his followers come from those who have a psychological need to be part of the “winning” team as a way of validating themselves?

Do liberal Christians like Bishops Spong and Robinison represent a more humane, rational approach to reading the Bible, or are they identifying with an approach to God that allows them to deconstruct the strictures and prejudices they have suffered under throughout life?

Is Michael Spencer writing what he learns in his study of the Bible and his reflection on his faith, or does he need to be a writer to make up for failures to succeed in his career? Does self-publishing allow him to pretend he has something worth saying and people who want to read it?

Rorschach_blot_09This could go on for days. Do we see Jesus as he is? God as he is? The Bible as it is? Are we at all what we seem in our discussions and ministries, or are we moving to music that is deep within our make-up; music we can’t admit hearing and responding to?

I know it is possible to upend a lot of our Christianity under a ruthless psychological examination. The need for God to exist, the need to be right about morality and the afterlife, and the need for our answers to work are presuppositions with many of us. When we look at religion, and at Christianity in particular, we see what we need to see and what we deeply desire to see in order for life to work. The vehemence of much of what we say to one another in the name of “right theology” and “right doctrine” is bogus. Much of it is nothing more significant than the need to assure ourselves we are right.

Faith in God is a living reality that risks all on a God who is not a psychological puppet show. Jesus really calls us to follow him. The Spirit invites us to live in a trusting adventure. These realities come to us through, above and beyond the many ways we presuppose the “truth” about God.

It would be good for me to step back and remember that my voice isn’t reporting the unbiased, pure teaching of scripture. Whatever I say comes along with all my psychological needs and baggage. Whatever is said to me by those who are sure they have the truth comes to me with their presuppositions and unacknowledged motivations as well.

What we see in the faith, in the scriptures and in the Gospel is highly personal. The kind of Christian we are is not automatically a reflection of Jesus. Frequently it is far from Jesus, and very close to our own dark sides. Pastors know this when they preach, if they will be honest. But it is hard to be honest. It’s hard to live this truthful life Jesus expects. We need to pray and be open to the ways God can shape us to be simple Christians, obedient servants and loving children in his family. Those who speak the loudest often live the least like Christ. That is certainly true in my case. It would be good if we could all acknowledge that much of what we offer others isn’t genuine at all, and we have fooled ourselves (and others) rather than admitting the truth about who we are and why we do and say what we do.


  1. Lord, have mercy.

  2. Ronald Avra says

    Good thoughts for a Sunday

  3. Among the best meta-reflective posts ever written. I wish all would read it and grasp it fully.

    I was a biology major in college and that’s what I taught in high school for five years. Ecological and evolutionary diversity were the warp and woof of biological complexity along with the idea of relentlessly dynamic systems where the surest way to a stable, sustainable system was the ability to rapidly process and respond to change. I see that same principle reflected in economics where companies most willing to change seem to thrive while those unwilling or unable to do the same do not.

    I was raised in a religious tradition where “nothing changed” while we sang from a hymnal that was published only a decade or two before, adopting a worship style and order of services that mimicked the tent meetings of circuit riders of the previous century. In other words, the folks who said “we always did it that way,” failed to appreciate how truly new and innovative their “traditional” worship style really was. The stagnating churches in that denomination are the ones who don’t change at all, trying to stay suck in the 50’s or the 60’s or the 70’s while the thriving ones embrace change and adapt to it without losing their essential mission.

    For me, the big change was that it takes all kinds to make a world and it takes all religious kinds to make up a Christian landscape and a perpetual faith tradition that may or may not resemble the one in the previous generation, but still carries the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think the multiplicity of faith expressions is a requirement for keeping Christianity alive and thriving in the world.

    It also lets me sleep well at night knowing the church is in God’s good hands and not mine when it comes to keeping things going.

  4. So, then, the real question is: Is the god we “believe” in REAL, or just a function of our need to be validated in our world view?

    This is a rather dark post for a Sunday morning, something I’d much rather consider on a Monday while ruminating on my Sunday experience.

    • That Other Jean says

      “So, then, the real question is: Is the god we “believe” in REAL, or just a function of our need to be validated in our world view?”

      Some of both, I think. I believe in the reality of God, although the ways I understand Him (Her, It, Them) are certainly filtered through my personal needs, desires, and worldview. I’m willing to accept that the reality of God is far beyond my ability to grasp, and whatever I believe is undoubtedly wrong on many points. I’m hoping that the places where the world’s religions intersect in their teachings are the most correct–care for the poor, get along with your neighbors, be decent to each other–that stuff that Jesus taught. I doubt that theological details matter all that much.

      Of course, i could be wrong. If there is an afterlife, all my questions may yet be answered and my doubts resolved. Until then, I refuse to live in fear that I’m getting it wrong.

    • C.S. Lewis, in the backward voice of the devil Screwtape, says this: “For if he (the new Christion) ever comes to make the distinction, if he ever consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be,’ our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it — why, then it is that the incalculable may occur.”

      • “God is located at some point on the wall near the ceiling in the bedroom…”

        • 🙂

        • Robert F says

          “God is located at some point on the wall near the ceiling in the bedroom…”

          I obviously understand the point being made; what makes it a little complicated is that, as a Christian, I believe that God was located on a cross in Palestine in the first century C.E. If as Christians we believe that God is Jesus Christ, he is unlike both the timeless and place-less unmoved mover of Aristotelian philosophy and the abstract divine form of Platonic philosophy, because not only did (and does) he exist amidst the fabric of time and space, he also has a name and form (a human form, specifically). In fact, it is only as identified with this name and form, in this place and not that, that we can meaningfully talk with the level of particularity that Christian faith has involved from the beginning. When we stop talking this way, with this level of specificity, we move off into the rarefied and abstract mystical atmosphere of a kind of quasi-Hinduism, or something like that. We start saying things not characteristically Christian, like that it’s more spiritually mature to pray without words than with them, or that it’s better in prayer to go beyond images than to stay with them. And doesn’t that, ironically enough, turn us into iconoclasts and puritans, eschewing images and forms in the name of reaching a “pure” spiritual essence which we think could never possibly be embodied in earthly images, in form and time?

    • Maybe all God(s) are real.

  5. Fact is it was done for me. If the testimony of those is true and why would they lie only to find themselves in witnessing in their own like deaths. I find in me the love and most often have the hardest time following through with it. Quite easier for me to do with animals. I think it’s why I find through them that which He would have me have for everything. It’s the everything that becomes a problem for me. He is risen to me in so many ways. Arise is what He speaks to me. Never does this love quit saying arise. No matter what.

    I can

    So blind I couldn’t see
    What was right in front of me
    Wondering how could it be
    Hammer blows the brunt of me

    I’m trying to lay self down
    Only to find I hang around
    Only in lost am I found
    Jesus is the fertile ground

    For this heart becomes thy seed
    Where Your love is filling need
    Entwined hope as hearts agreed
    Not just words in acts and deed

    So once again I come to you
    Your love of mine remaining true
    Help me please in what to do
    Accept the fact I love You too

    I try to lay self down again
    Here I find my best friend
    For love that has no end
    This day to know that I can

    • I was going to go to a church my friend has been inviting me to. It has split from so many others that it now uses a motorcycle shop and I have been afraid as I don’t really believe some of the things I hear from those that started it.
      I drove by this morning intending to go. Outside there were young people all standing and smoking and it reminded me of an AA meeting. I couldn’t stop. I went down the road here in the city and turned around and went home.

      After reflecting here for a while now I realize I have failed. I have failed to love enough and go in and sit with them. I still don’t know why I didn’t see it before when I had the chance. Maybe within my failure is a position that becomes a strength. Maybe I might have a do over. I don’t know. Maybe I will need many of these do overs. Maybe I could just go and sit and know I am like them and let love overcome. Maybe that’s all he wanted me to see. Sometimes I wonder if it would be possible to see that without my failure. Is this what it means in my weakness ……. could someone finish that for me. I’m at a loss.

      • OldProphet says

        W. Did I read yesterday that you felt that recently you were kind of rough or harsh? Really, you? Listen my old friend, you’re comments, even those tinged with anger are more filed with kindness and compassion than my nicest comments. I know I’m brutally honest, even blunt. But you? Man, your poems and comments ooze with Christs’ heart and compassion! Some people have loving pastoral hearts (you), others, blunt prophetic hearts (me) But I suspect the Body of Christ probably needs more of those like you than me, but that is the nature of God’s economy. W, prophetically, the Lord says to you, “my calling to you is one of mercy and exortation thru poem and song to elevate the hearts and minds of those who know me, and those who don’t Do not neglect the gifting within you, despite the hardness of your life. I have given you hands of steel to toil in the world, but a heard of gold to bless the people of God”. Lord, I pray that all of the disappointments and naysayers that have beset W his whole life will not cause him to doubt the truth that your love for him transends the heavens and earth.

      • I have failed to love enough and go in and sit with them.

        I struggle with this. It’s good to love them, but maybe even sitting with them, but does that mean listening and respecting and hearing their opinions and views, especially when you know they are unbiblical, made up, just the rantings of some old hippie, etc?

        At what point does love and respect end and “I’m sorry, but no thanks” occur? Idk. It’s a fine line. I know I’ve been manipulated in the past by those who tell me to just shut up and listen because it’s “respectful” and “they are older/wiser, they may just be right”…and right now, I’m seeing the upheaval in someone’s life very close to me who said those things, and just now realizing he was lied to and manipulated himself. It’s a little devastating to see it so up close and personal in someone else’s life.

        Good words, w, thank you.

        • tl;dr – Loving someone shouldn’t have to mean be willing to accept and reasonably listen to whatever they say or think. There’s always room to say “I disagree and won’t be back” and still be loving.

  6. An aptly timed post with thoughtful perspective to help me as my extended family is so split over so many religious and personality differences. ‘Remain open to change’ I will hold that close. Thank you.

  7. Laden with presuppositions and biases we are well advised to follow James’ advice in being slow to speak and quick to hear. God can work with our psychological baggage if we, like Michael has here, are willing to acknowledge it and recognize its influence. Without that introspection we are the blind leading the blind.

  8. How does this article speak to those of us who have opted for a more cathoilic version of the faith, you know, the One Troo Church and all that, designed for serfs, soldiers, aristocrats, madmen, whores, bag ladies, Mafiosi, contemplatives, SJWs, Falangists, etc?

    I can see the future of the Orthodox Church in North America as a boutique religion for hipsters and antiquarians [that’s who we seem to attract at my parish anyway], but Rome was always a “here comes everybody” religion, and that is what I most admire about her.

    Protestantism is doomed by its very design to become a consumer religion, but will the same fate befall the Cathodox?

    • Christiane says

      ‘will the same fate befall the Cathodox’

      I don’t think so. I can speak for the ‘Catho’ part, and the Church has made it VERY time-consuming for a person who is interested to come into the Church as a full communicant. That is not the behavior of an organization that is looking to sell ‘itself’ as a product, but maybe more indicative of an organization marching to a very ancient drumbeat from a time when people studied and attended for a full year before being baptized into the early Church and given first communion. I am sure that mainline Protestantism is also careful about the instruction of its new converts, but I get this more from reading blogs than from direct observation in real time. As for ‘Evangelical’, I have no clue what they are attempting to do . . . it looks more like ‘saving’ the person first using scare tactics; and THEN teaching the person the faith according to the local minister’s interpretation of sacred Scripture . . . but I can’t say this for sure because there is so much hype out there on both sides . . . the evangelical side, and the side of its critics . . . that I think I should withhold space for a more informed opinion concerning the mechanics of evangelical proselytization and the kind of hold that some groups have on their members that require the signing of documents to join that place a LOT of control in the hands of the leadership of the group. There must be more to evangelical groups than that night mare. And more to them than the shallowness of what is on television which is so sad to watch, especially knowing that the ‘preachers’ are making big money conning the faithful . . . I can only hope that somehow, by the mysterious grace of God, He can use these charlatans as vehicles to give their victims enough of sacred Scripture to lead those poor souls to Christ . . . we might be surprised at how it is that the worst among us still can be used for good in this world . . . and we might even be humbled by it. 🙂

      some thoughts on a Sunday evening . . . Michael Spencer could always inspire me to think anew . . . he was a gift we could not keep . . . but will be thankful for him always

      And although I know the Orthodox particularly like to be seen as ‘separate’ from Catholic, as a Catholic, I feel a great closeness to them . . . probably from the nuns telling us in school that, if we got hit by a bus down in front of the Greek Orthodox Church, the priest could come out and give us last rites . . . something about that bit of news stayed in my head and I always felt safe walking by that Orthodox Church.

  9. Rick Ro. says

    “The kind of Christian we are is not automatically a reflection of Jesus.”

    So true. When he tells us, “Follow me,” it’s the beginning of a beautiful journey, not the end.

  10. Michael is right when he says, “we don’t just purely see the world, but we bring a complex grip of presuppositions and assumptions to what we see, and this influences how we interpret an image.”

    Differing theologies are like lenses, seeing God through different eyeglasses, or as the apostle Paul said, “through a glass, darkly.” We can compare it to witnesses seeing a crime, or any event from different vantage points. Same God, same event, all attempting to illuminate the subject, but different perspectives.

    The great problem comes when one vantage point, one lens, one presupposition/assumption gets elevated to the level of gospel itself. Then it becomes a heresy, no matter how helpful it might have been if it had been left merely to illuminate the subject, God in this case. I like how N.T. Wright talks about the bible as a signpost pointing to God—that when we start worshiping the signpost we’ve missed the point of its purpose.

    • “N.T. Wright talks about the bible as a signpost pointing to God—that when we start worshiping the signpost we’ve missed the point of its purpose”

      But what if the concept of God itself is a signpost?

  11. “Rhymes with Plague” referred me to this post because it’s much like my last one if you can except the fact that I’m coming from an atheist perspective. Unlike you, though, I’m a determinist, so I have no thought that anything I say is going to influence anyone in the slightest by that person’s choice. I know I could no more choose to be a supernaturalist than I could choose to be gay, and I think this is probably true of everyone who accepts any form of religion. Whether it’s religion or atheism, people come to it when they’re “ready.”

    I’ve read Spong, and am now onto Robison’s “Honest to God,” but it’s very hard for me to find the difference between non-theistic Christians and atheists. They insist they’re not atheists, but then so do pantheists. If making religion a purely subjective matter isn’t atheism, it’s the next thing to it. It hardly seems like the kind of belief that a person would die for, but then again, he wouldn’t kill for it either, so that’s something to be grateful for. It’s a heck of a commentary that people who worship the various “Gods of love” are the world’s preeminent killers.

    • Snowbrush, welcome to the neighborhood.

      I think Michael meant Eugene Robinson, retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. He was the first openly gay bishop, and much of the current Episcopal challenges revolve around the decision to install him. The book you’re reading, Honest to God, is by Bishop John Robinson in England, written in the 1960s and with its own controversy then.

      I bought a copy of Honest to God because it was the subject of one of my favorite novels by Susan Howatch. She wrote a six-volume saga of Anglican clergy families in England from the 1930s through the 1960s, and the fourth volume, Scandalous Risks, deals with a priest (dean of the cathedral of Starbridge, fictional name for Salisbury) and his interest in John Robinson’s book (well, really, the novel is about a young woman named Venetia and how she got mixed up with the priest and with Robinson’s book. It doesn’t end well). If you’d like a couple of differing perspectives on Honest to God I highly recommend Scandalous Risks—and all of the other volumes in the series, but starting with this one is perfectly OK. It’s my favorite anyway, and Howatch’s development of the character of Venetia fascinates me. She herself came from an atheist family, daughter of a member of the House of Lords, and her father too is a lot of fun, best friend of the bishop in question. As I said, it doesn’t end well, but what a ride getting there.

      • “The book you’re reading, Honest to God, is by Bishop John Robinson in England, written in the 1960s and with its own controversy then.”

        Thank you for the correction and recommendation.

        I have been an Episcopalian, and it’s still the church that most appeals to me. I find it odd that Episcopalians will pay $20 and more apiece to go and listen to theologians who say that same things that they don’t want to hear from me. Still, it’s probably the only American church that shows any signs of welcoming people like myself. The truth is that, aside from the dogmas, much about church appeals to me, and I know enough and speak well enough that I’m welcome as long as I don’t say too much about what I think. Unfortunately, I’m not willing to pay such a price in order to fit in.

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