Archive for the ‘dualism’ Category

The Dancing God

February 26, 2007

Once again, I find that C.S. Lewis put his finger on things that I didn’t realize he had.

The words “God is Love” have no real meaning unless that one person contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.

I came across this idea first in the writings of Norman Grubb. I’m sure the realization didn’t originate with either of these two British gents.

What both of them are saying is that if God is Love, then He must be plural. He must be a community of at least two. One person alone cannot be Love, because there must be an object for His affection other than Himself. As it turns out, our scriptures describe three persons of God. The Father and the Son we understand (sort of). But this third Person evades description. Trying to describe our God strains our language beyond what it can handle, because even our concept of a “person” leaves some things unexplained here. Lewis goes on to say:

God is not a static thing–not even a person–but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person.

A dance. Now that’s beautiful. My apologies to all the old school Southern Baptists out there. But this is a truly charming and illustrative image. So much of my confusion cleared up once this idea got a hold of me.

It works for understanding the union of the Trinity, as my theology professors once pointed out. When they said it, they had to use a fancy Latin word for it (circumincessio) so that they wouldn’t feel irreverent. Everything feels more legitimate once it’s put in Latin, you know. Circumincessio indicates a kind of mutual enfolding which expands and contracts, so that they are one, and two, and one again. As if one Latin term doesn’t cut it, my professors felt the need to bolster this concept with a second, Greek term (perichoresis), which essentially means the same thing. But now it’s in both Latin and Greek, so it’s gotta be okay to believe, right?

But the Dance extends beyond the inner relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus said that we would come to know the same kind of relationship (it’s at the end of John 17, I’m not making this up). We are becoming one with God in the same way that He is already one with Himself (!)

If you think about it, this explains a lot. I have always gotten confused about whether I am separate from God or one with Him. Sometimes I pray to Him. Other times I feel like He is praying through me. But which is right? Which is better?

It’s a dance. You get what I’m saying? Watch two people dancing. They are two, then they are one. Then they are two again. Back and forth. Around and around. In front of, behind, between, above, below, apart, and together again. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? When two are joined in a dance, something arises between them that is more than simply the sum of two parts.

And that is what’s happening with us and God. Christ is in us, then He is above us. He is our every breath and heartbeat, then we turn and address Him as if He were with us instead of in us. We are meant to enjoy and preserve both. Sometimes we lose consciousness of His separateness from us, because we are so one. But then He comes to us and gets our attention as if He were introducing some side of Himself that we’ve never seen before.

There will always be more. His dance has spins and steps you’ve never seen. But always He brings us back into who He is, so that folks looking on will hardly be able to tell where He ends and we begin.

It’s a Dance.

Is All of Life Spiritual?

August 13, 2006

As a believer, you will have two basic kinds of interaction with the Lord: Quiet, intimate, internal times which are deliberate and focused on Him directly, and active, interactive, outwardly directed times which are more incidental. Both kinds of times are good for fellowshipping with God. In my understanding of these two kinds of times, neither is inherently “more spiritual” than the other, but they are complementary and equally necessary for growth in the Lord. Sometimes our walk is contemplative and other times it’s more “vocational” or even social. It’s all Him, though. And I don’t think there’s meant to be a strong distinction between these… they’re both ways to know Him. But the point of describing them is that we need both. Without one, the other suffers. Each one gives meaning to the other.

The same basic idea is true in marriage. Sometimes you have intimate times of focused, deliberate attention and affection. Sex comes to mind, of course, particularly since I’m male. But at other times you simply “live with” your mate and do whatever else it is that you do together. Both are a part of your marriage. If you only have one of them the marriage will suffer. Each one is meant to enrich the other. A marriage that’s all sex and no “hang out” would be shallow and superficial. On the other hand, a marriage that deliberately avoids physical intimacy would strain the relationship to the point of breaking except for rare circumstances. A healthy marriage has both.

Life in the church is the same way. Sometimes the saints focus their attention inwardly towards the Spirit of Jesus within; these are quiet times of affection and adoration with the Lord inside each of us. Other times their attention is directed outwardly towards the Lord in each other. They hear Him speak and they interact with Him in His many diverse representations. Any and every activity that the church undertakes is endowed with God’s Spirit because the Body of Christ is involved.

I used to say simply that “All of life is spiritual.” My mentors in the Lord taught me to see it that way, and to say it that way. That has always been the way that I have approched the things of God in my life. But my experience is teaching me something that they never taught me. All of life isn’t necessarily, automatically “spiritual.” A better way to put it is that “All of life can be spiritual.”

A spiritual activity is not defined as something done by your spirit as opposed to by your soul or body. That’s too atomistic– too reductionistic. The question is one of motivation. A “spiritual” activity is defined as anything done by a person who is driven by the Spirit of God in whatever he is doing. It could be balancing your checkbook. It could be playing with a child. It could be mowing a yard, going to work, watching a movie, or reading a book. It’s not only while praying or singing or sitting in silence.

It’s like asking “What’s Christian Music?” The answer is that a Christian song is a song sung by a Christian. Strictly speaking, a song cannot be “Christian.” It’s not about which words are used. It’s not as if a properly arranged group of words constitutes a song being Christian. When a believer writes a song about loving his wife, it’s a Christian song because it was written and sung by a Christian. It doesn’t even have to explicitly mention God or Jesus. Similarly, a song written by an unbeliever may serve well as a song of praise or adoration towards God when a believer appropriates it for himself (rememeber when Paul said “all things are yours…”).

It’s the same way with our lives. What makes what we do spiritual is not that we are doing the right set of things/activities that can be universally labelled “spiritual.” No, what makes them spiritual is that we are doing whatever we are doing as one “in Christ.” Whatever you do in word or in deed, do in the name of the Lord. Life cannot be divided into spiritual parts and non-spiritual parts. Incidentally, I believe this also holds true for the church. We should not try too hard to distinguish “spiritual meetings” from “non-spiritual meetings” of the church. That would produce an artificial division of the things that we do. To appropriate a beautiful phrase, “Can Christ be divided?” The implied answer is No.

All of life can be spiritual. HOWEVER… that does not mean that all of life automatically is! Paul wouldn’t have told them to do everything in the name of the Lord if that were so. There are ways in which almost anything a person or a church does can be “unspiritual.” Consider this: If even religious observances themselves can be motivated by the flesh, then certainly other things can be, too. How many times have I become sick to my stomach while listening to the prayers of believers who are laboring under the illusion that it’s all about their own self-improvement or “empowering”? I see the mark of the human flesh all over that. But this is no less misguided than when a group of free-swinging believers dedicate themselves to following every whim of their own natural cravings simply because they party under the illusion that everything they do is necessarily spiritual and divine in origin.

What I’m trying to say is that there are two opposite ditches to this path that we walk. Those naturally inclined to “spiritual things” sometimes downplay the everyday. They stress the transcendence of God at the expense of His immanence. But others flatten out our lives as if all things we do are equally “of the spirit” simply because believers are doing them. This shows no discernment of the Spirit. No sense of smell.

I look forward to the maturing of our vision, when we can see the pointlessness of running to opposite extremes when it comes to “walking by the spirit.” There’s so much more to say about this, but I’ve said enough for now. I hope it makes sense to whoever reads it.

Never Mind?

May 11, 2006

I had a conversation the other day with someone who was making the point that we have to use our spirits and not our souls to know things. At one level, I agreed with this person about that. In case you aren’t familiar with the distinction, I should clarify that I run in circles where folks distinguish between a person’s spirit and his/her soul. The distinction is biblically based, although I see no regularity to how different New Testament writers use these two terms in relation to one another. There are a few instances where the two seem to be equated, and there are other instances where they are spoken of as separate things.

Unfortunately, the Greco-Roman roots of our heritage predispose us to think, like Aristotle, in terms of parts or substances when we turn inward to contemplate the age-old question, “What is Man?” So when we think about the difference between soul and spirit, we think about two separate parts or substances of ourselves (which are not so easily separated from one another) in addition to our physical substance (our bodies). In case you’re interested, a person who subdivides human nature into three parts like this is called a “trichotomist.” Aren’t we all glad there’s a name for it!

To illustrate my point, you can check out how some of the greatest writers along this line interpret Hebrews 4:12, where the writer says that the Word of God can penetrate to the division of soul and spirit. Grammatically, this verse simply says that both soul and spirit (i.e. the deepest reaches of our selves) are laid open by the discerning movements of God in our hearts. However, many of my favorite writers have argued at one point or another that this verse teaches that our soul must be separated from our spirit in order for God to do His deeper work in our hearts. Much is made of this separation, and one is left with the impression in the end that our spirits must be active while the rest of ourselves must somehow be uninvolved.

But just try to imagine any meanigful activity within our hearts that does not involve the rest of us. It doesn’t actually work that way. Our minds and our emotions and our wills are involved in every interaction between God’s Spirit and ours. I’m not saying that they are completely indistinguishable; in fact I’d argue (as I have elsewhere before) that it’s important for us to understand some kind of a distinction between our spirits (which are not dependent upon our brains or hormones or other natural faculties) and our souls (which are the product of those things). But believing in a distinction between soul and spirit does not necessitate that we divorce the one from the other as if one were legitimate and the other were not. To do so would unnecessarily restrict life to a fraction of what it should become.

I think our minds, emotions, and wills need to be engaged in our relationships with God and with each other. Personally, I find that if I neglect my mind for long periods of time, I eventually experience a disconnect from which it is difficult to recover. I periodically move into this strange kind of detachment from my own spiritual life, I guess similar to an out of body experience, in which I’m outside of myself looking down upon myself wonder what all the fuss is about. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar problem. What I’m saying is that my mind needs to be engaged in my spiritual life or eventually my spiritual life will grow to become irrelevant to the rest of my life. And that just won’t do.

For the record, I still believe that my spirit is the only thing that can access the things of God. My spirit is made to interact with God’s Spirit, and my spirit is something over and above my natural faculties (intelligence, passions, determination, and senses). I must never conclude that simply because I have engaged my brain or my emotions I have therefore done a spiritual act. But on the other hand, I cannot conceive of a spiritual activity without the necessary involvement of the rest of me.

So I will follow what I believe is the Lord’s guidance into seeking, searching, and questioning things as they arise in my life. I will not suppose that to pursue these things as the drive to do so compels me will somehow draw me away from my spiritual life. On the contrary, I find these things eventually settle me back into the arms of the One that made me a curious person to begin with. He is patient with His children, and He knows what makes us tick. He will use these things to bring us ever closer into the center of Himself.

Radical Inversion

April 20, 2006

Okay, so here’s a thought for the day. If we learn nothing else from the stories of Jesus’ ministry, we learn that Jesus was out to radically reorient the way we think about our religious affections towards God. Case in point: Look at one of the first things he said in his public ministry. In chapter five of Matthew (v.23-24) Jesus said that if you have something unresolved between yourself and a brother you shouldn’t bother bringing an offering to God. You should drop your offering right then and there and go be reconciled with your brother. Wow. If you really stop and think about it, that’s a radical inversion of our priorities. I’d venture to say that even after all these centuries this instruction from Jesus has never really sunk in.

Think about it for a second. What Jesus is saying here is that our relationships with one another are as essential to worship as is our actual offerings to God. While we habitually place our devotion to God on the highest level and relegate our devotion to one another on a (much) lower plane, Jesus inverts that and suggests that you should resolve your issues with those in the church before you should even consider offering your praise and adoration to the Father.

There are dozens of other places where the New Testament gives us the same inversion of priorities, but I just want to soak in this one for a while. There’s something really big being expressed here about our Father. He cares intensely about how His children get along with one another. Jesus said that the world will know that we are children of our Father because of our love for one another. And here we were, all this time, thinking that it was our devotion to God that set us apart. John’s first letter to a church is almost exclusively about this one matter: that our love for God is manifested primarily in our love for one another. If you love your Father, you love his children.

So don’t let anyone tell you that your relationships with your brothers and sisters in the church should be relegated to a place of secondary importance. That’s not how our Father sees it. He will have a house of Love. That is how we will be known. So let’s get to it.

God is not a Gnostic

November 28, 2005

Seeing that my attention span was unusually short, even for me, during Thanksgiving week, I sorted through the piles of books I keep littered around the back seat of my car in search of something that could hold my attention for several days of vacation. I settled upon a book of erotic poetry.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of course, if you knew me well you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I spent my Thanksgiving week meditating on such a thing. You may be disappointed to hear that it was a commentary on the Song of Solomon written by Tremper Longman, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I suppose it goes without saying that I enjoyed making my way through this book, and I had no trouble finishing it. In the process I was struck by a couple of realizations that I’d like to share:

First, I was floored by the intensity of sexuality in this book of the Bible. Once you get what these folks in the Song are saying, it’ll really get your blood going. Longman approaches the book with a presupposition that I find I can accept wholeheartedly: While both Jewish and Christian expositors have interpreted this book strictly allegorically from the time of the earliest surviving commentaries, it was originally written as an intimate love song—an ode to marital consummation. Because we Christians so enjoy the symbolism of Christ and His Bride woven into the fabric of marriage itself, we are quickly persuaded to jump to an entirely symbolic interpretation of this book of the Bible. But as Longman skillfully argues, there is nothing in the text of the Song itself which would suggest that it was written as anything other than a song about sexual enjoyment. Longman takes the view (and I find that I agree here as well) that this is a collection of love songs, not a linear story of one couple’s relationship. Once you get over the notion that this book can only be of value as an allegory about more “spiritual” things, the need to discover some narrative unity in this book recedes into the background.

As I began making my way through this book with that in mind, the eroticism of the text leapt off the page and grabbed my attention with force. Listen to some of these statements:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee—turn, my lover, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether.” (2:17)

Sounds like a pretty scene, right? Only there is no such place as “Bether.” Never was. So you have to look into the etymology of the word for insight. It turns out that the word “bether” means “to bisect,” so that she seems to be referring to a bisected mountain…you get where I’m going with this…but keep reading. In chapter four, after the man has finished praising her breasts as “twins of a gazelle,” he announces that he will go “to the mountain of myrrh and to the hills of frankincense” (4:6). To what exactly did I previously think he was referring here? I can’t remember anymore. I must have skimmed over it as so much flowery fluff and poetic puffery. Well, I doubt I’ll read it that way ever again.

It only gets more explicit from there. At the end of chapter four, our “young stag” unfolds a potpourri of garden images which teem over with alluring sights and smells as he describes the woman’s physical beauty. He tells her, “You are a garden fountain, a well of a living water, streaming down from Lebanon.” In case you haven’t caught up, he’s not limiting his admiring gaze to the woman’s upper half here. I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a Bible teacher of any stripe inform you that Ancient Near Eastern poets often employed such imagery when admiring a woman’s pelvic region. She responds to his advances thusly: “Let my lover come into his garden and eat its choice fruit” (4:16). The chorus of listeners exults in this passionate interchange and proclaims their approval with one voice: “Eat friends, drink! Be intoxicated, lovers!”(5:1). The next chapter only takes this bold revelry further on.

But I’ll stop now for you to regain your original color, and I’ll leave it to you to dig beyond the symbols and euphemisms into the intended meaning of the last two chapters of the Song of Songs. They’re pretty steamy, and Longman (who is an excellent Hebrew scholar) unpacks those references which the casual reader will miss until it becomes obvious that God wanted a book in the Holy Scriptures which openly celebrates sex! Which brings me to point number two:

We have a Bible that institutionalizes the enjoyment of sex! Do you realize how important that is? It’s no small thing at all. For a faith tradition so rooted in the transcendence of God, the otherness of God, a tribute to sex comes as a shock to the system for those with the nerve to look straight on without averting their eyes. It’s downright embarrassing! If God has a sense of humor (and I’m certain He does) then one of His greatest laughs must have come from including erotic poetry in the scriptural canon of the same religion that brought you monks, nuns, and a celibate priesthood!

Now, lest you think I am picking on only Catholics here, let this also be a check for us Protestants against our own inherent asceticism and Gnostic separation of that which is “spiritual” from that which is not. This danger becomes particularly acute if, like me, you run in circles that stress a difference between “soul” and “spirit.” Sometimes in our zeal we talk as if a human being can be neatly split up into separate and mutually exclusive substances; but that kind of compartmental thinking would sound strange in the ears of the authors of the Bible.

Let us recall how in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman were naked and felt no shame. Their enjoyment of one another was the product of God’s decree that they “be fruitful and multiply.” It was only after they “had their eyes opened” that they saw themselves differently. To this day, only human beings (particularly civilized human beings) show shame when it comes to sex. Consequently, the forbiddenness of this act fuels a trillion-dollar entertainment industry. But look underneath this fixation on sexuality and see that something good is drawing them towards perhaps the most beautiful picture of something eternal that this world has ever seen.

Yes, marriage (and certainly the marriage bed) pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church. But in our effort to see the thing signified we should not miss the enjoyment of the sign itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some gardening…