To say “you just need to pray more,” or “you just need Jesus,” or “you should just read the bible” is like saying “you’re just mad because you’re hungry.” True? Perhaps. But a horrible thing to say within a relationship.
That kind of rationalization is perhaps my greatest source of discomfort with modern ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. So much of the language I hear is so overtly spiritual and so perfectly crafted that I feel like I’m being told something so true and obvious that I must be an idiot if I don’t agree. And yet, the most spot on nugget of truth doesn’t really help if I’m not in a place where I can experience the implications of the truth. And stating the most simplistic view of the truth is rarely a helpful way to experience or overcome the reality behind mere words.
Relationships are first about experience and only then about words to give shape and understanding to that relationship. “Christian culture” tends to speak with words as though the words have meaning apart from the experience of relationship – and if you don’t see the meaning behind the words, there is no logical or reasonable pathway between those words and the power of relationship toward which they are attempting to point. Just like telling me I’m mad because I’m hungry doesn’t make me less angry no matter how true – explaining Christian truth when I don’t experience relationship with God doesn’t make me feel loved. Feed me when I’m hungry; care when I feel unloved – and then we can talk.
In plenty of relationships, one partner will make a logical, reasoned argument regarding one thing or another and the response would lead an outside observer to believe that the argument was actually an attempt to burn the house down with the partner in it. One could say “we need to spend less money” and the other could hear “you’re a waste of money.” One could say “you’re doing that wrong” and the other could hear “your existence is wrong.”
The problem? One partner names a behavior that needs to change. The other feels a brokenness that needs to heal. No matter how good or right the arguments may be for changing behavior, the brokenness isn’t going anywhere until the need for healing is addressed. The problem is not that either of the approaches or any of the arguments and feelings are right or wrong – the problem is that building up the relationship is impossible until both are speaking the same language and dealing with problems rather than symptoms. As long as people talk on different levels, nothing good happens and the cycle of hurt feelings and intractable arguments continues.
The present partisanship in the United Methodist Church (and America in general) is like a marriage stuck in the same cycle. Conservative voices say we reject homosexual acts. Liberals say you reject people. The arguments of both sides are equally heartfelt and sincere but will never match logic and emotion until both sides can figure out how to build a relationship rather than win an argument. If a solution is to be found, it will have to be far more imaginative and creative than drawing a line in the sand and crystallizing the fact that we will always talk past and never with each other. Relationship is nothing without the coherence of logic and emotion.
Logic gives words, without which experience can’t be understood or lead anywhere. Emotion gives power, without which words are useless and void.
I tell every couple that I marry that there is no right and wrong in a marriage – there are only things that build up relationship and things that tear it down. If either person loses, nobody wins. I’d offer that same advice to the global church now. Even when you are absolutely correct in where you stand, you haven’t necessarily even addressed the problem that divides you from your partners in the Body of Christ. You can keep yelling, but that won’t make anything better as long each side continues to debate symptoms and can’t find a way to dig down to relationship.
Methodists have long claimed to represent a religion of both head and heart. It’s about time to unite head and heart in each person, movement, and side rather than just having a host of people and groups choosing one over the other and living under the same umbrella.
I know a few couples who fight about the right and wrong way(s) to load a dishwasher. What goes on the top rack? How much pre-cleaning is necessary? How closely can you stack dishes? I wouldn’t dare to offer a resolution to the fight here. But I will say that when a disagreement over loading the dishwasher turns into a knock down drag out yelling match, the dishwasher is only a symptom of something much larger beneath the surface.
The fight over the dishwasher represents the relationship dynamics that give life and meaning to the marriage. Sometimes that life and meaning is beautiful and can hold people together through anything – sometimes it is dysfunctional and can allow something as insignificant as cleaning habits to cause great harm. The fight is important because it is a fight, it is clear evidence that something is wrong. But this kind of intractable fight can only be overcome when relationship dynamics are healed. And if the relationship dynamics are healed, the couple is likely to find a workaround – like having only one person ever deal with the dishwasher – rather than look for a fight.
To argue over whether scripture means what it says is like asking if a fight over the dishwasher is really about the dishwasher. Yes, it does mean what it says, just like the fight is about the dishwasher. But meaning always goes deeper than a surface reading and if we never get beneath the surface, we’ll always fight over symptoms and never find relationship, with God or one another. There is no way to capture relationship inside of words but there is also no way to be in relationship without words.
To assume the question of truth or falsity is as simple as “did God mean it” or “is it true” (no matter whether the answer is yes or no) is to do violence to the way life and relationship work. Seeking truth in the words of Scripture is like digging beneath the symptomatic fights of a marriage and feeling the reality of the experience underneath. Finding truth by the power of the Holy Spirit is like mending the wounds that have festered for far too long. Only in lived relationship, community, and tradition can we even know what our question of scripture actually means. Only through the healing power of God can we begin to live into the fullness of the truth we seek in the words we say.
Facts are like stakes in an endless desert. A stake is necessarily located in the place where it is driven into the ground, but with no reference as to where you are in the desert, located-ness is no help at all. A network of interrelated stakes becomes more helpful, but still doesn’t tell you anything about where that network is in the larger desert. A fact, like a stake in the desert, is neither completely relative nor is it meaningful without relation to something else.
The bigger problem I find in our current “fact free society” isn’t the truth or falsity of particular claims. The bigger problem is the lack of a common narrative underlying the facts to act like a road map to locate ourselves in the same desert. As long as we lack agreement about the sand beneath our feet and where we ought to be headed, it will never be all that helpful to point at a stake. It is meaningless to talk about facts as though they convey anything apart from their relative spot in the endless desert of life.
God is like a sphere of light emanating from a single point. That sphere is infinitesimally small but has infinite reach. The only way we can put words to the reality of God is to pick a point in space and name what we see there. No matter how many points we name, there are still infinitely many more to know and we can never step back from our perception far enough to look at the whole and to verify whether we are moving toward or away from the source of the light.
By the limits of perception and reason, we can only see and name flat surfaces that intersect with the reality of God at any given point. We have no direct access to the infinitesimal point of reality at each location in space without analogy and heuristics. Only by revelation from God can we ensure that our limited words and perceptions intersect with the reality of God. This does not mean our views are not true, but that the sense in which they are true will always be more revealed by the light of God than human effort and will be less precise the more we try to expand our view from that point of intersection.
Even without changing our words, as we move through time and space the reality we are trying to name will drift, in sometimes more and sometimes less discernible ways – what is repeated at one time and place is no more guaranteed to remain true than what was said in its original time and place was guaranteed to be true – guarantees are only possible by the confirmation of God. To ask “who is God in this time and place?” is necessarily to ask a different question than anyone is capable of asking in a different time and place. To hold on to the answer of another faithful person may very well be instructive for how we are to understand a new reality down the road, but we can no more verify the persistent truth of an answer than we can verify the possibility that our words and lives mean what they used to mean.
To do theology is to try (whether consciously or not) to name one point on the sphere that is God. All life is an act of theology, the only question is whether word or deed move us closer to the source of light or away from it. Understanding where we are and where we are headed is therefore contingent on the willingness of God to reveal what we cannot determine and can never be grounded on anything other than the power and light of God. We cannot know all that there is to know about God, but we can seek to understand more and more of our lives in relation to the source of our light and life. The more we seek after the roundness of God and resist creating the kind of flat place on which to remain standing, the closer we will get to speaking the truth about God. But the more we try to say about God, the easier it will be to assume we can connect the dots with our own words and perceptions, thereby pushing ourselves further from the truth that has been revealed.
This blog is my best attempt to name a few points of intersection with the reality of God in the hopes that it might help others put words to where and how God still acts today and to what it means to be a part of God’s mission of relationship and self revelation in a thing called church.