In the tradition
In this blog, there’s a special tradition of “third way” articles. It started off with the first real live post on this blog on 2007-07-20, titled What kinda company with God is possible?. I developed there, for the first time, the “brand new idea” that personal encounters with God (immediate God-experiences) are far less commonplace than Christians commonly wish and think. This was accompanied by “The third way of life in this world”, where layed out a happy, relaxed lifestyle to deal with these believed facts, namely, that God rarely interacts directly with us while we are on earth.
These contained the basic idea, and I then applied it to various realms of the Christian life. In “Third way cont.” there were experimental thoughts on how to discern immediate and mediate activity of God. It is claimed that God’s immediate activity is (1) the Gospel, once and for all, (2) some supernatural acts to confirm the Gospel. The conclusion of “Called, the third way” was to “[v]iew your actions as essentially human activity in obedience to God’s general will, except where God’s immediate instructions surprise you.”. This was supplemented by The necessity of pragmatic faith“, which was on how to live out our relationship to God while we yet don’t know exactly what it consists of and what not. There were some other related posts, but these were the central ones.
This post will be another element in the series of applying the “third way” line of thought. This time, to the central matter of “hearing the voice of God”, which is at the very heart of Third Way and its two alternatives, namely, lifeless unemotional legalism (not hearing anything, just reading the book) and the 24/7 paradigm of a continuous immediate communication with God.
What means to read the Bible realistically?
The issue really was a heavy burden on my mind during the last weeks, until I recognized today that I had come up with a sustainable answer long ago, namely, the “Third Way” hypothesis. What makes the issue difficult is that there are many really intelligent people out there who argue for the 24/7 alternative. Concretely, I read e.g. the interview of Relevant Magazine with Dallas Willard, titled “Stepping Into Community“. This post is more or less a comment on that.
Willard makes many good, true points. Among others, the “seduction of the culture” and of technology is reality. With the latter he means the illusion of power, being “the center of ones world”. But the answer is not to make Christianity a meditative religion by having extensive times of solitude. Solitude ; in the sense of psycho hygiene is certainly o.k., but then it’s definitely a natural measure. But, judging from the Third Way hypothesis, to think like Willard that solitude makes us “feel that one has a soul” and “that there is a God” is far off. This is pure baseless spirituality, in the sense of listening to some inner-psychic movements. It’s in no way something to determine truth about the self and God, and Christians should, in my view, not get involved into such stuff. It discredits their faith, which, unlike any other, has a firm basis in historical facts.
In his book “Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God” Dallas Willard gave the recommendation to “read the Bible realistically”, i.e. to assume that the experiences recorded in the Bible are of the same quality as ours would’ve been if we had been placed in the same situation. He says, “Unless this comes home to us, the things that happened to the people in the Bible will remain unreal to us. We will not genuinely be able to believe the Bible or find its contents to be real, because it will have no experiential substance for us.” (p. 35)
Now this is in itself a good and valid point, but at least others with like point mean it this way: the experiences recorded in the Bible are the same as ours. Then, where we read about somebody getting a vision or prophecy, it shall be just the same thing as if today somebody claims to have an “image” or “prophetic word” from God. Given the disputable quality of most of these impressions and images today, this style of interpretation makes the Bible lose the obvious character of god experiences, just to get it closer to our day-to-day experience. But it’s not justified to conclude from our current lack of obvious God-experiences that this was so through the ages. If the vague level of our God-experience was the same through history, then it puts the whole Christian faith in danger of being “disputable”, a creation of the brain (mediated through meditation, music etc.).
Instead, my understanding is: the Bible includes the few special events where God revealed himself in most obvious and supernatural manner. Third way means to expect something alike at very few (<10) occasions in ones personal life, and to relax knowing that. With this insight, one can then go and try to record these revelations in the lifes of others, but it’s no alternative any longer to desparately long for “hearing the voice of God daily”. There is no such thing.
The worth of all-natural spiritual exercises
So the claim is here that most Christian practices like prayer times, congregate worship, meditation, sermons, inspirational Bible times etc. have nothing supernatural in them. They can have that element if God choses to speak, but he can speak in any situation of life also – “spiritual” activity has no special role there. So, what worth has “spiritual” activity, then? We should start to prosaically view these as all-natural, but helpful practices to remember, “engrave”, and apply the Christian truths. This would also open the door to an unchurched, sober handling of these and like practices, and to the invention of new and perhaps even more effective practices. The purpose would be to detect consequences of the Christian doctrines for the personal life, and to learn and repeat the insights that one has had before (because the brain as a neurl network learns by repetition).
The “Third Way” hypothesis does not say that meditation, prolonged times of prayer, having ones daily inspirational bible time, inner experence etc. is worthless. It just says that these are means to better understand and to engrave the Christian truths on the mind, and they happen fully in the natural realm. The brain, as a compley system (i.e. one with feed-back) experiences effects of incorporating Christian truths, and understands them by thinking them through. The effects can include joy etc., and are justified, because they are logical consequences of the Christian doctrine, which is true.
Willard is right in what he says about “stepping into the community that’s already there”. But: this community is basically no supernatural thing, and being a disciple is also for the main part an issue of long-term education and learning, and making oneself subject to authority that non-Christians reject, not of being connected to some supernatural source of power.
The psalms can be used as a model for the effects of the above mentioned “religious” practices: they are prayers, include memorizing and verbalizing some truths that the author knew, and often include the answers to initial questions by reflecting upon these truths. No direct, personal encounter with God was experienced! Also, it’s important to see that a big part of the Bible books does not (!) relate stories where peope experienced God. Only Genesis, Exodus, the prophets, partially Kings and Chronicles, and then in the NT, the Gospels and Acts and (in the sense of having a vision) Revelation do. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Numeri, Leviticus, Deuteronomion, Ruth, Esther, and the Epistles do not! Which means, direct encounters with God did not cover everything in Biblical times: there were other things to write upon. Basically, Paul wrote down some reflections on the Gospel, enabled among other things by his understanding of the Jewish religion as a Jewish scholar. Also, Ecclesiates, Psalms etc. are “reflections” on revelations of God, including reflections on the creation and what one can learn from it about God. Also, the Bible includes many stories where people had to wait a long time, even decades, to hear from God or experience God. David, Moses, … . We feel uncomfortable with this and wish otherwise, and I think that the theology of “day-to-day encounters with God” springs just from this wish.
We should step back from the illusion of inter-personal communication and continuous intimate communication with God. For the most part, the world “runs on its own”: God looks at it as it unfolds the power of the Gospel he has given to the world through his son (who preached it first), and God sometimes contributes by signs and miracles. The view that personal encounters with God are to be expected on a daily basis is to be rejected because it is an extra-biblical concept. In the Bible, we see only some few events recorded: the most prominent God-experiences. These happen on special occasions only, not day by day. God spoke through some few prophets in OT times, and in NT times also notall have the gift of prophecy.
The role of the Spirit and of human activity
What’s difficult to include in this Third Way view is the activity of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s, for the main part, mostly an inclination to a certain way of thinking (namely, holy thinking), which therefore leads to correct Christian doctrine, encouragement, remembering Christian truths etc.. So, mainly, the Holy Spirit is perceived as a subtle “force” in the mind, making oneself inclined to some way of thinking. This is more compatible with the way preachers preach and prepare their sermons, than saying spiritual gifts would include steady inter-personaly communication with the Holy Spirit. Only on special occasions, the activity of the Holy Spirit will be perceived as the activity of a person. He is a person, but mainly perceived as a force, and a power. Having the Holy Spirit must not make us expect to “hear the voice of God” constantly.
The viewpoint presented here is no celebration of human power and activity, however. Human powerlessness is evidently seen in his need for grace (and by the way, Sabbath is an image for this, and not for finding God through meditation as Dallas Willard proposes). As Christians who received and receive grace, human activity has its place: there are many commands in the NT to exert human activity, and Christian community is, on the implementation level, human activity. Now, peope do indeed not change because of this human activity, but because they accepted the authority of God, learn from God (which is implemented in the activity of the community!), and because of the Holy Spirit who is the non-fading inclination to holy thinking in them.
So it could be excpected that a religions with the same contents but whithout a God would also change people, but to a lesser degree because there is no Holy Spirit. And, most importantly: human beings would never create such a religion if there is no God, as they’re no inclined to do it, as they’re evil. History shows that there’s no invented religion with the same ethics as Christianity. So the question if there could be Christianity without a Christian God is answered: theoretically yes, to a certain degree, but this could never happen because huanity is unable to invent Christianity.
To conclude: this “Third Way” view on the voice of God, church, Christian community, and Christian living in general, is my definite opinion that matured during the last 2-3 years. Everytime I grasp it again, it is something very relaxing, inserting lost joy into my life, declaring the desparate search for “personal community” with God as a phantom search. So there’s no need to get unsure in these matters again, even when reading books and articles from people who are sure that it’s the other way round ….!!
Start date: 2009-05-16
Post date: 2009-05-17
Version date: 2009-05-17 (for last meaningful change)