Staring into the "Void"...
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you" - Augustine of Hippo, Confessions,
"Codswallop" - The Internet Monk, A God-Shaped Void? Maybe Not
The latest essay by the Internet Monk really caught my attention. It is challenging and thought provoking in a number of topics, and I wanted to spend some time going over his ideas.
I’ve lived most of my life submerged in the world of churches, Christians, Biblical language, and the Christian worldview. (Sorry Joel) As I’ve moved into the second half of life, I’ve become aware that I need to separate myself from the Christian culture that has dominated my life, and to look closely for where my own assumptions are deeply embedded with the concepts, presuppositions and categories of the spiritual/intellectual/social/religious environment that surrounds me.
As part of my journey to deconstruct this evangelicalism I’ve lived in, I have consciously attempted to appreciate the thinking and experience of those who do not share my Christian faith. This process has been difficult, because the “house” of my personal experience is completely furnished with the furniture of a Christian society, church language, Biblical presuppositions and the basic beliefs of the Christian community.
Any number of people I am aware of would find nothing wrong with the basic idea Michael is criticizing here. "Given the state of decay in our culture, should we not attept to build our own community, our own language, our own presuppositions, in order to keep the more corrosive aspects of 'the world' at bay?" Given my own growing appreciation for the liturgy and the greater Christian traditions in music and theology, I am sympathetic to the notion that we ought to strive for our own language and way of viewing the world, in opposition to the way the wider world does so.
But I am speaking here from my own experience, as an adult convert to the faith who had not grown up in a community of faith. Michael has done so, to an extent I cannot understand. And even with my limited experiences since my conversion, there is much in the "spiritual/intellectual/social/religious environment" in American evangelicalism that is not helpful - that is either "Christianized" bits of the wider culture, or bits of the earlier manifestations of American/Christian culture maintained out of inertia or fear of change. And Michael's concern throughout his essay is for evangelism - how do we speak across the divide between the culture of the Church and the culture of the world. And his main point is that one of the key assumptions of much evangelical effort - the famous "God-shaped vacuum" extolled by Augustine and Pascal - may not fully apply in our day and age...
One day, in a class discussion about a recent chapel message, Steve spoke his mind. I can’t quote him, but it was something very much like this:
“Why do Christians always say that you can’t be happy unless you are a Christian? It’s insulting to a person who isn’t a Christian to be told that they will never be happy without Christ. I’m not a Christian, and I am happy most of the time. I am happy with my friends and they things I enjoy doing. I don’t want or need Christianity to be happy.”
To quote the hanky-waving lady in the local African-American church….”Well……” So should we argue this point? “Steve, you just don’t know what happiness is. Trust me. You have no idea how happy I am compared to you.”...
What was meaningful to the young people interviewed was life, family, love, work, relationships and the enjoyment of this world. They were comfortably, happily attuned to this world. Spiritual tattoos aside, they had little thought of much beyond what their senses or experiences presented to them.
In other words, Augustine’s famous “God-shaped void” didn’t make its expected appearance in anything near the numbers expected.
This is the problem. The people Michael is profiling here don't see a need for the Christian faith. They are, as Ravi Zacharias puts it, "happy pagans".
The dilemma of the "happy pagan" is real. But how did these "happy pagans" appear in such numbers? I have two ideas on that.
1) The West is RICH. Though it doesn't get preached on much in the West these days, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is chock full of warnings of the spiritual corrosiveness of wealth. As Michael so aptly puts it in the conclusion of his essay, we are physical beings. If our physical needs are met and exceeded, and our minds are entertained, we naturally have a sense of well-being. And we in the West are, in the vast majority, very well taken care of, and very well entertained. If we have what we want in this life, and we have no expectation of another, what need is there for God and the Cross? Trying to tell someone like this that Christianity will make him or her "happier" - especially if we tie the moral demands of the faith into the package that directly impact their cherished means of continued happiness - what is their motivation to cross over to our side?
What do we say in response to this? I don't claim to have a pat answer, but perhaps one opening is a consideration of the ephemeral nature of life's happiness, and the effect that overabundant wealth has in even a secular frame of reference. Civilizations more often fall from within than from without - and growing soft and secure through wealth and leisure is a surefire way to start and accelerate the process. The current state of affairs concerning the West vs radicalized Islam is a prime (albeit un-PC) example of this.
Of course, the ultimate Christian answer is that this life is NOT all there is - and that the next life is of the utmost importance as opposed to this one. Alas, here the second factor in the disappearance of the vacuum appears...
2) the West is POST-CHRISTIAN. Whatever concensus Christian thought may have held in the West - and even in Medieval times, it was still an amalgam of Christianity with Roman and Germanic cultural elements - the concensus has been lost. Our culture has been fed by four consecutive centuries of secularization, privatization, and in some cases outright denigration of religious belief. That cultural background is there in all of us, even in the most Bible-thumping Young-Earth-Creationist charismatic-non-cessationist Christian alive. The cultural tide is against outright appeals to the Age to Come - what Marx famously derided as the "opiate of the masses". Even if someone grants the necessity for faith in something, the sense is that "we tried Christianity, it didn't work, let's move on to something else". I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that the difference between evangelism in a pre- vs post-Christian society is the difference between wooing a virgin and wooing a hardened divorcee.
(Another thought struck me as I was composing this - where is the Church growing today? Where are the pagans being converted? In places of suffering. In places where the Church is persecuted. "The Blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." How much is the Church in the West suffering? Why should we expect great results if we are not? ... And do you find this train of thought as uncomfortable as I do?!?)
Scripture tells us that if there a God-shaped void, we will rarely see or encounter it in obvious ways. What we will see is a race numb and dead. A planet of people refusing to think about God or think about God except in idolatrous- self-serving- terms. A world of people who see no more relevance to the Gospel than to a thousand other things that make absolute no sense or have no claim upon a person at all.
This is, however much it may pain those like Michael and myself who are tired of the endless wranglings over Calvinism in evangelical blogdom, "total depravity". However much I may deplore the debates over the TULIP, the truth of the matter is that humanity is hostile to God. They always have been.
So, how do we reach them?
([A]re) we aware to the extent that we insist everything outside of our belief systems conform to our own thoughts, presuppositions, concepts and beliefs?
Well, to a certain extent I sympathize with those whom Michael is criticising. If there is any conviction to our faith, we *have* to believe that our "thoughts, presuppositions, concepts and beliefs" - especially regarging Christ and the Gospel - ARE TRUE. And that what Mohammed, Marcus Borg, and Dan Brown say is NOT TRUE. The real problem here, though, is *how* one apprehends that truth. And here Michael is spot on - most apologetics walk unbelievers through a scripted part, which in reality few are willing to play. I still read - and enjoy - Peter Kreeft's books of Socratic dialogues between his Christianized Socrates and all manner of unbelievers. But the unbelievers in Kreefts books are too logical, too willing to back down from their core beliefs when his Socrates shreds their arguments. Kreefts books are a stimulating intellectual fantasy, but a poor preparation for real-life discussion.
I am amazed at the hostility many of these same Christian friends have to the notion of having extended, equal and fair conversations with unbelievers. In affirming the necessity of a spiritual operation on the mind and heart of a person, and the importance of making Christ the central focus of saving faith, we are not told to do nothing but preach, and to preach only in the way, voice, content and forms that we are comfortable with. The call to be a witness or a missional communicator is an invitation to incarnation and Christlikeness in motive, method and message.
If we take seriously the unbelief of unbelievers, then we pray, share the Gospel and do so in a way that is completely incarnational. We do not make them into projects. We fully humanize the process of evangelism, and we take unbelief seriously.
I think what Michael is saying here that we should seek to build *friendships* with those whom we would witness to, and not try to get them to read the scripts in our evangelistic plays. We must walk a fine line between witness and compromise, a line that cannot be standardized for every believer and every situation...
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (I Corinthians 9:16-23)
The burden of reaching out is on us, not the pagan. And the "reaching out" is not by compromising our worship or our beliefs - they are what makes us Christians. If we abandon our worship and our faith, what exactly are we calling people *to*? No, our outreach is with *ourselves*, as Christ reached out to us...
The God-shaped void is absolutely there. It is the HUMAN PERSON! But it is not a void…it is someone made in God’s image, a person loved by God; a person for whom Christ did all his mediating work. This person and their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) are not a threat to us. We do not need to manipulate or control them. We can allow them to have their life, their journey and their experiences. We do not need to demand anything of them for us to present/represent Christ to them.
Packaged presentations, timetables, competitions for most converts, bait-and-switch Gospel ploys, "seeker-sensitive worship" - if someone played these tricks on us Christians, would *we* feel honored? Would we be more attracted to what they were offering by these methods? The modern ideal of truth separated from incarnation - in reality a *Gnostic* ideal - must be set aside. If we want to talk to others about a God of love, *we* have to *love* them - and not just by handing them tracts.
Today’s young people are bored with God. They are not “seeking” God at all, but are living on the hardened surface of a fallen human experience, seeking to make sense of what is incomprehensible apart from Christ. We cannot “create” interest apart from the work of the Spirit. Our calling to be witnesses is not to approach the world like cattle to be herded, but as persons to be loved in the way God loves this fallen world through Jesus Christ. We live in a generation and time dead to God and alive to entertainment and a consumer mythology that promises and delivers meaning through stimulation and amusement.
Christ has become the servant and savior of such a world. We live in that world, fully human, fallen, redeemed, rescued, living and hoping in the new creation. How do we speak of these things? It’s a question we must keep answering fearlessly.