[Beliefnet, March 27, 2001]
“God isn’t dead‚ I talked with Him this morning.”
There’s a sweet naivete in this bumper sticker from a few decades ago, as it blithely eludes the complexities of the old “God is Dead” debate. Though philosophers wrestle with Resurrection texts and idiosyncrasies, these believers find such angst irrelevant. They know God personally, and hand-wringing about whether he’s there or not is a waste of time.
Did Jesus rise from the dead? Hey, I’m *talkin’* with him. Dead guys don’t do that. He’s back, all right.
People who don’t have similar breakfast-table chats find this response understandably frustrating. It’s hard to even make sense of the words. “I talked with Him”‚ what could that possibly mean? They see the believer at worship singing old favorites like “I Heard the Lord Call My Name,” “I Saw the Light,” “He Touched Me.” It sounds like the believer encounters the risen Jesus in a way that impinges on the five senses, and that would imply some objective provability.
But when the skeptic asks the believer, Do you mean you heard him with your ears? the believer looks confused. No, of course, that isn’t what he means. He grapples for better words; it’s hard to explain. After a few attempts he may wind up with, “It’s one of those things. If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”
The believer concludes that the skeptic hasn’t seen the light yet, so to speak, but hopes someday he will. The skeptic concludes that the believer is a dolt. He hasn’t seen any light at all; he’s operating under an emotion-fueled delusion.
If the skeptic bears the Christian label, this kind of faith is an embarrassment. The prevalence of goofy and groundless emotionalism, he fears, makes Christianity a laughingstock among enlightened folk. Surely it would be a service to develop a Christian faith that could meet the intellectual demands of modern, rational people, minus absurd Resurrection claims and supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
There are two flaws in this noble-sounding project. The first is that it is no longer necessary to concoct a Jesus who will be palatable to the Enlightenment. That Age of Enlightenment is over, and has been replaced by the new Age of the Enlightenment-Seeker. Supernaturalism is no longer a stumbling block; rather, people crave the mystical. A short cruise around Beliefnet demonstrates that. Modernist, rational people, preponderantly gray-haired, are on the escalator out of the building, and results will be both good and ill. Those who remain are fascinated, not repelled, by claims of miracles, visions, and Resurrection.
So it’s not necessary to keep trying different hairstyles on Jesus, hoping to find one that will make him appealing to Voltaire. That age has passed, and Voltaire has had all his questions answered by now.
The second flaw is, well, I spoke with Him this morning. I can’t explain this to those who haven’t, but I can spot those who have, no matter what their brand of Christian faith or when they lived in history. Skip over the centuries and around the globe: St. Nina Equal-to-the-Apostles, St. Moses the Ethiopian, St. Nicholas of Japan, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, my buddy Rod in Brooklyn. When I look at their words and witness, a common thread glows bright. They saw what I see; they saw him too.
There’s a problem of course, with saying we “see” it, as that suggests a grandiose vision of pin wheeling seraphim and a voice that shakes the ground. For most of us it’s a great deal more subtle than that. It’s more like we find something coalescing within us, establishing itself, gradually becoming the foundation and authority for all the rest of life. It may begin with a jolt, as in my case, or be the harvest of many quiet years. It is emphatically hard to describe.
What is it like? More than anything else, it’s like the presence of another person.
That person, of course, is Jesus Christ. We don’t doubt the Resurrection because it continues today. We aren’t troubled by variations in Scriptural accounts, because even today our experiences vary. People have different experiences with my dentist, but he remains the same guy.
This can make the skeptic more frustrated, not less. You can *see* a dentist, for goodness’ sake. What do you mean, you sense another person inside you?
There are good arguments for leaving the inexplicable unexplained, and just saying, “Come see for yourself.” But in the Christian east a formulation developed that might be helpful. Our five senses are the means by which we engage life; before we reflect intellectually or react emotionally, we have immediate sensory experience. There is a pool of awareness at the union of our five senses, called the “nous.” Here God is able to communicate with us, but like a badly-tuned radio we can be too distracted or confused to tune in. Spiritual exercises, like fasting and attentive prayer, can help us focus on his voice (there’s that sense language again).
While emotions or intellectual insights may follow on any interpersonal encounter, whether with God or a dentist, these are secondary reactions. The pure experience of contact comes first, and tears, joy, and the Summa Theologica are just outwardly observable responses.
Practice prepares, grace provides, and the nous can eventually descend into the heart where Christ abides, the “Kingdom of God within you.” Diligent attention can make this state habitual. “Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus, that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart,” says the 4th century preacher St. John Chrysostom.
Not that our average bumper-sticker toting friend would use these terms, or need them. Yet the fact that he cannot describe his interior experience should not be taken as evidence that it doesn’t exist. The skeptic enjoys the illusion that his relentlessness is frightening to believers, but actually he’s just annoying them. They try to be polite about it but, bottom line, he’s spouting off about something he hasn’t experienced yet.
What about that “yet”? Is this encounter for everyone? Is it ever too late? How would someone begin?
Jesus advised that we should ask for what we want to receive, so that’s a good place to start. But first we must “become as little children,” open, guileless, and humble. That kind of person won’t be too proud to admit that he needs a Savior, and to talk with Him simply in his heart, over a cup of morning coffee.