by Walter Elwell
Missionaries must keep abreast of current theological trends—so they can understand both the U.S. scene and the influences on religious values and ideas worldwide.
After the fiasco of the 60s when some theologians were wondering whether or not there was a god up there, marked changes have taken place, some of them ironical. Perhaps the most ironical of all was the experiment to get rid of God in the first place. With dropping church attendance and the desire to keep young people interested in Christianity, it was felt that belief in God was a hindrance. Had the theologians bothered to check the polls (or their hearts) they would have known that the average person has always believed in God. The question was not really too much God for the people, but too little. What church members and young people wanted, it turned out, was more of God, not less, all of which brings us to our present situation. Few people today are arguing whether or not God exists-94 percent of the American population is agreed on that. They are asking, rather, how can God be known.
The first group answers along traditionalist lines arguing that Scripture most clearly reveals God to us. This does not exclude the Incarnation, nor general revelation (although the latter might be drastically downplayed or even denied), but the Bible is central to our knowing God. This, in large part, is the unspoken premise behind the current battle for the Bible that has raged of late. Granted, there are different points of view regarding the nature and inspiration of Scripture; what is really perceived to be at stake is nothing less than the knowability of God. Should the Bible prove to be less than infallible, then all certainty of knowing God might be in doubt. Given a Bible that cannot err, however, we possess absolute certainty about the God who is revealed there. This has pastoral implications, as well. It is difficult to preach with a "perhaps says the Lord." The 60s showed, if nothing else, that what most people expect from their pulpits is a word from God.
Numerous books have been written from this point of view. One thinks immediately of the still valuable The Knowlege of the Holy by A. W. Tozer, published first in 1961. This has been followed by Our God by Russell Jones, Let God Arise by Judson Cornwall, The Difference God Makes by Peter Haile, God Here and Now by Peter Toon, Feeling Good about God by Barry Applewhite, 1 Believe in the Creator by James Houston, and many others. I personally benefitted a great deal from Houston’s book, but they all have roughly the same theme and are written from the same point of view. They argue that God has revealed himself supremely in Scripture and may be found there. The God found is the God of traditional Christian theology.
Those who argue that God is found primarily in history tend to be far less traditional than the God in Scripture group. It is their thesis that God made the world to be the matrix of his activity, from which he may be known. Sometimes God is creator, as separable from the world; sometimes God is part of the world process; and sometimes God is to be identified with the world process. In terms of knowing God, sometimes God is revealing himself, so that what we know is received by us; sometimes we have to dig out the knowledge of God on our own, because God is not particularly engaged in making it known. The knowledge we gain might have anything from subjective value or certainty to universal applicability, although it is not often that this group pushes for any sort of absolutizing.
Basically, what is being asserted is that we have direct access only to our world and it is to this world that we must turn if we want to know anything of God. It is useless to go off on metaphysical or mystical tangents because they invariably lead to nonpractical conclusions. Regarding the Bible, this group sees it as part of the world historical process, possessing validity as it shows what others have seen. Hence, it is open to us as a sourcebook of ideas about God and his working in history, but not necessarily about God. Finally, this particular group is usually political in its major concern and often (though not always) Marxist in orientation.
One thinks immediately of the liberation and process theologians who write from this point of view. For them God is known as we enter into the world more fully, there to find God’s being as world or freedom. Fritz Buri wrote powerfully from this point of view in How Can We Speak Responsibly of God? Norman Pittenger writes much closer to a traditional view in Catholic Faith in a Process Perspective and The Lure of Divine Love. Schubert Ogden and Langdon Gilkey also argue that God is known in world process as historical event.
Perhaps the most challenging recent work that attempts to build upon traditional theological vocabulary to present this view is Jiirgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. A more or less popular exposition of the implications of this may be found in his Experiences of God. A challenge to this process/liberation point of view from a sympathetic by-stander is Creativity and God by Robert Neville.
This is a diverse group that does not necessarily reject the other.groups, but rather wants to focus upon the immediacy of knowing God. For them it is not so much that either Scripture or history (or both) provides a knowledge of God, but that God may be known. Occasionally, one even gets the feeling that it is not of primary concern that God is known, but rather that the experience of God itself is the important thing. Thus, this group argues that opportunity for knowing God is all about us. God is seeking to enter into our lives in a meaningful and powerful way. We should stop looking at the sources of encounter, and enter into the experience of encounter with God.
For some this takes a highly dramatic form that displaces all other forms of knowing. Once God is known in the overpowering ecstasy of actual possession, evidenced by some overt expression, like tongues or prophecy, one returns to the ordinary as to a flatland. The recurring experience of possession is usually required to sustain the momentum of spirituality, although historically this was not a Ways the case.
Others in this group are more intellectualist in orientation and rarely speak of overpowering experiencs. For them, knowing God in experience is more Kierkegaardian or Pascalian—"the Heart has its reasons." I call this an intellectualist approach because it is more abstruse and subtle in its focus than the traditional speaking in tongues. However, in that it is a direct experience that transcends human potential, invading us from without in an immediate fashion, the two are closely related, even if they differ on the precise nature of what is transpiring at the moment of encounter.
Examples of the former emphasis (with varying emphases) are See How the Wind Blows by Bob Slosser, The Gift is Already Yours by Erwin E. Prange, and The.Gift of the Holy Spirit Today by J. Rodman Williams. An excellent example of the latter is Jerry H. Gill’s On Knowing God. Gill is well-versed in modern thought and works out a rationale for getting beyond cliches to realities, but in such a way that the mind is challenged, as well as the heart.
This is a recurring theme throughout the history of Christian spirituality, and currently there is a revival of interest in learning what it means. It has close connections to the "God in Experience" point of view, but really can pick up emphases from anywhere. Many who hold this view are also in close agreement with the "God in Scripture" group.
What is emphasized by this point of view is the fact of God’s gracious ordinary presence. We do not need to seek him in ecstasies, encounters, special meetings, or by way of prescribed ritual. God, who is eternal, is eternally available in all his fullness, at all times. What we must do is to become attuned to his presence as we engage in the ordinary affairs of life. This is not to say that God cannot be found in ecstasies, encounters, etc., but simply that if we look for him only there, we miss him everywhere else. God’s presence sanctifies the normal course of our lives, transforming the most mundane experience into glory, because God is there, as Creator, sustainer, friend, and guide.
For some within this group, there is a renewed interest in mystical theology, pietism (although less so here), and time-honored spiritual emphases, such as the Jesus prayer, the various viae, and meditative techniques. Often there is a cutting across of denominational barriers as an underlying spiritual unity is experienced. After all, if God is the God of ordinary human existence, then he is every Christian’s equally, and not the special province of a particular group.
The enormous interest that exists today in exploring this option of knowing God may be seen in the numerous reprints of the so-called spiritual classics by such writers as a. Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Tauler, Boehme, and Fenelon, to name just a few. Among modern writers, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen stand out, but there are many more. If one is interested in an introduction to all of this, Thomas Powers’ Invitation to a Great Experiment is a good place to start.
This particular group represents a liberalizing tendency that sometimes arises in conjunction with any of the last three groups mentioned. In some ways, this emphasis strengthens the case of the God in Scripture group because it is arguing that inasmuch as God is everywhere, all knowledge of God, of whatever sort, is of equal value, thus denying (at least implicatively) that the Christian revelation is anything special.
Those who hold this view almost invariably come at it from an angle other than the theological. They begin with either psychology, sociology, comparative religious anthropology, philosophy, or history, and in all of this there is a tendency toward levelling out. Everyone’s experience of God is valid to the degree that it is authentic, and it does not matter if it takes Hindu, Jewish, Christian, or native American Indian shape. The psychological, sociological, philosophical, existential value is equivalent, again, to the degree that it is authentic, and theologizing comes later and secondarily.
The growth of this point of view accounts, in part, for the remarkable rise in interest recently in Eastern thought, primitive religions, and even in the occult. Because it steadfastly tries to be non-partisan it draws insights and material from the entire sweep of human religious experience, seeking for a basic commonality. In this, they are partly successful. They are less successful in arguing that they have no real theological point of view, usually tending in the direction of either a loosely defined unitarianism or a somewhat vague pantheism.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962) is, in many ways, foundational for understanding the current shape of this liberalized point of view, and one could start there. J.A.T. Robinson’s Truth is Two-Eyed, A. Schimmel and A. Falaturi’s We Believe in One God and John Hick’s God Has Many Names are also in this tradition. Hick’s book is of particular interest in that he is a former evangelical who has drifted to a decidedly left of center point of view. He describes this shift in chapter one. Perhaps the most programmatic statement is in Ninian Smart’s Cif-ford Lectures, Beyond Ideology, where he attempts a positive synthesis of just about everything, from East to West, sacred to secular.
The foregoing is only a brief look at how the knowability of God is being discussed today. The points of view described represent generalizations and there are numerous subgroups for each major group. In fact, it would not be surprising if a hundred people were asked and a hundred answers were given. This is perhaps as it should be. Knowledge of God is a highly personal thing and difficult either to describe or pigeonhole. But the burning interest is there, both here and abroad.
In what was supposed to have been an age of post-Christianity, post-modernity or secularity, we see a surprising revival of religion almost everywhere, from Iran to the U.S.A. The many options offered are also pushing us back to the foundation forcing us to ask some fundamental questions. This, too, is as it should be. No one should ever take knowing God lightly, unreflectively, or for granted.
What this can mean for evangelical Christians remains to be seen. Hopefully, it will push us into serious discussions with those whose views are different so that they may be introduced to the revelation of God in Christ. Their God is not only knowable, but known, and the world’s deepest longings are met.
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