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On the divine drift

The world we inhabit affects us in many ways. It impacts the way we think about everything, including religion.

It has been suggested that the sacred is migrating. Under contemporary conditions, individuals have grown leery of externalities. Our world seems fragmented, tumultuous, and inhospitable. Despite all our comforts and conveniences, our souls groan. Peter Berger has called it psychological homelessness. Spiritual people are far more interested in believing, not belonging (as Grace Davie puts it), or seeking instead of dwelling (as Robert Wuthnow puts it). The weight of modern life compresses the divine from the outside (churches, synagogues, mosques, Bible, Torah, etc.) to the inside, nestled deep within the individual. For the self to bear the existential brunt thrust upon it by modern conditions it must muster a sacredness. And so it is that the self becomes divine (see Wuthnow, After Heaven, 147). The sacred, then, has migrated to the self.

This divine drift has implications for Christians. Most importantly, this contemporary understanding of the self as sacred or divine is problematic for Christian spirituality which believes that the divine is only accessed from without, not within. David F. Wells puts it this way: whereas contemporary spirituality begins from below, traditional Christianity begins from above (Above All Earthly Pow’rs; The Courage to Be Protestant). Christian spirituality does not connect to the divine by looking inward but upward, specifically to the work of Christ. These are polar opposite starting points with polar opposite ends. The former ends in condemnation and destruction; the latter ends in salvation and life. Contemporary spirituality is problematic because, says Wells, it “sounds plausible, compelling, innocent, and even commendable, but, let us make no mistake about it, it is lethal to biblical Christianity” (The Courage to Be Protestant, 178).

Author: Casey Shutt

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  • And of course (if I’m correctly tracking with you) science supports this as psychology continues its attempt to find answers by unraveling the mysteries of the inner soul, and even secular biology believes the DNA within man can tell us the hows and whys of our existence.

  • Gary Capshaw

    The urge to enthrone self as “god” isn’t anything contemporary or new. It’s just another variation of the same lie the serpent told Eve: You can be like God.

    It’s rooted in pride, the greatest of sins because it leads to all others.

  • Gary, I agree completely. But it is also the case that certain social conditions, ideas, and institutions accentuate that universal and fundamental desire to be like God (or to be a god). There was also a time when the Christian ethos of America and the West deterred many from embracing such an optimistic view of the self. No longer.

    Chad, I’d also add that this turn affects the research interests of those disciplines like science.

    • Gary Capshaw

      Casey:

      Did our Christian ethos actually deter many from embracing such an optimisitc view of the self, or just discourage them from saying so openly? Before the American and French revolutions, the church had enough political power in the west to make life miserable for those who didn’t profess a faith in Christ, up to and including putting people to death for blasphemy or simple disbelief.

      In many European countries then, the inter-connections of the church and government was little different from Afghanistan under the Taliban and doubtless led to many false confessions of faith, motivated by self-preservation. Recall that it was the un-Godly excesses of the church, and it’s leadership (all of whom were “professing” Christian’s) which led Martin Luther to tack his theses on the church door and begin the Protestant Reformation. And even that act did not liberate people to freely chose or reject Christ but, instead, initiated a period of religious warfare not settled until the English Civil War in which millions died for not professing the “right” kind of Christianity, whether they truly believed or not.

      Human nature has not changed since the Garden of Eden. Man was, and still is, prone to elevate himself above his God and the presence of political and religious institutions which forced him to profess a faith he might not have doesn’t mean people were more faithful back then. It only means they hid their basic nature better.

      Consequently, restricting, changing or truncating those social conditions, ideas and institutions which liberate the conscience would achieve nothing more than once again forcing people to hide what they really feel. The Re-constructionist’s and Theonomist’s would have us believe that changing the political and social institutions back to the way it was in some idealized past would somehow result in a more Godly and faithful people when, in fact, it would only produce “religious” behavior on the surface and do nothing to affect people’s hearts.

      The point is that no matter whether the battle for mens souls is fought in the openess of modern American society or back during the days when the church ruled every facet of life, it is STILL a battle fought one on one in the heart and victory will not be achieved by changing the social or political order, but by changing the hearts of those individuals who make up those orders.

      • Gary,
        Sorry for my delayed reply. We moved over the weekend which means I was away from the internet and swimming in boxes all weekend.

        You ask: “Did our Christian ethos actually deter many from embracing such an optimisitc view of the self, or just discourage them from saying so openly?”
        You believe the answer is the latter. Our Christian ethos discouraged people from openly embracing such an optimistic view of the self. In some ways, that may be true.

        But the impact of culture is more complicated than that. It is not something we think much about. There is a small percentage of people that devote their working lives to thinking about (like the authors cited in the post) but their analysis remains partial and incomplete (and on some level the average person can detect some of its trends.). But to think of culture as something that only affects the way one acts and thinks “openly” seems to miss much of what I am talking about. What I am talking about is the way culture provides us with assumptions and beliefs held about reality that seem natural and given. These assumptions appear to be the way things are. (For more on this see James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World”)

        You say that since human nature is universal and this desire to be gods is always there so that any attempt to alter conditions that inflame that universal desire are futile. Why encourage individuals to hide their true beliefs? (so the thinking goes). You put it this way: “restricting, changing or truncating those social conditions, ideas and institutions which liberate the conscience would achieve nothing more than once again forcing people to hide what they really feel.”

        I have to disagree. Think of it this way: Let’s assume that many men lust. In the past such lusting was often left to the imagination due to many factors (like lack of technology— cameras and mediums to dispense it, etc.). This is no longer the case due to many cultural factors (like plenty of technology and mediums to dispense it). Does it makes sense to say that restricting, changing or truncating those social conditions, ideas and institutions which help men lust would achieve nothing more than once again forcing men to leave lusting to the imagination alone? No, because those cultural conditions EXACERBATE a problem that is already there.

        That is what I am saying. It is the case that certain cultures cultivate aspects of both the Fall and the image of God. Humans, after all, are culture-builders and they are tugged upon by these two natures (their fallenness and their image of Godness). The cultures humans build reflect both these sides. The Christian’s task is to parse what’s what and learn to live Christianly in this complex world. The above post was simply an attempt to explore one facet of this culture.

        One final point of clarification: By critiquing the present I am not endorsing the past. In other words, I am not inferring that there was some pre-modern golden age.

        Thanks for the comment and making me think more carefully about what I am saying here.

  • Casey, that may be more true than my comment.

  • Gary Capshaw

    Casey:

    I’m still not so sure that removing or curtailing cultural influences which make it easier to give into our sin nature achieves very much more than public obedience. An example of something similar would be Islamic Sharia Law.

    Islam is a whole-life religion, one which encompasses the private life, the public life, the government, the laws and the whole gamut of the human condition. It is a culture all unto itself, not separate and distinct as religion is in the west. It developed that way because it is a religion of legalism and they had the desire to protect themselves, and their fellow man, from temptations. For instance, the law of the burqa, or veil in a lesser incarnation of the same idea, was not developed to enslave women (as we westerners usually think) but to prevent men from lusting after beautiful women. The face covering is an external tool to help men overcome their basic, sinful nature.

    On the surface, it achieves that. But, since all sin begins in the heart, it does nothing to prevent men from lusting nor does it preclude them finding some other way to express it. In other words, it’s little more than a bandaid on an open wound and about as effective.

    Conversely, western culture is more open, more accepting, more libertine and the avenues for expressing our base, evil nature are more available. While it may appear as though that gives us more opportunities to sin, and makes it harder not to, that’s only true if we are practicing a form of Christian legalism ourselves. It only makes “right” living and obedience to the laws of God harder if we are relying on our own power to overcome our sin nature. In that case, yes, we could use some help.

    But, ours is not a legalistic religion; it is a religion of faith. Our ability to refrain from sinning doesn’t come from us, it comes from the presence of the Spirit of God within us. It is not WE who fight the fight, it is Christ within us and He is unaffected by what goes on around us. The Holy Spirit is more than capable of keeping us from doing what is wrong, no matter how enticing the world around us becomes. All that’s required of us is to let go and let Him.

    This is the liberty of Christ about which Paul spoke so often. No matter whether we live in an “anything goes” society like ours, or a closed, rule-bound society such as is found in Islamic countries, we are free from having to fight against ourselves. Having placed our full, total trust in Christ, we are liberated to do good works and, on the occassions when we fail to keep God’s moral laws, we have an advocate, a lawyer we can turn to who has the constant ear of God. Repent (which means a change of mind, not a change of behavior, though a change in behavior should flow from that), ask forgiveness, accept that freely-offered forgiveness, and move on, fulfilling all the law by loving God and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

    Consequently, to a believer who has placed every facet of his life into the hands of Jesus Christ, as we should, the externalities of the culture around them, or the avenues for sinning, don’t mean very much. That believer is focused on Christ, not the rules, not the endless list of do’s and don’ts, and not his own failures or even his own ability to fail.

    • Gary, I agree with much of what you’ve said here. And I don’t think that what I am saying is at odds with what your suggesting: Yes, the only thing to fix the human condition is nothing less than re-creation which comes by the Holy Spirit. That is it.

      I am skeptical of anything that comes short of that.

      But here is where we may differ: I would like to see the world more in tune with the human flourishing that we were made for (and that existed in the Garden).

      More importantly and plausibly, I want to see the Church of Christ stand apart as a truly transformed entity.

      On the road to that end, we must understand the cultural assumptions that assail such human flourishing and at the very least point them out. That is what I have done in the post. More ambitiously, we should find ways of living faithfully in the context of such assumptions.

  • Gary Capshaw

    Casey:

    So long as sin exists, so long as Christ does not return, a world wherein we as a people can reach our highest, God-given potential can’t be a reality. It will only be achieved when all is finished and we enter our eternal rest in the presence of Christ. It is no more given to us to achieve that than it was to Adam and Eve. While they were created perfect and placed in a perfect environment, they HAD to fail in order to bring about the necessity for a redeemer. We are no different. If we can perfect our world, and ourselves (which is the actually the potential you speak of), we’d have no need for Christ and that has never been God’s plan for us.

    Personally, I’d like to see the Church (not just organized denominations) truly be the salt and light we’re supposed to be by living our lives in total faith in Christ, depending upon Him, and Him alone, for our redemption and doing it right out among the lost. We are not called to separate ourselves from the world, but to be in the world without being OF the world. We need to be mixing it up with them on a personal basis, every day, and demonstrating that we are no more perfect than they are, but have the assurance of salvation from the consequences of our evil by the shed blood of Christ and nothing more. That is ALL that makes us different and we should never hide our shortcomings, but admit them so that all can see we too are like them, except for our faith in Christ. And, that if we can find that assurance, they can too.

    We don’t need to spend our time pointing out to them how easy it is to sin or how much the culture affects their response to temptation. Instead, we need to point them to the truth of Jesus Christ and forget everything else. They don’t need to know how easily they sin, believe me, they know that already. They need to be shown the solution and it’s up to us to do it.

    • You say: “Personally, I’d like to see the Church (not just organized denominations) truly be the salt and light we’re supposed to be by living our lives in total faith in Christ, depending upon Him, and Him alone, for our redemption and doing it right out among the lost.”

      I agree. And that kind of cultural distinction occurs as we understand the milieu we inhabit. Christ’s work of redemption occurs in the world. It is imperative Christians in the church understand that world in order to properly live, communicate and operate within it. Yes, point them to Christ (as you’ve suggested).

      This question remains: Are you still suggesting that the kind of cultural analysis and reflection done in this post is unnecessary or unfruitful?

  • Gary Capshaw

    Unneccesary or unfruitful? Yes. I don’t see how it advances the Kingdom. To me, it’s just another distraction from our Great Commission commandment. We don’t have to understand the world to preach the Gospel. All we need do is understand the human heart and that has never changed. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be aware of changing perceptions and new means of communication, but I don’t think we ought to be spending a whole lot of time dwelling on it.

    But,if you feel led to do so, have at it. Who am I to question anything anyone does?

  • Paul provides a nice example of how this reflecting upon culture would help us to fulfill the Great Commission in Acts 17. At Mars Hill, Paul delivers a sermon that demonstrates his fluency in Hellenistic culture, citing their poets, addressing their aversion to the material, etc.

    It was his understanding of the culture that enabled him to better advance the gospel.

    • Gary Capshaw

      I hope your studies bear fruit and I look forward to your next article. They are always thought provoking.

  • Gary Capshaw

    I just couldn’t leave this discussion without saying something else.

    Perhaps that turning inward to find diety mentioned in the original post is related to the God in the Gaps idea.

    We are a culture which places great faith in science. Throughout our history, technological progress has been seen as human progress, as if science defines us totally. In many ways, it does, but as science offers more and more natural explanations for phenomenon previously ascribed to the devine, God is reduced to merely existing in those gaps in our knowledge. Since most everything else can be explained rationally and naturally, the only thing left for God to do is fill in the voids of our knowledge until such time as they can be explained too. As scientific knowledge advances, God retreats.

    Maybe that inward turning is related to the shrinking field we see God operating in. As our perception of the areas in which He is possible contracts, so to does our need for Him. The more immaterial He becomes to the natural order of the universe, the more immaterial He becomes to us personally.

    Yet, all human beings seem to have a blank spot in their souls, a spot which can only be filled by a belief in some higher authority. Even the most primative of cultures worships SOMETHING, be that the sun, the moon, a shaman of some sort or even allied airmen who crash-landed in New Guinea during WWII. The impulse to find something larger than ourselves which will “explain” everything is universal.

    In the west, at least since the dawn of the renaissance, we’ve become more and more educated, more and more trusting in our own abilities, more and more capable of explaining things to our own satisfaction. That has reached it’s highest potential in modern-day America where our trust in the scientific method and the ability to reason has led us to explore and manipulate not only the universe, but the creation of life itself. We have identified natural causes and effects even to the point of creating life from nothing, just as we used to believe God alone could do.

    By our diligence and faith in science, we have rejected most of those old explanations of the devine and look somewhat amusedly upon those primatives who believed, for instance, that the sun was “god.” We now know enough to realize that’s not so.

    But, we also know enough to reject every other devine explanation, including the God of the Bible. With the advancement of knowledge, He has become as just another misinterpretation of natural phenomena, an interpretation based upon a previous lack of information which we now have. Perhaps that professor I had in college was right after all: God did not create us in His image. We created Him in our image to explain the un-explainable. Naturally, when we run out of things which can’t be explained, we’ll run out of the need for a God.

    Of course, I don’t believe that for one second as I’ve met God and know Him to be just who He says He is. But for millions of our neighbors, they’re not so sure, even if they would not phrase it the way my professor phrased it. The idea is still there and growing.

    Consequently, having rejected every other possibility of the devine, what are we left with? Only ourselves. There is nothing left to worship except our own knowledge and understanding which comes from within. In other words, there is no god but us. To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met God and He is us.”

    Unfortunately, we Christian’s do not help ourselves, or the cause of our God, when we categorically reject scientific explanations, even in the face of solid evidence that they are true.

    For instance, take the evolution/creationism debate. Instead of exploring commonalities and possibilities, we stand rigidly opposed to the idea of evolution even when the evidence that species have changed over the years is incontrovertible. Rather than make the case for our God being involved in that, we simply reject the notion out of hand as being blasphemous. I’m not trying to start a debate on evolution, just pointing out that we could be doing a far better job of linking creation to evolution than we’re doing. For instance, isn’t it possible that God said, “Let there be a Big Bang?”

    In any case, the point is that by positioning ourselves in opposition to the advancement of scientific knowledge, we’re moving not only ourselves, but God as well, to the fringes of the debate and making Him and His church objects of ridicule.

    For a people wallowing in self-worship, for a society and a culture adrift and separated from the God who created them, that’s a tragedy because just when they need God and His people most, we’re in the process of making ourselves useless to them. We’ve taken ourselves and our God out of the game, leaving those floundering lost to fend for themselves and find their own “god.” Not surprisingly, they’re chosing themselves to worship.

  • Good, illuminating thoughts. Thanks, and thanks for the challenging comments. They’ve helped me think through what I am saying.

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