Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Skeptical Faith: Hearing the Voice of GOD through the Christian Church

(This essay is a revision of three posts I offered in 2009 under the name, Experiencing GOD)

Often, I find myself in the chair of the Christian skeptic. I have faith of a kind, but for some reason it does not allow me to believe there's an angel in every room or a demon behind every bush. I suppose I have been too deeply grounded in the school of the rational, or maybe I have seen too much of the chaos of the human condition to believe that GOD directly intervenes at our every whim. 

Anyway, I would confess that my point of view could be wrong. It's happened many times before. So, when someone tells me, "The LORD said ‘thus-and-such’ to me," I try to be open minded. I mean, who am I to deny somebody's reality? And, to be honest, there has been a time or two that I may have sensed a voice not my own boring in on my mind with fresh wind.

All this opens the important question, just how do we know when the LORD speaks? How do we hear the voice of the Almighty?

First, let me confess that even in my skepticism, I do believe that the LORD still speaks to us today, but I do not believe it is as often or as clearly as say, when Moses was around. The burning bush experience, for example, what Walter Brueggemann (whose work I am following closely here) calls an "unmediated experience", is very rare indeed. That is, Moses experienced the Almighty directly, raw and pure. Moses was confronted directly with the mysterium tremendum, the very Holy (Otto).

Not so with us.
We experience the reality of the LORD, and this is my argument, through mediators (Brueggemann) such as the Bible and the experience of worship. Another way to say this is to say that our experience of the Divine is real, but filtered.

Let’s unpack this. A filtered view of experiencing GOD’s voice occurs when hear the Almighty speaks to us through the Bible and through other Christian, spiritual practices such as preaching, prayer and worship. To this list I would say, in general GOD’s voice is mediated to Christians, therefore, through the church. But, to say the church opens to us the indirect voice of the LORD, even if it is true, makes sense only as far as it goes. By this I mean there is much more content that needs to be poured into the word church.

Dr. William J. Abraham can help us here. Dr. Abraham edited and contributed to a book entitled, Canonical Theism. (go here), and in this work he defines Canonical Theism in 30 theses, three of which I want to emphasize here:

Thesis I:
"Canonical theism is a term invented to capture the robust form of theism manifested, lived, and expressed in the canonical heritage of the Church. It is proposed as both a living form of theism and a substantial theological experiment for today..."
Thesis IX:
Canonical theism is intimately tied to the notion of the canonical heritage of the Church. The Church possesses not just a canon of books in its Bible, but also a canon of doctrine, a canon of saints, a canon of Fathers, a canon of theologians, a canon of liturgy, a canon of bishops, a canon of councils, a canon of ecclesial regulations, a canon of icons, and the like. In short, the Church possesses a canonical heritage of persons, practices, and materials. Canonical theism is the theism expressed in and through the canonical heritage of the Church.
Thesis XIII:
The ongoing success of the canonical heritage of the Church depends on the continuing active presence of the Holy Spirit working through the relevant persons, practices, and materials.
Notice, Dr. Abraham broadens the word canon, taking it to mean not only the recognized, authoritative Scriptures, but also the practices and the people coming out of the well-spring of the church's history. This is significant.

For example, take the practice of what is called communion, or the mass, or the LORD'S supper -- the bread and the wine. To be sure, this practice means different things to different parts of the church, but we would say that all churches who practice this rite (sacred ceremony) also in some way experience the presence and the speech of God while doing so. God is particularly and uniquely present in the rite of the bread and the cup.

How does this happen? Dr. Abraham asserts that what activates the presence of God in the canonical practices of the church is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes the canonical heritage of the church and endues it with life and the fresh wind of GOD’s presence. Thus, GOD’s presence is experienced, GOD'S voice is heard, indirectly (mediated) through the Word and the heritage-practices of the Church.

With this in mind, I want to finally call on Brueggemann again to let us know just what is at stake if we fail to recognized the authoritative Scriptures, the practices and people from the well-spring of the church's history as the meditated voice of God -- what William Abraham calls Canonical Theism and what Brueggemann calls "utterance and gesture."

Brueggemann’s statement from his, Theology of the Old Testament (p.575) is poignant and powerful, and deepens the meaning of the word of God mediated, or the idea of Canonical Theism, to a most astonishing moment.

Brueggemann writes:
"...Yahweh, as known, trusted, obeyed and feared in Israel, is there in Israel only because of the sustained mediations that incessantly focus on Yahweh's oddity. Without these sustained mediations, Yahweh, who is so odd and irascible, so wondrous and awesome, would disappear from the life of Israel and from the life of the world...The reality of Yahweh depends upon the compelling case made regularly by the witnesses. And the witness make their case in utterance and gestures of mediation." (which Brueggemann footnotes that for us this is "Word and Sacrament")
From this we could say that in the practice of word and sacrament, for example, we discover ourselves related (connected) to God. Or we could say that in the utterance and gestures of mediation we hear the voice of God. Of course, we could also say, and this is the point (I bet you thought I’d never get here), that to cease practicing the Canonical Theism of the church opens to us the possibility of losing the voice of God as well.

Think about this for a moment.

Could the voice of God disappear? Could the voice of God be lost? Could it be that Christian communities might so move from utterance and gesture (in practice if not in belief) that God becomes silent? And could it be that all the scurried calls of, “I hear God’s voice,” or God said thus and so to me,” in reality is little more than what the old timers called whistling pass the grave yard?

You will remember the Ezekiel experience as he watches the presence of God leave the Holy of Holies, then the Holy Place, then the Temple and finally the city of David altogether. Have you ever wondered what the high priest told the people when next it was time for him to again enter the Holy of Holies, only to discover an empty chamber, where the ark lay in darkness and silence?