I think that we all (Christians) start out with some sort of nominal Christianity. We pray to accept Jesus and the world is new. I did it when I was seven. You’re happy because God loves you and you’re going to heaven when you die.
Then there’s a catalyst. Something happens to us that makes our faith “real” or “come alive.” We’ve believed this stuff all along, but suddenly something shifts in our souls and everything we’ve always believed suddenly has meaning. The world doesn’t change, but the way we see the world does.
It happened for me one day when I wanted to feel close to God. For some it happens as an emotional experience at a conference, or as an emotional experience somewhere.
When the catalyst happens, we are overwhelmed with our unworthiness and with the goodness of God, and we just want to do God’s will. We sing songs about how great God is, and the songs are real and alive for us for the first time. Life becomes beautiful.
Then comes the second catalyst: Something goes horribly wrong. It happened for me when my girlfriend of almost a year broke up with me. I was pushed into God. God goes from being the most wonderful and beautiful thing in our lives to being our anchor and our only hope.
There is nothing wrong with this process.
Our commitment becomes rock-solid. We feel even more unworthy and privileged, like the shy girl with zits when the quarterback asks her out, but we feel like God has something special for us to do – us, and only us. We come to believe the bumper sticker that says “God loves you, but I’m his favorite.” God pulls us through our hard time and we’re stuck on God forever. This cements us in.
The problem is what we believe God is like. Our prior concepts of God are reshaped, of course, to a firm belief that God loves us, but depending on our tradition, we can build a solid attachment to all sorts of strange ideas.
Think of our idea of God prior to the catalyst as an abstract painting. Our encounter is a splash of red pain on the canvas. It colors everything, but beneath the splash, we still believe most (if not all) of the things that we once believed about God. Most of the other colors are still there.
We miss that what changed (the splash of red paint) is what blew our hearts away, and we embrace the entire painting. That splash made the whole thing more beautiful. But we come to think that an affront to one piece is an affront to the whole. We get snappy with people who disagree with us. We start to lose grace because we’ve become idolaters, worshiping our image of God rather than Jesus himself. We refuse to accept that no one has seen God and that God’s love surpasses understanding and, in Beuchner’s words, “The peace that passeth all understanding is reduced to peace that anybody can understand.” That graven image is what becomes our god.
We start as addicts to alcohol and become addicts to God. We start out on drugs, then turn to Jesus – and whatever we believe when we turn (including the catalyst) crystalizes.
Of course we keep growing, but unless something happens to us, we largely keep whatever notions we had of God when we made the turn. We flesh them out and sharpen our image, but we are rarely open to another splash of red, or to the suggestion that the God-painting we adore might have some serious issues. We see it through the lens of our experience.
Then one day, someone challenges us, and the more we’ve relied on the image of God that we’ve had, the more threatened we feel by a disagreement with one portion as an affront to the whole shebang. Friends and neighbors and family and television personalities throw splotches of paint onto our God-image, and we find ways to work it into the picture that we already have.
If we’re lucky, one day somebody breaks our picture. Something happens that completely contradicts what we know. We receive the blessing of doubt which leads to the blessing of grace for others. We see someone else’s picture and decide that it is beautiful as well, even though it looks so different from ours. Our image decrystalizes. Or maybe it simply changes and recrystalizes.
Each of us uses a worldview. Some worldviews are better than others, and maybe some are “right,” but I doubt it. We’re human beings, not God. I think maybe God has the right worldview, but I don’t think that we do or that we can.
Even if the Bible contains truth (and I believe that it does), having a Bible is not necessarily the same as having the entirety of the Truth. There is truth outside of the Bible as well. If we had the entirety of the truth it would break our brains.
I found a piece of paper a while ago on which I had written the words (several years ago):
I believe in absolute truth. Other people don’t.
It was pretty embarrassing – first, because of the us-vs-them dichotomy I had set up, and second because of my position on absolute truth.
There is an absolute reality, and there is absolute truth, but we are all of us the blind men in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem about the blind men and the elephant: We have experienced a part of the truth, and are anxious to insist that, possessing that part, we possess all.