For a quarter of a century my Christianity has been defined by coffee shop conversations and the occasional argument with other Americans whose lives look pretty much the same as mine. Regular church attendance and a slew of sermon illustrations. My Bible studies are cute and Instagrammable.
I think the biggest issue to emerge from my comfortable religion is that I struggle to recall times where I’ve had interaction with the Transcendent I claim to cling to so tightly. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit at our Comforter, but most Americans are already comfortable. Who needs a comforter when you’re already cozy? It’s like offering a duvet to a guest in the summer: Unnecessary.
How do you interact with the Transcendent?
The God whose bigness escapes the confines of language and whose essence knows literally no boundaries. We may try to box Him in with systematic lists of ‘He wills’ and ‘He won’ts’, but I think even those get shattered and left like flotsam in the wake of His ship. We may have narrowed down one aspect of His character, only to crack open another story from the Bible which reshuffles our deck of theological playing cards. Just when we were starting to get the spades separated from the clubs, He slips more jokers into our hand.
Earlier today I posted on Facebook the fact that last year, one Christian was martyred every six minutes for a total of roughly 90,000 martyrs in 2016. That number makes Christians by far the most persecuted group in the world. In fact, Christians make up roughly a third of the world’s population, yet they account for 80% of its violent persecution.
So why was it that my post received negative feedback so quickly from Christians and non-Christians alike? Americans tend to see Christians as merely entitled whiners who do little but stand in the way of ‘progress.’ We are seen as the oppressors far more than the oppressed.
Our babies are not born with eight arms because we suffer from radiation poisoning. Our playgrounds are not haunted by the ghosts of communism, nor are our herds cursed by local witchdoctors. My wife will not be raped for being a Christian, nor will our baby be held by the legs and smashed against a bus. My prayer life is more often a string of niceties that sounds nothing like the violent dreams of the imprecatory Psalmists, nor do I make vows like Ezekiel who lay on his left side and cooked his food over his own poop for a few years.
How do you interact with the Transcendent?
Transcendent: Existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. From the Latin transcendere, meaning ‘to climb over.’
Kantian ethics describe the Transcendent as ‘not realizable in experience.’
In other words, how do you experience the unexperiencable?
If everything we know is simply a gleaning from our experiences, how do we come to know God, the grand Other? My epistemology is optimistic at best, but I’ll leave the philosophical ranting to smarter people.
I’ve come to find that the key to unlocking the Transcendent is simple: Jesus.
Plato (that ancient pre-Christ Christian….kind of) talked about the invisible and ethereal forms which were represented by the lower, tangible physical world. Jesus is the union of the two. Jesus is who you get when you smash together the Divine and the visible.
Jesus is the reason matter matters.
He is the form become flesh.
Jesus breathes meaning into molecules.
I’ve been rereading David Platt’s book Radical, and he shares an anecdote about a conversation he had with a Hindu and a Muslim. He told them that most religions of the world see God on top of a mountain, and the various religions are simply taking different paths to the top. The men nod in agreement. “Yes, that’s exactly it!”
“But what if God came down to the base of the mountain because none of us could even make it a few steps up the mountain?” Platt replied. “Let me tell you about Jesus…”
Jesus is the top of the mountain come down to our place at the bottom. Jesus is the king of the upside down kingdom; the defier of the rules of mathematics. He could have invented the show Jeopardy with how backward His answers are.
You want to love your life? Lose it.
You want to be great? Be the servant of all.
You have enemies? Serve them some food & eat with them.
I think the idea of inversion helps to explain why we as Americans struggle so much to connect with the Divine. If Jesus came for (and as) The Least of These, it makes sense why we Americans—aka, The Greatest of These—have so much trouble resonating with Him. We’ve turned our faith into trite captions for our filtered photographs rather than a means of sacrificing ourselves daily. We prefer entertainment to disciplines such as fasting, prayer and silence. Many of our churches preach about how God wants to enhance our lives and make them better than they already are, which only adds to our societal confusion about Christianity.
We don’t long for the Word of God because it has never been taken away from us. Believers in other nations, meanwhile, rip Bibles into different sections because there is only one for a dozen people to share in their jail cells. We are a people of weak faith and weak wills.
I don’t want this post to be one of those American guilt posts, but I hope it calls you to examine your own context. Raise awareness about the persecuted church worldwide, and stand with them in prayer. There certainly seems to be some correlation between the persecution faced by Christians and their experience of God.
Some years ago, a group of Koreans were being held captive and awaiting their deaths, but miraculously they were rescued and released. Months later, they all reported that they longed to be back in that jail cell because they had never felt so close to Jesus as they did there.
I think experiencing the Transcendent has to do with removing the comfort we receive from anything other than Christ. Fasting is the removal of the comfort of food in order to be satiated with Christ; chastity is the removal of sex in order to experience the pleasure of Christ. Silence is the deprivation of music and noise in order to hear the gentle whisper of Christ. And so on.
J. Muyskens points out that Christian growth is not a matter of addition, but subtraction.
You want to connect with the transcendent? Subtract.
The timing of this post happens to be a great segue into the upcoming church season of Lent, when the Church worldwide gives things up for the sake of joining Jesus in His poverty. What will you subtract from your life in order to have the void filled with Christ? What will you sacrifice to know Him better?
There are Christians right now around the world who are being tortured and slaughtered for the name of Christ. They do not have the option to give things up for Lent, as everything is being snatched from them by force.
May we join them in this season by voluntarily giving up some of our own comforts. May we not forget our brothers and sisters in Christ who are daily persecuted around the world, but may our mindfulness lead to prayer and action. And may we be people who relinquish our rights to comfort and entertainment in order to commune with the Transcendent, who gave up all of His rights to commune with us.