I just was listening to a worship song a few hours ago that talks about “the power of your presence” and asking God to “move upon our praise”. Some will also be familiar with the liturgical language around Communion or the Eucharist where a priest will pray the epiclesis, where the elements of bread and wine are consecrated. Different traditions have different ways of understanding and describing what happens during the Eucharist, but a widely shared understanding is that of “real presence”.
What do Christians mean when they talk about God being ‘present’? Often it is in worship settings, both public or personal, that God’s presence is spoken of. It can also be in mission settings, where people describe God being with and empowering them.
Modern people who can sometimes feel that scientific knowledge is the ultimate form or standard for knowing anything, can struggle to understand this. At times they can even mock it. Indeed, a mockery of the Latin that priests would use during Eucharist is thought to be how the phrase “hocus pocus” originated.
This post will outline how many Christians understand the presence of God. The Christian understanding of God’s presence lies between two philosophical extremes – dualism and pantheism. We’ll start with Dualism.
This view separates reality into a sharply divided duality between physical and spiritual. It is a very old way of looking at the world, distinguishing between “everyday reality” and “primary reality”. In this view, God is normally quite distant and detached from our worlds; so in order for God to be present, God would have to have a reason important enough. If we are operating with this framework, then God’s presence is something like magic, and a religious leader praying is something like an incantation or spell. Perhaps a sacrifice, or some other act that ‘gets God’s attention’, provides the necessary impetus for God to come close.
There are ethical and religious implications here. In this view, it’s a supernational and special thing to understand God’s will and be in God’s group. Only a small number can claim to have the secret knowledge.
The problem with this view is that it is hard to get access to God, and it breeds the most harmful forms of fundamentalism, arrogance and disassociation with reality. The rules are ours and the rules are clear, and there is no room for discussion. It sees and rejects evil with total certainty.
This view is the total opposite of dualism. It collapses the distinction between physical and spiritual entirely. God is not only present everywhere, God iseverything, and Everything is god. In this view, it takes no effort to cause God’s presence, and more than that, God is always present in the same way at all times.
There are also ethical and religious implications here . In this view, all actions are equally meaningful (or indeed meaningless) and thus equally full (or empty) of ethical meaning. Childbirth and murder are equally significant (or insignificant). Everything has equal value (or worthlessness).
This is the main problem with this view. It cannot distinguish between good and evil, and thus it necessarily leads to nihilism and apathy. Because this view cannot discern good from evil, it ends up permitting evil in the name of acceptance.
Creational Ethical Monotheism
This view is reflected in Judeo-Christian tradition. It sees God as both ‘transcendent’ above reality and ‘present’ within it. It’s not that you have a soul trapped in your body (dualism), or that your body is divine (pantheism), but rather that you are an embodied soul, whose being is simultaneously spiritual and physical. It’s not that God is normally far off (dualism) or that God is everything (pantheism), but that God is always present, and sometimes powerfully present in unique ways for unique purposes.
God is present with a mother giving birth in a way that God is not present with a murderer. God is present in a community of believers gladly celebrating Eucharist in a way that God is not present in a human trafficking ring.
This difference in God’s mode of presence is not due to a change in God’s nature, but due to a difference in alignment and relation to God. Only in this ‘both/and’ view of God’s presence can we understand freedom and purpose, action and responsibility. God is always ‘in control’ as the transcendent Father who is by nature constantly undergirding and carrying reality forward in all of its breathtaking cosmic breadth, evolutionary development and subatomic vitality. At this ‘omni-present’ level God is indeed present alongside evil, whilst abhorring it at the same time. But as the immanent Spirit, God always refuses to control or micromanage creation, most of all the image-bearing humans created to reflect God’s wisdom, will and purposes. At this immanent level, God is only present where God is welcome, and only empowers actions that align to God’s desire.
This is the meaning of God’s presence. It’s why we can ‘welcome’ God when we pray for God to be with us in our day, or in a worship service. And it’s why God can say in Scripture that he will not delight in worship if our lives are not also aligned to his will and we are doing harm to others (see Isaiah 58 and Amos 5).
Mercifully, God is patient with our imperfections and continually invites us to progress forward and live in greater and growing alignment with his presence in our lives.
Western society is increasingly post-Christian.Â There will be many ingredients for this turn away from Christianity, but at least one of these is epistemic in nature.Â Post-Christian Westerners are skeptical. Â Christians are seen as having a kind of easy certainty undergirding the knowledge of religious faith, which is highly offensive for those who feel they have intellectually outgrown faith.Â
Vocal opponents, such as the new atheists, attack the rationality of Christianity, and a host of supporters subsequently defend it.Â Some of these defenses directly counter arguments at the rational level, whilst other defenses transcend them by claims to personal revelation or experiences of various kinds.Â Meanwhile, another response to this dynamic is the increasing category of those who identify as â€œspiritual not religiousâ€, which seeks to gain all of the spiritual benefits without having to bother with all of the religious certainty.Â Such is the landscape of belief at the popular level.
The purpose of this blog is to propose and give language to a spectrum of belief.Â It will have the basic dialectic shape of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, with flanking vices on both sides of a virtue. I will propose that a virtuous Christian epistemology must claim the right amount of knowledge, and thus avoid the epistemic vices on both sides.
Agnosticism is a reaction to a claim of knowledge. This is to say that Agnosticism, as negative activity, is in some sense always posterior to the claim of knowledge that it rejects. Belief in God must be intelligible before that belief can be resisted.
Â Â Belief Â < – – – – – – – – – – – – – Agnosticism
There are a few things we wish to observe concerning Agnosticism. First, being specifically agnostic about a particular knowledge claim is not a vice. Jesus stated that the Son was â€˜agnosticâ€™, or did not know, of â€œthat day or hourâ€ (Matthew 24:36). We are all agnostic about many things. The kind of â€˜Agnosticismâ€™ we are calling a vice here is that which is of a more general and ultimate nature â€“ with specific reference to God.
This leads to the second observation about general Agnosticism. The line between Agnosticism and what is called atheism is often very blurred. Only the most convinced of atheists would say they know that the universe was not created by a being fitting of the word God. What atheists and agnostics share is a rejection of positive knowledge claims concerning Godâ€™s existence and nature.
The third observation relates to the strongest and most negative forms of Agnosticism and atheism. Arguably, it takes just as much faith to believe either a) that Nature is self-existent, uncreated and eternal, or b) that something-that-is-not-a-God created Nature, as it does to believe c) that the intricate qualities and properties of Nature reflect the intent and intelligence of a Creator. It is one thing to critique an explanation, and quite another to argue for an alternative explanation. Further, although it is not always the case, it is not out of place to suggest that when one doubts an explanation or idea, they tend to have an implicit belief that a different explanation or idea is more feasible.
Fourth, the general Agnosticism of which we speak here tends to trust the facts of physics over the values of metaphysics. Philosophically, it is within the camp of Phenomenalism, which in many forms, rejects any non-empirical forms of knowledge. Agnosticism and Scientism go hand in hand. The argumentation ends up being circular, as the possibility of non-scientific knowledge is rejected on the basis of not being scientific.
Finally, Agnosticism is practically impossible. Just as facts do not give magical birth to values, nor can a tidy trusted bridge be built from the descriptive domain of â€˜isâ€™ to the prescriptive world of â€˜oughtâ€™. Yet we simply cannot practically live without values, metaphysics, and such necessary assumptions as dignity, rights and love. The chasm between the scientific truth of the height of oneâ€™s lover and the metaphysical instinct that caring for them is â€˜rightâ€™ cannot be traversed. A true agnostic, must confess that their strong preference for â€˜loveâ€™ (however defined) has utterly no empirical basis, and is no more â€˜trueâ€™ an ethic than genocidal, â€œmight-is-rightâ€ totalitarianism.
Indeed, there is good reason to be sceptical about Agnosticism.
At a popular level, the epistemic dialectic is between un-believers and believers. Agnostics and the Religious. But logically, as well as linguistically, the opposite of Agnosticism is Gnosticism.
The first thing to observe is that Gnosticism is an â€œismâ€; meaning (like Agnosticism and Atheism) it reflects a positional stance to general, ultimate realities, including God. We are not talking about simply having â€˜knowledgeâ€™ (Greek: gnosis) about something, but a life-orienting claim to a world of knowing that is superior, secret and special.
Second, although we are using the term â€˜Gnosticismâ€™ in a very wide sense as the equal opposite to Agnosticism, it is worth observing some more concrete forms of it. The Gnosticism of early Christians (including Marcion) saw Jesus as superior to the Old Testament God, and the spirit as superior to the flesh. Gnosticism remains alive and well today. Modern Christians, like Marcion, continue to play Jesus (as they interpret him) off against the OT God. Or other times, they discover secret â€˜keysâ€™ to interpret the Bible and progress well beyond basic Greek or Hebrew numerology to detect secret â€˜codesâ€™ that find the names of modern nation-states or world leaders in the text of prophetic Scriptures. Outside the church, secular Gnosticism invites seekers to understand the â€˜Secretâ€™ to control your own destiny and find financial freedom (from the mundane realities of consequences, hard work and cause-and-effect).
This leads to the main and third observation about how weâ€™re using the term Gnosticism. Gnosticism is about claiming to know the truth. Whereas Agnosticism trusts only scientific fact and is sceptical about all truth claims (other than the truth claim that only scientific truths are true!), Gnosticism trusts its truth claim and is sceptical about what others see as â€˜real worldâ€™ facts. As indicated above, Christians are not immune from Gnosticism. Fideism, or â€˜faith in faithâ€™ is very real. Christians can retreat into an impenetrable fortress where every belief is defended by the conversation stopper â€˜I just have faithâ€™. If God made the world, including the world of facts and science, then the world of faith should have no problem engaging with the world of facts.
This leads to the fourth and final observation about Gnosticism. Like historical Gnosticism, there is a fundamental element of distrust in its modern version. This links Gnosticism with conspiratorial thinking. â€˜Alternativeâ€™ is always more true than the â€˜mainstreamâ€™. Alternative theories about 9-11. Alternative medicine. Some use the term â€˜conspiritualityâ€™ to describe the link between those who embrace both fashionable alternative spirituality and conspiratorial alternative news.
So far, we have made observations about two wildly different approaches to life and meaning and God. Weâ€™ve seen how Agnosticism can be so confident in its rejection of truth that it cannot see its own truth claims, and how it cannot provide a foundation for deeply human values that are essential for living. Weâ€™ve discussed Gnosticism that is so suspicious of structure and reality that it prefers its own alternative reality and cuts itself off from any corrective influence. As weâ€™ll see in the final section, there is a lot of room in the middle between these extremes.
It seems as though there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between Agnosticism and Gnosticism. Extreme Belief and Extreme Scepticism kind of need one another to exist, and perhaps in that sense they can be mutually corrective. In between the extremes of meaning-destroying Agnosticism and choose-your-own-reality Gnosticism is a place where we integrate our head and our heart. We think and we feel. We know and we live.
Knowing nothing and knowing everything are not only impossible, but they are also both deeply un-Christian. Pushing back against some super â€˜spiritualâ€™ leaders at Corinth, who seemed to be pretty proud of their fancy speech and lofty knowledge, Paul writes that â€œwe know in part and we prophecy in part.â€ In Romans, echoing Isaiah 40:13, he asks â€œWho has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?â€
The Bible is a big book of course, but it should not be thought of as a philosophical book of technical descriptions of God. To know what God is like, Christians start with Jesus who said, â€œIf youâ€™ve seen me, youâ€™ve seen the Father.â€ As Michael Ramsey wrote, â€œGod is Christlike, and in him is no unchristlikeness at all.â€ From this point, Christians move from the Living Word (Jesus) to the Written Word (Scripture). This is a never-ending process of discovering the Christlike God. We read, re-read, read again, pray, worship, question, love our neighbours, lament, read again, love ourselves, give thanks, and continue to love our neighbours with the living knowledge of God we have collected and sharpened thus far.
Here are at least three things that make this â€˜living knowledgeâ€™ approach fruitful.
First, we Understand enough to Love.Â When the Bible talks about knowledge in relation to God, it is less to do with calculated philosophical abstractions and more embodied relational and ethical understanding.Â To know God looks less like claiming to fully understand God and more like knowing what Godâ€™s will is.Â Itâ€™s reflected in great summary verses like to â€œdo justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your Godâ€ (Micah 6:8) or to â€œLove your neighbour as yourself.â€ (Leviticus 19:18)
Second, we remain Curious enough to Question.Â The moment we know everything is the moment we stop learning.Â Theology is a science that continues to develop and grow and expand as we come back again and again to the sources (as Wesley formulated them): Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience.Â Curiosity is what makes our knowledge stretch and grow.Â As those who have felt their faith fade and return know only too well, when it returns it comes to us stronger and sharper.
Third, we remain Humble enough to Listen.Â Instead of endless arguments between those who play Science off against God, or claim a spiritual experience as a trump card, we really are all on the same plane of existence.Â We donâ€™t know everything.Â And if youâ€™ll pardon the double-negative, we donâ€™t know nothing.Â If Christians can embrace that kind of humility and actually put into practice what we think we know, then we are building bridges for conversation rather than stuck in predictable and unfruitful patterns of retreat or attack.
Fundamental to the whole narrative of scripture are the dignity of bodies.
This can be applied to heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars) and other earthly non-human bodies (“he feeds the ravens when they call to him”), but human bodies get consistent care throughout.
The twin tracks of Public Justice and Personal Righteousness (which may indeed have more overlap in meaning than difference between them) both have a lot to do with bodies. When the prophets publicly command care for neighbour, the widow, the poor, the hungry, the orphan, the blind, the leper and the naked, they are referencing various kinds of crushing oppression that impinges upon the dignity of the body. Personal issues of beauty (as the goal of what is often called ‘modesty’), holiness, identity, sexuality, work, and diet are all tied to the dignity of the embodied human.
The human body is the reference point for Shalom. Restoration between God, others, creation and self makes a physical difference on the human body.
Bodies are breathed into by God.
Bodies ascend from and descend back into the Creation.
Q: What the heck is going on with all the talk about colonisation and racism and white privilege and CRT, etc.?
A: Well, thankfully, people are feeling more and more impowered to speak out and call out various forms of oppression and harm. It may be unsettling, but it’s a good thing.
But wasn’t colonisation a good thing, for the most part, for the countries that were colonised?
That seems to be something someone says when they (knowingly or not) benefit from the arrangement. Consider the perspective of those who lost their ancestral lands, had their people effectively wiped out, and experienced other horrors such as rape, broken promises and more – it amounts to a soul-destroying loss of dignity that affects people for generations. Whatever ‘good’ things that happened along the way have to be understood within this larger destructive trajectory.
That’s a very negative portrayal of colonisation, isn’t it?
Not really. Even if you take one of the ‘best’ examples, the story of colonisation in Aotearoa – New Zealand, where (to summarize a great amount of detail) the missionaries established enough relationship and respect to see the creation and signing of a Treaty with the indigenous peoples, that didn’t stop economic interests (i.e. The New Zealand Company – literally a company that sold New Zealand to settlers) and governmental power from completely breaking the treaty and acquiring a huge majority of the land, and oppressing MÄori in many ways.
OK, but even if colonisation was a mixed bag and lots of harm was done, that’s getting further and further in the past, right? Don’t we need to move on and work together?
No. It’s not a simple matter of ‘moving on’. The past is still hanging around and influencing the present. The loss of dignity isn’t simply repaired by the passing of time. The loss of land was followed up with the suppression of culture and language – and therefore dignity. It takes a lot of work, surrender and giving back of power to even begin to get to a place where the phrase ‘working together’ even begins to make sense.
What do you mean by giving back power?
Well, for one thing it means not holding on to power for yourself.
Give me a specific example.
Well, let’s talk about language, for starters. In New Zealand, again one of best of the bad stories, the indigenous language, Te Reo MÄori, was banned. The impact of this cannot easily be overstated. Even now, when the use of the language is becoming widespread and showing up in mainstream culture, some people get annoyed when they hear it. This annoyance is about the disruption of power. The power of understanding what someone is saying, and the power of my language (English in this case) being the language everyone else needs to speak. When that power is disturbed it makes people annoyed – or even angry at times!
The great irony is that the MÄori people (after many of them having responded by English by learning it rather than opposing it!) saw Te Reo suppressed and banned while English became the dominant language.
OK, OK. Look, I don’t have a problem with indigenous language or people existing and doing well. I do have a problem with people saying that I as a white person have ‘privilege’, or the indication that I am a racist.
I can understand that being uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is, I am privileged, and I’m quite sure I do have various kinds of racism – some I may not even be aware of. I’m privileged, because white people have not been enslaved, forced off their lands, had their language and culture suppressed, and be effectively pushed away and pushed down in all areas of life. Being privileged doesn’t mean my family and I haven’t worked hard or faced difficult times. It just means that we didn’t have all the historical oppression weighing down on us in addition to the struggles we faced.
As for racism, I’m quite sure that – even at the level of my basic brain function – I respond to people who are ‘different’ to me with some kind of automatic suspicion. Most of us have for a while learned to suppress and manage that kind of racism, but more subtle forms still rage. Even when I ‘admire’ people of another race for doing well, does that assume that there’s something unnatural about someone of that race doing well? Or when I want to ‘include’ someone of another race in a conversation – that assumes that the conversation is mine to decide who to include or not.
Look, putting it like that is one thing, but there’s a wider agenda out there taking power. Look at all this Critical Race Theory stuff. It’s really worrying, because it’s from a Marxist framework. You’re a Christian after all! They don’t mix!
Should I be worried about the framework of… say… the Internet?
What do you even mean? I use the internet in a responsible way. Sure it’s got some junk on it, but I use it for good things, finding information, connecting with people, you know…
Exactly. Marxism, like any framework, will have pros and cons. Christianity can usually find at least some aspects of any philosophy that it can bless. Who would not bless the idea that humans are equal?
Oh, sure it may be find to be super nice about things and always look for the positive, but these people pushing CRT are making everything about race. It’s actually making things worse.
Look. From what I understand there’s not even one single definition of CRT. But I find it best to take a patient listening posture rather than a defensive rejection posture. It’s our ability to listen to other ideas that is really getting worse.
Yeah, yeah, I’ll admit listening is always better than shouting my own opinion. But why are these kinds of people so angry all the time? That just doesn’t help things when they are so angry. Why don’t you tell them to listen more?
I used to agree with you! But then a friend reminded me of how biblical anger can be. Sure, Scripture also has cautions to give about anger, but anger in and of itself is not the problem.
Nobody is going to talk about these issues perfectly. Passionate declarations of injustice are going to feel ‘too much’ for some people. Honest questions and clarifications are always going to look like self-protecting deflections to some. Hot anger will feel over the top. Responding to anger with ‘calm down’ will feel like tone-policing… Listening is costly. It’s easy to listen to ideas I agree with, or things said in ways that I am most comfortable with. But I’m truly listening when I can hear things that are disruptive to my own ideas, and in ways that make me a bit uncomfortable.
Would it be nice if everyone listened like this? Of course. But I have to be the change I want to see in the world, right?
Sin, by nature, is deceitful. Whether small and momentary or large and engrained, our sin will seek to avoid being seen for what it really is.
One way this happens is by externalising. Instead of owning the action, we shift the blame onto that person, that circumstance, that situation… Eventually there comes a point of having to surrender and admit it really is us doing it.
That sinful action wasn’t me – until it is.
I’ve heard someone say that in a moment of complete slavery to sin that it felt like they were “watching myself do it”.
It was always someone else, until it was them.
Maybe sin also works in a similar way to keep us from pursuing righteousness?
Maybe sin tries to convince us that being and doing ‘good’ is not really ‘us’. If we do something ‘good’ we were really just faking it.
Maybe pursuing righteousness is faking it until I make it. Pushing through the feeling of “someone else did that good thing – that couldn’t have been me”.
In this post, I’m testing out a possible parallel between global society and personal living.
In terms of global history, the control of communism was defeated by the freedom of capitalism.
What we might call ‘social democracy’ (to the extent that it is truly a) socially concerned and b) genuinely representative of the entire demos/people) could be a middle ground between overly restrictive communism (too much control, not enough freedom), and unrestrained capitalism (too much freedom, not enough control).
In terms of personal living, the control of repression has given way to the freedom of self-expression.
What we might call ‘social expression’ (to the extent that it is a) respectful of the needs and feelings of others and b) authentic in its expression of each unique identity) could be a middle ground between societal expectations that suppress individuality and stereotypes (too many rules, not enough individuality) and individual expressions that are indifferent to others.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are everything.
They are not simply a pairing of events that I need to believe ‘really happened’ in order to go to heaven after I die. They are also more than things that happened a long time ago, and that will have a transformative effect on me when I die.
The death and resurrection are about the transformation of old realities into new realities. At the cosmic level, the present ‘heaven and earth’ begin their transformation into the New Heavens and New Earth. At the level of humanity, all ‘in Adam’ die, and all ‘in Christ’ rise to new life.
What about the personal level?
The new life does not arrive entirely immediately, and neither does it wait entirely until until ‘the end’. It arrives progressively. Also, the new life is not automatically imposed upon us by God against our will, and neither is it entirely up to us to raise our own lives out of the tomb. It is a partnership.
What does this progressive Death-and-Resurrection partnership actually look like – in practice?
First. Bit by bit, I have to die.
What ‘bits’ need to die? Just the ‘bad’ bits? No. Even the parts of me that I may identify as ‘good’ are tainted by arrogance, insecurity, fear and pride.
What does it mean for a bit of me to ‘die’? Is it self-hatred, self-mutilation and self loathing? No. Letting a part of yourself ‘die’ is a way of dethroning, decentering, or deflating it. It is to say “This bit of me is not perfect and indeed may be worse than I currently think it is, and so it needs God to transform it; and I offer it to God do shape and remake it as he wants.” It’s a way of saying, one part of myself at a time, “I am not God.”
Second. Bit by bit, I have to rise.
There are at least two aspects of this that are difficult. One is that I have to work. God moves mountains, but I have to bring a shovel. God will breathe life into my insecurity, but I have to practice reminding myself that I am loved and enough in God’s eyes. The wind will blow as God allows it to, but I have to hoist the sail.
The other is that I may not be able to measure my growth. Just as opening the oven door while baking slows down the process, so also too much wondering ‘how am I going?’ can distract us from trusting what God is doing. I just need to trust and obey. Plant and water, and God will give the increase. Trust.
May we participate in the death of Christ as we mark this Good Friday, and may we trust God for new life from within us as we pass another Resurrection Day.