“Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…
I have lost all things.” — Paul
The absurdity of life is an experience—or a way of being—that many of us born and raised in Christianity are entirely unfamiliar with. We can dialogue back and forth about it in an abstract sense, but we can never truly experience it. However, this does not mean we cannot approximate a workable sensitivity to the secular mind. As we have seen in the last three articles, understanding certain key concepts can help us disentangle ourselves from our familiar worldview and taste to one degree or another, the angst of the age. These concepts include an understanding and appreciation of the absurdity of life, the “escapes” or “navigations” from the absurdity (amusement, duties, transcendence, and equilibrium), the language of being that is nurtured by the absurdity and the fragmentation that this all results in. These pillars, when taken seriously, present us with a cultural milieu so far removed from traditional Adventist frameworks that they call us to a reimagined approach to evangelism and the local Adventist church.
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The next step on this journey is to lay a foundation for this reimagined approach which I will be doing throughout the remainder of this series. However, I need to issue two warnings before we dive in. First, up to this point in the series, I have painted a broad picture of secular culture by looking at some of its common themes. However, as we explore the reimagining of doctrine, we necessarily step out of the broad and into the specific. What this means is that there is no way I can possibly present all of Adventism with a reimagined approach that will somehow work in every setting. Therefore, in this next phase, I will speak less from the broad and more from the specific as I encounter it in the secular Western Australian sphere in which I work. My objective in doing so is not to give Adventists everywhere a blueprint of what they should say and do, but to demonstrate what a “reimagining” looks like so that it can be contextualized. Anything less than this—any supposed universal standard for all secular people—is a gimmick at best.
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Second, I will aim to keep things as simple as possible in this series in order to cover all 28 fundamental beliefs of our church. What this means is that each treatment will be brief, not exhaustive. Much will remain unsaid as to attempt to say it all would require a volume of work beyond the scope of this series. Nevertheless, I hope to provide the reader with a foundation solid enough to be taken and adapted for their own sphere of influence.
With all this out of the way, we will begin by reimagining (briefly) the doctrine of God.
God and Absurdity
As we begin to explore the doctrine of God we must, on the onset, make a very clear distinction between the modernist approach to God and the post-modern approach. Both of these angles co-exist in secular culture today and with the rising impact of metamodernism, more and more people oscillate between them both. Sadly, our evangelistic campaigns only really highlight the modern approach thus leaving key questions posed by the contemporary secular mind unanswered.
Simply speaking, the modernist approach to the question of God revolves around rational argumentation and evidence. That is, what evidence is there for the belief in this deity we call God? Can it be demonstrated scientifically or empirically? This kind of resistance to faith, therefore, calls for an apologetic approach where we focus on questions like, “Does God Exist?”, “Did Science Bury God?” and “Creation versus Evolution”. Some of our evangelistic campaigns have historically included these kinds of modernist topics as they relate to God and the universe. Emerging generations still ask these questions which is all the reason necessary to continue to address them.
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But here is a key point to consider. Even though modernism clashed with faith-propositions, modernism and faith still have one key thing in common: they both assert humanity’s ability to grasp absolute truth. For the man of faith, that absolute truth can be grasped in God’s self-revelation. For the atheist or agnostic, that absolute truth can be grasped via scientific inquiry. However, postmodernism holds to an altogether different epistemology. In postmodernism, absolute truth cannot be grasped or contained by human reason because reason itself is not a reliable tool. Science, therefore, cannot be trusted as an absolute source of truth any more than a religious text. Postmodernity thus arises as a deconstruction of modernism’s blind faith in the reliability of reason. Therefore, questions like “Does God exist?” or “Creation or Evolution?” do not always entice the emerging secular psyche because they reek of naive rational argumentation at best, and—packaged in religious jargon—pseudoscientific fundamentalism at worst.
With the rise of metamodernism, things get a bit more complex. Here we see a return to the enthusiasm and belief of modernism but the incredulity and cynical view of postmodernism has not been abandoned. Instead, the culture now vacillates between the two with no rhyme in the back and forth. Seth Abramson captured the essence of the metamodern zeitgeist best when he explained that the goal of metamodernism is “to collapse distances”. In this sense, Metamodernism is an attempt to restore the naive hope of modernism while holding to the cynical skepticism of postmodernity. Thus, a metamodernist will find our “Creation or Evolution” events as an ideologically divisive experience in which “distances” are affirmed and enlarged rather than “collapsed”. Likewise, the question of God is looked upon less as a proposition to be argued with, for example, “The Kalam Cosmological Argument”, and more as an existential quest which Brendan Dempsey fittingly described as the “revival of the mythic” in which “sublimity, narrative, depth, meaning, and reorientation are once again being sought out”. In the same vein, our sermons on how “Archaeology proves the Bible”—while potentially impressive to a modern mind in search for evidence of God—is not appealing to the post or emerging metamodern mind that could care less about what the postmodern critical theorists refer to as “socially constructed evidence”.
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However, it would be unfair to leave things here because rejection of God in our current age is not due to philosophical skepticism of metanarratives alone but to the very idea of God clashing with the secular language of being. Recall from the first three articles that the language of being is the heart of the secular individual. It represents their value structure and the things they perceive as important in life. In this sense, the question “Does God exist?” packaged in our religious art, idioms, and absolutist postures simply come across as totalitarianism disguised in spirituality. Thus, in his article “How Can We Believe In God In A Postmodern World?” Marcus Honeysett could write that “the philosophical pluralist objects that if God reveals His absolute truth, then He, and Christians, are justified in tyranny – the intolerant imposition of that will on others.”
In light of these challenges, the question we are left with is—how do we present God to the secular mind? I propose that we need to do so from the perspective of truth as flow. In this sense, what we are doing is taking the doctrine of God as we currently know it and, rather than assuming we have him all figured out (truth as stagnant), embarking on the journey of discovering him anew. This requires the believer to admit, first of all, that there is something of God they are yet to learn and in this sense, I am grateful to belong to a denomination that values the concept of “present truth” meaning truth is always unfolding.
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As we embark on this journey, the main objective is to rediscover God, not via the deconstruction of what we know to be true of him, but via a reimagining of how we have heretofore perceived him. We are looking at him from different angles and through the diverse prism of the secular value structure and therefore begin asking questions we may not have asked before. Questions like, “Is God a threat to self-determination or its originator?”, “Is it fair or accurate to see God primarily as ‘power’ or ‘authority’?” or, “How do we understand God’s government of love over against the imposition of dogma so prevalent in Christian culture?”
In asking these questions, we are committed to the central question: How can we introduce God in a way that connects with the secular language of being while remaining true to his self-disclosure? In my particular context I have found the answer to be quite simple: Assuming the posture of truth as flow, I have embarked on the God-journey by focusing on his “inherentness” rather than his “necessity” and his “virtue” rather than his “claim”. In doing so, I have repeatedly seen secular seekers turned off by the explanations and language of other well-meaning church members suddenly open up, drop their walls and become excited about the journey. I will explore the first below and dive into the second in the next article.
God as Necessity vs God as Inherent
Imagine one day discovering that everyone you thought loved you was only with you because they could get something out of you. Perhaps your wealth drew them to you or your popularity. Maybe your wife was only with you because you could provide security. Or your children only visited because you fed them for free. How would you feel knowing that the people closest to you were with you, not because you were inherently worth being with, but because you provided a service or met a need? Would this relational structure not imply that in the eyes of your close ones you are not inherently valuable as a human being but are merely an object that serves their gratification? That your worth is only in relation to what you can provide or perform? That when the day arrives in which you can no longer offer said benefit your desirability will likewise diminish?
If given the choice, a healthy human being would choose to be loved for who they are rather than what they have. And yet, when it comes to evangelism, it is what God has and not who he is that we tend to “sell” the most. This is the perspective I refer to as “God as necessity”. In this paradigm, we are convincing the people around us that they need God. “There is a hole in your heart only God can fill” or “You are a sinner in need of a Savior”, “In the judgment you will be found guilty but God has provided a way out”—all of these perspectives are rooted in the traditional framework of “God as necessity”—a God whom Christian apologist William Lane Craig aptly referred to as “fire insurance”.
The problem with this view, however, is that if a person does not need God to perform any duty, solve any problem or meet any condition then our entire message falls apart. Thus, in his departure from evangelical faith, former Hillsong writer Marty Sampsom could say, “Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God” presumably meaning that people don’t need God in order to experience the things Christians often attribute to his power alone—things like overcoming addictions, healing interpersonal catastrophes or finding meaning and hope in the midst of adversity and loss. Likewise, financial success, a positive social impact, a morally upright life and other results often associated with following Jesus in the modern age can be easily attained without any kind of religious commitment.
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The other problem with God as necessity is we are forced to have to try and prove a person’s need of God and in the secular sphere, this approach almost always creates resistance. This is because we are having to lead people to embrace an a priori commitment to ideas like total depravity, fear of judgment or end-time events and cynicism toward the simple pleasures of life—all postures that are easily interpreted as psychologically suspect. Among the more positive pockets of Christianity, we may see an attempt to convince the lost that they are “lost” and in need of being “found”, or we might appeal to metaphors of thirst and emptiness that we have to get people to embrace before we give them the good news of the loving Jesus who can satisfy and fill. Professor of Church History Lisa Clark Diller exposed the bankruptcy of this approach best when she stated that for many secular people today the contemporary “Jesus is my boyfriend” approach can actually come across as “gross” due to its hyper-romanticism. This idyllic “hole in the heart” approach is a major turn off for a generation that finds beauty in that “hole” and that rejects any suggestion that the “hole” can be filled by something as oppressive as Eurocentric religion and, instead, finds a great deal of contentment in equilibrium. Likewise, the moral relativism of the age means that the secular mind does not necessarily fear judgment or accept propositions such as sin and “lostness” to begin with. To try and force someone to embrace those views is an almost surefire way of repelling them because their language of being interprets each of those propositions as emotional manipulation and opportunism. Now, of course, this does not mean that people do not have a hole in their heart and that they are not sinners confronting the reality of judgment. All that is still true. But if we are to connect the culture to the God of Scripture, approaching God as a necessary product to resolve all of these issues feels more like a clever marketing technique than a meaningful way to interpret reality.
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This brings us to the perspective of God as inherent. In this perspective what is meant is that God is inherently worth knowing irrespective of any needs he can meet. Does he meet needs? Of course! Every relationship does. But the best relationships transcend necessity and enter the realm of inherence where one lover looks upon the other as worth knowing “just because”. There is no selfish ambition or craving that needs to be fulfilled by the other, rather the other is simply one whose company you enjoy for nothing more than who they are. In other words, in their authentic self, this person is of supreme value and worth to you detached of any supposed gain. You simply love being around them even if you receive no benefit. In fact, they are worth knowing even if it costs you the benefits and privileges you already possess. The apostle Paul clearly related to God this way when he wrote of, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” even though, as he later concluded, the relationship had caused him to “lose all things.” (Phil. 3:8)
This is the posture I assume with the secular seeker in my sphere of influence. It is an approach that generates curiosity rather than resentment. In this sense, I am connecting the seeker to the source of all the beauty already present in their lives and inviting them to explore that source. Rather than having to convince them that they are empty, that they are going to hell or that their souls are in mortal peril, I connect them to a God inherently worth knowing because he is the maker of everything they already value. To use a brief illustration, if the work of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka enthralls you, and you are given the opportunity to meet her—would you say no? If so, what justification would possibly suffice? You might not “need” her to provide anything to your life and yet, the very state of being in love with her work is sufficient to awaken curiosity. Thus, when speaking with secular people I explore the things they love about life. Family, freedom, art, poetry, and nature for some. Curiosity, adventure, research, travel, and fashion for others. The question is therefore plain—what would stop you from exploring the one who designed everything you love? It’s a fascinating question that paves the way for some of the most profound conversations you will ever have.
The author and poet Jefferson Bethke captures this reality well in his distinction between what he calls a “Genesis 1 or Genesis 3 Christian” in his book “It’s Not What You Think: Why Christianity Is So Much More Than Going to Heaven When You Die.”
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“What I mean by that phrase” Bethke explains “is a lot of people tell other people they need Jesus because ‘they are a sinner’ which is referencing Genesis 3 where the curse falls on humans. But our story doesn’t start there. It starts in Genesis 1 as image bearers. Uniquely created and formed out of the dust. We are weighty and beautiful creatures…”This distinction Bethke introduces us to is not one that is evidently meaningful for many Christians, and yet in my experience, it is of incalculable value in secular outreach. The difference between telling someone “Receive Jesus or face God’s wrath” or “Is xyz wrong in your life? Jesus is the answer!” versus, “God is the author of all the beauty you value, including yourself, Why not consider the possibility of exploring him?” is pragmatically substantial. There is something effective about beginning the story of scripture at “you are meaningful” instead of “you are terrible”.
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God as necessity is a framework that worked best in a pre-modern context where people accepted long-held theological paradigms of total depravity without much resistance. But the modern era—complete with its enlightenment, suspicion of metanarratives and sensitivity toward the injustice of the church empire—can not be approached this way. In this context, faith in God as necessity is an existential version of the premodern “God of the gaps” motif which ethologist Richard Dawkins cleverly summarized as “the great cop out”. It paints our relationship with God as a dysfunctional dependency, a crutch by which we get through life, an opiate through which we escape the agony of being. No wonder why men like Nietzsche and Marx raged against this religious posture. It allows the worshiper to escape responsibility, to ignore injustice in the name of the heavenly knight in shining armor and to justify weakness in the name of piety, humility and the proverbial pie-in-the-sky in which all their hopes were placed. Thus, Nietzche would dedicate his short and painful life to the celebration of the “ubermensch” [superman]—the hero of the story which every human being should aspire to be. Contemporary psychologist Jordan Peterson likewise emphasizes personal responsibility in his classic work “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” as that which alone gives life meaning and virtue. The popularity of Peterson’s message alone—a message which elevates responsibility and self-development as the keys to meaning—leaves God as necessity—either for temporal or eternal gain—as a tired and outmoded framework.
On the other hand, God as inherent is a posture that awakens curiosity, opens the door to conversation and soothes the secular apprehension toward the spiritual journey. When we seek to know God as inherently worth knowing—not because we need him but simply because he is—we offer the secular mind an exploration of God that interacts meaningfully with their language of being. God as inherent takes us away from threats of judgment, doom and gloom apocalypticism, and what Anneliese Wahlman refers to as the “seminar flier that looks like it’s advertising a poorly made horror film” and instead leads us to celebrate justice, an enthusiastic vision of human empires recapitulating to God’s kingdom of love and a message that interacts harmoniously with the values secular minds already admire. The gospel takes on a different tone as does that apocalyptic narrative, three angels’ messages and end time warnings. When we approach these themes with God’s inherent worth instead of exploiting people’s fears and insecurities to get them crawling to the altar, we achieve a faith exploration of inestimable worth. It leads us to celebrate the goodness of life and culture, to seek the fingerprints of God in art and film, and to invite the mind of the incredulous to pursue the God who has originated all they deem significant.
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At this point, some might wonder if this is all a bit idealistic and naive. After all, doesn’t the secular mind hate God? Wouldn’t it struggle to see any beauty as originating from him? And the answer is twofold. First, I am not presenting a framework by which we can convince a mind hostile to God to follow him. There is no framework for that. Everything I share in this series is aimed at connecting meaningfully with the secular mind that has already been awakened by the Spirit and whose heart is relatively soft to the narrative of scripture. My contention is that once a secular person is in that space the approach we take will either lead them to continue to explore or repel them altogether. God as inherent is one approach that works extremely well in my particular context. However, this doesn’t mean the question of the secular mind struggling to grasp beauty as coming from God is pointless because its a very valid point! Therefore, we need to move from the conversation of God as necessity versus inherence to the conversation of God as virtue versus claim. We will explore this in the next article. Nevertheless, I hope the reader can catch a glimpse of what reimagining doctrine is all about. In this article, we have taken the doctrine of God and deconstructed nothing. However, we have approached it with a sensitivity to the secular language of being and from that place, we have contextualized the God-story to speak meaningfully and interact authentically with the values that secular absurdity upholds.
On metamodernism: Torres, Marcos D. “Metamodernism and its Impending Challenge to Christianity,” [Web: https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/metamodernism-and-its-impending-challenge-to-christianity]
Seth Abramson. “Metamodernism: The Basics,” [Web: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/metamodernism-the-basics_b_5973184]
Brendan Dempsey. “[Re]construction: Metamodern ‘Transcendence’ and the Return of Myth,” [Web: https://www.metamodernism.com/2014/10/21/reconstruction-metamodern-transcendence-and-the-return-of-myth]
See Marcel Kuntz. “The postmodern assault on science: If all truths are equal, who cares what science has to say?” [Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3463968] and, Rose-Mary Sargent. “The social construction of scientific evidence,” [Web: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10720539708404612?journalCode=upcy20]
Marcus Honeysett. “How Can We Believe In God In A Postmodern World?” [Web: http://www.inplainsite.org/html/god_in_a_postmodern_world.html]
William Lane Craig. “What to Do Now that I’m Convinced?” [Web: https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2015/what-to-do-now-that-i-m-convinced]
Relevant Magazine. “Hillsong Songwriter Marty Sampson Says He’s Losing His Christian Faith,” [Web: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/hillsong-songwriter-marty-sampson-says-hes-losing-his-christian-faith/]
Lisa Clark Diller. and Marcos D. Torres. “The Future of Adventist Evangelism,” [Web: https://soundcloud.com/pomopastor/the-future-of-adventist-evangelism-with-lisa-clark-diller]
Jonathan Petersen. “It’s Not What You Think: An Interview with Jefferson Bethke,” [Web: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2015/10/its-not-what-you-think-an-interview-with-jefferson-bethke]
Alister McGrath. “There is nothing blind about faith,” [Web: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/there-is-nothing-blind-about-faith/10101704]
Aneeliese Wahlman. “The Lost Art of Evangelism,” [Web: https://lightbearers.org/blog/the-lost-art-of-evangelism]