Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Grounded: A Theology of God With Us

It is Advent as I write these words, the time in the Christian liturgical calendar of preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus.  We have a tendency to view the Incarnation as a “special exception”, when God came to visit Earth in human form for a “limited engagement”.  And in some sense, I suppose it was.  Jesus the human being lived for a fairly short time, then died—and rose again.  When Jesus left his original followers, he promised the Holy Spirit would be their constant companion.  That Presence seems to permeate the pages of the New Testament and Christians believe the Spirit is still present today.  But while we give lip-service to that Presence “in church” we often act oblivious of it in the world. That is to say, we live our daily lives as if God is distant, aloof, unconcerned—far removed from us. 

The good news is that many people seem to be rediscovering, both inside and outside the church walls, that the Spirit of God is alive and well in our world today.  God is always with us but, like Jacob, we often struggle to recognize it.  So perhaps what we need is eyes that “see”, ears that “hear”, and hearts that are open to the “new-old-thing” that God might be up to in our world. 
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19
Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass has been helping many of us see “new-old-things” for over a decade.  In her writing, she puts into words things that get caught of the tips of others’ tongues.  As she shares her experience, many seem to relate—including me.

I have just finished reading Diana’s newest book, Grounded:Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. It seems fitting that I complete my reading as we are in the midst of Advent, for she truly outlines a theology of Immanuel—God with us—as good as any I’ve read previously[1].

The basic thesis in Grounded is that the vertical God that organized religions have known—and more or less “controlled”—for a long time is giving way to a horizontal God that is much more personal and organic in nature.  That is to say, we used to think of God “up there” in heaven, beyond us, and saw church as a place you go to gain access to God. Diana’s analogy is that church is the “elevator” through which one accesses the vertical God, so we might call the priest or pastor[2] the “elevator operator”. Whatever we call them, the idea is that the spiritual authority tells you how to gain access to the “elevator” to heaven, or to say another way, to “be saved” from the planet’s eventual destruction.

In more recent years, however, many people are discovering that incarnation wasn’t a one-time thing.   Though Jesus was and is a unique revelation of God, God still comes to us—is “born” in us—today.  God is certainly “down here” with us now, right in the middle of our complicated circumstances.  

Diana explains how a shift in how we view God has caused a shift in the questions we ask.  We once asked: What must I do to be saved (i.e., to go to heaven when I die).  Now we ask: Where can I experience God with me—now?  How can I train my eyes to see God in the world?  People aren’t seeking escape as much as engagement.  They want to know how they can be part of making this world into that which God dreams it could be?  They see themselves as co-creators with God, working in their time and place, on God’s ongoing creative masterpiece.

In Grounded, Diana tackles these “newer” questions of where and how to experience God in the world head-on.  The book is organized into two sections—sandwiched between an Introduction (called “Genesis”) and Conclusion (called “Revelation”).  She begins by looking at finding God in the natural environment with chapters focusing on Dirt (soil), Water, and Sky.  In each chapter, she begins with a personal anecdote, which leads into the question:  Where is God in the Dirt?  In Water?  In the Sky?  

In the second part of the book, she turns from physical geography to human geography (i.e., relationships with “neighbors”).  The second part of the book covers Roots (ancestry/genealogy), Home, Neighborhood, and Commons.  Again she asks where is God in all of these relational settings. 

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Grounded.  While my personal view is that God is both/and; God is both “up there” utterly separate from us and “down here” right beside and within us, I also understand why Diana chooses to focus heavily on finding God in the world in her book.  I think much has been written about God “up there” but not as much about finding God “down here”.  I must confess that I am more familiar with the idea of God with us than I am of the actual experience; I feel that I do it in my own life but sometimes struggle to put it in words.  I appreciate Grounded because it articulates some of Diana’s actual experience of finding God in the world along with many academic and experiential insights from other spiritual and secular authors. I could certainly relate to some of her anecdotes and at times found myself nodding my head or even laughing out loud as I read my book at the gym. 

Even better, I think her style will appeal to the increasing numbers, who for a host of reasons, may have stepped away from participation in organized religion—or who have grown never knowing such participation, nor feel like they are “missing something”.  These people don’t “go to church” but studies show that they still search for and long to experience God in the world.  Grounded gives lots of examples of how and where this is happening.  Diana challenges the church to accept these experiences as every bit as valid as anything that happens during a formal “church service”.

As I understand it, church was never intended to be a place where people come to access God and escape the world.  Rather, church should be a community of practice in living like Jesus that equips its “members” to engage the world with the radical way of Jesus, for the common good of all.  Grounded challenges the church to reclaim that revolutionary identity.

The Advent/Christmas season is when we remember the remarkable fact that the God of the Universe chose to become grounded.  The miracle of Christmas is that part of God became part of us—and remains part of us for all eternity. 

Jesus, says conventional Christian doctrine, is fully human and fully divine. Through Jesus, God mixed with human flesh and experienced profound solidarity with our race.  Through the birth, life, death—and resurrection—of Jesus, God was—and is—with us in every way a person could be so he can save us in every way we need saving.  This means far more than forgiveness of sins to go to heaven when we die, which we sometimes make the mistake of reducing it to; it was meant to launch us into a lifetime of apprenticeship to Jesus, and being transformed the human beings we have the potential of becoming.  Grounded is an excellent practical guide to how we actually do that in the settings where we live out our lives—connected to the soil, water, and atmosphere of this third rock from the Sun, and connected to one another a web of relationships that weaves together our family history, homes, and neighborhoods, into a larger interdependent global commons. 

If this review peaks your interest, perhaps Grounded would be a good book to read during Advent or during the New Year on your own and/or as part of a group.  It might make an excellent Christmas gift for you or someone you know.  I highly recommend it!

[1] One of my favorite Bibles is the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, which is organized around the theme of “God with us”, tracing God’s presence with God’s people throughout the Biblical story. Both Richard Foster (founder of Renovaré) and Dallas Willard have influenced my spiritual formation.  They both develop ideas of God with us in their writings, in particular Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Willard’s Divine Conspiracy.
[2] Butler Bass is Christian and thus writes primarily from that perspective, but she argues that the shift from vertical God to horizontal God is a universal experience.  Moreover, she includes examples from other faith traditions throughout her book.

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