Posts Tagged 'Godhead'

Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity

perichoresisAs usual, my blog readers are brilliant. My last ‘spirituality’ post, on Panentheism, Interspirituality, and Jesus invited a ton of insightful comments – and, as is about to be made abundantly clear, a new post. So here it is, response-style:

Nathaniel, you’re calling me a Calvinist! I don’t know whether to feel honored or slapped in the face. 🙂 Taking it from your vantage point, I’ll consider it an honor. I get what you’re saying about the ‘slipperiness’ of the term ‘panentheist;’ though I didn’t qualify it with hypens, I think the strong subtext of my post was that I’m not for a squishy, one-size-fits-all pluralism. Specifically, I said “I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” With that said, true disclaimer: in the intervening years since writing the piece, I am more inclined to nod in Dena‘s direction, that when Einstein or Hawking are sensing the permeating divine, they’re sensing and touching something real – more Way Three than Way Two (in my previous post).

Bert, I hear you! Theodicy (‘the problem of evil’) is with us almost no matter what we believe, and panentheism does not come out unscathed – indeed, it’s even more vulnerable, I think, because (unlike Deism or a highly ‘Sovereign’ removed God concept), panentheism seems to implicate God rather intimately in life’s hurts as well as joys. It’s one thing to say God is in the sunset, dancing in the rays of light; its quite another to say that God is holding the molecules together in the rapist’s knife blade. I want to avoid what I see as the weakest link of Hindu & Buddhist cosmology, that is, “Evil is just illusory,” but I am open to CS Lewis’s idea (developed in The Great Divorce) that evil is perspectival; that all truly will be made well once we have a new way of seeing. The jury’s out for me in how evil fits into panentheism – and yet, I can’t get away from the ‘All in all’ language in Scripture. I think that process theology will have a lot to teach us on this in the coming years.

Hi Bram – I know I probably focused on immanence here, but a robust, biblically-informed panentheism certainly includes God’s transcendence. God is ‘the Beyond in our midst,’ a Mystery even in self-disclosure. Jesus of Nazareth obscures as much as he reveals, I think.

Dena, I love your thoughts here. I think you hit on something key when you said “Christ is the focus for me … and *yet*, I notice that the goal of Christ is to bring us to the Father — to show us the Father.” This is freakily foreshadowing my interaction with Sweet & Viola’s ‘A Jesus Manifesto.’ I think I’d stop short, though, at saying “Ultimately, it’s all about the Father.” I think I’d say “Ultimately, it’s all about perichoresis, a five-dollar word for the relationship within the Godhead, expanding to embrace humanity & the cosmos. That is to say, when Jesus speaks, he’s always speaking of the Father. But when the Father speaks, he’s always speaking of the Son. And the Father sends the Spirit to reveal the Son, so that we might connect to the Father; the Spirit is our Comforter and our True Self, inviting us into the divine fellowship. At least, that’s my read. And it needn’t be so technical – to me, it’s all about the Triune relatedness of God as depicted in The Shack.

Ross, absolutely! Starting in the 1960s, when the West began discovering Eastern cultures & meditation practices – that’s when Christians (and possibly Jews too, though I can’t be certain) began rediscovering their own contemplative traditions – don’t let anybody call ’em ‘New Age,’ either; they’ve been around in one form or another for at least 1700 years – and arguably, embedded in the culture of those engaged in penning Holy Writ itself. I think that one of the greatest losses of our time is that of ‘contemplative mind,’ the ability to both focus and enjoy the spaciousness of God’s unfolding present moment.

David, are you saying that Jesus’ divinity is too much or too little involved in the panentheism discussion? I think that Jesus’ divinity is one of those pesky spiritual themes that panentheism handles exceptionally well, better than contemporary so-called orthodoxy or anemic liberalism.

Lemme explain. Contemporary self-confessed (Western, propositional, truncated, radio) orthodoxy sees God – and by extension God’s self-disclosure in Jesus – as someone (?) to be admired, and trusted in for God’s benefits, sure – but pretty much kept at a remote pedestal. Jesus is the ‘only’ Son of God, who did certain things on our behalf (namely, changing the Father’s mind about us, supposedly) and we worship him in response. This produces a lot of gratitude but very little life-change in my experience. And eventually, the gratitude (read: ‘worship’) turns to boredom.

‘Progressives,’ on the other hand, in attempting to correct the problems with the above view, fall into the opposite ditch – they pit ‘the Jesus of history’ against ‘the Christ of faith,’ place the Synoptics against John’s Gospel, and emphasize (their interpretation of) ‘The son of man’ against ‘The Son of God’ and certainly against ‘God in the flesh.’ Now don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for most of the scholarship that’s come out of historical Jesus studies – in particular, related to the socio-political culture of Jesus’ day (both Roman and Jewish), which sheds amazing light on both Jesus’ message and the unique set of circumstances that led to his death. I love me some ‘The Human Being by Walter Wink (for instance). But at the end of the day, a confused, solely-human Jesus who’s vaguely ‘connected’ to ‘Spirit’ only to die ignominiously and benefit from a dubious ‘spiritual’ resurrection isn’t too exciting to me. While it might be easier to follow such a Jesus, one isn’t quite sure why or where to follow him!

A third way, it seems, has been with us from the beginning. If Rita Brock and Rebbecca Parker are to be believed (and I think their work speaks for itself), the earliest Christians had “a high Christology and a high anthropology,” summed up in Athanasius’ maxim “God became man so that man might become God.” (He meant you too, ladies) Panentheism says that Jesus is the ‘uniquely’ begotten son of God, not the ‘only,’ echoing Scripture’s affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn among many ‘sons’ of God.  Jesus is glorious, divine, and there are certain unique and unrepeatable things Jesus does on our behalf, but overall, the earliest Christian spiritual thrust was one of participatory divinity. We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus.

This might sound like ‘New Age’ quackery to the modern ear – but in ancient Christian faith, this was known as theosis or divinization – participation in God via the activity of God in perichoresis – that is, the intent of the Father, the work of the Son, and empowerment of the Spirit. Through theosis, we are partakers of the divine nature – we become incorporated into the very life of ever-flowing Godhead, a dance that goes on from eternity to eternity. If the terminology makes you uncomfortable, think what we might mean by ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ – only giving much more glory to God and to a full-awakened humanity. If this all sounds rather airy-fairy pie-in-the-sky to you, consider that, historically speaking, the vast majority of temporal transformation happens when people are inspired by, and anchored in, a sense of the transcendant. The recovery of a this-worldy, suffering-servant son of man who nonviolently confronts the Powers is a desperately needed image and motivator – this is the gift of liberation theology. But a revelation of the Son of God, vindicated by the Father in peaceful, powerful resurrection, and inviting us on the same path of death and resurrection, this is the gift of the Eastern church and the mystics. Perhaps the call we’ve so often framed as ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ can be helpfully re-adjusted as a lifeLet us embrace both of these gifts fully – they are our inheritence.

Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?

I’m working on my response to Frank Viola & Len Sweet‘s A Jesus Manifesto. Before I (finish &) post it, however, I wanted to share this blast from the past with you – something I wrote for TheOOZE blog about three years ago, right after Jasmin and I got married. Carl McColman & I have become quite good friends since then, and some of my inclinations & language have doubtless changed. But I think I’ll preserve it as-is for the sake of its integrity…let me know what you think; this is relevant to my upcoming intereaction with A Jesus Manifesto..!

panentheism logo

This is my response and interaction to wonderful and incisive questions raised by Carl McColmnan’s post, Notes on Manifesting a Truly Interfaith Spirituality. (You should definitely read it first) I hope that I can respond as an “interfaith-friendly post-evangelical.” In Carl and I’s correspondence, he mentions that “a core issue for me personally is the ongoing question of where the balance point is between the old-Pagan-me, the new-Catholic-me, and the overall-Christian-me,” and I suppose it is very much the question of where does pantheism stop and panentheism begin–a core dilemma of Christian mysticism.”

Panentheism In Brief

It is indeed a core dilemma! I think of myself as a panentheist, and probably have for the past half-decade or so. I first encountered the notion through the post-denominational contemporary Christian mystic, Norman Grubb. If you’ve never read Grubb you really should; he’s fascinating. He began his life as a missionary, biographer and publisher. He never really left these passions, but lived them all out from a Center of what he would call “fixed awareness of union with Christ.” In the last several decades of his life he was a wanderer. He’d go anywhere and life for awhile, with anyone who would have him–he spent years with house churches, Messianic Jewish synagogues, all-summer camp retreats, and I learned a few years back that he spent several years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, Georgia where I went to school! His life exemplified his conviction that God was truly present in all things as the All in all.

I have more recently encountered the panentheist message in the writings of Marcus Borg and others, such as in books like The God We Never Knew. And I appreciate these writings, I truly do. But I suppose a significant difference between the vision of panentheism that lives in my heart and the interspiritual vision that informs Marcus, Matthew Fox and others is that I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

[Ouch! In the intervening years I’ve read both Borg & Fox more, and have to interject that this statement is rather unfair. While I don’t align with either of them ‘jot and tittle,’ they are both committed to the person and spirituality of Jesus.]

Like a good post-evangelical (Over the cultural and political commitments of this particular epoch but cherishing Scripture and good news nonetheless) my panentheism is biblically informed. I see unmistakable cadences of the all-inclusive Christ in such passages as (you’ll forgive me for not citing precisely) –

“I am God, there is no other,”
“God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike”
“There is a Light which enlightens everyone”
“God is the all in all”
“Christ will be the all in all”

…and of course that pagan poem that Paul quotes to pagan friends at Mars Hill in Acts, appropriating for Jesus Christ–“In Him we live, move, and have our being.”

This break with functional Deism came to me as liberation–very good news indeed! Not only did Christ’s spirit indwell me (a message which was good news enough after hearing from Calvinists that God only “positionally” indwelt a regenerate person–whatever that meant–and the Pentecostals who seemed to treat the Spirit like a rather elusive guest), but God was in everything in some sort of real and compassionate way. I like panentheism because it emphasizes immanence while still preserving transcendence and awe. Certainly many of my conservative Christian brethren squirm at such an understanding but I have to to go with what I’ve discovered.

Interspiritual Relevance

CoexistBut now I’m afraid that some of my progressive Christian and interspiritual brethren and friends might likewise squirm at my working understanding of “panentheism.” I know how much well-intentioned people wish to see panentheism as the vehicle for all interfaith dialogue and even interfaith worship, as some Great Core Spirit that, when you get right down to it, is shared by all the great faiths or life-paths. But I think this is more of a deus ex machina than it might at first appear, and I hope that I can respectfully explain why I feel this way.

I think that dialogue, learning, and appreciation among faiths, spiritualities and religions is crucially needed in our day and age–I will elaborate more in a moment. I am significantly less comfortable, however, with co-worship and integration as it seems to transgress something, and disrespect all faiths involved. Further, syncretism of this sort seems as if it would have the fruit of only further dividing people, giving them yet another religious option (interspirituality) to embrace or reject.

Does this make sense? You get a bunch of nice, open-minded progressives together to share their hearts considering their journeys as Pagan, Christian, Sufi, Unitarian, Buddhist, or Snake-handling sex cultist. Wonderful. But then if someone says, “These are all vital emanations from the same Source,” many in the room nod solemnly, but a few people look up like “Wait.” Then what? A new multifaith dogma has just formed in the room, and everyone has to either accept or reject it. Call it the curse of Martin Luther’s endless fragmentation.

Education and mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue might seem a whole lot more modest (read: lame) than constructing a bold new interspiritual outlook, but I think its small gains can do much to build mutual esteem and trust in our shakily pluralistic world, all without going the “all roads lead to the same path” route.

Getting back to the internal integrity of one’s faith, and speaking from my “Jesus-y” (as Anne Lamott puts it) perspective, where does fidelity to God come in? I consider myself thoroughly postmodern, but do postmodern people of faith always need to put ironic, self-effacing quotation marks around everything they “believe” to be “true”? I am personally struggling to live life through the Jesus Way–not the pop culture, American Jesus, but the Jesus I see in the Gospels and New Testament and mystics and marginalized church history through the ages. One thing I’ve come to discover is that Jesus loves everyone but he does not agree with everyone. He embraces and forgives the Woman at the Well but–before acknowledging the universality of the coming eschaton where God can be known everywhere, in Sprit and Realit–he engages her in a little Jewish versus Samaritan debate about the appropriate place for Temple worship!

My friend Brian McLaren says something like this: “Jesus is the Way to God and abundant life, it doesnt mean he stands in the way to divine access!” I believe that “Jesus is the savior of the world,” whatever that ultimately means, I can only speculate and hope. I cannot limit the meaning of this to a particular model of atonement, or a particular scope of redemption. All I know, based on Jesus’ revelation of God’s character and intention, is that the Godhead loves his enemies, forgives those who persecute, and practices restorative justice. I have every confidence, with Julian of Norwich, that “all will be well.” Please keep this in mind as you read, knowing that I’m not coming at this to Bible-beat dissenters into submission or condemn anyone to eternal flames! I’m simply talking about faithfulness to the light we’ve been given, and how that light might be unintentionally dimmed or blurred.

Clearly Carl feels more free than I do to “play with the poetry of an interfaith spirituality,” no doubt owing to your diverse background. On an intrafaith scale I am similar–I grew up equal parts Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian, and was always more willing to integrate the best of each of these denominational traditions. What was effortless to me in this regard always seemed like a huge sticking point to some of my friends, who grew up in a particular denomination. Perhaps because of this, there are ways that I can appreciate a “humble model” of interfaith interaction:

I value interfaith dialogue because it’s educational. So many people of all faiths are fearful of “the other.” We have no idea what our neighbors hope for, believe, or practice, and we tend to draw the worst possible conclusions because they’re not following Jeee-suz (or ‘the Prophet,’ be it Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or Elizabeth Clare). In an integrated society with a pluralist public square, this simply will not do. I love to participating in interfaith sharing times–whether formal sessions or conversations with friends and neighbors–to gain understanding about the diverse religions of the world.

Models of Pluralism in Christian Perspective

ConnectionFurther, I believe that I can truly learn, spiritually, from the world’s religious traditions–things that Zeus or the Vishnu decreed can give me an altogether fresh perspective on an obscure passage of Scripture or way that I reach God. But this is a qualified learning. I was talking about this with my friend Frank Viola, who’s an author and house church planter. Frank is definitely a conservative evangelical theologically, though he’s a pretty open guy considering these caveats–he has a special love for church mystics in particular. Right now he’s reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Because she’s coming from an “apophatic” contemplative perspective, she quotes freely from what she’s gained from her Buddhist background. As I was talking to Frank, I asked:

“I’m curious: Do you, personally, feel put off by Bourgeault’s references to Eastern spiritual practice? I personally feel like she’s simply giving credit where credit is due: she has a background in these practices and she feels like they have wisdom to illuminate the Scripture and our own tradition. I don’t feel like she ever says “Buddha is just as important/relevant as Jesus Christ,” or any such thing. It’s fascinating that, as people of different faiths began getting to know each other, you see this “borrowing of wisdom” take place. You see it all over Merton as well. It seems like there are several different ways professing followers of Christ have related to those of other faiths:

  • Way One: All other religions are simply false. (Their “gods” or philosophies are nonexistent and irrelevant.)
  • Way Two: All other religions are demonic. (Their gods or philosophies are real and dangerous to body and soul)
  • Way Three: All religions contain shades and gradations of the Truth. (Their gods or philosophies are incomplete revelations, tainted by the humanity’s fallen and fractured state, that nonetheless contain glimmers of the story of Christ)
  • Way Four: All religions lead to a singular (or at least similar) path. (There is a beneficent Force governing the cosmos that none of us can quite grasp; this Force communicates to people in different times and cultures in different ways, but there’s no significant qualitative difference between them)”

I then continued, “As for my .02, the First and Fourth Ways seem too black and white and simplistic, though they stand on opposite poles. Even though later Judaism seemed to view all gods who weren’t YHWH as nonexistent, Jesus makes much of genuine spiritual forces who were nonetheless malevolent. And of course in Daniel you have the angels doing battle with the Prince of Persia, etc… The Third Way, advocated most notably by CS Lewis, is the one I want to believe most–that God has not just communicated in symbols and shadows not just to the Hebrew people, but to all times and cultures (See, for instance, the contemporary East Orthodox book Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.

Common sense and experience, though, suggests to me that Way Two is frequently the case– humanity being what it is sometimes, faith becomes so twisted as to be demonic and dangerous, as is the case with televangelists and Vodou and fundamentalist Islam.”

So, to recap: I think that I can learn about communion with God from a Buddhist or a Sufi, but I inevitably see God’s clearest speaking in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not always negate the spiritual experience of other faiths, but–and this seems unkind and un-PC for interfaith dialogue–he sometimes does. When Christ calls us to conversion, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He bids a man come and die.” We’re called to die to different things–different ingrained mindsets, different patterns of being, different destructive religious and cultural beliefs. I am not comfortable dictating what beliefs and practices are to be abrogated by people whose cultures I do not belong to–that is between them, God, and their Christian community.

Thank God for Pagan Christianity! 🙂

Born Again PaganFor this reason I don’t have any beef – sacrificed to idols or no – with Carl engaging in “folkloric Irish practices (that have been practiced by Irish Catholics for centuries) that are clearly Pagan in origin.” I believe that when the Holy Spirit came to Ireland, God wasn’t pissed at the Irish for being who they were. Since I believe that Jesus’ call to make apprentices of the Kingdom of God applies to all people and cultures, and don’t think any culture has imperialist preference in YHWH’s book. God’s great transition was from one chosen people to “every tribe, tongue and nation,” and so when the Spirit brooded over Ireland, God lovingly extricated the Irish people from harm and embraced, and transformed everything else. God loves the beauty of worship from every tribe, people group and culture. This is, though, a break with a certain pluralistic orthodoxy that insists that every region will have their own inherent cultural religious expression, and that expression should never be tampered with. At this point any attempt at sharing another point of view becomes verboten from the start; I simply don’t think this is fair.

Of course I realize that missionary history has a definite dark side, where financial opportunism and cultural imperialism can run rampant. But what many of my non-Christian friends (and even some Christians) might not know is that missional or apostolic work among indigenous people can and does take place with care and respect to the cultures involved. I’d recommend reading Roland Allen, Leslie Newbingin, or even my own church’s planter Gene EdwardsThe Americanization of Christianity to see how Christ can authentically incarnate into a culture in an authentic way.

Anyway, at this point your many readers of other faiths are reading all this talk about conversion and Jesus coming into other cultures and you’re either offended or colossally disinterested. “When will this exclusivist bigot be finished?” you tire. Okay, well let me see if I can bring this to a close and earn just a bit of your continued interest. Carl asks, “What are workable, creative boundaries for interfaith spirituality?” Can a “druid with a rosary” really work? How can we all be “friendly” to faiths with which we might (and indeed must at some point) disagree? And, “Where is my ultimate loyalty?”

Sharing Faith

Clasping the ShadowsI resonate with shunning the “smarmy sales job” of snake-oil evangelists out to sell a quick conversion. And yet…I’m not averse to sharing Good News, or the conversion of heart and priority that may result. I suppose, working with my appreciation of interfaith dialogue, I always respect the space that I’m in. To me (like a good Calvinist) conversion is God’s job, and being open and engaged with others is my job. Because of the love of Christ within me, I’m naturally drawn to hang out with people and spend time with them, with no particular agenda. But the Spirit being who s/he is, I am “always ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope,” as the first-century church planter Peter encourages (in 1 Peter 3:15). I don’t necessarily think I’ve earned the right to knock and a stranger’s door and bombard them with a plastic gospel. As my favorite faith-sharing group, Off-the-Map, says, Christians should “count conversations, not conversions.”

I agree whole-heartedly with what Carl says about not selling people with chaos and fear. And yet! I affirm this even as the purifying fires of hell could be relevant, and God just might care about how we relate to others with our genitals. I like living in this tension. In another paradox that I’m going to have to chew on and digest, Carl says:

“As a Christian, I am in fact called to be an evangelist; but I understand that to mean that I am called to spread good news. And in today’s world, and especially among Neopagans, talking about the Christian religion is the quickest way to subvert “good news,” instead sounding like a tired old purveyor of religious negativity.”

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that Jesus would agree with this completely. In fact, in one popular translation of scripture, Jesus says:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

When you talk about being faithful to your values, I feel you…obviously you don’t want to embrace so-called “spiritualities” that are hurtful, selfish, or unloving. I feel like a lot of Christians don’t understand that God doesn’t care about “Jesus” as some sort of abstract cosmological category; Father is in love with his Son because of his beauty and character. Jesus said “Whoever is not against me is for me.” When some people at the end of their lives stand confidently before the Big J and read off their religious resume, he tells them “I never knew you.” I think the Christian family’s views on “who’s in” and “who’s out” are out of sync with an intimate knowing of the risen Christ.

I like what Carl said about cultivating the positive and embracing the contributions of other faiths. Forgive me for pushing back a little, though: is there ever a place in interfaith dialogue to loathe aspects of faith–starting with your home faith to be sure–and repent, or turn from these patterns of being? I mean, in the physical realm most of us have no problem telling a friend they’re engaging in destructive and life-threatening habits, from “You should really quit smoking” to “self-immolation is not the way!” Yet if the realm of spirit is at least as real as the material realm, couldn’t certain cosmological choices have dire consequences?

Carl closes his reflection with the statement “I am free to love.” It echoes my interview with Anne Rice a few months back, a Gothic horror writer-turned eclectic Catholic. When I asked her what she’d like to share with fellow Christians, she told me:

We need to stop being so afraid that the devil is winning. The devil’s not winning–we are winning. Jesus is winning. God is winning. We have the strength and the time to open our arms to absolutely everyone. Rushing to judgment, condemning whole classes and groups of people–that is not in the spirit of Christ that I see in the Gospel. I can’t find that spirit. I see the spirit of love, taking the message to absolutely everyone.

Amen?

Update

Well, that wasn’t the final word, thankfully. Carl had a great follow-up, and Jon Trott did too. Here are the comments from the original Ooze post. It also opened me up to a fair bit of heresy-hunting, which I’ve covered extensively. Carl has re-published a classic of his dealing with all of this material, titled Spirituality: A Post-Modern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship with God – I highly recommend it. One of the most significant voices I’ve discovered in the intervening years exploring panentheism (and its implications for science & spirituality) is Philip Clayton of Transforming Theology. Since writing the above post I’ve discovered both the Interfaith Youth Core and Faith House Manhattan, which are living experiments in putting flesh on the bones of interspiritual engagement.

Enough rambling by me, past or present. What do you think?

Does God Have An ‘Eternal Purpose’? A Review of From Eternity to Here by Frank Viola

https://i1.wp.com/frometernitytohere.org/pic2.jpgIt was 2003; I was 23. Finally after all these years, I had scraped up the cash (& credit cards) to undergo that great American rite of passage – the summer trip to Europe. Thanks to the generosity of Andrew Jones & family, a couple of house churches, and many other hospitable friends (including Bea & Andy Marshall) I made my way from London to Bournemouth to the Netherlands to Birmingham and Sheffield. While on one leg of my British journey, I was part of a learning party Andrew & friends put on called Wabi-Sabi. It was there I was having a conversation with a fellow American, a new friend 20 years my senior, who had published a book the year before. He was a pastor and church planter, and ‘coach’ to other pastors and church planters. He was asking me what I was up to, & I told him about a book I was working on. (It’s a book I’m still working on! Could this be the month I finish it..?)

“What’s it about?” He asked.

I proceeded to tell him, noting that in part it attempts to unfold “The eternal purpose of God.”

“Well!” He exclaimed jovially but incredulously. “When you figure that one out, be sure to let the rest of us know!”

Ah, these were the early, heady days of postmodern incredulity to metanarratives – even postmodern Christian suspicion of Christian metanarratives. And why not, after all? We (at least, we evangelical Christians) were weaned on a ‘big story’ of “If you were to die tonight, do you have assurance in your heart that you’d go to heaven?” Or, “Have you heard the four spiritual laws?” Those of us following Jesus with awareness of our post-everything cultural shift were keenly aware of the shortcomings of our blithely-uttered “theories of everything,” and were looking for a humbler approach – even if it ultimately meant affirming a much humbler, more localized, cosmology.

But I had a problem – one I still have, at least in part, today. But it’s one I think From Eternity to Here by Frank Viola speaks into. My problem, sitting in Europe circa 2003 – and in the Southeast US of A circa 2009 – is that, since 1998 or so, I was arrested by a grand story – a tale of a God in love, a God who is love, a God who is Community, creating matter and physicality and embodiment as an expression of that love to pour Godself into. If this Story doesn’t do away with the Fall-Rescue-Restoration narrative so common to Christendom, it certainly reframes it, going back further and then permeating the present, to the point (for me at least) that some eschatological tensions are less pronounced. And further still, proponents of this Story have the audacity to believe it’s hiding in plain sight right in our bibles: https://i0.wp.com/jotpuree.com/images/theophanes_in_russia_larger/theophanes_in_russia_larger-Images/16.jpg

Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Paul’s letter known as Ephesians, 3:8-11, TNIV – emphasis mine, as ancient Hebrews & Greeks did not have italic fonts yet.)

So this story’s sexy – it has grace, and the overseeing of an age-old ‘mystery,’ in the same sense as ‘mystical’ or Babylonian mystery religion (only better). A message, a power, hidden by God in Christ that would be as revelatory to heavenly principalities and powers as it would be for mere mortals, a divine purpose that’s not only age-old but eternal.

WTF??

By which I mean Where to, Frank?? It is this impenetrable enigma that Viola turns his pen to unfolding for us – and it’s a good thing, too: If folks in the first century CE barely grasped what the apostle Paul (and, Frank contends, Jesus – and others) were talking about, we certainly don’t talk much about this stuff 20+ centuries later.

Except, interestingly, there is a stream of the Christian family who has dared speak about such things: Plymouth Brethren, Christian Missionary Alliance, Keswick Higher Life movement folks, and their descendents. I can’t do justice to their whole story here – that’d be a post in itself, or a series – so I’ll just do a genealogy. Ruth Paxson begat Mary McDonough begat Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks (I’m talkin’ spiritually, now) begat Stephen Kaung and Devern Fromke. Hudson Taylor and AW Tozer run around in this family tree too, somewhere. All of these folks had teaching ministries, or churches, or publishing outreaches, the emphasized the the exchange that happens when those who trust in Christ spiritually ‘die’ with Christ and have his resurrected life take the place of your own – and how this all fits into a larger, more cosmic plan of God’s original purpose – or as Fromke calls it, ‘The Ultimate Intention.’

Frank brings these teachers’ core messages into the 21st century, connecting them in dialogue with other branches of the Christian family, including neo-orthodox folks like Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who explore radically Christ-centered spirituality as the ground of all being and escape from religion and conventional categories of knowledge), and more recently still post-evangelical luminaries like Stan Grenz and Miroslav Volf who explore the social habits of the Trinity and how these might be reflected in the Church.

So where to, Frank? Frank wants us to begin in the Godhead:

In “the agelessness of eternity,” God had an incredible dream: He wished to expand the “infinite communion” that He had with His beloved Son. He wanted other beings to participate in the interior mystery of the Trinity, to share in the sacred exchange of fellowship, love, and life that flows…between the Father and His Son. He wanted others to participate in “the amiable society” of the Godhead.

But he doesn’t end there. In order to “participate” in the Godhead, the Church in Frank’s depiction lives out four values (see chapter 27):

Communion with God:

As the bride of Christ, the church is called to commune with, love, enthrone, and intimately know the heavenly Bridegroom who indwells her.
Churches that excel in the bridal dimension give time and attention to spiritual fellowship with the Lord. Worship is a priority. Seeking the Lord, loving Him, communing with Him, and encountering Him are central.

Corporate display of the church in an atmosphere of ever-member freedom:

The church is called to gather together regularly to display God’s life through the ministry of every Christian. How? …In open-participatory meetings where every member of the believing priesthood functions, ministers, and expresses the living God in an open-participatory atmosphere (see 1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 10:24–25, etc).

God dwells in every Christian and can inspire any of us to share something that comes from Him with the church. In the first century, every Christian had both the right and the privilege of speaking to the community. This is the practical expression of the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood all believers.
The open-participatory church meeting was the common gathering of the early church. It’s purpose? To edify the entire church and to display, express, and reveal the Lord through the members of the body to principalities and powers in heavenly places (Eph. 3:8–11).

Community life where practical reconciliation takes place:

The church’s allegiance was exclusively given to the new Caesar, the Lord Jesus, and she lived by His rule. As a result, the response by her pagan neighbors was, “Behold, how they love one another!”

God’s ultimate purpose is to reconcile the universe under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10). As the community of the King, the church stands in the earth as the masterpiece of that reconciliation and the pilot project of the reconciled universe. In the church, therefore, the Jewish-Gentile barrier has been demolished as well as all barriers of race, culture, sex, etc. (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:16). The church lives and acts as the new humanity on earth that reflects the community of the Godhead.

Thus when those in the world see a group of Christians from different cultures and races loving one another, caring for one another, meeting one another’s needs, living against the current trends of this world that give allegiance to other gods instead of to the world’s true Lord, Jesus Christ, it is watching the life of the future kingdom lived out on earth in the present. As Stanley Grenz once put it, “The church is the pioneer community. It points toward the future God has in store for His creation.”

It is this “kingdom community” that turned the Roman Empire on its ear. Here was a people who possessed joy, who loved one another deeply, who made decisions by consensus, who handled their own problems, who married each other, who met one another’s financial needs, and who buried one another.

Commission where we love the world as God does:

As we have already seen, when Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He chose to express Himself through a body to continue His ministry on earth. As the body of Christ, the church not only cares for its own, but it also cares for the world that surrounds it. Just as Jesus did while He was on earth.

The pages of history are filled with stories of how the early Christians took care of the poor, stood for those who suffered injustice, and met the needs of those who were dying by famine or plague. In other words, the early Christian communities cared for their non-Christian neighbors who were suffering.
Not a few times a plague would sweep through a city, and all the pagans left town immediately, leaving their loved ones to die. That included the physicians. But it was the Christians who stayed behind and tended to their needs, sometimes even dying in the process…the early church understood that she was carrying on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. She well understood that He was the same today, yesterday, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

So there you have it. I’m still not sure if we contingent humans can dare speak in plain prose about something as ineffable as an “eternal purpose of God.” And yet, if I saw my American church planter friend again today, I’d echo Pete Rollins (or is that Caputo? Or is that Derrida?) in saying that while language definitely fails at such a sublime provocation, we cannot help but speak about eternity and ultimate meaning. Some of the best conversations, orations, letters and books have been penned exploring this very idea, and From Eternity to Here is no exception. What I appreciate about it is its desire to marry the contemplative with the active, the mystical (if you will) with the missional. As I said in my inside-cover endorsement of the book,

Frank Viola is the heir apparent to classic Deeper Christian Life teachers, faithfully bringing their core ideas into the 21st century with his own fresh insight. Visio Dei meets Missio Dei in this passionate examination of what motivates the very heart of God!

Check it out. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And for a list of reviews and endorsements, check out the booksite.


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  • Friend of Emergent Village

    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave

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