Welcome to the Starting Over With Christianity podcast! This podcast is for people who have seen what’s out there in organized Christianity—churches and the various denominations—and don’t like what they’ve seen. People who feel that there’s got to be something more to Christianity. In this podcast, we try to start over. We don’t bind ourselves to what we’ve always heard, or what churches or preachers are saying. We think and examine, and when we do that, we often end up with things very different from what the preachers, Christian authors, churches, and denominations are saying.
What we’re really doing is sweeping out hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of mess organized Christianity has made. We’re not rejecting Christianity; we’re rejecting the mess organized Christianity has made of Christianity.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about God as being active in the world. Today, I’d like for us to talk about something related to that. As we saw last week, approximately one third of American Christians see God as having little or no interaction with the world. This is the “modern” view of God, one which developed back in the 1700’s in an attempt to reconcile belief in God with modern science. The idea arose that God, in some way, made everything, set up natural laws to run everything, and then withdrew and let things run. That’s the “modern” view of Christianity, held, in one form or another, by about one third of American Christians. It’s the view that pervades mainline Christianity today.
But, about two thirds of American Christians believe God is active in the world, involved in the world, that God does things in the world. We talked about that idea two weeks ago in the context of diseases such as cancer. We saw that the idea held by most Christians is that God is in control of everything. Absolutely nothing happens that God doesn’t either cause or at least allow. That means when someone gets a disease like cancer, God either gave it to them or at least allowed them to get it. In this idea, God sits up in heaven pulling the strings, controlling everything that happens in the world.
Both of those ideas, although they are very different, share a basic belief about God—God is distant, remote, far away. In one, God doesn’t have anything to do with the world; in the other, God pulls the strings and controls everything. But either way, God is far off, distant. Even if He pulls the strings and controls everything, He does it from a distance, from afar off. He sits up in heaven and does it. That is actually the view most American Christians have of God—God is the Being way off up in heaven who pulls the strings, controlling everything that happens.
The theological term that is the basis for thinking of God in that way is “transcendence.” To transcend means to be beyond. To talk about God’s transcendence means to say that God is beyond the material world. It means that God is not a creature here in the material world like we are. God is not a physical being like we are. God doesn’t live on another planet up in outer space, in some other galaxy somewhere.
And of course, that’s true. It is a basic Christian belief that God is the one who made the physical world—the physical universe—so obviously God’s not a creature in the physical world.
But Western Christianity has taken that idea of God’s transcendence way too far and has created the idea that God is distant, far off, removed from the world. Even though most Western Christians believe God pulls the strings on everything and controls everything, this is seen as happening from a distance—God is up in heaven doing it. And so, when most people think of God, they think of God as being distant, removed, “out there” somewhere.
A good example of that is how, in popular usage, God is sometimes referred to as “the man upstairs.” I’ve heard that phrase a lot in my life—God referred to as “the man upstairs.” God is somewhere else, removed, distant from us, up there somewhere.
Another example is what many Christian think will happen when they die. Many Christians believe that when they die, they will go to the presence of God—“go to,” indicating that the presence of God is off somewhere else, distant from here. I’ve talked with people who had a fatal disease and knew they were going to die, and they had a fear of going to the presence of God. It’s like you live life here; God’s off “out there” somewhere. You do your thing here, separate from where God is. But God watches you from a distance, from where He is, and He “grades” you. Then when you die, you get thrust into the presence of God, receive your “grade,” and get what you deserve. That’s viewing God as distant, far-off, removed.
We often reflect the belief that God is far-off and distant when we pray. We close our eyes and bow our heads as though we are telegraphing our prayer over a distance to heaven, to somewhere far off. We pray to God up in heaven, instead of like talking to someone who is right beside us.
In fact, practically all the beliefs of Western Christianity reflect the idea of the transcendence of God taken to the extreme, that God is far off somewhere.
Churches and organized Christianity have contributed to this idea. It is actually something organized Christianity used and uses to its benefit. The early Roman church told people, “We are your only connection to God. God is contained within our organization. If you want God, you’ll have to come here, because here, among us, is the only place you can find God.” That was good for their business, as it gave them a monopoly on God, but by its very nature, it presents God as being far off and distant, with the Roman church having the only pipeline to this distant God.
Even many Protestant churches in the present day give this same impression. One of the things I find interesting when driving along the road is to read what churches put on their reader boards or electronic signs. Many of the little slogans they come up with to put on those things give the impression “God is here” “Meet God here.” By their very nature, such things reflect the belief that God is distant, off “out there” somewhere, and you have to go to a special place where you can establish a connection with God.
And so God, to most people, is distant, off “out there” somewhere, removed from things here in daily life. That’s what organized Christianity has made out of the idea of God’s transcendence—God is somewhere “out there,” and if God has anything to do with the world at all, it’s by remote zapping, causing things from a distance, pulling strings from heaven. That’s what much of organized Christianity tells us is the right way to look at God. We are here; God is up there.
But remember, to say that God is transcendent really only says that God is not a creature in the material world. It does not necessarily mean that God is distant and remote. That’s just what much of organized Christianity has made out of it. We can see God as transcendent in the sense of not being a creature in the material world but at the same time see God as “immanent.”
“Immanent” is a theological term that means “within.” Saying God is “immanent” means that God is within the world. It’s not saying God is a creature of the world, a physical, material being, and it’s not even saying God is confined to the world; it’s saying God is here, within the world, as opposed to being distant and far-off. It’s saying God is related to us, present with us. It is saying God is actually everywhere within the world.
The Book of Wisdom, which is in what is called the Apocrypha of the Bible and is recognized as scripture by all Christians except some Protestants, has a phrase that says “For Your immortal spirit is in all things.” Where is God? Look around you. God is everywhere, in all things.
Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go from Your spirit, or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Jeremiah 23 says this, “’Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.” This passage, where it talks about God filling heaven and earth, is the same basic idea found in the passage from the Book of Wisdom which says, “For Your immortal spirit is in all things.”
The immanence of God is the idea that God is everywhere present, the belief that God is here with us and desires to interact with us. That’s why God made us in the first place—to be with us, to interact with us, to be involved with us.
It’s the basic belief that God comes to us. An example of that is Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. One sheep is lost. The shepherd goes out to the sheep and finds it. The shepherd didn’t wait there where he was for the sheep to come to him. He went out to where the sheep was. In the same way, God is the one who comes to us.
Sometimes people talk about seeking God, trying to find God. But you don’t have to try to find God. He’s already there; you just don’t realize it.
The immanence of God, that God comes to us, is what we see in Jesus. The Bible calls Jesus “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.” The basic belief about Jesus is that Jesus was God, come here as a human being. In Jesus, God comes here, becomes one of us, and lives among us. Even after the Ascension of Jesus, God is still here, for Jesus said, “For lo I am with you always…” Jesus Himself said that He came “to seek out and save the lost.” Notice that Jesus did not say He came so that we could find Him. He said He came to find us. And so God comes here and finds us. God is present with us because He comes here to us.
The book of First Corinthians says that the spirit of God “dwells” in us. The word translated as “dwells” literally means “homes” in us; God makes His home in us. God lives in us. God resides in us. God’s “home” is in us. Second Timothy chapter 1 says exactly the same thing. So does Romans chapter 8.
And so the view of God that we get starting with Jesus and then going to other places in the New Testament is that God comes here. God is with us here in our everyday lives. God is not a being that exists far off and about whom we just hear about. God is someone who comes here to us, someone we encounter, someone we experience in our everyday lives. God is not someone we know about. God is someone we know.
In connection with this, there is something said that happens during Jesus’ crucifixion that many people misinterpret. In Matthew 27, it says that when Jesus was crucified, the veil of the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two from top to bottom. Many people misinterpret that as meaning that now that Jesus had died, sacrifices were no longer required.
But the veil in the temple had nothing to do with sacrifices. Sacrifices were not offered behind the veil. No one could go behind the veil except the high priest, and even he could go in only once per year. Behind the veil in the temple was thought to be where God dwelled, where God was, where God lived.
So the symbolism of the ripping of the veil of the temple had nothing to do with sacrifices. The symbolism was indicating that the presence of God is not confined anywhere. God is not remote off in heaven, distant from us, hidden behind a veil. The presence of God is everywhere. God is here, among us.
Now of course, it is true that you can’t see God. God is a spiritual being rather than a physical being like we are. That’s what transcendence actually means in connection with God. But that does not mean we should think of God as being apart from the world, as being off somewhere else. We shouldn’t think of the spiritual realm as being separate from the physical realm, as if the physical realm is here and the spiritual realm is off somewhere else. It’s not like you’d have to go somewhere else to get to the spiritual realm. And, we shouldn’t even think of the spiritual realm as being separate from the physical realm. We should think of the spiritual realm as encompassing the physical realm.
Where is the spiritual realm? Look around you. It’s all around you. You’re in it now. It’s just in another dimension that you can’t perceive, or at least you think you can’t perceive it. The spiritual realm is not off somewhere else; it’s right here, all around us.
So where is God? Off in heaven somewhere far off, detached from the world? No. God is all around us, in everything, and in you right now.
I wish we could see God as right here with us every step of the way in our daily lives. Not far-off in heaven somewhere, but right here beside us, always here, working not by the bad but in spite of the bad. That no matter what happens, no matter how the bad gains the upper hand, it will not be able, ultimately, in the end, to thwart God. God is here, beside us now, fighting for us. And in the end, God will win.