In my original post on Phyllis Tickle’s The Age of the Spirit, I suggested that we ought to view the process of discernment of God’s spirit as a dance. In the next two posts, I am going to explain what I mean by that in a little more detail.
(If you are interested in reading all of the posts in this series, you can also read about my concepts of spirit, Holy Spirit, and the relationship between the contemplative and the charismatic. Also, if you have been reading this blog for more than a year, you will probably recognize some themes I have already explored in this post. All I am doing here is recasting them in the context of Age of the Spirit.)
To get at my idea about dancing, lets talk about three things: glasses, billiard balls, and surprises.
About fifteen years ago, I decided to get a new pair of glasses. I had been going without glasses for several years, and my eyesight had deteriorated more than I imagined. I didn’t even realize it, but I had begun to make all kinds of false assumptions about what things looked like (trees, signs, etc.) because I couldn’t see them clearly. My imagination was filling in the gaps. When I put on my new lenses for the first time, I was amazed. Suddenly, the world around me changed. I noticed the shapes of fonts on faraway signs. I could make out the details of leaves in the trees above me. The words and pictures in the books I read seemed sharper and more vibrant.
Sometimes, when we have difficulty seeing things, we don’t need to be squinting and imagining what we might see in order to perceive the world correctly. We need to find a new pair of glasses.
This can also be a problem with the assumptions that we make about God. We take on a worldview that we get from our parents or churches – about who God is, or about how God acts – and that worldview forces us to make certain assumptions about the world around us. But if we change that worldview – by trying on a new set of lenses, so to speak – we may discover that some of the questions that we were previously asking no longer make any sense.
Now, for some examples. Here are four statements that I occasionally hear people ask about their relationship with God:
- “I’m just trying to decide if this [church/small group/ministry/school] is where I’m supposed to be.”
- “I don’t know if [my current boyfriend/girlfriend] is the person God intended for me.”
- “After I found my new job, I came to see that getting laid off from the old job was part of God’s plan for me.”
- “I think God wants me to major in business instead of art.”
All of these statements arise out of one particular set of lenses – one particular worldview. This worldview assumes that God has mapped out every detail of our lives, and that it is our role to determine what God has already determined should happen. It is as if God has been walking around a billiard table, taking a close, hard look at the arrangement of the balls on the table. And now God has decided how things should work – he has made his “shot” – and it is our job, as the balls on the table, to behave correctly. We ought to do what God determined ahead of time we should do.
However, as anyone who has ever attempted it will tell you, this can be a very difficult and stressful task. I have never known anyone who claimed to be attempting to determine what God wanted them to do in a particular circumstance where they were absolutely certain about it. And I have often noticed that, after people make a decision based on their beliefs about God’s will, they end up being disappointed with the result.
Perhaps, one of the reasons these situations so often disappoint is because we come into them making the wrong set of assumptions about how God creates our world and how God relates to us.
Which brings me to the idea of surprises.
When I’m talking about surprises here, I’m talking about good surprises. Not that puddle of oil you found under your car last week. Or that number at the bottom of your most recent electric bill. I’m talking about the time your spouse gave you something for Christmas that you never even imagined you wanted, but that was the perfect gift. Or that time your four year-old made a spontaneous crayon drawing of she and you holding hands. Or that time you were driving home late one afternoon, and the dusk suddenly lit up in 100 different shades of pink and orange.
Being surprised in this way is an essential part of our existence. It is part of what makes life joyful. Take away the all of the unexpected – create a world in which we know exactly what will happen and when it will happen today, and tomorrow, and the next day – and nothing becomes interesting, engaging, or even beautiful any longer. We are halfway to hell.
What kind of God would create a universe like that?
If the universe were nothing more than a completely predictable series of events, it becomes the equivalent of the child who puts on a finger puppet show for herself. When the show is nothing but what she expects, she eventually becomes bored with it and puts it away. It is impossible for her to love her show – or the puppets – in any meaningful way, because they doing nothing other than what she makes them do.
But there is at least one other set of lenses – another way of looking at the universe – that doesn’t require it to be an cosmic puppet show, with each of us serving as little more than paper dancing at the end of divine hands. This set of lenses has been called open theism because it posits that God created a universe full of possibilities ( one that is “open”) rather than empty of them (“closed”). An open universe can be surprising, even to God, because its complexities allow it to behave in ways that are unexpected (in other words, it has what scientists, theologians, and philosophers sometimes call emergent properties).
So when God enters into our lives and lives along side us, it is not simply a matter of God making a decision about one and only one thing that we ought to be doing, and then hoping that we are able to figure it out. Instead, God is sometimes watching us, waiting to see what decisions we make – God wants to see what we become. There are some decisions/paths that are wasteful or destructive or unwise, and we are warned about those in scripture. But there are hundreds of other possibilities that are open to us – ones that are beautiful and good and right. Which path we take – and how we go about it – that is the miracle of life, the wonder of creation.
But it is also not as if we are doing it alone. God is still there beside us – the Spirit living within us. What we decide and do is also connected to God’s identity and God’s creative work. We are partners with God in this effort.
In one of his books, C.S. Lewis described marriage as something like this: “It is more like a dance than a drill.”
I think the same is true of our relationship with God.
So when are discerning the Spirit with the assumption that it is all one-sided, that God is going to do all of the instructing, and we are just trying to figure out what God wants – when we think that what we want and what we find to be “good” has nothing do to with it – we may be starting out on a false direction.
What if, instead, we saw the process of discernment as a dance in which God leads, but in which our reactions and responses were equally important? Or what if God was more like a musician playing a piano or guitar, and it was our job to find our own, unique way to dance to the music?
When we begin to see discernment through those lenses, I think we are much closer to doing it well.
A FOOTNOTE ON TWO OBJECTIONS TO OPEN THEISM:
If you don’t have any objections to open theism, there is no reason to read further. However, if you have some questions about it, I am going to briefly address two common complaints below.
First, some people object to open theism because it challenges God’s omniscience – that is, the belief in classical theology that God “knows all.” But in actuality, it gives God even more credit. According to open theism, God sees the potential for not only one future but for all possible futures. The surprise and beauty comes from experiencing the universe that actually evolves/develops out of those possibilities.
Some also object to open theism because it makes the future of the universe uncertain. How can God redeem people or the universe, some argue, if he doesn’t know how it is going to happen? But open theism does not contend that God has no control over the universe. God can, if God chooses, take control of any aspect of it at any time. So God can make a promise about something that God will do, and be confident that the promise can be fulfilled. Exactly how it is fulfilled, however, is in part up to us and how we respond to God. I don’t have the time to go into it at this point, but that is more or less how things work in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.
You can read much more (and much more eloquent words) about open theism in Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible.