It is one thing to have the knowledge of God – and this is something we all have – it is another to retain and embrace that knowledge. Scripture warns us that when we reject this innate knowledge there are consequences:
- Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
We get what we want! Mysteriously, we evolve into those things that we esteem. If we reject reality, we will invent a substitute reality, which we find more agreeable to our culture and lifestyle.
Psychologist and professed Christian, David Benner, rejects the truths of God in favor of an alternative spirituality. He writes:
- Equating faith with beliefs truncates and trivializes spirituality by reducing it to a mental process. Thoughts are, quite simply, a poor substitute for relationship. Some Christians speak much of a personal relationship with God but assume that this is based on holding right beliefs. Is it any wonder that this attempt to reduce Ultimate Mystery to theological propositions so often results in the principle personal relationship being between a person and his or her own thoughts? Cherishing thoughts about God replaces cherishing God; knowing about the Divine replaces knowing the Divine. Whenever the Wholly Other is thought to be contained in one’s beliefs and opinions, divine transcendence is seriously compromised and personal relationship with the Spirit minimized. (Soulful Spirituality, 6)
Benner needlessly denigrates thinking and believing. It is because I know that God loves and forgives me that I can love Him and feel intimate with Him. I know that I am beloved, and this helps me to love others. Our beliefs affect our entire lives – how we feel about ourselves, our attitudes towards others, and how we behave towards them. Meanwhile, as Paul wrote, not having certain beliefs about reality reflects the fact that we have sinfully hardened our heart against Reality.
How are we to attain Benner’s spirituality? Through awareness:
- The spiritual life starts with awareness. Limited awareness equates to a shallow spiritual life. No one can ever be more awake of the self-transcendent than they are aware of things going on within and around themselves. The spiritual journey starts, therefore, with awakening – and with being prepared to awake again and again as we realize that we have once again drifted into sleep. (96)
Awareness is certainly part of the Christian program. We are transformed through the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). Jesus equated spiritual freedom with growth in understanding the truth (John 8:31-32). However, is this what Benner is alluding to? Not at all:
- It is a state of active receptivity that opens us up to the sacred. This is exactly how the contemporary Quaker author Douglas Steere understand prayer, describing it as “awakeness, attention, intense inward openness.” Sin, in his view, is anything that destroys this attentiveness. The greatest threat to attention is thought. (97-98)
Well, if awareness is not a matter of thought, what then is it? Contemplative methods:
- Careful attention paid to anything [any object] is a doorway to the self-transcendent. Regardless of how insignificant the object may seem, being truly aware of it has enormous potential for growth of spirit and soul. (98)
Benner then lays out a worshipful description of how to attain awareness, “a doorway to the self-transcendent”:
- Feel it, smell it, look at it from as many angles as possible. Notice how heavy or light it is, how hard or soft. Don’t analyze it as a scientist. Just allow it to capture your interest and hold your attention. Gaze at it in wonder and curiosity, and allow yourself to see it as if for the very first time. (99)
Benner is not asking us to “Gaze at [God] in wonder and curiosity,” but rather a mere object as “a doorway to the self-transcendent.” Strangely, this sounds like an updated form of idolatry.
Benner might argue that this is not a matter of believing that an object is God but rather using an object to reach the “self-transcendent.” However, this is the very thing that an idolater will explain.
On numerous occasions, I have visited the Hare Krishna temple, where they have many idols which are worshipped. However, the monks and swamis have often assured me that they don’t regard the idol as God, but rather an authorized object through which they worship Krishna.
Well, aren’t they still idols? I suspect that the Canaanites idolaters would have told us the same thing. They were intelligent people. I’m sure that they understood that as soon as they finished carving a piece of wood, it didn’t suddenly become a god. I would imagine that they too had regarded their handiwork as no more than a sacred object through which to contact their gods, like a telephone of sorts.
However, this form of worship is beneath the dignity of our God. Paul warns that it is corrupted:
- They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. (Romans 1:23-26)
Scripture’s point is that God wants to be worshipped through the vehicle of truth and not image. When the Samaritan woman gave her exposition on religion to Jesus, she reduced it to a matter of location or physicality. However, Jesus elevated it to a matter of spirit – I think He had sincere commitment in mind – and truth:
- You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:22-24)
Jesus equated worshipping God in truth – something that the Samaritans weren’t doing - with “salvation.” Consequently, spirituality is not a matter of location, objects or even meditating on objects but meditating on God in truth alone (Psalm 1), uncluttered by objects or icons.
Jeremiah declared that this understanding of God is more precious than anything else we might boast in:
- This is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth.
I have found such joy and comfort in the Word of God. One example out of thousands should suffice. John assures us that:
- If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
This little truth of God, alone, has made the difference between joy and depression, confidence and self-contempt, even life and death. Alone, this little truth has produced gratitude, thanksgiving, the salvation of the broken-hearted, and a determination to follow our Lord joyfully, even until the end.