Human

Today I’d like to begin with a bold statement and then unpack and explain it for you:

One of the big problems with much of the charismatic and Pentecostal church is that it lacks a valid anthropology.

Okay, before you run away because of a big, scary word, let’s back up and see if we can make sense of this.

It’s relatively easy to come up with a doctrine of God. If you ask someone to describe what God is like, chances are they’ll be able to give you some kind of answer (unless they’re an atheist). Many of those answers will revolve around God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience – i.e. that he is all-powerful, all-pervading and all-knowing. Believers will – at least I hope – talk about God’s love.

This is all fine and dandy, but please notice something: all these definitions are based in more or less abstract notions of God. In other words, when asked to think about God, we “look up” and we imagine what he might be like.

These abstract conceptualisations of God are typically informed by many things, including Platonic philosophy, popular religion (much of which is nothing more than superstition), childhood fables and pure imagination. Of course, for believers they may also be informed by the Bible. For example, we find depictions of a violent, warlike deity in the Old Testament, so we factor some element of anger and retribution into our mental portrait of God. We also find that “God is love”, so we try to incorporate a more tender, compassionate aspect into our picture of God to counterbalance his judgemental side. If challenged to define what we mean by “God is love”, we might appeal to Paul’s wonderful poetic description in 1 Corinthians 13. But ultimately, that description – wonderful as it is – is just a bunch of words that can be given various shades of interpretation.

The point I’m trying to make is this: our concepts of God are often “out there” somewhere, rooted in abstract thinking and strained attempts to capture the ineffable in human language.

I contend that this is a problem in many churches because the way they think about God has no foundation in the actual reality of the world in which we live. God is something always to be aspired to and looked up to. He is so far removed from the mundanity of our existence that he can only really be imagined in terms of transcendence and etheriality.

I further contend that this detached way of conceiving of God, as well as being prone to error because it is not anchored in anything concrete but is instead based on an amalgam of floating influences, fuels a dualistic kind of spirituality. Life is divided into the ordinary here and now and the supercharged spiritual. Sin is explained away as something that no longer exists once we have been born again; it’s all in our minds.

You may, at a conscious level, deny that this happens, but consider how it influences spiritual practices. For example, corporate worship often feels like a great effort to work our way through layers of distraction and guilt until we finally arrive in the tangible presence of this great, ineffable God. Prayer feels like trying to transmit our thoughts across light years of space. Our relationship with God feels a bit like an amoeba trying to be married to an elephant.

These are the kinds of problems we end up with when we start with a doctrine of God that is created piecemeal and we then try to find ways to relate to that God.

So, back to my opening statement that many churches lack a valid anthropology.

Simply put, anthropology is the study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social and cultural development of humans. It is, in short, the study of what it means to be human in this world.

One of our greatest gifts is the gift of imagination. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from animals. It allows us to think beyond our present circumstances and fuels hope and progress. However, the bottom line is that when it comes to something as important as God and his relation to the world, we cannot afford to leave anything to the imagination.

The Old Testament, in my opinion, is largely an account of God’s people stumbling around in the dark trying to understand what God is like and work out how to relate to him. Much of the time their imaginings of God are way off the mark, shaped more by evil human inclinations and pagan practices than by genuine divine revelation. They saw what other gods were like, they looked into their hearts, and they imagined a Yahweh who was by turns vengeful and compassionate, retaliatory and forgiving, authoritarian and tender-hearted.

What was God’s answer to this dilemma? In order to break through our misguided imaginings about him, God needed some way to relate to us at our level – something we could see, hear, smell and touch. Something that was, in short, the opposite of ethereal and distant. His answer, of course, was Jesus. This, to me, is one of the most important reasons for the Incarnation, God made flesh.

You can toss back and forth philosophical arguments about the nature of God. You can finesse what “love” means. You can nuance the relative importance of justice and mercy. But when you have Yeshua Ben Josef standing in front of you saying “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, much ambiguity is removed. I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again: if you want to know exactly what God is like, look at Jesus.

So, when God wanted to settle once and for all the question of what he is like, he chose to begin not with some highfalutin abstract concept but with the dust from which we are formed. He came into our world by the same route we all take, crying and covered in blood and excrement. He lived and moved in our world of unanswered questions, pain and forlorn hope.

So, what exactly do I mean when I say the church needs a valid anthropology?

It seems to me that the church is often afraid to acknowledge the reality in which we live for fear of somehow tarnishing God or his message. But in seeking to protect God in this way, the church often paints a picture of a detached deity who is so far above his creation as to be virtually unattainable. The best we can do is scratch around vainly, stretching and striving to bridge the distance between us and live up to this remote God’s impossible standards. Small wonder that we often end up either bound up in legalistic rules or burnt out.

Instead, the church should not be afraid to acknowledge and, dare I say, even celebrate this world of spit, mud and straw in which we live. We are where we are, and we cannot reach up to some transcendent deity. Nor does he ask us to: he came to us to prove that the endeavour is entirely unnecessary. I feel that if charismatic and Pentecostal churches really grasped this – if they were really prepared to acknowledge the reality of the human condition in all its sordid and beautiful complexity – they would take a quantum leap closer to God. And they would be able to dispense with all their futile spiritual posturing and set about the business of embodying the love of the God who loved us enough to pitch his tent among us and get dirty with our dirt.

[ Image: Micu Radu ]