Culture / Pluralistic World / Spirituality

Building Wells In a Spiritual Desert

Ranchers have a choice: build fences or dig wells. Wells are the better choice.

In the Australian outback there are two main methods of keeping cattle on a ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter of the ranch. The other is to dig a well in the center of the ranch. The first approach operates on the basis of forced exclusion. The second works on the basis of magnetic attraction, or compelling inclusion. If we establish organizations that are centered on a life-giving well, that touches a universal longing, that is based on an accurate understanding of the gospel, then it will be compelling to the emerging generation that is too often done with church. We need to build organizations around the dynamics of a life-giving well. Drawing others toward life is far better than establishing barriers of arbitrary exclusion. The first is an expression of embodied love and makes relationships central. Church leaders face the same choice.

If the nature of reality is essentially spiritual and relational (read Trinitarian) then these dynamics of love are central. Hindu physician Deepak Chopra asks, “Are our genes verbs or nouns?” He continues, “There are no nouns in the universe. Everything is a relationship. Nouns are conventions of language. The universe is more music than words. The universe is a verb, a process of ceaseless activity.”

The wisdom here misses an essential point. The godhead as Trinity is uniquely both noun and verb. There is ceaseless relational activity of love within the godhead, but it stands over against creation as a noun, or better The Noun. All else is a verb to God’s nounness. Paul states in Athens, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He adds in Colossians: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17). When we lose sight of the relational aspect of reality and noun other aspects of reality, we are inclined to both reductionism and idolatry. The tendency of the Enlightenment has been to make everything a noun and lose the relational dynamic of reality and faith. In particular, it has tended to make the autonomous individual the main noun of reality. This gets reality backwards. Jesus’ prayer that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11) is to “baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) or in the words of Dallas Willard, “immerse them together in the presence of the Trinity.” We are to enter into the verbness of reality, by correctly relating to our Direct Object, God the Trinity. This is where we find exclusive human flourishing. Jesus’ promise is this, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Gospel as Well
The gospel is to be put at the center of our institutions. This gospel of the “immediate availability of the kingdom of heaven,” calls one to enter into an ongoing dynamic relationship with the Trinity. It is an invitation to enter into love at the center of reality.

Jesus did not say, here is a short list of the things that must be believed in order to qualify for heaven and not hell. No, he said, “Follow me,” which is an open-ended invitation to pilgrimage. Reggie McNeal writes, “When we reflect on Jesus’ call to discipleship, we remember that it was an invitation to choose a direction—‘follow me’—and not a command to adopt a doctrinal manifesto or align with a set of religious rites.”

For some time now the American church has had a confused understanding of the gospel. Dallas Willard writes, “We have been through a period when the dominant theology had nothing to do with discipleship [read ongoing apprenticeship to Jesus]. It had to do with proper belief, with God seeing to it that individuals didn’t go to the bad place, but the good place.” He expands: “John 17:3 is one of the most important verses to understand: ‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ Now, this knowing is not doctrinal knowledge; it’s a living interaction with God, with his Son, and with his Spirit.” What was Jesus’ gospel? “His gospel was the availability of life in the kingdom of the heavens, or the kingdom of God, now…. Jesus is about bringing the life of the kingdom of God into my life now and making me a citizen of that kingdom.”
The evangelical church has been unaware of how much of its theological frame has been shaped by the Enlightenment—where cognitive abstractions dominate, where either/or thinking is necessitated, where superficial belief is inevitable, and Pharisaical judgment the consequence. We have unexpectedly fallen into the theological framework of Scantron multiple-choice thinking not loving worship. To the Pharisees Jesus warned, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). “Discipleship” is simply the gospel understood relationally as an ongoing posture of trust and reliance in an ongoing spiritual journey.

Such a relationally framed and mystically empowered gospel is much more attractive to young people today. Faith is a relationship: discipleship a journey and love its overt dynamic. Rob Bell writes, “I don’t follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion. I follow Jesus because he leads me into ultimate reality. He teaches me to live in tune with how reality is.”

Fuzzy Set Logic
Such an understanding of reality is captured beautifully in “fuzzy set theory.” In 1965 Lotfi Zadeh, a mathematician and artificial intelligence researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper on “fuzzy set theory.” Fuzzy logic is not logic that is fuzzy, but logic that is used to describe all things that admit to degrees—like love and relationships. Fuzzy logic reflects how people think. It attempts to model human decision-making and common sense. As a result, it points to a more human, intelligent system. Fuzzy logic is multi-valued. It deals with degrees of membership and degrees of truth and degrees of belief and degrees of love. It bypasses the crisp black and white membership of the classical binary logic.

If one understands coming to faith as a dynamic process, a journey of becoming, and a growing relationship, then fuzzy logic fits far better than Boolean logic. Boolean logic is a form of algebra in which all values are reduced to either TRUE or FALSE. Boolean logic is especially important for computer science because it fits nicely with the binary numbering system, in which each bit has a value of either 1 or 0. However, if one understands that my commitment to truth is always partial and open to correction such that doubt and belief are implicit dual aspects of faith, then fuzzy logic fits far better than notions that suggest a fixed absolute certainty. In short, fuzzy logic is new Copernican thinking.

Fuzzy logic is a better description of reality and is reflective of the framing of a growing number of young people. Consequently, the institutional challenge is how does one institutionalize an acceptance of fuzzy logic in an organization? This is perhaps best done through centered-set thinking.

The center of the gospel is the availability of the resources of heaven for all. The cross is the means to this why, but is not the specific why: the availability of an ongoing empowering relationship with the resurrected Christ. Jesus’ main message was “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:15), by which he meant there is another reality that you can mystically appropriate that will both make sense of your life and empower you in keeping with how it was originally designed. This is the “good life” to which we are called. This is the way reality is supposed to work. Moreover, it’s the only way for humans to thrive. Here is the promise: you can be personally aligned with an empowering spiritual reality that will make you fully human. Salvation is not designed to make you an angel, only human—but fully so.

This dynamic of our dependence on another world can be seen all around us. It is not uniquely spiritual. It is a fact of reality that everything living derives its life from an environment that is other than and larger than its own. When the right environment is chosen and consistently depended upon an organism thrives. A hosta plant, for example, derives its life from the sun and soil, something other than the hosta plant itself. But a hosta plant cannot take direct sun and thrive. It must be placed in a shaded environment for which it is best suited. People are no different. French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin observed the same when he remarked, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.” By this he meant that our true home and source of our life is a larger spiritual reality—this available kingdom of heaven. We can step into the reality of heaven now. This gospel reminds us that reality is a thin place, as the Celtic Christians celebrated. Another world gives this world meaning, flavor, color, and potential. We are dependent on another world, and from it we derive our meaning and life.

Dallas Willard clarifies this difference. “What is my gospel? What’s my central message? Is my message one that pulls people into discipleship? Now again, I don’t want to be critical, but frankly, most people don’t ask this question of themselves. Instead they talk about an arrangement made by God through Christ that involved his death on the cross. That is very important to understand, but ask yourself, ‘Is that the gospel?’ When we present the gospel through our life and our teaching of what Jesus preached, as life now available in the kingdom of God, we see people respond.” By making the gospel a noun rather than a verb, we lose sight of its relational character and its power to transform. This is the compelling center of the gospel and should be the center of all Christian organizations.

Center Set Logic
A center set approach does not place attention on the fence, but on the well. It highlights the availability of the well for all. The only difference between people is their closeness to the center and their directionality toward the center. Some are closer to the center; some are further away. Some are moving toward it by their life choices; some are moving away. Those moving toward the center define the set of those who are beginning to follow Jesus.

Directionality and relational dynamic become the important metrics for inclusion. The set focuses upon the center, and membership emerges when the center and the movement of the objects toward it are clarified. Centered-set organizations accept and acknowledge a variation within the category. There is no uniformity within the category as these are by definition dynamic sets. One way to visualize a centered set is as a magnetic field, in which particles are in motion. Electrons are drawn toward the magnetic poles. The question then becomes whether our center has an adequate magnetic force. Is our center compelling?

In a centered set a “Christian” would be defined as one who is in a relationship with Jesus. The questions are dynamic and relational: to what extent are there personal or institutional reliance, trust, and dependence on God? How is God becoming more and more a priority in one’s life or in the institution’s culture? We have less need to focus on doctrinal boundaries and a greater need to point people to the center and to highlight the life-giving attractiveness of the center. We recognize and expect that there will be variation among Christians in terms of their relationship to the center. A center set expects conversion, namely a turning toward Christ and growth in the dynamics of one’s ongoing relationship with Him. There is a leaving of one’s nets to follow Jesus—but this necessitates more than the belief in a list of doctrinal propositions or saying the words of a given prayer.

The obvious benefit of centered-set organizations is that they disavow cheap grace. It positions faith as a relational journey, not an intellectual light switch—“on/off.” Paul Hiebert, the missiologist who has done the most work on centered-set thinking writes, “A centered-set approach to defining ‘Christian’ corresponds more closely to what we see happening in missions and church growth. It also seems to correspond more closely with the Hebraic view of reality.” This Hebraic view of reality is decidedly pre-Enlightenment. Faith is here understood as an ongoing and growing relationship where God become more and more central to all of one’s life.

Bounded Set Logic
This is not how the Enlightenment handles belief and conversion, for it does not admit to degrees or a continuum. This is typical of bounded set organizations and the fences they build. Here are the four characteristics of a bounded set organization.

1. Listing the essential characteristics that an object must have to be within the set creates the category. So, when listening to a person’s testimony, we approach it with a theological and experiential check list: conversion experience, recognition of sin, recognition of Christ’s work on the cross, sinner’s prayer, heart “strangely warmed,” etc.

2. The category is defined by a clear boundary. Most of the effort in defining the category is spent on defining and maintaining the boundary—and this is mostly done through clarifying theological propositions or cognitive knowledge.

3. The objects within a bounded set are uniform in their essential characteristics. There is no room for variation within the structuring category, when positions are characterized in an either/or frame. One is never a little bit pregnant. Shades of grey are not accepted.

4. Bounded sets are static sets. Once an object has been defined as within the set, there is no categorical change in its status. This is not a category that anticipates growth or change.

What does it mean to be a Christian within a bounded set? A clear distinction between “Christian” and “non-Christian” is essential. There is no place in between; no room for a relational continuum. Moreover, we view all “Christians” as essentially the same, and conversion as a light switch in typical Boolean logic. Evangelism is about getting people into the right category, by throwing the switch to the “on” position usually through a simple cognitive affirmation of belief, as in “the sinner’s prayer.” While this tends to be the norm within American evangelical thinking, it is an inadequate description of the gospel and a faulty assessment of human nature and experience. What we have here is Enlightenment overlay on the gospel that makes it in practice a bounded set. This way of thinking is largely rejected by contemporary young people. This creates an opportunity for those who want to reconnect with the ancient gospel—pre-Enlightenment—in order to position themselves for effective future spiritual influence—post-Enlightenment.

A belief-oriented, behaviorally focused bounded set approach leads to legalism. In contrast, we need today a gospel-focused approach that pulls people toward God because they are so ravished by Christ that they want life within his kingdom. This was the approach the early Celtic Christians took among the Druid pagans, when they adopted an approach of treating the unconverted as “belonging before believing.” Their focus was on strengthening the reality of God’s real presence in the midst of the Druids that was spiritually compelling.

The new Copernican ethos rejects bounded-set thinking. Reality and relationships are too complex and overlapping to work effectively within neatly defined boxes. As the first post-Enlightenment and post-secular generational cohort, new Copernicans reject the premise of Boolean logic as an adequate description of the complex nature of reality and the messiness of relationships. However, they are attracted to authentic spirituality when it is offered with a strong sense of meaning. This generation demands that organizations “start with why.” They need a clearly marked spiritual well.

We need organizations that are animated by longing, not fear, by a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion. It is notable that The Colossian Forum’s annual conference this year is themed “Moving from Fear to Hope.” This is exactly the right spirit. Young people want to give themselves to something larger than themselves that makes the world a better place, empowers them with the resources for all of life, and helps them make sense of life’s complexities. They don’t want simple reductionism or shaming rejection. However, they long for genuine spiritual connection that makes sense of their cross-pressured lives.

We affirm then that fuzzy logic is more accurate, human, and spiritually honest. The shift from bounded set to fuzzy set is the shift from a closed to an open perspective on reality, from dweller to explorer, from static to dynamic, from Enlightenment to post-Enlightenment thinking.

The Character of the Well: Gospel + Vocation + Shalom
What is the content of a center-set organization? If an organization is Christian in character and mission then five characteristics need to be uniformly present in its metaphorical well. It must be gospel-centered, transcendent, relational, dynamic, and compelling.

If an organization is seeking in some sense to be Christian in its mission, then it is essential that at its core the main thing must remain the main thing, namely the gospel must be central. The gospel understood as the immediate availability to everyone, of the resources of the kingdom of heaven, provides a dynamic center to individual and institutional life. It makes the gospel a verb as in “follow me.”

The second thing that this understanding of the gospel provides is an immediate focus on transcendence. The resources of the kingdom are an incarnational reality: God comes to earth. God is everywhere, but God is not intrinsic to reality, which is the error of pantheism. Consequently, the movement of faith is “up and out” not “down and in.” This is worship not navel gazing. Ironically, many who move to a more open theological stance typically lose any sense of transcendence as talk of the “kingdom of God” becomes associated with political progressivism. This has been the consistent error of mainline Protestant churches.

Third, this gospel is a call to relationship and the patterns of love. The church as the bride of Christ is a cosmic picture of God’s desire to marry us. In this sense, sexuality is a pre-evangelistic picture of God’s desire for all mankind. The relational character of reality goes all the way up and all the way down.

Fourth, this gospel is a dynamic process, an invitation to an ongoing spiritual pilgrimage. We assume continual dependence and growth. In this sense, we never actually “arrive” even when we enter into heaven. Love is generative and is never fully consummated. As such the center must be defined as a verb.

Fifth, this gospel is compelling as it touches our deepest longings for connection. Babies will die without touch. We are hardwired for connection, love, and relationship. It is only in such an environment that human beings thrive. The center must be framed to connect with our deepest desires, which means that it must appeal primarily to the heart and imagination. It must be infused with beauty and the artists’ touch.

Gospel-Centered Well
So, the institutional center needs to be a verb, centered on the gospel, consciously dependent on the transcendent, relational and dynamic in character, and broadly compelling to others, particularly those outside of faith. It must be articulated in such a manner that it attracts others with magnetic force. These five characteristics explain the compelling force of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding, “The Power of Love.”

For an institution to have authenticity, it must spiritually “be” such a place. “Being such” an organization enables us to be branded as such. It is less a marketing posture as a spiritual reality. A gospel-centered organization is less about its beliefs about soteriology (“theology dealing with salvation especially as effected by Jesus Christ”) and more about the living presence of Christ present in and through the organization. A kingdom organization is not measured by its theology as much as by its spiritual reality: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Spiritual presence must be tangible.

Vocationally Animated Well
The second characteristic of a Christian institutional center is an emphasis on vocation or calling. A theology of vocation is the clutch for effective discipleship. The clutch in a car translates the power of the engine to the tires. Likewise, vocation translates the power of the gospel into the real world, converting real presence into shalom. If a kingdom gospel focuses on the availability of resurrection power, calling directs this power toward particular arenas of responsibility and brokenness. We have often distorted the entire purpose of discipleship. Discipleship has more to do with repairing the world through our vocations (the Jewish tikkun olam) than doing evangelism to get people to heaven; perhaps its focus is essentially a this-worldly orientation as in “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We can approach this problem another way by asking, “What will we be doing in heaven?” Andy Crouch suggests that there is a continuity between what we will be doing there and what we should have been doing here before heaven: “The most plausible answer, it seems to me, is that our eternal life in God’s recreated world will be the fulfillment of what God originally asked us to do: cultivating and creating in full and lasting relationship with our Creator. This time, of course, we will not just be tending a garden; we will be sustaining the life of a city, a harmonious human society that has developed all the potentialities hidden in the original creation to their fullest. Culture—redeemed, transformed, and permeated by the presence of God—will be the activity of eternity.”

The reason this sounds strange to so many evangelicals is that they have been taught since the Second Great Awakening a truncated “two-chapter gospel,” one that focuses on the fall and redemption. This view is not false as much as woefully incomplete… to border on heresy. A full understanding of the gospel is “four-chapters”: 1) creation, 2) fall, 3) redemption, and 4) restoration. Al Wolters’ summarizes:

Redemption is re-creation. If we look at this more closely, we can see that this basic affirmation really involves three fundamental dimensions: the original good creation, the perversion of that creation through sin, and the restoration of that creation in Christ. It is plain how central the doctrine of creation becomes in such a view, since the whole point of salvation is then to salvage a sin-disrupted creation.

He adds, “The restoration in Christ of creation and the coming of the kingdom of God are one and the same.”

Such a two-chapter gospel makes the purpose of discipleship narrowly individualistic and mostly reduced to a personal relationship marked by a conversion experience. It is certainly this, but it is also to be much more. The gospel involves much more than getting into heaven; it’s about getting heaven into us. It’s about appropriating the resources of heaven in order to work toward the restoration of all things to God’s original intent at creation. N.T. Wright adds, “The whole point of Jesus’ work was to bring heaven to earth and join them together forever, to bring God’s future into the present and make it stick there.”

To adopt a truncated gospel, what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management,” is to narrow the mission of the church and to invariably distort cultural formation away from the restoration of human flourishing or shalom to a pretext for individual proclamation. Art and music no longer have meaning as intrinsic forms of beauty, but only as vehicles for proclamation. In such a manner, the entire cultural task is distorted. To get this wrong is to change the mission of the church. Here is a summary of the four-chapter mission of the church and how we need to reconceptualize our vocation within God’s kingdom purposes:

We work within our particular callings in order to understand God’s good creation and the ways that sin has distorted it so that, in Christ’s power, we may bring healing to persons and the created order and as God’s image-bearer, exercise responsible authority in our task of cultivating the sphere of our particular calling to the end that all people and all things may joyfully acknowledge and serve their Creator and King.

We must learn to view the cross through the lens of creation, our re-commissioning in the light of our original mandate, salvation as resurrection power realized to the end that creation is healed. Calling is the particular clutch that puts all in motion for an individual or institution. In a college curriculum such a kingdom calling perspective should be infused in every academic discipline. Willard warns Christian academics, “Until institutions of Christian higher education and their faculties break out of the posture that holds genuine knowledge to be secular, and until they carry out their task of developing and conveying distinctively Christian knowledge—in the free, open, and rational manner that characterizes the life of the mind and of scholarship at its ideal best—those institutions will, despite all appearances, be a primary hindrance to the ‘Jesus project’ on earth.” The study of creation must be placed in a kingdom perspective.

Reality is not designed to flourish without human input. Nor can companies achieve a vibrant functioning community without constructive management. Without human input the forces of social entropy create fragmentation and decay.

Scientists have conjectured, in a TV series “Life After People,” what would happen to civilization if nature were left on its own? Serious urban blight begins to occur within two days. Our task is not to preserve “sustainability,” a hands-off policy with the goal of maintaining an unkempt wilderness, but rather to foster “vitality,” through a thoughtful active investment of ourselves in nature’s rich inherent potential—a weeded garden in full bloom, a landscaped city filled with music and art. That water is “untouched by human hands,” as the Fuji brand exclaims, does not necessarily make it better. The flourishing of nature to achieve its full potential necessarily requires human input. This is how reality is designed to function.

This is a delegated task, for which we are accountable both to God and creation. A measure of our failure is heard in creation’s groaning. “For the creation was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). One day, God’s “good creation” will be restored as it was intended. The Edenic Garden will be restored as a bustling city, a New Jerusalem. Shalom—universal flourishing and wholeness—will be realized by and in all things. Our work in our own small spheres of responsibility is to contribute to this larger enterprise of making God’s kingdom visible on earth as it is in heaven. Hunter summarizes, “What this means is that where and to the extent we are able, faithful presence commits us to do what we can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.”

Agents of Shalom
This leads to the third and final aspect of the proposed center. We are to be agents of shalom. The consequence of our efforts with others, in culture, and in creation should collectively smell like human flourishing. Intuitively, shalom or faithful presence needs no argument. It is humanly self-evident by all.

The measure of this is best seen in an extreme case, when Israel was in exile in Babylon. In this hostile pagan environment, they are called to embed themselves within their surrounding culture and work toward the success of the surrounding pagan institutions. Their metrics of success was the success of their surrounding culture—“for when they flourish, you flourish” (Jeremiah 29:7). There is here no hint of retreat, playing the victim, or self-serving tribalism. As they worked within their individual callings in the power of God to align it with his purposes and design for mankind, the result was peace and human flourishing. The church is to act like assist leaders within an alien culture.

We have the opportunity to participate as ambassadors of reconciliation and agents of shalom until Christ comes again to bring this reconciliation and shalom in its fullness (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are called to be co-creative creational caretakers in and through our callings. We are called to a selfless stewardship of all callings, cultures, and creation in a manner that is creative, life affirming, and God honoring. Journalist Ken Myers writes, “Following Christ is a matter first of inner transformation, and then of living faithfully in accord with the order of creation as he made and is redeeming it, in all of our cultural convictions and practices concerning a host of abstractions and concrete realities: food, sex, time, music, film, history, language, technology, family, justice, beauty, agriculture, and community.” Collectively, this reliance on the resources of the kingdom of God, expressed through our particular callings, in a manner that fosters shalom is what is meant by “faithful presence.” James Hunter writes, “For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point.”

God’s real presence in our lives is to be translated into faithful presence within our given sphere of influence. The proof of doing it correctly is that nonbelievers see our public actions as an indispensable benefit to human and social flourishing. Peter writes, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). This is not how the contemporary church is typically perceived, because we do not have a compelling center that attracts others.

A centered-set Christian institution will focus on the gospel of the availability of the resources of heaven, equip people with a kingdom vocation, and enable faithful presence to be experienced by all inside and outside the church. It will be assumed that the Lord’s work in vocation must be done in and through the Lord’s power and way. It will be a dynamic center of love and service marked by a humble reliance on the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Membership in the community will be marked by a clear commitment to follow Jesus and an ongoing effort to deepen this relationship. The goal is to create an institution marked by the real presence of Jesus in a genuinely spiritual manner where inclusion, service, humility, sacrifice, and love are the natural unforced fruit. One’s response to this when experienced is “This is something I want to be apart of and give my life to.”

The challenge of Christian churches, colleges, and parachurch organizations is to realign their center wells in this manner. On the surface, it is a much more difficult task than building fences around doctrinal distinctives. But it is also a task that will make us more like Jesus in the effort.

Copyright © 2018 David John Seel, Jr.