At the height of a sunny day, a madman lights a lantern and rushes into a crowded market. He shouts, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!”
People laugh at the spectacle, taunting and ridiculing the man. Someone says, “Do you think he might be lost?” Another says, “Maybe he’s hiding.” The madman turns on them and shouts, “God is dead and we have killed him!”
You may recognize that I am paraphrasing a famous—and frequently reviled—passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Gay Science. (p. 182) The sound bite that gets most people’s attention is “God is dead.” But Nietzsche’s riveting and strikingly relevant claim is this: “We have killed him!”
Nietzsche is not suggesting that human beings have somehow murdered the Supreme Being. And yet neither is he merely making a pitch for atheism in contrast to belief in God.
Instead, he is charging those who profess the Christian faith with having exercised a practical, world-dimming atheism.
In the everyday lives of some people who insist on the authority of scripture, the eternal truth of traditional dogmas, or the universality of the unchanging moral law, God does not actually matter.
Their lives are grounded on what they take to be a religious principle—or at least a principle to which they are passionately committed—rather than the felt presence of God.
The spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser puts it this way, “Insofar as God does not enter our everyday experience, most often He is not experienced as a living person to whom we actually talk, from whom we seek ultimate consolation and comfort, and to whom we relate person to person, friend to friend, lover to lover, child to parent.” (The Shattered Lantern, p. 18)
Christian faith begins and ever returns to a growing, frequently surprising, and continually soul-stretching relationship with the risen Christ. Faith makes a life-shaping awareness of the risen Christ its spiritual touchstone.
However, it is common to encounter Christians for whom a theological principle or a moral commitment has become their existential non-negotiable.
Recent studies suggest that a distressingly large number of self-identified Christians—white Protestants in particular—equate Christianity with a social order that grants them a privileged position.
They are likely to agree with statements like this: “We must crack down on troublemakers … to keep law and order.” “Police officers shoot blacks more often because they are more violent than whites.” (See Andrew L. Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God)
Christianity functions in their lives like an ideology in competition with other ideologies. Their fundamental commitment is to power and status, not to the person of Jesus as life-transforming friend. On the contrary, sometimes unwittingly and sometimes callously they use Christian symbols like the Bible or the cross or religious statuary to legitimate their political ambitions.
Jesus taught us a different way. On the night before Roman authorities murdered him on the cross, Jesus explicitly told his friends that he would not abandon them.
His teachings about the Holy Spirit say, in essence, that God is perpetually in, around, and between us. God is here. Right here. Right now. Always. Reaching out to be an essential part of our lives. (John 14:18, 15:5-7)
The problem is that we struggle to be aware of God’s presence. As Christian Wiman puts it, “We can’t perceive and we miss the God who misses—as in longs for—us.” (My Bright Abyss, 86)
The spiritual challenge is to become aware of God’s presence with such vulnerability and humility and yearning that God’s love for us transforms who we are. That love shapes our habitual way of being in this world into the way of love. Love of God. Love of neighbor.
Wiman puts it this way, “It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.” (92)
God created us with the gift of reason. It is both good and natural that we develop concepts to articulate our faith and and that we devise moral principles to illuminate faithful living.
But our doctrines and our moral codes do not save us. They do not restore the shattered creation. The risen Christ does that. And that is why genuine faith begins and ends in the felt presence of God.