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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US?

Written by: on April 24, 2015

I was intrigued with the distinctive definition for faith by T.M. Luhrmann in the opening preface to When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. “Faith,” she states, “asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses is wrong.”[1] Faith in a transcendent God asks people to believe some really unbelievable things, to accept “fantastic claims” that, at best in the discernment of unbelievers, are improbable possibilities. Believing in an invisible being is difficult enough, Luhrmann notes, “let alone an invisible being who is entirely good and overwhelmingly powerful.”[2] If American Evangelicals base their belief in God on faith, then what is the substance of faith? The old adage “seeing is believing” does not fit when one lacks visual confirmation or substantive evidence on which to base faith. The Hebraic writer defined faith from a similar perspective: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”[3] Beginning with the enlightenment through Fredrick Nietzsche’s nineteenth century proclamation of God’s death, reason and evidence through scientific method has grounded belief in Western culture. According to John Caputo, this era is characterized by the “idea of a believing thinker or a thinking believer — is a square circle.”[4] When faced with “unanswerable questions” faith has responded with “unquestionable answers.” How does one express their hope and faith in the “unseen” in a secular era of agnostic disbelief in God and a skeptical incredulity of anything expressing faith? In Luhrmann’s words, “How are Christians able to hold on to their faith despite the frank skepticism that they encounter again and again?”[5]

According to Luhrmann, however, recent surveys and studies indicate 95% of Americans believe in “God or a higher power” and perhaps most significant is that a majority believe God is a demonstrable presence in their lives and they “experience God directly and report repeated contact with the supernatural.”[6] In the first decades of the twenty-first century, there is an ever enlarging divide between believers and nonbelievers in social community and in academia. Luhrmann notes that the contemporary widening “rift between believers and nonbelievers has grown so wide that it can be difficult for one side to respect the other.”[7] Is it possible to bridge the gap between belief and unbelief? Between the believer and the nonbeliever?

Using a narrative story-board genre, Luhrmann attempts in When God Speaks Back, to “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real.”[8]  In ethnographic form, Luhrmann spent time with evangelical believers entering into and engaging them as one living among them. She did not have the answers, rather her tools were listening, questioning, probing, recording and coming back again with more questions. Her choice of the Vineyard Church was genius. I had little connection and no affiliation with this community; Jason Clark is my only association. Yet, repeatedly as I read the narrative stories of this group’s discovery and struggle with faith, I repeatedly exclaimed, “Yes, this is me, my experience, my story!”

Several ideas or faith concepts that resonated with me:

There is a twofold challenge to believing in God. First, there is the task of faith to believe when there is no tangible evidence that can be witnessed and verified by the senses. This aspect of belief can be achieved. It is at the core of the central question being asked, “How can sensible, educated people believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?”[9] One aspect of the answer is to find God in the everyday world. It is a personal encounter, not some “deluded fantasy” or “selfish wish.”  It is a choice according to Luhrmann; “coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something.”[10] I was particularity interested in how Luhrmann’s concepts coincided with Caroline Ramsey’s management of learning through deliberate attention to practice.[11] Deliberate attention is at the center of engaging their problem of faith; it “is identifying the divine in ordinary life and distinguishing it from madness, evil and simple human folly.”[12] It occurs to me this prohibits a “blind faith” based on “unquestionable answers.” Rather, it is the simple faith of a child that engages life as it is. An answer might lead to another question but it also leads to discovering reality. My mother was a great woman of faith, not because she did not question but because she accepted the simple presence of God in her everyday life.

The second challenge is remaining faithful when confronted with doubts: unanswered prayers, disappointments, disease, when one encounters the difficulties of everyday life. Doubt, of course, is real; “Many Christians struggle,” Luhrmann recognizes, “at one time or another, with the fear that it all might be a sham.”[13] Just as faith can be apprehended through the simple experience of God in everyday life; so also the difficult questions of doubt find meaningful expression in everyday life. “How,” Luhrmann asks, “can anyone believe in a God who is all-powerful and benevolent is a world that is filled with suffering? … The answer is that they understand their God in a way that always adapts to the skepticism.”[14] God is not just real; God is “hyperreal!” Every life experience can be understood in the same context as Ramsey’s opportunity to learn through practice; it is participating in real life with the deliberate effort to learn from each experience. If faith is a choice, then it is something that requires constant work – adaptation through a deep commitment to discovery. Luhrmann indicates there are several responses to doubt when confronted with difficulty and suffering. The practice of the Vineyard evangelical Christian is to “ignore it. Then they turn the pain [doubt] into a learning opportunity.”[15]

My observation is that the Vineyard Evangelical faith is characterized by presence and practice. Experiencing God’s presence is a fundament key to “unseen” faith. God’s presence is the evidence! Faith formation, or what When God Talks Back refers to as “Developing Your Heart,” can only be achieved through “practices.” Similarly, John Wesley challenged believers to holiness of heart and life through “works of piety” as the presence of God and “works of mercy” that was the practice of faith in God. Throughout When God Speaks Back, Luhrmann reveals how the Evangelical Vineyard Church “solves the problem of presence with specific faith practices.”[16] It is experiencing the everyday presence of the immaterial God who cannot be seen, smelled, heard or felt in ordinary ways.

To know God, to some measure, is the greatest challenge the greatest blessing and the greatest achievement in life. One of my favorite passage of scripture is in the Lord’s prayer for believers and nonbelievers: “Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3 NIV)

[1] T.M. Luhrmann,  When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012), xii.

[2] Ibid., xiii.

[3] Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

[4] John D. Caputo, Philosophy and Religion Kindle ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 102.

[5] Luhrmann, Ibid., 300.

[6] Ibid., ii.

[7] Ibid., xv.

[8] Ibid., xv.

[9] Ibid., 300.

[10] Ibid., xxi, emphasis original.

[11] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention,” Management Learning, 45 no. 1, 6-20.

[12] Luhrmann, Ibid

[13] Ibid., xiii.

[14] Ibid., 301.

[15] Ibid., 268.

[16] Ibid., 132.

About the Author

mm

rhbaker275

7 responses to “IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US?”

  1. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Ron, I read your post title, and I immediately went to YouTube and played “Our God” by Chris Tomlin. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJpt1hSYf2o)

    The bridge to the song says:

    And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
    And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.
    And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
    And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.
    Then what could stand against.

    I wonder, how do you describe your faith to those who ask? How did you describe your relationship with God to those in Tanzania?

  2. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    Ron, This is a great post. This last line “To know God, to some measure, is the greatest challenge the greatest blessing and the greatest achievement in life.”- soo good! I have the same question Ashley does… how do you describe your faith to those who ask?

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Stefania and Ashley,
      Thanks for your response – and for the link to Chris Tomlin…

      “Faith Sharing” – the greatest call and the greatest challenge; it is my passion and I seek each day to understand why and discover how. Jesus is the subject; Jesus is the only answer to the hope that I have. Sharing Jesus is the answer to sin and separation, the brokenness, despair in lives I encounter every day. I pray for eyes to see and ears to listen. One of the best books is by Eddie Fox and George Morris, “Faith Sharing: Dynamic Christian Witnessing by Invitation.”

      In Tanzania we experienced people who were openly hungry and seeking the gospel. On one occasion we were asked to share on a Sunday morning and when we accepted, the pastor said that he wanted us to come on Friday for three days. We were amazed that people walked for many miles to hear the Word. When asked what to share, the pastor said, “Encourage my people.” We lived with the people that weekend and shared multiple times on simply “Knowing God.” It was a blessed time for us…

      Thanks for asking.

  3. mm Deve Persad says:

    Ron we have so much to learn from each other. Thank you for your positive example of being a continual learner. One thing in particular stands out to me from your post, because it speaks into something that I’ve been thinking a lot about throughout the semester. You said: “One aspect of the answer is to find God in the everyday world.” How do you, personally, take on this challenge? or How has your church life experience taught you, if at all, how to find God in the everyday world?

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Deve,
      My favorite chapter in the book was “Darkness;” it is easy for our congregation to come together several times a week and engage each other in praise and testimony. To often, however, it becomes about “us” ingrown, centered are who we are and what we need. Experiencing God and engaging people everyday in their suffering and pain is the real challenge. I often encourage people that our “bubble” (Dan Kimble, “They Like Jesus but not the Church”) is good and it is a safe place but we need to go outside the bubble – become the Word living and engaging people in their everyday life. So much to do…

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Great blog Ron. I like what your and one of the quotes you use from the book wrote; “God is not just real; God is “hyperreal!” Every life experience can be understood in the same context as Ramsey’s opportunity to learn through practice; it is participating in real life with the deliberate effort to learn from each experience. If faith is a choice, then it is something that requires constant work – adaptation through a deep commitment to discovery. Luhrmann indicates there are several responses to doubt when confronted with difficulty and suffering. The practice of the Vineyard evangelical Christian is to “ignore it. Then they turn the pain [doubt] into a learning opportunity.”[15]

    Thank you

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    The committed practice that leads to belief. The triumph of orthopraxy over orthodoxy. In many senses we’ve often put the cart before the horse. We’ve tried to think correctly about things that we really haven’t experienced in the first place. No wonder that we are often unsatisfied with our thinking about such matters and find that they often have unintended outcomes.
    I really liked this authors attempts to suss out some important defining characteristics and practices, but I did feel at times that Luhrmann was attempting the above — trying to think correctly about and explain things that she hadn’t fully experienced. Important text. Lots of good, helpful insights, but some significant limitations too.

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