This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.
I intuitively grasp this section of Matthew’s book, but I find it hard to translate into words. Let’s start with some basic elements of our common human nature. We want to direct and control our lives and the world around us. The extent of the drive and the way in which it manifests vary hugely, but in one way or another it is common to us all. In pursuit of that goal, we often try to keep our options open and choose the path that appears most changeable, even though we’ve objectively proven that those paths and choices in reality simply produce more stress and tend to lead to undesirable outcomes. We actually function best (and tend to be happiest) when things are settled and when we know what to expect with some certainty. In our effort to shape the world around us, and in the ways we are influenced by those around us who are themselves doing the same thing, we develop particular interpretive grids. We believe that someone said something or that a particular idea can be found in a text, but it’s really our own thoughts read back into whatever we heard or read. We also lie to ourselves in a wide variety of ways. We minimize our actions while maximizing the actions of others. We project onto others. We deny a truth about ourselves that we cannot, for whatever reason, face. And in the process, we not only shape our interpretation of everything around us, we even shape and reinterpret our memories. We all do this. It’s so automatic it’s often like breathing to us. We aren’t even aware that it is happening.
Many of the “theological” thoughts I’ve posted here are ones I’ve long held. As I mentioned I turned to the early writings of the Church pretty early in my quest to understand this thing called Christianity and this God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. And those writings are permeated with many of the things I’ve shared. But five or ten years ago, I never would have expressed some of these ideas publicly because I was hard-pressed to find confirmation of them in any tradition of Christianity. I knew my own interpretations were as suspect as any other and though I thought my thoughts were confirmed in the writings of the ancient church, the truth is those cultures are as separated from me by language, time, and culture as the texts of Scripture. I was as likely to misinterpret the Fathers as I was the Holy Scriptures. And I was just trying to understand this faith. I’ve never been the sort of person who, at least in these sorts of matters, wanted to convince people. And I was leery of even unintentionally leading people in the wrong direction.
That was the immediate source of relief and freedom I found when I first stumbled across and began exploring Orthodoxy. A Christian tradition not only confirmed many of my thoughts and beliefs, but it could credibly trace that line of interpretation back to the very people in the ancient world I had been reading. That’s why I now feel free to share those thoughts publicly. I’m still not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone. Instead I write because it helps me work through things. I also can’t not write, whether I publish something or not. That’s always been true. So I’ve seen this blog as a good place to work through some things. If you’re reading and you disagree with something, that’s fine. I would ask that you consider why you disagree and from what source that disagreement arises. If your answer begins with either “That’s what the Bible says!” or (more honestly) “I believe that’s what the Bible says,” that’s fine. Just recognize, whether I express it or not, the question running through my head will be, “OK. Why do you believe that’s what it says?”
I say that to discuss the thought that lies at the core of this part of the book. By and large, Protestants want to determine how they worship God. It’s like trying to flip positions between the Creator and the Created. I don’t think most even realize how strange it is for the worshiper to tell the object of their worship how they are going to go about the act of worship. When you try to reduce the practice of your faith to your own preferences and make your own decisions about proper worship, when you try to make it just between you and God, it inevitably becomes just you. I’m deeply aware of the way that works. It’s a path of delusion.
Matthew tries to express that thought in a variety of ways.
You see, I at last understood that despite all the sincerity I had poured into my worship during the years I was a Protestant, God, out of His love for me, could not fully reveal Himself in the worship I offered him.
After all, God could not have been on the “throne of my life” when I was the one directing how He and I would relate to each other. When I picked the time, the place, and the method of worship, who was in charge — God or me? If God had accepted such worship, He would have been establishing me in my self-centeredness. That He would not do.
I don’t see any possible way for those in the Protestant tradition to ever be one with each other, much less one with God, as long as one of their central sacred tenets is that each individual person gets to choose how they want to worship God. But I also don’t see any way for Protestantism to ever be anything different. That’s pretty close to its core. If you look at the history of Protestantism, you see a steady and pretty much continuous progression along those lines. Protestantism today is very little like the Protestantism of five hundred or even two hundred years ago, but the continuous thread of the focus on individual interpretation and belief and even practice is pretty much continuous over these past few centuries.
Curiously, I heard a podcast recently that shed new light on that process for me. We’ve all heard the phrase, I’m sure, “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and the endless debates and discussions surrounding it. This podcast offered a perspective I had never considered, but which rings true to me, especially as it has bounced around my head a while. I’m not actually a huge fan of the Faith & Philosophy podcast, but I listen to it because it’s not long or overly frequent and there are sometimes gems like this podcast.