One thing I love about the Bible is how repeatedly it invites me to open the windows and look beyond the limitations of the material world. I find it refreshing, invigorating and challenging! Scripture is very real to life but it offers a wide view to lift me out of the narrow world of the five senses. I tend to focus on the horizontal; Scripture lifts my eyes to vertical perspective. I trouble over the temporal; Scripture confronts me with the infinite, eternal and transcendent! I love it! And I also believe that there is a widespread hunger for it in our culture.
Context for the opportunity
For the past five decades in this country, we’ve been subjected to a systematic secularization of life. Advances in science and technology (as wonderful as many have been) lured us to believe that we can close the windows to everything beyond the visible and tangible universe. We can fix our problems with precision and speed. We are under our own management! The result? Decades in a narrow little world without windows (to borrow a line from sociologist Peter Berger, Against the World For the World).
The reigning viewpoint of the academy is that the physical, material universe is all there is, was, or ever will be. The only real world (we are told) is the world of the five senses. They call this physicalism, philosophical naturalism, scientism, or secularism. But as a version of reality it offers a world with the ceiling secured; the windows shut and the blinds pulled. Stuffed and stuck (they tell us) in a world without transcendence, mystery, and especially — without God.
Naturalism is, after all, the only view that has the backing of science. If you want to believe in God, the soul, immaterial beings, transcendent values, intrinsic meaning, mystery, or teleological vision. If you want to believe in the supernatural, the spiritual, the eternal and the unseen, you’re free to do so (we’re told, often with a condescending nod) but you’re on your own. You won’t have science to back you up. Or, so we have been told.
Would someone please open the windows?
The dominant view of most of public and much of private education is that the physical world is a self-contained system that works by impersonal, blind, unbroken natural laws. Supported by a ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology, this philosophy declares that nothing beyond nature could have any conceivable relevance to what happens in nature.
But one of the problems with this view is that there is not one shred of scientific evidence for it. Honest scientists (and there are plenty of them in the academy) know that it’s simply outside the function of science to resolve such matters. Faith is the only path to the conclusions of philosophical naturalism. But the social agenda has been to stretch science into philosophy (and consequentially into a form of religion) to give people the misleading impression that the science of evolution offers more than it is capable of telling us.
What science can and cannot do
Science can describe in fascinating detail matters within the universe. Science can speak of purposes related to adaptability and survival in the physical world. Only God can speak to purposes of eternal significance beyond the limitations of the physical world. God prescribes what is beyond the descriptions of scientific inquiry. If someone tries to use science to prescribe on these matters, he has left science and turned to philosophy or religion.
A consequence of regression:
After decades of this “windows shut” approach to educating our young people, students who grew up in homes with opened windows, who were taught to believe in God, have learned to suspend the functional role of such beliefs during school hours (most of their daytime). Maintaining civility in a pluralistic culture seemed to require a “windows shut” approach to matters of religion. In classroom discussion, if a student were bold enough to open a window to anything beyond the closed system worldview, she would receive little sympathy for her opinion. More likely, her thoughts would be politely dismissed or publicly sneered. And teachers who believe in God have learned to be careful to keep the windows shut in classroom discussion. “We don’t go there,” is the standing policy in education on matters relating to anything beyond the world of the five senses (unless of course it’s about some fashionable politically approved form of spirituality). But expect all things Christian to be excluded.
Note of encouragement: If you grew up in a home that took the Bible and God seriously, cultural elitists want you to see yourself as a narrow, bigoted, shortsighted fringe to mainstream society. Don’t buy it. Why have we allowed them to set the terms for reality on this matter? You grew up with the windows opened. They live in the stuffy, narrow little world without windows. Their ideology has produced a tsunami of personal, relational and societal ills. They have promoted bigotry and intolerance. The virtue of tolerance is unnecessary to those who surrender or minimize their differences. Truly tolerant people treat respectfully those with whom they strongly disagree. (see: https://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/when-tolerance-backfires/)
We are the managers here:
As science and technology assisted us in rationalizing, classifying, calculating, and controlling much of our closed world, less and less of life was connected to anything outside of the physical world. God, religion and spiritual matters were marginalized, personalized and privatized. They became matters of personal taste and preference. God receives periodic visits at church services, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and times when life seems beyond our control. But most of life is lived with the windows shut, under our management. The horizontal is all that really matters and (we were told) — all that is actually real.
This leaves the beguiling impression that we can be our own managers. We’re in control. By sinning against the vertical (by ignoring God) and we’ve disoriented and sabotaged ourselves on the horizontal. We’ve turned the good gifts of the creator against ourselves by failing to honor him. We defined our own reality; our own morality and foolishly believed we could be the captains of our fates and the masters of our souls.
With little thought, many people pursue life apart from any intrinsic purpose or transcendent standard. Most people live their days (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.) in the world of the mundane—tending to everyday concerns in a world that has closed in on them; a narrow world without windows. But we inevitably sabotage ourselves when we ignore God, or set ourselves up as God, or try to define God on our own terms. We lose the sense of reference and direction meant for us by our Creator.
Look around at the mess we’ve made in the last five decades! Our homes are dysfunctional and broken, our police, judicial and prison systems are straining under unimaginable stress. Our economy is out of control. Our social programs are barely holding up (if they can get beyond their own dysfunction). Our educational system is surviving at best. We are systematically imploding. Meanwhile “Western culture has been surviving off of a borrowed capital of a Judeo-Christian worldview and the loan is past due” (J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle, p. 38).
A new hunger is growing:
All is not lost. There is a growing hunger for what is real, lasting, hopeful, eternal, and spiritual—for a world with opened windows. I realize that you won’t find much of it among the stogy self-appointed intellectual custodians of the academy. But you will find it among their students. The students are tired of being forced into the culturally mandated, narrow, little world without windows!
I think that being forced into a “world without windows” has left a new generation hungry for something more, something bigger, something beyond—for mystery, transcendence—for the eternal.
An opportunity for the Church:
What an opportunity this is for the church! This is not a time for the church to get stuck in battles of the past or to trivialize over things of less than primary importance. It’s a call for the church to be truthful rather than trendy; to be faithful rather than fashionable. It’s a call to a fresh, bold, humble incarnate proclamation of the truth of the gospel!
“It is good to be willing to innovate and adapt for the sake of the gospel, but when sociological reality is taken as the given to which church strategy and tactics must adjust, the church is in danger of becoming market-driven in an attempt to create a particularly attractive religious boutique within which a variety of goods and services must be offered for personal choice.” (Joseph Small)
Church must be the place where we can expect opened windows that call us out of the narrow little worldview that says the physical is all there is, was, or ever will be.
Great opportunity and an imposing obstacle
Opening the windows does not solve all our problems. If we believe in the spiritual, eternal and transcendent, we must provide definition for what we mean. Moving from general ideas about spirituality to particulars or absolutes is tricky in our cultural environment.
For decades now we’ve been socialized under an imposed rule of tolerance (particularly in public academic settings and media). Under the disguise of tolerance, this social coercion has been used to pressure people to practice (at least) a polite acquiescing acceptance of the legitimacy of each person’s moral and religious beliefs. In upper echelons of society, affirmation and celebration of the validity of all beliefs and lifestyles is required.
In his extensive research concerning the thinking and beliefs of American teenagers, Professor Christian Smith suggested that among today’s young students, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there’” (Soul Searching). On matters of significant religious and moral conclusion, teens have defaulted into a one word response: “Whatever.”
To avoid upsetting or offending others, young people have learned to avoid particulars and absolutes. They have been subjected to an imposed rule of talking about all things religious and moral in strictly non-offensive ways. This has promoted inarticulacy regarding matters of faith. Why learn to articulate and to defend things that disrupt civility? We don’t go there.
According to recent surveys, most college students accept the idea of some creative force behind the existence of the universe. “What is debated is how you move from this rather impersonal force to the beliefs of a particular religious tradition, and especially whether in affirming the truth-reliability of one path, you must stand against the truth-reliability of all other paths.” (Professor Daniel Liechty, Illinois State University).
Making the most of the opportunity before us:
We who long to bear witness to the truth about what God has done for us in Christ face a moment of great opportunity and an imposing obstacle. The words of Colossians 4:5-6 ring clearly: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
It’s wise to build a degree of relational trust and equity with people if we hope to make the case for Christ. We also must provide community equity based on John 13:34-35.
We must be humble, loving, truth-telling Christians in community.
“If the Biblical story is told truly, it will subvert the alternative stories. But to tell it truly, you have to be living it” (N. T. Wright). Or, to tell it with effect, you must be living it.
Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35 take on powerful meaning in postmodern times. And, do not miss how His words followed His example (John 13:1-5 and 12-17). With towel-girding, basin-carrying, foot-washing love, Jesus set the tone for what a community of Christ followers should look like. It’s a community radiant with mutual affection and honor. A community of self-giving deferential love.
A God who enters our world
A big question we must answer is how God relates to the physical material universe? The gospel tells us (and the world) that God doesn’t speak to us from a distance (see: John 1:1-3, 14; Hebrews 1:1-3). He’s not like the politician who sticks his head out from the plane to wave to us. God showed up on our turf! God brought meaning, purpose and hope to us in a person (Jesus Christ), not a religion.
Jesus spoke of God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven”. And “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him” (Matthew 28:18-20). God is presented in Scripture as one who works in our lives—whose love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and comfort can be experienced in this life.
Note to pastors and teachers:
Some churches and leaders have validated the criticisms measured against us by demanding more than the Bible demands. When we give knee jerk reactions to words like “evolution,” or demand an age for the earth, we discredit oursleves in unnecessary and misleading ways. When we demand or condemn behaviors in areas Scripture treats as debatable matters (Romans 14:1-3), we also deserve censorship. There are too many examples of ways Christians have unnecessarily marginalized themselves through strange or monastic versions of Christian thinking and living. Let’s stick with the centrality of the gospel to the glory of God. As custodians of the doctrine of the Church, we must avoid things that promote “controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith” (I Timothy 1:4).
A famine in the land but not the Church
Finally, when you step up to teach or proclaim God’s truth, seize this great moment! I am in my 28th year of pastoral ministry and I sense more hunger now than when I began. By shutting the windows, we have starved the people. “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:11-12). God forbid that they cannot find the Word of the Lord in the Church!
We must be passionate proclaimers of the living Word! Follow the ten guidelines established many years ago by Johnathan Edwards (see: https://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/03/12/attributes-of-good-preaching-by-johnathan-edwards/)
Reaffirm before God your commitment to this truth:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).
Millersville Bible Church
(Helpful resource: The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the central purpose of your life, Os Guinness, )