A MEDITATION ON REACHING
Often when I exercise I end up meditating on some idea. Some days it has nothing to do with the music I am listening to but often a line or two from a song will take me down a path. Today was one of those days. I decided to listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys album and lyrics from three songs took me down the path of meditating on the idea of reaching. Here are the lyrics:
You Are a Tourist
Cause when you find yourself the villain
In the story you have written
It’s plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions
Are in need of redemption
No unobstructed view, no perfect truth
St. Peter’s Cathedral
At St. Peter’s cathedral, there is stained glass
There is a steeple that is reaching
Up towards the heavens
Such ambition never failing to amaze me
Here is the main idea of my meditation: We were created as “reachers” but we struggle with “overreaching.”
Two trains of thought:
1. From Genesis is the idea that we were created to rule the world and to interact with our fellow creatures with the same care that the Creator has for it (in this way we image God) but humanity has shown the tendency to usurp God and rule as they see fit. In other words, we become God.
2. From Ecclesiastes 3:11 is the paradox that we possess an innate creaturely desire to understand (God, life, etc.) but the reality is that we never can in any ultimate sense.
In Genesis 1-3 there is the well-known ancient story of the man and woman who were created for a specific purpose. Not to bore you with OT theology but Genesis 1 and 2 are two origin tales that the Israelites used to communicate that they understood God’s design for them to be kings and priests. In other words the man and the woman were to rule the earth as God would have and they were to mediate God’s presence in the world. They were created to be God’s images in the world. Of course Genesis 3 is the tragic story of mankind choosing to usurp God’s authority and become gods themselves. Mankind was created to reach but chose the path of overreaching instead. There is an interesting statement that comes at the conclusion of the story: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See man has become like one of us (a fascinating rabbit trail I will resist), knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’…he drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (NRSV). Jump ahead to Genesis 11 and you have the story written to explain why mankind does not all speak the same language. Most are familiar that the story forms the natural conclusion to Genesis 3; mankind unites and in their hubris determine to build a tower into the heavens, the dwelling place of the gods. In this way mankind shows its determination to usurp God. This statement often gets lost in the telling of the story: “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’” (NRSV). God recognizes that mankind has twisted his creaturely intent and is (hell) bent on going his own way and in fact they will be unstoppable. I think God nailed his prediction on mankind’s ability to overreach.
The implications are probably obvious. From the earliest history of mankind most likely every advance in our understanding of the world has quickly had a military application, from discovering that slinging a rock could kill another person to nuclear weapons. What about genetic engineering? What about our exploitation of the world’s resources? I could literally go on for pages exploring all the ways in which over the course of human history mankind has overreached rather than simply reached. Man’s God given desire to know has often morphed into man’s desire to “play” God, replace God.
The second train of thought (this was prompted by something a couple friends of mine are writing about) runs more along the tracks of a distinctly Christian application. Our God-given drive to reach in terms of our desire to understand God and his ways often morphs into overreaching as well. Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 says, “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (NIV). The sage who composed Ecclesiastes expresses his frustration at his desire to connect the dots but his inability to do so. In a different context Paul writes to the believer in Ephesus, “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (NRSV). The answer to not being able to understand is not to stop attempting but keep on frustrating yourself in the attempt.
So in this attempt to understand God how do we know when we are reaching and when we are overreaching? What can we confidently say about God, about his revelation, and when do we admit we have overreached? There is certainly not an easy answer and certainly not a conclusive answer. Obviously Christian history is littered with the evidence that we have a proclivity to overreach. The Inquisition of the Catholic Church is a prime example. For Americans, look no further than the splintering of Protestant Christianity into hundreds of denominations and “non-denominations.” Each one formed because they overreached
Most of you are probably familiar with the phrase “putting God in a box.” The reality is the vast majority of our “God boxes” are constructed with materials from the “Bible boxes” we have created. I don’t know how many times I have heard, “the Bible clearly teaches” or when speaking of another tradition, “I don’t know how they get that from that passage.” There is unfortunately too little knowledge of even the basics of the history of interpretation or the multitude of factors that influence interpretation—for instance genre and the reader’s own perspective just to name two.
Here are just a few of the God boxes or Bible boxes I have experienced.
Evolution cannot be true.
Women cannot be “The” pastor or a priest.
Certain Spirit gifts stopped with the Apostles.
Works have nothing to do with salvation.
God wants us to be successful.
Genesis 1-11 must be history.
The Gospel is reduced to Jesus dying so you can go to heaven when you die.
There are no errors in the Bible because God made sure that each writer said exactly what God wanted expressed, right down to the very word selection.
I have no formula for when you know you or someone else is overreaching as opposed to reaching. Don’t you wish it were easier? I remember Rob Bell saying when speaking of the Bible: Is this the best God could do?
My conclusion will be as unsatisfying to you as it is to me but I’ll conclude with a few general indications you may be overreaching.
1. You treat the Bible as a guide-book or a how-to-book.
2. You treat the Bible as being full of promises to you.
3. You believe all your church’s traditions (sorry but I don’t have time for a list but it would be lengthy) and or doctrines are clearly taught in the Bible. Other tradition or denominations are not following the clear teachings of the Bible.
4. You believe, if you’re honest, that your understanding of the Bible means you vote Republican or Democrat.
5. You believe on some level that America is God’s nation. You believe that being patriotic is part of being a good Christian.
I can’t develop this idea but I am not saying that overreaching is the same thing as being confident in what you believe. Overreaching is evidenced by the rigidity of belief that says, “I am right and you are wrong and there is no need to discuss” or “because I don’t agree with you, you are not welcome here.” So we are back where we started. All of this is God’s fault! (insert smiley face here!). God has created us with us desire to reach but we have an amazing ability to overreach.
Postscript: If you’re wondering why I didn’t reference the Death Cab for Cutie songs it’s because they’re art and you don’t explain art! The first song lyrics may not be an obvious connection but the second and third are pretty apparent.
Also the two friends of mine whom I mention are Larry Tindall and Julia Tindall Bloom. They along with another friend are working at publishing their book, Frankenchurch. It will hopefully be available soon in ebook format.