I saw a meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a map of the United States that tracked the outbreaks of Coronavirus in comparison to Sanctuary Cities. What was/is this meme trying to communicate? How does that message define one's understanding of God?
We speak about a God of love but often characterize God's actions by violence and judgment defined by our own bias. Due to our inner system of judgment, who is right and who is wrong, we categorize who to exclude. Those who we consider on the outside are rebuffed from God's care through our messaging.
I recently read a book, How God Changes Your Brain, which shared a Baylor study that found that 74% of Americans view God as authoritarian, distant, or critical. Only 23% saw God as benevolent.(1) In fact, 20% viewed God as aligned with a political party.(2) This analysis is a sad state of affairs and doesn't represent the God I have come to know through contemplative prayer.
Newberg continued to share through this study that research showed a person's view of God aligned with the way they understood and related to the world. For example, those who viewed God as authoritative (32%) also firmly believed that God punishes people. These same participants supported the death penalty.(3)
I believe this punitive understanding of God and the world correlates with our theology - the way we understand God, salvation, and why we are here. When we view God as violent and judgmental, casting those on the outside out, we can do so ourselves. When we look at the gospel accounts, the Jesus we read about doesn't cast out who the religious deem as outcasts. Jesus continually sees these outcasts and invites them back into community.
When we fight for black and white answers, we limit not only our own but others' experience of God as a God of love. We see this in the gospel accounts, and we see it today across our political and social landscape. But how do we move forward from here?
One of the gifts of Newberg's book is the description in his study on those who participated in spiritual contemplation. He tracked, through studying people with different doctrinal understandings, the changes in their brains as they followed their contemplative practices. They became more open to subtle experiences by strengthening the neural pathways that enhance social awareness and empathy. Also, he found that hard and destructive emotions were subdued.(4)
He continued to discover that those, Franciscan nuns, for example, who spent time contemplating God, became less self-focused and felt more of a union with God experience. This intimate experience opened them to greater compassion for themselves and others. They became more tolerant of those who were different from them, and this was validated as the researchers tracked the nuns' brain activity.
These findings are interesting and line up with what Paul tells us in 2nd Corinthians: to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The problem with using this verse is defining what the "obedience of Christ" means. Often, Scriptural texts are understood within our own cultural bias and allow us to cast people out. We prove ourselves right in our preconceptions.
Some would say that this verse would be understood by what I rationally know, forcing myself to not think about harmful things and only thinking about "good" things. It comes down to behavior management. Others consider this text as an invitation to contemplative prayer, letting go of our thoughts, and being aware that we are in God's presence. Recognizing these two understandings show us the same thing - what we believe about God influences how we read Scripture. It can create an unbreakable cycle of condemnation.
Can we trust God to break into our judgmental understandings, this unbreakable cycle of condemnation? We can, and it usually comes through great suffering. It takes being in a place of disorientation to allow that process to begin. Currently, we are in that place globally. We are all experiencing it differently, but things are not how they once were.
Some people are blaming others and fighting for things to be normal again. We also see displays of kindness and collaboration taking root in our communities. Both are visible, sometimes in the same people, even ourselves. The breakdown happens when one side judges the other as being less godly or right. But what if the opposing sides worked together to form a solution instead of working against each other. Can we set down our entitlement or need to be right? Can we value and hear all sides?
According to Newberg's understanding, contemplation is a space that opens up that kind of space in us. So, how do we practice spiritual contemplation? One of my favorite ways is to walk in nature. I invite you to do so, given social distancing criteria, and spend time in Creation. I've written a previous blog on a practice, I have found helpful: http://www.boldlyloved.org/blog/among-the-trees
Then I will invite you along with myself to take notice, do my words and actions represent what I believe? Do my posts on social media speak about what I hold true? Or better yet, what do my postings, words, and actions say about what I hold true about God, myself, and others.
1 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, 1st ed, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) 109.
2 Ibid., 107.
4 Ibid., 3, 14.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!