(You can find this entire paper on barneywiget.com)
In the last post I wrote about the first 2 “fields” in which God plants seeds: creation and conscience. In this post you’ll find fields #3 and #4.
Field #3 – CULTURE
Sometimes when I hear Carlos Santana play the guitar (as far as I know, is not a follower of Jesus) I think I feel the presence of God. The same thing happens when I gaze at a painting by Rembrandt or read the novels of Twain. I’ve finally come to the realization that the artist doesn’t have to be a Christian to exude through his art the creativity of God. When he makes a sunset and when he gives the gift of artistic talent to someone, God reveals himself.
Through what he made directly (in creation: eagles, snow-peaked mountains, etc.), God left clues about his power. But he continues to cultivate an awareness of his person through the things he makes indirectly through people (in culture: art, community, science, tradition, etc.).
How people express themselves is part of what makes up culture. The Sower brings seed out of his bag and the Spirit blows on them as they leave his hand to find their way into all forms of human civilization. You might be interested to know that some people who study such things think that the term “culture” was coined to refer to “the cultivation of the soul.” Using our horticultural metaphor, we might say that God plants some of the seeds of his life in our cultures in order to “cultivate our soul,” to dispose that soul toward him and toward the Garden where we belong together. Culture has to do with arts and sciences, patterns of thought, spirituality, community, morals, etc. I think that the Sower sows the living seeds from his Garden into each human culture in order to influence people in those cultures to follow the clues back to his Paradise.
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Genesis 1). The Sower, his Son, and the Spirit have for eternity lived in perfect and unbroken community. (Well, there was one moment in time where there was a break, but it was planned and rectified after a three-day hiatus!) They form the best “small group” ever! Part of what it means to be made in their image is our penchant for living in relationship and community. Human relationships are clues that we’re made in the likeness of a relational God. If not for a Maker who loves and yearns to be loved, why would we be so intent on the same?
The field of Creation is in front of us, the field of Conscience inside us, and the field of Culture is all around us. God surrounds us within and without with traces of his person. He really seems to want to be known. He’s relentless about it.
We’re referring to the best elements of each culture. But even when a society fails, when it implodes on itself by its anti-God attitudes and actions, I think God uses even these to attract attention to himself by offering a better way. We learn by negative examples as well as by positive. God uses instances of botched society (which is merely the cumulative failure of its adherents) to beckon people to himself. People who are frustrated by the failure of their society may be thus incited toward his good society. His message, in this case, is more of one by contrast, “Obviously, what you’re doing is not functional, so how about taking a look at a better way!” The society that rejects him and then suffers the consequences of the darkness that ensues is maybe one of his favorite scenarios in which to entice people back toward the Sower’s society. He’s relentless in his pursuit of people and will go to almost any length to bring us home. He’ll let us go our own way, sit anxiously by while we suffer in our self-inflicted pain, and then lead us to where we belong.
Human relationships are clues
that we’re made in the
likeness of a relational God.
Cornelius seemed to have a fairly honed sense of who God is without the benefit of a human witness. Was there something in his culture, which pointed him toward the culture of God’s Garden? Or did his society direct him so diametrically opposite of Paradise that it drove him to seek God for a better way? Read Acts 10 for yourself and see what you think about this man’s faith before he heard from Peter about the specifics of the good news about Jesus. Peter showed up, and Cornelius and his friends got filled with the Holy Spirit before Peter was even finished explaining the Gospel to them! Why? I think it’s because the fruit was nothing new to them. They’d been sampling for some time by then!
Field #4 – CREEDS
The word, “Creed” is not really the best one I could’ve chosen. I admit that I selected it mostly because it started with “C” and came close to describe Field #4 in which the Sower sows his seeds. I’m really talking about religion – creed being sort of the verbal distillation of someone’s faith, how they articulate it. And I’m not just talking about a Christian creed, but just about any form of spirituality. Yes, I do think that the Sower, who goes to the ends of the earth to get his seed scattered by the breath of the Spirit to every realm of life, will even pursue people into the realm of religion (Christian or not). Bear with m
Jesus, the way…
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life; and no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14).
- “There is no other name under heaven, given to men by which we may be saved” (Acts 4).
- “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2).
Is Jesus the only way to God? Absotively! But I have to say that I like what William Paul Young wrote in his novel, The Shack, “Are you saying that all roads lead to God?” to which Jesus replies, “No, (I’m saying) that God is willing to travel any road to find you.” Let’s unpack this a little bit in light of our theme of God’s relentless pursuit of all people. For a much more thorough and provocative treatment of this theme you might be interested to read one or more of these books:
- The Wideness of God’s Mercy, Clarke Pinnock
- No Other Name, John Sanders
- Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson
It seems to me that religion (whether Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or whatever) can sometimes reflect people’s sincere attempts to find the truth. It’s doubtless also true that at other times religion represents their attempts to evade the truth through hypocrisy and ritual. People (myself included) can suppress the truth and look holy while we do it! I won’t try to differentiate between the two motives here, but for now, I want to primarily address the sincerest of incentives for people being involved in religion of one type or another. I’m particularly referring to true God-seekers involved in creeds that are not Christian.
When I heard someone say that “Christianity doesn’t own God,” I was sort of offended. The longer I mused about it, my offense eased and I began to wonder how much of his seed God might be planting along religious paths. Could it be that he cares enough about the billions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to leave clues about himself in their systems of worship?
I’m not saying that he concocted the world’s religions or that all of them are non-stop flights to God. We Christians are better at identifying the errors in other religions (a valid study in itself, and one that others who are better equipped than I have done) than finding common ground with them and even locating “pieces of truth” in them. Like seeds dropped in unexpected fields, I think God’s love messages get incorporated into systems which are not entirely accurate.
I’ve often said, “It’s better to have weak faith in a strong plank than a strong faith in a weak plank when using it to cross a treacherous ravine.” My point is that it’s not the quality of your faith per se, but the object of it that matters most. Though I still believe this, I’ve been wondering if one’s strong and sincere faith in a weak plank (an inadequate religious system) could possibly lead them to the only plank that could eventually get them over the chasm. Could it be that God is willing to walk to the end of such planks in order to beckon people onto his sturdy beam (Jesus)?
Through whatever means he can, he insistently inserts himself into the lives of those who don’t know him as well as he can be known. He’s stubborn in his hunt for the hearts of people. He wants us to know him and enjoy him, so much so that he’ll travel to some of the most unexpected places and do some of the most surprising things to get our attention. The Son sacrificed himself for every person in history, the Sower sows seed from the life-tree in every place on the planet, and the Spirit furiously blows the seed all over the world in every conscience and culture. It shouldn’t be so surprising then that some of that seed would end up in the hearts of people whose creeds are not entirely correct.
Could it be that he cares enough about the billions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to leave clues about himself in their systems of worship?
There’s only one “non-stop flight” to God, and it’s Jesus. He’s the only way to the Father. But it appears that he’ll take whatever flight he chooses to get us on the right plane! He doesn’t often (if ever) hijack people to get them on the right flight, but he is relentless in his mission to win the hearts of as many people as he can without forcing them to love him as much as he loves them. We may all be quite shocked to see certain people at the destination (heaven) – ones we didn’t see board our plane!
My standard response to the issue of who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t is: “I’m in sales, not in management!” In other words, it’s not my job to know for sure. But what I do know for sure is that the Son paid for everyone who was banned from the Garden, that the Sower plants his seeds prodigiously in every inch of soil he can find, and that the Spirit blows those seeds everywhere people are.
C.S. Lewis wrote some things along these lines (These quotes are taken from God in the Dock, Letters of C.S. Lewis Volume III, and Mere Christianity):
- “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence (and it behooves us to concentrate) on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity…”
- “God is not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all other religions is consummated and perfected…”
- “God sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer (strange) stories scattered through all the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.
- “I think that every prayer that is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. For he is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25) those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.”
“I’m in sales,
not in management!”
The Bible and people with other ideas…
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” . . .
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4)
Is there any biblical evidence that religions can be repositories of varying quantities of truth seeds sown in their culture? I think there is. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well teaches me something about this. She was steeped in the half-truths of Samaritanism, and her theological ideas and religious ways were repulsive to the Jews of Jesus’ day. You’ll notice that Jesus didn’t automatically rule her out because of her cultic ideas, but built on her apparent inclination toward the truth. He didn’t attack her error but invited her to readjust her course toward God. He saw that she had an inner longing for God and offered her living water to satisfy her nagging thirst.
I like how he acknowledged what she did know, while at the same time disabused her of what she didn’t. He found in her a person who was already eating the fruit of the Sower and led her to find the tree from which it came.
“You worship what you don’t know… we worship what we know,” I think he’s saying, “Hey, I know that you are worshipping the God you think he is, but you don’t really know him accurately. I know him and am going to reveal him to you. And more – God’s looking for people like you (as flawed as you are in lifestyle and theology) to worship him in the power of his Spirit (not just religious pageantry) and worship him for who he really is (instead of made-up facsimiles of him).”
I wonder how many there are who worship God, knowing very little about him. Their revelation of the truth about God falls short (to varying degrees, depending on how far they’ve followed the light they have) and can only be totally clarified in Jesus. The Spirit had blown the seed of the Sower into the Jewish-hated cult of the Samaritans. If that’s true, is it conceivable that he does the same in other philosophies and religions? God knows and judges people by their hearts, not by their doctrinal statement!
I’ve mentioned these other characters, which sort of come out of nowhere and surprise us with their knowledge of God. I wonder if their stories are included in the Bible in order to show us that the seed has been effectively sown in surprising places. Job, who probably lived before Abraham, had no Bible; and yet God somehow made himself known to him. The Philistine king Abimelech had personal visitations from God. Rahab, not only a prostitute, but was also a citizen of the sin-filled city of Jericho. The Magi who followed a “star” to the baby Jesus were Babylonian astrologers. Some of these heard God’s voice (Job, Balaam, Abimelech), others saw signs in the sky (the Magi), and some were terrified by stories they’d heard about the God of the Jews (Rahab). Is it possible that these are representative of many others to whom God has revealed himself over the millennia?
Angels, visions, and dreams…
Daniel chronicles the stories of several pagan kings – Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. The Lord used angels, dreams and visions to move these men to believe and to act on what they believed. If you read their own “statements of faith” in Daniel’s book, I think you’ll see that they were convinced that the God of the Jews was the Creator and Lord of the universe. Sometimes God uses uncommon supernatural phenomena to plant his seed in people’s hearts. Setting aside the topic of whether or not these means are adequate ones to save people and get them to heaven without using any human witness, the point I’m making once again is that the Sower is relentless in his hunt for potentially hungry hearts. His love is stubborn that way. He will use whatever means he can in order to gain entrance into that starving spirit. He uses what and whom he chooses.
God knows and judges people
by their hearts, not by their
I’ll say it again – I don’t think that all the religions are the same or that, in themselves, they lead all the way to a personal friendship with God. No doubt there is as much destruction inherent in the world’s religions as there is instruction. Religion in itself (even the religion of the Christians) can’t connect people to God; in fact, in many cases it harms more than helps people become his friends. Jesus told the intensely religious Pharisees that when they made converts to their religion (which was supposed to be Judaism) they made them into “twice the children of hell” that they were (Matthew 23)! Peter spoke about supposed Christian teachers who “promise freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity” and their converts are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” (2 Peter 2). There’s no doubt that any religion can be more of a stumbling block than a stepping-stone to God.
But my point is, that instead of only identifying what’s wrong with people’s ideas about God, maybe we should try harder to discern spiritual hunger in their hearts, celebrate what’s true in their thinking, notice the evidence that Sower has been there ahead of us, and collaborate with him to beckon people toward the tree of life!
The “Jesus bus” and other buses…
My friend and I were meeting at the baseball stadium to watch my San Francisco Giants play. Parking costs as much as the ticket, so I decided to take public transportation. From my house there isn’t one bus that takes me directly there, so I had to take one bus and transfer to another, which dropped me off right in front of the ballpark. I think that creation, conscience, culture, and even some aspects of creed (religion) are like those buses that lead people to — “The Jesus Bus!” They can serve as vehicles that can bring us to The Vehicle that brings us to God. As far as I can tell, it’s necessary for devotees of other religions to “transfer” from their former way to The Way in order to get all the way to the Father! How and when they make this transfer, and even what the process of transfer looks like is considerably above my pay grade. But I’m saying that though I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, there might be more ways to Jesus than I used to thin
He will use whatever means
he can in order to gain entrance
into that starving spirit.
I’m talking of course about buses that are going in the general direction of the true God. They might not take people all the way to where they need to go, but deposit them closer than they were when they began. The bus that goes in the diametrically opposite way of the right way might not help them make the transfer to The Jesus Bus. I can think of at least one exception to that rule. I wonder if there are buses (certain religions) that are so obviously treacherous and dangerous that they terrify their passengers into jumping off before it crashes! And what good thing would it be, if these passengers were then frightened all the way onto the right bus going the right way to the right place. In such a case, I guess even that wrong bus played a role in “delivering” riders to The Jesus Bus!
Once again a disclaimer – they say the third time’s the charm. I’m not saying that every form of spirituality is a “first bus” to bring people part way to God nor am I claiming that all people involved in those religious communities are genuine God-seekers. The world’s religions are absolutely not all saying the same thing about God or about how to get into relationship with him. To say otherwise is false tolerance and sloppy thinking. My point is that there might be enough similarities to indicate that some of their adherents are actually looking for God. I know that the common evangelical view is that the world’s religions are solely the product of human ingenuity (and often satanic delusion) and only serve to hide, rather than reveal the true God. I can’t argue with that in many cases, but I don’t think this is true in all instances. Couldn’t it also be true that there are true God-seeking Hindus in India? Since they’ve only been exposed to their own pantheon of gods, are steeped in the religious culture of their land, worship according to the light they have, isn’t it possible that they’ll somehow find their way into God’s Garden?
God is not stingy with his seed! You might even say he’s careless with it and prodigal with his love!