When did we forget God?
It’s a provocative question. And it’s the name of outgoing Christianity Today editor in chief Mark Galli’s latest book. After years of working in this world, Galli believes that evangelical Christians’ strong suit today is the love of neighbor, be it prayer gatherings to evangelism to social justice to acts of mercy. We talk about God a lot and worship him and pray to him regularly.
But on the other hand, relatively few Christians take with equal seriousness the command to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. If we do talk about the love of God, it is said that we love God by loving our neighbor. True enough, but that is hardly a complete answer, nor one that would have satisfied Christians of other eras.
So what it would look like to love God with this sort of passionate and all-encompassing fury today? Or, to put it in classical terms, what would it look like to strive to behold the beatific vision, that is, the vision of God himself, a striving driven by an unswerving desire to know God intimately, face to face, and thus to love him with earthly and heavenly intensity?
For his last Quick to Listen episode, Galli and digital media producer Morgan Lee spoke with Hans Boersma, the author of Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition, to discuss what it would look like to love God with passionate and all-encompassing fury today and what difference this move might make in our lives and in the world around us.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #193
You have written a book about "the Beatific Vision." So what do you mean by that? What forms has it taken in Christian history?
Hans Boersma: The beatific vision is a term used for the promise that Scripture holds out that in the hereafter, we will see God face to face. You can think most emphatically, most obviously of St. Paul's promise in 1 Corinthians 13:12 where he says, "Now we see as in a mirror, but then we will see him face to face." And that vision of God in the hereafter is a beatific vision coming from the Latin beatus, "blessed" or "happy."
So true happiness, true blessedness, will be ours in the hereafter when we see God, which means the vision of God is what truly gives us happiness according to St. Paul and according to the Christian tradition.
Obviously, there are people that have pursued the beatific vision in this life before they get to the next. So what does it look like? Are we talking purely about the mystics, the medieval mystics or what?
Hans Boersma: In part, yes, but not only. We shouldn't think of this in a too esoteric fashion. The beatific vision is the end, not just for mystics, but for everyone. So if it's true that God's greatest promise to us is that we will join him in eternity, that's basically the beatific vision.
If that's the promise that God holds out to us, then that end determines everything that we do in our life. So whether we go about our daily activities, all of our actions, or whether we spend time in church, or whether we spend time in personal devotion, whatever it is that we do, all of that aims at seeing God face to face.
When you asked, well, how have people prepared for this beatific vision? It's basically asking the question, how do Christians live their lives, their day to day lives? And in everything that they do, they prepare for this end to see God. And the reason why I think it's important to reemphasize that is that it's easy for us to lose sight of what's primary in life, namely, to see God at the end, so that we arrange our lives in such a way that we're preparing and all that we do for seeing God.
You write on your website about this idea of a road and a sign warning people about deer. It was actually a really interesting metaphor and you kind of unpack it on your website. Can you actually kind of explain what you're talking about there? Because I think it relates to the points that you're making here.
Hans Boersma: I'm trying to distinguish between mere symbols and sacraments. If you have a roadside, you're driving along the road and you see this road sign of a deer, you're not going to try and avoid the sign for fear of hitting a deer. Why not go for the obvious reason that the sign is merely a symbol. There's no actual deer there. It's where you see the deer come out of the forest that you see the real thing. The symbol is a symbol.
My interest in sacramental reality, sacramental ontology is this: the things that we go through in this life, the things that we experience in this life, the things also that we see around us of the created order, are they simply symbols pointing to something that's far away like the road sign of a deer? Or do the things around us and the things that God gives us to experience, is there actually more to them? Do they have a depth to them, what you might want to call a sacramental depth to them? Is in some way, the presence of God here and now in the things around us, so that these things are actually small sacraments?
And I'm trying to argue in what I'm writing, and also my book on the beatific vision, is that actually the things around us make present already, in a real sense, the reality of God's love in Jesus Christ.
Some listeners might ask, how is that different than pantheism?
Hans Boersma: That's a great question. It's a question I often get. And the reason I think why we typically today ask that question immediately is that we live in modernity in a world that has banished God upstairs. Within the history of ideas, this is typically referred to as deism. In deism, you have the notion that God creates the world, he makes the world, but he has, as it were, wound up the clock and now runs by itself. You don't need God for the clock to basically keep taking from day today. And so we've safely banished God upstairs and he's separate from this world.
And in such a deistic universe, in such a modern universe, you don't have sacraments. You don't have the real presence of God. And as soon as there's any sort of notion of sacramentality, as soon as somebody makes a comment that maybe God is in some way present here, we're thinking, "Oh, that's pantheism." So why are we thinking that? Because we're deep down deists.
Because we've deep down bought into this notion that God is not really present, but he's somewhere else in another place. Well, according to Scripture, the entire world speaks of the presence of God—in creation, in the incarnation, and in the resurrection. In each of these three key moments within the Christian narrative, God makes clear that he is truly present in our lives and in this world.
Now pantheism, to be sure, is the exact opposite of deism and is a real danger. So if you're a straightforward pagan Platonist, the danger of pantheism is real. Pantheism is the notion that God and the world are one. That God is identical to the world, so that there's no transcendence whatsoever. God is imminent in the world, and more than that, God is the world and the world is God. Not in a Christian understanding, that would be heretical. It would completely undermine the sovereignty of God.
In the Christian tradition, when you say that God is truly present in this world—which is essentially participation, that this will participate in the life of God—to say that is not to lapse into pantheism. Why not? Because God always is more, always is more than the way in which he makes himself present in this world.
The theologian such as Thomas Aquinas, Gregory of Nyssa, these theologians that strongly emphasize that we participate in some manner already in the life of God. The same theologians also are theologians that truly recognize and take into account that God is sovereign, that God is transcendent.
We shouldn't play out against each other transcendence and imminence as if, if God were transcendent then he cannot be imminent, or if God is imminent in this world then he cannot be transcendent. Transcendence and imminence presuppose each other. Participation, the sacramental understanding of reality, doesn't lead to pantheism, doesn't imply pantheism, it is simply a way of saying God truly, truly involves himself out of love with the created order that he has made.
So the Incarnation is the great exclamation point of this reality, or did it create a new reality of God's participation in the world?
Hans Boersma: I'm hesitating simply to say the one or the other to your question, and the reason is that in some sense, the Incarnation is the exclamation mark behind all of God's revelation. So God reveals himself in numerous manners and he reveals themselves as Hebrews 1:1-2 say most clearly, and more clearly than ever before, in his son Jesus Christ.
The Eastern Christians often say that when God comes down to us, he always comes by way of theophany. And you could say therefore that the incarnation is a really great theophany. And in my book, Seeing God, I'm arguing that whenever God reveals or manifests himself, even in the hereafter, he does it by way of theophany, the way of self-manifestation in Jesus Christ.
God always, to use Calvin's language, accommodates himself to us. He takes into account that we're creatures, he comes in a creaturely fashion, in the Incarnation particularly. The reason why I initially hesitated is this: while it's true that the Incarnation is the exclamation mark behind all of God's, theophanies, behind all of God's revelations, the Incarnation is something new and it's something unique as well.
When God takes on human flesh—the very language that we're using there, God taking on human flesh—he does something that he has never done before and will never do afterward. God takes on human flesh, he becomes a human being. God does not become any of the other things that he uses to reveal himself earlier. So when in the earlier self-manifestation of God, say to Abraham in Genesis 18 or say later on when God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush. God does not become one of the three men., God does not become the bush, but God manifests himself there to be sure. But only in the Incarnation does he take on human flesh.
So there's something unique that we should never lose sight of. Which is also the reason why there's an important distinction—not a separation, but an important distinction—between the small 's' sacraments that I've been talking about, god showing himself all over the place in this world, and capital 's' Sacrament that is the church and the Sacraments of the church, like baptism, Eucharist and the other Sacraments.
So if God manifests himself and is present in some way. Does that mean sacramentally everybody should be experiencing him, whether they know it or not?
Hans Boersma: Yes, whether they know it or not.
Again, we need to distinguish here and not separate. Everyone experiences God. God has created human beings with a longing that is stilled only when we see the face of God. God constitutes us. God makes us for himself.
As Augustine writes in his Confessions, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."
Only God satisfies. As a C.S. Lewis often puts it, we're satisfied often, or we think we're satisfied too quickly. We're settling for secondary things too easily, but only the face of God truly satisfies. And we're made for that. Everybody, Christian or not, is in that sense religious, because they've all been created with this God-shaped hole. This sense that there is an incompleteness, and the sense of incompleteness can only be taken away by God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
So there's a uniqueness about the Christian faith in that only God's supernatural grace takes us to the end. Namely the face of God himself. Only God's grace does that, and so there's something unique to the Christian faith. Nonetheless, God's grace builds on a natural foundation that you could say Christians and non-Christian share. Our humanity is the humanity that is in some way always already graced. Why? Because God creates the world within view to the ultimate completion in Jesus Christ.
That seems like it has tremendous implications for evangelism in the sense that instead of a Pharisaical instinct of condemning people for doing everything from drug addiction to sexual confusion, to seeking after wealth, from this point of view, it's a charitable thing to say what they're really looking for is this ultimate beatific experience. Is that not right?
Hans Boersma: Right. The word for sin in scriptures often means we're targeting wrongly, we're aiming in the wrong direction, our desires are misdirected. It's not wrong to have desires. God means for us to be desiring creatures. Our appetites are often misdirected—whether it's power, whether it's money, whether it's sex, each of these ways we go astray often because we're aiming too low. We're not aiming at the face of God. To put it more bluntly and starkly, those misdirections are sin.
It's entirely appropriate to talk about judgment. It's entirely appropriate to warn one another about God's anger against sin. But we should not forget that when we sin, even in our sinning, there's the hidden search for God.
And you're right, that has implications for evangelism because when we talk to a non-Christian friend, our first instinct should not be to point out everything that's wrong in somebody else's life, but our first instinct should be to look in that person's life and to say, so how is this person expressing his or her desires for meaning?
When you have a discussion with somebody about meaning in life and how the person was searching for meaning in his or her life, a discussion can then go to where it is that we find our satisfaction, where we find true meaningfulness in our lives.
Who have been the greatest examples of people who are praying for and pursuing the beatific vision that we can use as models today?
Hans Boersma: Wherever I went in my historical investigations, I just found people who were so interesting and who were so on fire for the final pillars of the beatific vision that I fell in love with almost every one of the authors I was reading. And I think the reason for that is unlike today where we have the question on the table, "what is the beatific vision?", for the pre-modern tradition and also for quite a period after the Reformation, that wasn't ever a question. Everybody aimed, everybody recognized that the aim in life is beatific vision.
So every one of these authors genuinely seeks after that. Now, people who have especially inspired me, let me just refer to a couple. One is St. Gregory of Nyssa, fourth-century mystical theologian, a great defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of his books, especially The Life of Moses and his homilies on the Song of Songs are descriptions of his search and his longing for the face of God, and his desire to enter ever more deeply into the life of God. Gregory has been a real inspiration to me.
The other thing that I discovered in the writing of this book is Puritan theologians. What I found there was fascinating, and actually, I've come to love the way in which some of the Puritan theologians, people such as Isaac Ambrose, John Owen, Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, talk about the beatific vision. Especially because of the strong focus on Jesus Christ. When they talk about the beatific vision, they typically talk about seeing Jesus. They recognize that God comes down to us, stoops down to us, accommodates himself to us, when he shows himself—even in the hereafter. And the effect of that is that for these Puritan theologians, we never leave Jesus behind. The beatific vision is about seeing Jesus, and seeing God in Jesus and through Jesus.
You named an individual and then you talked about the Puritans overall, and I'm really interested to hear how you see what you're calling for as taking place in the lives of individuals versus needing to transpire within a particular Christian community.
Hans Boersma: In my mind, the two are linked closely. From my understanding, the Church is always first. So the communal is always first. I develop as an individual, as a person, within a community, within a tradition, within the Church. The Church is the continuation of God's presence, which he has begun in Jesus Christ—at least from my understanding of the Church. We can never think of ourselves as individuals Christians apart from what God has done and continues to do in the Church.
It's in the Church that we learn to see God. It is when we listen to the preaching of the gospel. It is when we come to the altar, to the table. It's there that God wants to give himself and it's there that he brings us close to himself and makes us see his face more clearly than it does anywhere else.
When it comes to the individual, there are individual practices and disciplines that one can engage in. Basic exercises such as morning prayer, evening prayer. You can take also of practices such as Lexia Divina. You can think of practices of self-renunciation, such as fasting or other practices. All of these things are individual practices that are meant to form the character, to shape one's character, to submit oneself to the Spirit's working in one's life, in such a way that we become disposed to seeing God more and more clearly, more deeply.
That, in turn, affects, again, the community. That affects, again, the Church. Because it is as individuals, as we live in the Church and as we model our lives before others, and as we live and engage with others in the Church, that we shaped the Church as a community. And that we become as a Church more the Church that God wants us to be.
If you're going to pursue this beatific vision, to what extent do you have to kind of withdraw from everyone else?
Hans Boersma: There are two elements of the Christian tradition that Christian theologians typically talk about, and that's action and contemplation. There's always a tension between action and contemplation. What the final aim of the Christian life is contemplation. So there is a priority of contemplation over action in the sense that the beatific vision is eternal contemplation. And so all of our action that we are engaged in this life gets taken up in that eternal, final contemplation of the face of God.
But, that doesn't mean that our action in this life is somehow worthless, useless, to be avoided. It doesn't mean that we should seclude ourselves into separatist communities and that we should shy away from the evil world or anything like that. But it does mean everyone, even the most active among us, need times of rest, need times of recuperation. There's a reason, I think, why God makes the world in six days, and then has a day of rest. The day to day lives that we ourselves lead, that we pattern ourselves on that, so that there is always the pattern of the six and the one or the one in the six and we'll go back and forth all the time.
So there's a cyclical element to the Christian life. It's not just a linear thing where we're always moving forward in a life of constant action towards the final end. No, there's a cyclical thing, and every one of us needs both action and contemplation. It would be selfish for someone to seclude himself completely, not to share the fruits of his contemplation with others. So St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, emphasizes that contemplation always goes back to action. When you've been with God and when you're theologizing, you have learned certain things, you've experienced certain things, you want to share the fruits of that with the people around you.
And you do that in all sorts of ways—in teaching and in preaching, but also in the way that you carry your life to the people around you. There's always a tension that I think most of us experience, even in our individual lives, between action and contemplation, and we have different predilections, different desires. Some of us are more controlled and contemplative, some of us are more active. What would be erroneous is if we started shooting darts at each other and saying, "you're an active kind of a person that's wrong," or "you're a contemplative kind of person, that can't possibly be." No, we need both.
But in every one of our lives, there needs to be a weekly cycle. You can't do without it. And keeping in mind that all of it ends in what the earlier tradition often referred to as the eighth day. Everything ends in that final eschatological day where we will see God face to face.
So always keeping in mind that that contemplation is the end. But within that, there's lots of action within the journey towards that.
Let's say I'm listening to this and I'm thinking, I have neglected the contemplative side. Where do I begin?
Hans Boersma: Depending on your situation, where you begin is you begin with a church. You make sure you go to church, because contemplation is not a matter of simply withdrawing into your little cubicle and doing your own thing. It is a communal thing. So you begin by being a faithful church member. You cannot contemplate God in Jesus Christ apart from Christians around you.
Secondly, I have found it important in my life to have certain regular daily practices through which, in my own spiritual life and in my conscience, I hold myself accountable. I've come to find The Book of Common Prayer, a real help in that regard. It grounds me in ways, helps me focus in ways that apart from that rhythm, that regular practice, I would not be able to do. It helps me to say no against certain distractions.
Distractions are probably the worst obstacle on the road to the beatific vision. We're distracted by worldly things—sometimes even do good things—that take over from our search for God. And one of the practices that have been helpful to me at the beginning of the day, and at some point, towards the end of the day, is to take half an hour or 45 minutes where all of the other concerns are put aside for a moment. And where I'm taking time to be with God and to reorient myself.
Another practice that I have found helpful it's the spiritual reading of scripture, Lexia Divina. Where you meditate on a short phrase or on a line of scripture, where perhaps you memorize it, and where you think about its spiritual implications.
What's important, I think, if people asking the practical question of "how do I do this?" is to set aside a particular time at which you do this. When doesn't really matter, but that it'd be a rhythm is important. Because without rhythms we tend to give up on whatever our good intentions are in a matter of days. So to have a rhythm, to have a certain point in the day where certain things fit, is helpful and important.
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