Spiritual Decline: Western Culture 3

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
Ps 42:1,2

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of heavenly creatures declaring: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

These creatures could perceive the presence and glory of God when they view any part of the earth. This perspective of the filling of the earth with the glory of God is likely to be much more difficult for us today compared to people living before us. Over the last 500 years of Western culture there has been a profound shift in how we perceive the world. Charles Taylor posed the following question:

“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”

In medieval times, atheism was virtually inconceivable. The natural world was felt to point beyond itself to a higher reality and these spiritual forces were present and active in this enchanted world invading our lives often unexpectedly. An individual’s meaning and purpose were seen in this wider spiritual context. The very fabric of society was seen to be established in this heavenly kingdom and this worked against unbelief. The social bonds were strong and acted as a restraint to the formation of views contrary to those held at the time. The rise of what we term “Exclusive Humanism” (where meaning and significance are accounted for without reference to the divine) had to entail the removal of these perspectives and values. The social bonds have been weakened allowing individuals to disengage from the community around them – we had to be buffered from social and spiritual influences. We had to see that reality lay only in material elements and there was no higher reality. We had to redefine human flourishing to primarily incorporate this materialistic perspective. In undermining the spiritual we elevated man.

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

The pervasive influence of our culture can have a profoundly important impact on our view of God and how we relate to Him. These foundational issues must be given significant attention as it forms the basis of our living. We could incorrectly see God as uninvolved, the great watchmaker who kicks off creation and will close it down but is otherwise absent. With a strong perspective on our personal flourishing we can see God as my servant, the one who is present to help me in my life directions. We may remove elements from God’s character (such as righteous judgement) because we are of the view that God’s prime responsibility is in personal human flourishing. Flowing from our view of God are our actions: We may be too busy with our personal activities that we find little value in listening to Jesus (like Martha), we may not see the value of prayer (like the disciples), we may adopt a default position of skepticism demanding proof (like Thomas), and we may be easily swayed by the influence other others (like Peter). We can also be prone to defining God by our circumstances rather than wrestling with our circumstances from a firm foundation of faith (e.g. Ps 42).

John Piper suggests four aspects of building our openness to God, our filling of the Spirit.

  1. Meditate on the Word. Read the Scriptures, place yourself in this grand story, listen intently, let the Word fill you. (Col. 3:16)
  2. Believe what you hear, a faith response choosing that the Scriptures are giving us the true nature of reality. (Gal.3:5)
  3. Hold fast in obedience in our love for Christ to more fully experience the Father’s love, we are a people declared holy relating to a holy God (Jn 14:21)
  4. Passionately desire God, His presence. Knowing His character, we embrace a heart-felt desire for more of Him (Ps.42:1,2)

I once heard a Christian state that our first thought is from God and the second is not. This does not appear to have any solid biblical basis and my impression is that it is more likely that the first thought is from culture and we need to work on having this countered with a second thought from God (especially the Scriptures). It starts by having a greater awareness of our first thought and countering it with Scripture (eg Ps 29). These thoughts about God are generally not isolated, and when we identify them, we need to set aside some time to grasp the Scriptures that help us redirect our thoughts.

Question to Ponder: Does your attitude to prayer and mediation reflect a belief in the overarching spiritual reality that we live in?

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