How do we get closer to God?
The question occurred to me while I was reviewing a passage from William P. Young’s The Shack for a class I plan on teaching this spring on the heresy of Modalism (among others).* The book, of course, is about a man who is called by God to a shack where he spends a weekend retreat hanging out with Young’s version of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through this emotional narrative of fellowship and conversation, the protagonist overcomes the twin horrors of personal tragedy and catechesis** and becomes far closer to God than he ever thought possible–maybe even as close as women are naturally.***
When one looks back at history, one finds that every era has its own insights and blindspots. The Church is no exception, and so different groups of Christians over the centuries have had different (and often unbalanced) answers to the question at hand. The monastics thought the key to proximity with God could be found in complex systems of ritual and ceremony. In the early Modern era, many tried to reach God through the intellect. By pursuing philosophy and theology, they could discover more about God and meet Him in their understanding. Later on, still others tried to connect with God through their will. They thought that they could become intimate with God by reforming their behavior and living pious lives. The Shack is an example from our current Postmodern era, in which the key to relationship with God is thought to be the emotions. According to this understanding, we are closest to God when we feel close to Him, and we can get our hearts to feel rightly through conversations with God, stories, and the spiritualization of our own personal narratives.
Ironically, these misguided methods of becoming closer to God all have the effect of driving most people further away. The monasteries were the only places one could perpetually devote himself to ritual and ceremony. Neither does everyone have kind of intelligence required to reach the loftiest heights of philosophy and theology. Only the holiest of rollers could keep up with the necessary system of rules and regulations to keep the will in line (assuming you had even chosen the right system from the diverse selection that pietists came up with). Similarly, trying to find God in feelings of community ends up making Christianity the sole province of the highly extroverted (most of whom are women). Indeed, the ways the emergent folks (and other postmodern Christians) like to worship tend to resemble neighborhood coffee shops, pop concerts, and other highly social or emotionally charged contexts. Introverts and men need not apply.
So how then do we become closer to God? Perhaps we should look less at ourselves and more at Him. Where does God promise to be close to us? He has promised to be with us always–to the very end of the age–in the Church’s distribution of Christ’s teaching and her application of the Sacraments. We are closest to God when we hear what he has spoken to us by his Apostles and prophets. We are closest to God when we are buried with him in baptism and when we receive his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. That is where he has promised to be, that is where he has promised to deliver his gifts, and He makes these things available to everyone. One doesn’t need to be extroverted to hear God’s word nor an intellectual or ascetic to be baptized. They are not tools which can be skillfully used to reach God; they are gifts by which God reaches us.
Of course, we must always be wary of avoiding one error by falling into a different one. Word and Sacrament do create closeness with God, but that closeness persists beyond the pulpit and the altar. That closeness manifests itself in the church’s ceremonial life (which is why iconoclasm is in error). That closeness manifests itself in the intellect and the desire to learn more and more about God (which is why the anti-intellectual and anti-doctrinal strains of Christianity are in error). That closeness manifests itself in how we choose to go about our daily living (which is why, I’m sorry to say, many 2nd-use-only Lutherans are in error). And finally, that closeness manifests itself in our feelings and our own personal stories (which is why, when the pendulum swings back and shatters postmodernism, there will be yet another error to contend with).
The answer, as usual, is to the receive the whole counsel of God, deliver it unabridged to others, and let the Holy Spirit sanctify us through His chosen means. It is through these that we enjoy participation in a closeness that He provides and will not take away from us.