Tag Archives: invisible

The Mind That ‘Sees’

June 2017 Credo

This article is written in response to a request by one of the visitors of the Ethos Institute website. It has to do with the Christian’s experience of God. What do Christians mean when they say that they have a personal knowledge and experience of God? What do Christians mean when they say that they sense his presence?

One of the most important, if arguably also the most neglected topics in recent Christian discourse, is what may be described as a ‘Christian theology of religious experience’.

Despite the fact that spiritualities of all sorts – from exercises in mindfulness to New Age mysticism – have been in vogue for some time, Christian theologians generally (and evangelical theologians, in particular) have not given the issue of religious experience the serious theological attention it deserves.

Christians of every denominational stripe and tradition claim to have personal knowledge of and relationship with God. Many Christians have also testified that there were occasions when they were able to sense the presence of God in their lives.

Such assertions are, of course, premised on the Christian understanding of God.

The God who reached out to us in love and grace has invited us into a covenantal relationship with him. He is not an absentee God, distant and aloof. Rather he is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us.

But what do Christians mean when they say that they are able to sense God’s presence? How are we to understand the Christian’s perception and experience of God?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perception as the ‘awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation’. Perception, it adds, is the ‘physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience’.

Based on such definitions, the Christian claim that it is possible to perceive the divine becomes even more baffling, if not incredulous. For, unlike the pagan idols that are made of wood and clay, the God whom Christians worship is spirit, invisible to human eyes (John 1:18). The Creator is not a part of the created order, and therefore cannot be known by sensory perception like the material objects of this world.

But although the Creator of the universe is spirit and therefore cannot be perceived by our creaturely senses and finite minds, he has revealed himself in such a way that makes our knowledge of him possible.

In John 1:18, alluded to earlier, we are told that although no one has seen God, the Son of God has made him known in the incarnation. Put differently, by taking upon himself human flesh and coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity has made the invisible God visible.

Paul could therefore declare in Colossians that the Son ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15). Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, bears witness to the incarnate Son of God through whom the invisible God is known.

Not only did God make himself an object of this world in order to reveal himself to us, he also accommodated his revelation in such a way that we are able to receive and understand it. This notion of ‘divine accommodation’, which was brilliantly developed by the great Reformer John Calvin, helps us to understand the mode that divine revelation has assumed that makes it possible for human beings to know God.

Peter Enns explains: ‘This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place – he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people – he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are’.

The objective basis for your knowledge of God sketched very briefly here is extremely important.

The knowledge of God does not arise subjectively from our inner being, our mind or our soul. Rather, it is objective. We know God because the eternal Son has become a human being, and because the Bible bears witness to him.

However, there is a subjective aspect to our knowledge of God – and this brings us closer to the heart of our topic. Just as the Son of God has made our objective knowledge of the invisible God possible in the incarnation, so the Holy Spirit enables us to subjectively apprehend and appropriate this knowledge by faith.

The early Fathers of the Church often speak of the spiritual senses (sensus spiritualis) that the Holy Spirit awakens in the regenerate soul of the believer, enabling him to perceive spiritual things.

The Spirit forms in the believer a sensorium that makes him receptive to God. The spiritual senses do not work against the natural senses but in concert with them, giving the Christian a greater capacity for God.

As the great Swiss Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, puts it: ‘The spiritual senses are the human range of senses adapted to the riches and the variety of the paths taken by God in his revelation, with the capacity simultaneously to “see his glory”, “hear his word”, “breathe his fragrance”, “taste his sweetness” and “touch his presence”’.

The spiritual senses that Christians are given at regeneration enable them, through the out-workings of divine grace, to ‘sense God’s presence’ and ‘experience him’. They enable the mind that is renewed by the Spirit to ‘see’ a deeper spiritual reality.

Such experiences can come to us during worship and prayer, or as we read the Bible. But we can also experience the presence of God as we perform mundane activities like driving to work or washing the dishes.

At this juncture, I would like to sound a note of caution by highlighting two very important points.

The first is that the relationship between the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subjective appropriation of that revelation made possible by the Spirit must never be severed from each other. The means that all subjective religious experiences – regardless of how powerful and compelling they may be – must be subjected to Scriptural assessment and critique.

This we learn from Scripture itself. In the wake of false teachings in the Church, the Apostle John writes: ‘Beloved, do not believe any spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone into the world’ (1 John 4:1).

Secondly, although we have been discussing how the individual Christian may know or perceive God, it must be stressed that Christian experience is always ecclesial in nature. That is to say, our personal and individual experiences of God must always be evaluated and guided by the universal Church’s experience of God.

Privileging our subjective religious experiences over the ecclesial is extremely dangerous. It has led many to theological error and spiritual ruin.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

The Human Face

December 2016 Pulse

In August 2015, injured volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison received a face transplant in a 26-hour surgery performed by plastic surgeon Dr Eduardo Roderiguez and his team, a procedure which cost US$1 million (S$1.36 million). The donor was David Rodenbaugh, who had died in a cycling accident.

The first person to receive a full face transplant was a French woman called Isabelle Dinoire, who sustained multiple severe facial injuries after being mauled by a dog in 2005. Since then, more than 20 patients across the globe have received partial or full face transplants.

Although serious ethical and social issues surround face transplants, they will not be the focus of this article. Instead, the question that will occupy us has to do with the significance and meaning of the human face.

This question is of special currency and relevance in our ‘pornified’ culture in which different parts of the body – often divorced from the face – are de-personalised and perceived hedonistically as mere instruments of pleasure.

Yet, as the authors of the 2004 Royal College of Surgeons report rightly saw, “The face is central to our understanding of our identity. Faces help us understand who we are and where we come from.”

Drawing from the rich theological anthropology of the Old Testament, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could say that the human face is “in and of itself visitation and transcendence”.

By this Levinas means that the face comes into our shared world from beyond it while at the same time always remaining beyond it. It is a presence that cannot be contained, a revelation that is also always shrouded in mystery.

Unlike humans, animals have no concept of the face and are therefore said to be face-blind, that is, they are unable to recognise faces as faces. Some scientists and philosophers tell us that only sophisticated language users (i.e., humans) have this ability.

For humans, then, to see a human face is to see more than just the physical features of another human – nose, eyes, lips, mouth, etc. It is to see something of the whole person. It is to encounter the other as “visitation and transcendence”, to recall Levinas’ extraordinary expression.

My face is the part of my body to which others direct their attention when they wish to engage me because they somehow intuitively know that I am behind my face, so to speak.

As the inimitable British philosopher Roger Scruton has put so memorably: “My face is a boundary, a threshold, the place I appear as the monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”

Furthermore, although I am present in my face and I speak and look through it at the world (and at other faces), I do not see my own face unless I deliberately choose to by looking in a mirror. In looking at my face in the mirror – and in seeing my self in it – I get the sense of who I am in relation to others, and who they are as others.

Thus, as a symbol of individuality, my face identifies me – Roland Chia – as this particular person, and distinguishes me from others who are not me.

In our fallen world, however, the human face is shrouded with an inherent ambiguity in that it not only reveals, but it also conceals and sometimes even deceives. The face can become a mask that deliberately misdirects by hiding or disguising the true self.

Yet, despite the fact that sin has disfigured the human face, it still has the potential to reflect and reveal the Face of faces, that is, the Face of God, about which the Bible speaks about so frequently and eloquently (see Psalm 13:1; Psalm 17:15; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Hence, the great medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa could write: “In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled and in a riddle.”

Such is the mystery of man, created as he is in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to ‘mirror’ his Creator, however faintly and imperfectly.

But most importantly, the Bible tells us that the invisible God has revealed himself supremely and perfectly in a particular human face, that of Jesus of Nazareth. “Whoever has seen me,” declares the incarnate Son, “has seen the Father.” (John 14:9, ESV)


Dr Roland ChiaDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

The Image of the Invisible God

The most unique and radical claim of the Christian Faith is not that God has revealed himself, but that he has done so by becoming a human being.

The incarnation is the most central truth of the Christian Faith. The eternal Son of God took up human flesh and became ‘like his brothers in every respect’ not only to ‘make propitiation for the sins of his people’ (Hebrews 2:17) but also to reveal the very being of the triune God to humankind.

The Bible everywhere speaks of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son now incarnate, as the supreme revelation of God. Thus, the author of Hebrews could write: ‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, who he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Hebrews continues to proclaim the Son as the ‘radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). Paul, writing to the Christians at Colossae, could declare that the incarnate Son is ‘the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). And in John 14:9, Jesus claimed that ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.

In the person of Jesus Christ, the event of God’s self-disclosure occurs fully and supremely. In the life, speech and acts of Jesus are revealed the very character and purposes of God. As Millard Erickson has clearly put it: ‘The pinnacle of God’s acts is to be found in the life of Jesus. His miracles, death and resurrection are redemptive history in its most condensed and concentrated form’.

Only the second person of the triune Godhead, who is with God and is God from all eternity, can reveal God to us. Thus, the consensus of the Patristic theologians that can be traced to Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 125-202): that God can only be known through God.

To be sure, God’s revelation of himself in Christ comes in a mediated form, through the humanity of the incarnate Son. It is important to note that God has not revealed himself in humanity per se, but through the humanity united to Christ, the divine Son (Latin: humanitas Christi). In the incarnation, God has revealed himself through a medium that is not alien to us.

The Reformers recognise that in order for God to reveal himself to human beings he must in some ways accommodate or condescend himself to the ways of human knowing. According to a number of Reformed theologians like David Wright, Timothy George and Edward Dowey, the incarnation is God’s accommodating act par excellence.

But it was the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who articulated this with great insight and eloquence. In a 1966 essay entitled ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ Rahner writes: ‘The Logos, the Son of the Father, is truly, in his humanity as such, the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in this Son, to the world – revelatory, because the symbol renders present what is revealed’.

Using different terminology, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth makes the same point when he maintains that the incarnate Christ is the ‘sacramental reality of [God’s] revelation’, the ‘first sacrament, the foundation of everything that God instituted and used in his revelation as a secondary objectivity before and after the epiphany of Jesus Christ’.

To say that God’s self-disclosure is found supremely in Christ is not to deny his universal revelation in creation. Paul is unequivocal that God has revealed himself in the created order when he writes that the ‘invisible nature’ of the Creator is clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20).

Neither does it diminish the way in which God revealed himself in his dealings with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.

In fact, if Christ is indeed the supreme revelation of God, then in him all the other moments of God’s self-disclosure becomes clearer and more comprehensible. In him all the manifestations of God – past, present and future – are clarified. And in him God’s dealings with Israel becomes more understandable and meaningful.

Christ is the summit of God’s revelation.

It is precisely because in him is to be found ‘all the riches of full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery’ (Colossians2: 2-3) that Christ can be said to be the ‘exegesis of God’ (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

In the incarnation of the Son, we also see the profound relationship between revelation and salvation. Insofar as the second person of the Godhead is Word, his incarnation is the revelation of God. But even as he comes as Word to reveal the love of God, he also comes as Son to reconcile us to the Father.

In Jesus Christ we not only come to know God, but we are also brought into communion with him by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

The great Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance explains:

‘In this act of condescension God comes as God the Son and God the Word. He comes as God the Son to enter our rebellious estate in order to effect reconciliation by living out his life of filial obedience where we are disobedient, and he comes as God the Word to enter into our darkness and blindness in order to effect revelation by manifesting the love of God and by achieving from within humanity faithful appropriation of divine revelation’.

Insofar as these are the works of the incarnate Son of God, they must be seen not as two acts but as one act: revelation is part of reconciliation, and reconciliation is part of revelation.

In Jesus Christ is revealed the loving God who saves human beings from sin and death. Thus, we could indeed say (together with Paul) that in the face of Jesus Christ we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.