Why are you looking for God?
I’ve been mulling this question a lot, from the perspective of what draws different people to religious belief. It’s a rephrasing of a question at the center of Luke 7-8, which is a really meaty set of healings and sayings between the Sermon on the Plain (in Luke 6) and commissioning of the Twelve (in 9). In between this small whirlwind of well-told and well-known stories, Jesus stops to ask the people, when they went to see John the Baptist, “What did you go out to see?” He asks it three times in quick succession, so it must have been a question that was really important to Luke.
And rightfully so, because Luke’s Jesus talks about John the Baptist as a true messenger of God. And what we’re looking for, when we’re looking for God, tends to shape what we see. So I was thinking about that, not in terms of people in Jesus’ time going to see John the Baptist, but in terms of why people today go looking for God.
(We’re all different people shaped by different experiences, so our answers are going to be different. There are folks who try to put those different expectations into a developmental hierarchy; while I get what they’re going for, I can’t help but notice that the people at the top usually think like the person making the hierarchical model. I also can’t help but notice that people at every level of the hierarchy seem to show the effects of a true encounter with God. So I don’t mean this to sound hierarchical.)
Some people look for God because they’re scared. I think mostly of people who are scared that they are going to go to Hell if they don’t get on God’s good side, so they are looking for God to show them what they need to do to go up rather than down when they die. Anyone who has lived in a culture of punishment, a family or friend-group whose love was conditional, or a work tribe that only offered approval to those who didn’t screw up, and you know this experience. I’ll just say that that’s not a motivation that speaks loudly to me, but I know people who seem to live holy lives and are kind to others who seem to be driven by fear of God’s wrath and desire for God’s approval.
Some people look for God because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. I’ve said more than a few times over the years that among the essential things for human flourishing are belonging and purpose. And I think that today’s world offers way too little for people in either category; even before the pandemic, we were isolated, and much of our work seemed tough to find meaning in.
There are a lot of places that you can claim to be part of something bigger than yourself, that you can be caught up in transcendence; frankly, that’s the story of modern sports fans. When I took sociology of religion and read about religious rituals from an anthropological perspective, the purest example I could think of was a big-time college football game. We lose ourselves in a larger collective as a sports fan, even if it’s ultimately not very purposeful.
Conversely, modernity offers myths that provide a story of greater purpose and meaning to which we can attach ourselves. Having just finished the full Star Wars saga, that one is fresh in my mind; the Harry Potter universe is another modern example. But even in (sort-of) real life, a lot of the storylines that swirl around our political world today carry this air of ultimate meaning, and if our day-to-day seems kinda meaningless, those storylines are attractive in their claims to purposefulness.
Ultimately, though, it’s the nature of the story of God’s love affair with God’s Creation that provides insuperable meaning, and joining a community of fellow believers, however you define “community”, grounds belonging in that ultimate meaning.
There’s a third way. (Spoiler: with me, there is almost always a third way.) Maybe it’s not about fear or about purpose and meaning. Maybe some people look for God because they want to be fully and intimately known. I started to say this was “for love,” but love is so broad a term that it is insufficiently precise. It’s the feeling of being accepted in the midst of total vulnerability that is the aspect of love I’m talking about.
Just like there are human analogues to faith based on seeking approval and faith based on seeking belonging, so with faith based on seeking intimacy. We have experienced it, or experienced it’s lack, in our closest relationships.
I am stymied to the point of surrender by the divisions among people who profess belief in the same God. I was driven to this meditation by the gnawing need to understand how we can be so far apart despite God’s clearly stated desire that we all be together. The hypothesis of the day, for me, is that we are all approaching the same God, but our answers are really different to the question “Why are you looking for Me?”
But I digest, as the great Howard Troxler used to claim a Florida legislator once liked to say.
The thing about Luke 7-8 is it’s one big double-down on the Lukan message that the outcasts are who God is here for. Consider the healings: an occupying foreigner and his slave, a widow, tax-collecting sellouts, a sinful woman, the disciples (who included self-professed sinners and tax collectors), a man infested with demons, a ritually unclean woman. Only the last healing, the raising of the daughter of a synagogue official, would have been seen at the time as being about someone who was “good people.”
The funny thing is, when Jesus starts this healing streak, word spreads that Jesus is a great prophet who “has come to save his people!” (7:16) They’re right, but they might have been surprised by which people God was claiming as his.
When John’s disciples come to ask Jesus if he is The One, here’s what he tells them to take back to his cousin:
The blind see
The lame walk
Lepers are clean
The deaf hear
The dead come back to life
The Good News is preached to the poor
We can look at these (except maybe the last one) as challenges that medical technology are rapidly solving. We miss the point. The folks he lists, they’re all outcasts in that society that are considered good for nothing, people who don’t count at all; Jesus’ message isn’t about health care so much as it is the restoration to dignity of those on the outside. That’s Luke’s message throughout Luke and Acts, and it’s really, really strong in this section.
Why are we looking for God?
Maybe it’s out of fear, or out of loneliness, or out of a need for meaning, or out of a desire for intimacy. No matter what, though, it is a reflection of our experience as spiritual outcasts, broken and incomplete. That’s very clearly who Luke’s Jesus is here for.
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