Learning to be with God


This is a guest post by theologian Dr Robert Knowles:

Discipleship through Communion with Christ in the Central Room

Christians often speak of having “devotions”, or a “Quiet Time”, by which they mean a private time with the Lord Jesus involving both prayer and meditation upon biblical texts. Here, I suggest an additional devotional model, called “being in the Central Room”. This model, like all other models, has difficulties and limitations, some of which I will highlight.1 Yet, it still has value—so I will explain it, as follows.

Communion and Conflict: Becoming Different to the World

Imagine a large circular central room, with Christ and oneself seated in the middle, surrounded by peripheral rooms. The central room is the “world”2 of your communion with God. The peripheral—though still vital—rooms are the various “worlds” of daily life: work, family, recreation, church, and so on.

In the central room, the conversation is truthful: the Spirit activates biblical texts as speech-acts that address you; and you pray truthfully to God. And this conversation is private: Jesus says, ‘when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’ (Matthew 6:6). In the peripheral rooms—i.e. life’s various spheres—conversation is potentially less truthful and more public.

The Christian life is a to-and-fro movement between the central and peripheral rooms. As Christians, we seek to be in the world but not of it—to be defined by the central room of communion with God. We still go into the peripheral rooms—life’s various spheres—but do so as Christians, seeking not to be completely defined by these spheres of life.

Whilst we still commune with God in the peripheral rooms—in life’s various spheres—other conversations are also happening in those rooms—conversations that are different to the conversation that pertains to the central room, as noted above.

Thus, Christians inevitably face conflict. Conversation with God through the Scriptures involves the light of truthful razor-sharp speech-actions, insights and assumptions that build, form, reform and transform our lives into right pathways of thought and practice—and so peace comes, perspective returns, power flows, and our “persons” are progressively reshaped. But, in the peripheral rooms—in life’s other spheres—collisions occur between the discourse world of communion with God and the discourse worlds of work, family, recreation, church, and so on. Collisions occur between Christian and non-Christian assumptions, practices, ways of thinking and speaking, atmospheres, environments, and tribal smells. This is not just a collision of “world-views”.

Being defined by the discourse-world of the central room of communion with God, Christians live in tension with the world’s worlds. The world also detects this tension such that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3:12).

This tension or collision of worlds is both internal and external. Philosophy says that language and thinking are intertwined,3 and that language and practice are intertwined.4 In entering life’s various fallen spheres Christians, whilst seeking to be shaped by the discourse, thinking, and practices pertaining to communion with God, collide with those of the world.

To the extent that Christians internalise the world’s practices, language, and thinking, they will experience internal and external conflicts between at least two ways of life, thinking, and speaking: those of the central room of communion with God and those of any peripheral room or world that has begun to re-shape their lives.

Communion and Conditioning: Battle to Reshape the Christian

Thus, Christians are poisoned daily. In the central room of communion with God, the atmosphere—the practices, language, and thought-forms—is comparatively unpolluted. But in the peripheral rooms of fallen life the atmosphere is polluted or altered away from biblical norms in its practices, language, and thinking: mere engagement between Christians and life’s fallen spheres tends to re-paradigm, or re-shape, Christians.

Christians immersed in peripheral rooms long enough without being reset by breathing the pure air of communion with God can even cease to believe in the very existence of the world of the central room. Communion with God becomes a memory of something vaguely “other” that now seems “unreal”. Now, the “real” is the immediate environment of the peripheral room, which becomes the new “central room” for the backslider.

That is, the assumptions, practices, discourse, and thinking of a peripheral environment can re-shape persons after that environment’s own image, making them blind to or forgetful of the reality of the divine. They forget how to leave peripheral worlds so as to re-enter the central room of communion with God, where this forgetting becomes a kind of addiction, trap, or theatrical performance that forgets it’s a play.

To those still aware of God, such persons seem punch-drunk—locked into a peripheral reality. Such persons, though, view Quiet-Times as peripheral “optional activities” “on the side”—when in fact communion with God is not so much a “time” as a different world or place that it takes time and practice to enter into.

Communion with God involves immersion in the real world. The world’s “worlds” pass away; but the world where God is worshipped endures forever, for ‘his dominion is an eternal dominion’ (Daniel 4:34) and ‘the Scriptures must be fulfilled’ (Mark 14:49).

To those paradigmed by immersion in life’s peripheral worlds, however, the “real” world is the secular world, the world of work, or of family, church, romance, recreation, fitness training—and so on. The world you are most immersed in seems like “the most real world” to you, for it is this world that most programs you after its own image.

It is crucial, then, to keep returning to the central room of communion with God. To be a Christian is to be shaped by immersion in the world of communion with God and its practices, discourse, and thinking, which means being shaped by the biblical world brought alive by the Holy Spirit. But, as Christians, we are also shaped by life’s fallen worlds in which the practices, discourses, and thinking are not biblical. We are pulled in two directions at once: time in the central room shapes us one way; time in peripheral rooms shapes us another way.

So, to avoid undoing their Christian shape, Christians need to return continually to the central room of communion with God so as to deploy biblical criteria to objectify, evaluate and critique—and thereby to re-peripheralise—the practices, discourses, and thinking of the more-peripheral fallen worlds of life. Otherwise, Christians will be progressively poisoned by less-than-true practices, discourses, and thinking. They may even potentially become so re-shaped as to lose sight of the very existence of God, or of a place outside their immediate surrounds. They may thus become trapped in repeated worldly patterns, and life’s true priorities will become obscured, de-ranked and marginalised. Only then does the Quiet Time seem like a “pious extra”. Communion with God, though, can only be dismissed as a fantasy by those who never enter it.

Now, as we said, this model has its limitations. When I retreat to commune with God, I bring the world’s conditioning with me, which “pollutes” that communion—which is, therefore, not just “unpolluted”. Conversely, since God created the world, the “peripheral rooms” have much good in them, and are not just “polluting”. Thus, some would argue that the “world” of “raising a family” was hardly either “polluting” or “peripheral”. And yet, it is still possible to compare and contrast more or less wise or worldly “worlds” or paradigms in or through which to do “parenting”. So our point stands.

That is, our life-worlds, our horizons, move under different influences.5 Biblical communion with God moves us towards purification. Less biblical peripheral worlds will indeed tend to pollute and blind us in some ways, even if they educate us in other ways.

Communion and Criticism: Openness to Challenge by the Real

In a postmodern world, though, we encounter a conflict of interpretations. Which of life’s many spheres, worlds, discourses, texts, thought-forms, practices, or paradigms, should be the most “central” for “right human living”?

Well, Christianity and the Bible, if they are true, should compare favourably with other paradigms for human existence and with other claims made by other religious texts and by other traditions of thinking. If Christianity and the Bible are true, then they will stand the tests of critical debate and of practical viability for living.6

Since the Bible itself espouses the roles of rationality and experience, then our approach here does not exalt “reason” or “experience” over the biblical texts. Jesus himself says: ‘It anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own’ (John 7:17). One can only become convinced that biblical and prayerful communion with God constitutes life’s central room by trying it and by allowing critical challenges. Conversely, those making peripheral worlds “central” must also allow criticism according to biblical criteria.

Such openness to challenge aligns with the scientific testing of hypotheses. Suspicion rightly arises when any truth-claims immunise themselves from external questioning. It is weak belief systems, authoritarian regimes and personality cults that cannot stand against scrutiny, that refuse to be challenged.

Some, though, including dogmatic scientists, refuse external challenge because they habitually evade self-criticism. They inhabit carefully-constructed discourse-worlds, and train others—under threat of an “ugly scene”—to avoid conversational “no-go” areas, topics, or even single words that reflect life-issues crying out to be addressed. Even science can be an avoidance strategy. A refusal to be challenged is a refusal to live in the room of a genuinely true world.

Admittedly, the psychoanalytical tradition says that patterns of self-deceit and delusion shelter us all from uncomfortable realities. Nobody’s world or discourse is wholly true, but is at best distorted. Nevertheless, God calls us into an increasingly real world in which our practices, discourse, and thinking are increasingly shaped towards a truthful ‘authentic’ humanity in which reality, actions, and ‘words’ “correspond” in inner consistency and ‘integrity’.7

Communion and Avoidance: Repenting of Narcissism and Obscurantism

Travelling towards the central room of communion with God thus involves ongoing self-criticism that is not narcissistic. Narcissism involves a counterfeit journey of “self-discovery” that suppresses painful truths about sinful relational distortions. Hedonistic film-stars are forever “growing” through making their movies—but we know that their remarks often amount to self-absorption.

Genuine movement towards the central room of communion with God, then, tends to come through others’ godly observations about our lives. Genuine self-criticism does not habitually “put oneself down” so as to solicit others’ comforting affirmation in a manner that perpetually distracts them from giving godly criticism.

Genuine movement towards the central room of communion with God, moreover, involves a self-critique that is increasingly straightforward: sin is called “sin”. Having to have “the most sophisticated analysis” is just a ruse that attempts to disallow honest critique from others. Central-room discourse is concerned with real, often straightforwardly-observable, patterns of relating.

Thus, many world-views and life-paradigms compete for centrality. But which of them “cuts most ice” in terms of critical wisdom, openness to challenge, and real patterns of relating?

False paradigms resist challenges from truer paradigms by resisting challenge itself—they can survive no other way. Truer paradigms welcome challenge, because they either have the critical power to answer the content of challenges, or else they want to be corrected. False-paradigm-promoters get angry when threatened by truth; truer-paradigm-promoters are threatened only by sins, and otherwise remain calmer.

So, set yourself to face everything, and you’ll journey towards the central room! Otherwise, you’ll be clinging to whichever peripheral context suits your chosen self-delusions and insisting—or refusing to be challenged—that that peripheral room is really “central”. The journey to the central room of communion with God, then, is a journey towards truthful, enlightened, wise and straightforward speech.

Such straightforward speech, though, is not the language of infants. Those who want churches to infantilise them with endlessly-repeated neutered “basics” are fleeing from the central room of truth and maturity. They are directly disobeying Hebrews 6:1-3.

And yet the straightforward speech of the central room is not the pseudo-sophistication of sophistry either, but genuine wisdom.

The question is: what is a person trying to do with their language? Power-abuse can “play the intellectual”, but also often seeks to keep language infantile, to keep the oppressed from gaining the maturity they need to expose their oppressors.

The journey to the central room of communion with God, then, repudiates obscurantism, or ‘opposition to knowledge and enlightenment’,8 and embraces education. For the time-being, God may well meet me “where I am”. But, if I insist on remaining where I am now, then God may eventually refuse to meet me there.

Communion and Education: Learning as Being Interpreted

Naturally, for Christians, education involves Bible-study. But in our first essay, we said that some approaches to the Bible actually hindered communion with God. Biblical language is not just a vehicle for making statements conveying concepts or information,9 for God relates variably to us through biblical speech-acts so as to form us as Christians and as Church.

If God uses the Bible to say, “I forgive you”, it looks odd if I reply, “What eternal concepts are conveyed by your act of forgiveness?” Viewing biblical language as primarily a vehicle for statements conveying concepts or information evades a relational dynamic with God10—even though biblical language also communicates “truths”. We argued earlier that such an approach was really a power-bid that sought to usurp divine authority. Such “Bible-study” is alien to the genuine education pertaining to the central room of communion with God.

Thus, ironically, viewing biblical language as primarily a vehicle for statements conveying concepts or information falls into subjectivism, since this approach gives the interpretative authority to the Bible-reader. By contrast, a relational approach to the Scriptures is not subjectivistic precisely because it submits Bible-readers to authoritative divine relational address that includes, but cannot be reduced to, transmitted content. Biblical truths, doctrine, and systematic theology remain utterly crucial in a relational approach to the Scriptures precisely because such an approach prohibits their use as a mere tool of human power, submitting them to a relational dynamic in which Christ remains Lord.

God uses the Bible to transform his subjects, not just to inform self-arrogating modernists. It is modernists who reduce the Bible to cognitive content so as to avoid relational submission to God. Modernist “Christians” replace the central room of communion with God with the peripheral room of communication from God, and so side-step the genuine education pertaining to the former.

And so, whilst all education—whether in the natural sciences or in the humanities—can facilitate communion with God, this is not what normally happens in the West. Rather, Western modernists (and postmodernists) set themselves up as the interpreters, not the ‘“interpreted”’,11 and then re-paradigm all education within that delusional framework—the framework of becoming our own “lord”. But Jesus says: ‘Nor are you to be called “teacher”, for you have one Teacher, the Christ’ (Matthew 23:10). Naturally, there are still human “teachers”; but these are to promote submission to the Teacher, Jesus Christ.

Education that leads to the central room of communion with God, then, involves becoming the interpreted who submit to God’s biblical interpretation of us. True education is not about becoming master, but about being mastered.

This is not about being indoctrinated into an infantilising cartoon view of reality, but about embarking on a process of continually expanding our horizons towards an understanding of and submission to the real. If Christianity is true, then the reality that we gradually understand and submit to will be Christ-centred. This will become our central room, and other life-paradigms will be shown to be peripheral.

Communion and Community: Promoting Gifts and Reconciliation

Practices pertaining to the central room of communion with God centre on love, for “love for God and neighbour sums up the Law and the Prophets”.12

Our essay on biblical-relational lawfulness (see below) deals with love extensively, and so we may confine our attention here to just two points—as follows.

First, love is many things because it promotes the otherness of the other. In church settings, love promotes diverse callings, giftings, and ministries—not an idealised formal blueprint called “church community”, but a particular community uniquely shaped by its unique members’ exercised gifts.

By contrast, a pastor coveting the ‘audience-applause’ generated by those who ‘ape chat-show hosts’ performs for ‘the gallery’,13 suppressing others’ ministries. Rather than releasing others into their callings under God, he manipulates others into the diversion of applauding him every Sunday. To these ends he also distorts the content of the preached Gospel, but then markets this as “feeding Christ’s lambs”. We will see later that Thiselton implies that this is a common occurrence in “postmodern” churches. Certainly, such churches are not journeying towards the central room of corporate communion with God.

Second, love pertaining to the central room of communion with God seeks to be reconciled with others (cf. Matthew 5:23-24). Communion with God does not always depend on such reconciliation, however, because sometimes others refuse to be reconciled with us.

Sometimes, such others are too dangerous to approach. Like Lamech, they want vengeance ‘seventy-seven times’ (Genesis 4:24) and, according to Jesus, are like ‘pigs and dogs’ (i.e. animals who do not reflect on their own uncleanness) who will ‘turn and tear you to pieces’ (Matthew 7:6). We are commanded to restore Kingdom relating, not to collude with abuse-regimes.

At other times, such others are too injured to approach. Kingdom relating always respects appropriate boundaries, which may mean “no further contact”. Love does not enforce “reconciliation”, but sets the other free. We will look at this point in more detail in our next essay.

Let us no longer think only of time with God, but of journeying towards the place where communion with God is perfected—the central room of our lives.

1 Thiselton, A.C., The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980), 432.

2 On ‘Heidegger’s notion of worldhood’ or ‘“World”’ see, Thiselton, 2H, 30-31, 297, 312, 338, 344.

3 Thiselton, 2H, 133-139.

4 Thiselton, 2H, 370-379.

5 Thiselton, 2H, 307.

6 So Thiselton, 2H, 292; cf. 83; cf. Knowles, R., Anthony C. Thiselton and The Grammar of Hermeneutics: The Search for a Unified Theory (Milton Keanes: Paternoster, 2012), 444-564.

7 Thiselton, A.C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1992), 111-112; cf.: Thiselton, A.C., ‘Truth’, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3 (ed. C. Brown; Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 879; 883-886; 892.

8 Tulloch, S. ed., The Reader’s Digest Oxford Wordfinder (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 1047.

9 Thiselton, 2H, 370-379; cf. 335-347.

10 We follow Thiselton here. See footnotes 1-3 of our first essay above.

11 Thiselton, A.C., ‘The New Hermeneutic’, in New Testament Interpretation: Essays in Principles and Methods (ed. I.H. Marshall; Exeter: Paternoster, 1977), 322. Italics ours.

12 Compare: Matt. 7:12; 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10; and Gal. 5:14.

13 Thiselton, A.C., ‘1 Corinthians’, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (eds. T.D. Alexander and B.S. Rosner; Leicester: IVP, 2000), 298-299.

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