Now I wouldn’t want you to think that during my years in British Columbia I did nothing much except summer-place kinds of things. These vacation times, however, were very special to me because then I could be with my family for long stretches of time without being called away to attend to other responsibilities. A whole battalion of chaplains could keep busy at a university with so many thousands of students, staff people and professors.
One of my main interests lay in explaining the church to the university and the university to the church. Because the two points of view had become so divergent through the years, the task wasn’t at all easy.
The well-known struggle between faith and reason was always breaking out again in my own mind. For a long time I could see no way of reconciling faith in a “revelation” with an equally strong faith in “reason.” People insist on believing whatever they believe, and there’s nothing much anyone can do to change firm convictions which remain fairly acceptable. I did what I could to put as reasonable as possible a construction on the church’s faith, at the same time probing the weak spots in the faith of rationalists. They replied in the same vein and the debate went on. This kind of civil war has been traditional in modem universities. It has the merit of keeping both sides relatively honest and a little more humble.
During the sixties, however, I began to be aware that the real struggle at the university was on another front altogether. While the disciplines of rational humanism and the discipline of “rational” theology were continuing to amuse themselves by taking furtive potshots at each other, the technical disciplines such as the health sciences and engineering were appearing far oftener in the headlines. Certain diseases had been all but eliminated from the earth. Engineering scientists had taken over the moon and were probing distant space. The lives of most ordinary people had become dependent upon technical appliances, machines, gadgets and computers.
The university—that traditional preserve of intellectuals—had been encroached upon by technically minded people and was being increasingly dominated by them. Less and less attention was being paid to the humanities and the arts. Departments of Classics were shrinking alarmingly. The old guard felt that their empire was being overrun by hordes of barbarians. The academic debates between the rational philosophers and the theologians suddenly seemed a little like a group of professors at sea in a leaky ship, gravely discussing the mystery of the ocean, the infinity of the universe and the circle of the earth, while the ship on which they sail is slowly sinking.
In the sixties students seemed to be more interested in doing and undoing things than they were in thinking. Big government grants were available for technically oriented projects. Extra prestige in every faculty came to the professor who could handle a computer. Everyone was beginning to look into the nature and means of “communication” as though people had only now learned to communicate. Photography, television, computers, duplicators and hundreds of new techniques had moved the world of letters over into “the media of communication.”
Since the Industrial Revolution the church’s theology had been becoming increasingly out of touch with expanding human technical capabilities. To its credit the church had eventually taken up every advance in medical science and made use of every technique that would relieve human suffering. It established hospitals and clinics all over the world. As each new wave of inventions in transportation and communication came along, the church, like everyone else, took advantage of them. Nevertheless, for a host of reasons it became the self-contradictory fashion in the sixties for church leaders to use the technical devices of the media in order to deplore modem “technology.
The literary side of the universities, like the church, had largely remained aloof from technical scientific matters. The word “technology,” which really means “the study of practical science,” had been popularly perverted to mean only “nasty” things like hardware, pollution, nuclear bombs and automated industry. Few history departments were giving even the scantiest attention to “The History of Technology.”
Although the world had changed enormously, the church’s fundamental theology had not changed its cast significantly since before the Industrial Revolution. Confident of the eternity of their conceptions, the theologians kept on teaching what they had always been taught. The church was still comfortable using terms borrowed from the ancient occupations, such as sheep-herding, farming, building and soldiering. Older Christians still felt at ease with the significance of the shepherd’s rod and staff, the farmer’s plow, the mason’s plumb line and the soldier’s sword. These images had been dear to my grandparents. They were still meaningful to myself, but to my children they seemed increasingly quaint and obsolete. From unchurched students the old work-terms brought forth so little emotional response that I felt I needed to offer them long explanations when I used such old-time metaphors. The message which once appealed to the old style of farmer was no longer reaching either the new style of farmer or the university-trained, urban, managerial, peritechnical person.
In the sixties it became dear to me that if the church’s message were to retain any semblance of relevance it must be addressed to where people were now. Nearly everyone either made a living working in some heavily technicized occupation, or was largely dependent on the technical activities of others.
The constantly accelerating pace of technical developments since World War II was moving engineering scientists in the direction of achievements which could outrival biblical miracles in capturing the human imagination.
hi view of these things I began to feel that an exploration of the deep roots of practical science might provide some fruitful possibilities for future theological expression. Surely the people who specialize in the technology of communication should have something in common with theologians who have spoken familiarly for centuries about “the Word of God.”
What’s the Word?
Not every communicator of “the Word of God” is aware that during its historical career the conception of “the Word” has run through some remarkable transformations.
Words were once conceived) as powerful personal magical formulae with power to bless or curse—somewhat like “spells.”
The Greeks used the “Word” (logos) to mean not merely a spoken element of a sentence but the basic rational structure of the universe— that orderly arrangement which corresponds to rational scientific discourse.
Perhaps the simplest and most direct idea of the Word was that a person’s word is a spoken personal expression, a revelation and declaration of one’s inner nature, of one’s disposition, intentions and attitudes. In this sense, for his followers, Jesus Christ was the Word of God—the personal revelation of God. Biblical writers therefore identified the risen Christ with the source of the form and structure of the universe.
Later the propositions contained in the Bible came to be regarded as the authoritative “words of God.” Biblical statements became normative for beliefs, even about mundane matters that have come now to be left mostly to the natural sciences. With the invention of printing, people who could read now gained access to the sacred scriptures. The Bible and all its statements came to be known as the “word of God.”
The Protestant Reformation produced a spate of doctrinal formulations, which were themselves sometimes taken as the word of God about the Word of God. Certain preachers appear to have regarded their own sermons as the word of God. In some countries, for years only a particular translation of the Bible which has been authorized by churchly authority has been regarded the only true and proper expression of the word of God. Pronouncements by the church upon various matters not set forth altogether clearly in the scriptures have also sometimes been held to be the word of God.
Considering this sustained, intense interest in the subject of “the Word of God,” theologically minded persons should today give serious consideration to modern communication technology. In our times we can speak to people anywhere in the world. We can hear from anywhere and we can watch what is happening anywhere on earth, on the moon, or even on faraway planets and incredibly distant galaxies. An understanding of what lies behind these astounding technical achievements in communication should provide some fresh insights into the nature and meaning of “the Word.”
For example, a powerful buffered computer can now serve many clients during the same incredibly short period of time and at such a fantastic speed that the desired response comes to each user almost instantaneously. With the advent of such computers, God’s ability to know everything that is going on, to remember all that has happened, and to pay attention to everything and everybody at once, is realistically conceivable by the human imagination for the first time in history. Theologians should be looking into these things.
Words about the Word
Convinced of this, I undertook to read my own way into the theory and lore of modern communication. Certain of its ideas and suggestive analogies caught my fancy. In this chapter I’d like to share with you some of my earlier reflections on communication theory and technology. For me these threw new light on old statements, and suggest a contemporary theology of the Word which does not conflict with the worldview of the new science.
First let me recall briefly certain aspects of communication upon which I have already touched in previous chapters. I described how, in the physical world, powerful forms impose new forms upon older forms. I called that process “informing,” and its product is “information.”
When a person wishes to send forms (patterns of signals) to a receiver, waves of differing must be able to travel through a medium all the way to that receiver, else no information will be received. If an informing process effectively makes a difference in the receiver, the sender and receiver are thereby known to have been joined or related by a medium, a passageway through which the informing process traveled. That being the case, each is able to make some difference to the other.
If differings are sent out in patterns according to an agreed-upon code which associates these patterns with items in a list of meanings, the patterned bursts of information are called “messages.”
Sending a message which is entirely adequate is quite difficult. If you wish to describe a complicated situation to someone at a distance, you have a severe problem. A single momentary state of any changeful situation can be adequately described in endless, painstaking details. But unfortunately signals can be sent only one after the other. By the time the full description of that momentary state of affairs has reached the receiver, the situation at the sending end may have already changed very considerably. Seldom can a message therefore contain the whole story. Everything cannot be said about anything. A message contains only a small selection from all the things that might have been said. If the message is ever to be sent, something of the actual world must always be left out and abandoned—sacrificed forever.
On its way to its destination, a message has to battle its way through noise, i.e., extraneous, interfering information which originated elsewhere. This battering by noise from all sides continually erodes the integrity of the original message. This damaging effect is particularly evident if the signals are radiating far and wide, spreading out their energies ever more thinly. The message, or parts of it, may therefore never arrive. Whatever remains of the original message may arrive in a distorted form, quite garbled. Such a message may therefore be overlooked, misunderstood, misinterpreted, set aside or altogether rejected.
In any case even the simplest pattern of signals can be read ambiguously. Some people will always see the doughnut while others will concentrate on the hole.
The person to whom the message is addressed may refuse to receive it or may stop listening altogether.
All these words
Despite these and other difficulties, the sending and receiving of messages occupies a major portion of every human’s day. Communication makes possible all social cooperation, control and culture. Communication enables human beings to inherit the achievements of their ancestors and to learn from the experience of the old-timers. Skills in communication have made a long-standing, perhaps essential, difference between human beings and subhuman animals.
The extreme importance of communication in human affairs is indicated by the astronomical sums of money which are spent every year on news media, education, literature and advertising. The Christian church itself spends billions of dollars every year on “proclaiming the word.”
Yet few people in the church ever ask, “What precisely goes on in communication?” or “Why do we preach?” or “Why do we teach in the church?” or “How are all these words in speeches, lessons, books and songs related to the actual transformation of human life-styles and attitudes?”
Not until the last few decades has any sustained effort been directed towards looking into such questions concerning the relationship between communication and Christianity. The ancients stood in awe of the magical power of the spoken word. Poetry, songs, dramatic speech, oratory, prophecies, blessings and curses were able to move people deeply. The written words of the classical and biblical authors were highly venerated through succeeding centuries. With the invention of printing, the church developed a dependence on the printed word which the typewriter and duplicating facilities have strengthened almost to the point of pathological addiction.
Thanks to the advent of the telephone and the radio, the influence of the spoken word has again been receiving attention. Television added the dimension of nonverbal, visual communication to radio and lent an illusion of personal presence to the words of distant speakers. Unfortunately by now the widespread abuse of words by advertisers and propagandists has driven a great proportion of the population to distrust words in general. Despite this the electronic church and TV evangelism have chalked up surprisingly successful ratings. Most churches, notwithstanding this development, have continued to rely entirely upon church meetings after the traditional style.
Now that split-second word processing by high-speed computers has come into prominence, “the word,” i.e., communication, has once again begun to seem almost magical. In view of the contemporary outburst of interest in matters of information and communication, the church should take another look at its theology of the Word of God, perhaps incorporating things that have been recently learned or better understood.
At various times certain aspects and phenomena of communication have been given center-stage-front interest by the church. In recent decades many believers were focusing upon special varieties of the spoken word—the “other tongues,” which are understood to be among the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Sizeable segments of the Christian community have felt it necessary to defend their firm belief in the absolute finality and total inerrancy of the words printed in one translation of the Bible. New translations of the Bible have been appearing, each revealing of course the theological biases of the translators. Inevitably questions have been raised about “which translation is the true Word?” The nature of the Bible, how it should be interpreted and understood, has been roundly debated. In the absence of a contemporary consensus about an “authorized” translation, church schools have difficulty deciding in which words a passage of scripture should be memorized. In many schools none at all is memorized.
World and Word
Even my cursory examination of information and communication theory has had a profound impact on my theological understanding of the word of God and churchly communication. I hope that some of the following ideas will contribute toward a viable theology which can find acceptance with technically oriented, educated people.
If the biblical documents are taken as normative, Christians must take seriously three foci of the story: God; the world which God is creating; and humanity in particular. Since linkage between these three can be established only by some kind of communication, and since the biblical story consists of the interactions between these three, communication inevitably holds a prominent and essential place in the story. Without communication there would be no story to tell and therefore no telling.
First let us center our thoughts upon the created world as a medium for conveying communication from God. In Christian doctrine the world is held to have been created by and for the Word of God.1 It continues to exist because it is sustained by the Word of God.2
Each and every thing in the universe is always sending out its own peculiar message to every other thing. “I am here and this is what I am doing now.” An infinitely more complex message is also proceeding toward each thing from and through all the others. “This is now the situation which is around you. Take account of this if you make a move.”
In the largest cosmic sense, this universe-wide, composite, ever-changing message is the always-contemporary Word of the Creator. This far-flung comprehensive message is his “pleroma,” the fullness that fills all.3 As the unique existential characterization of space-time at each and every new moment, it is singularly distinctive. Being the universal “cause” of the next moment of history, it is powerfully persuasive, if not completely compelling. As moment follows moment and year succeeds to year, the course of development traced out by the universe is the world’s response to its Creator’s Word.
If anything of this perpetually renewed message is to reach all creatures without exception, each one of them must be connected somehow to every other. Only through an open passageway or some elastic medium can a message travel from sender to receiver. The necessity for everything everywhere to be within reach of the Creator’s Word is thus the reason for the interrelatedness of all things. This universal openness to the Word of the Creator, this unanimous accessibility, is responsible for transforming what might otherwise have been a higgledy-piggledy sprinkle of unrelated items into a world that has “oneness”— i.e., a UNIverse. Nothing anywhere can hide from its Creator. No systems, therefore, are entirely closed in on themselves.
The Word became flesh
All the messages that travel between God’s creatures, all their interactions and communications, are therefore involved somehow in the mystery of the word of God. According to the apostles John and Paul, the word of God is the cosmic Christ.4 All the interactions which constitute “nature” and “history,” being intracosmic communication, are therefore related, however indecipherably, to the cosmic Word of God, the cosmic Christ. In this context the words of Jesus become comprehensible when he said that if his disciples kept quiet about who he was, “the very stones would cry out.”5
For Christianity the message from God, as mediated through the world, holds preeminent status. Without his message God would be entirely unknown, and his existence or nonexistence would be entirely irrelevant to humankind. Without the Word of God the events which take place in the world would be hopelessly piecemeal and inscrutable.
Without God’s message, human life, if there were any, could take on any meaning whatsoever, but would likely take on no meaning at all. For Christians the message as transmitted by the physical world, focused through Jesus and decoded by him, gives everything a divine meaning. Christians believe that Jesus in all his fullness as the risen Christ is the Word of God, the source of “the resurrection and the life.”6
That the Creator deigns to send a message at all gives high value to the world and to humankind. The world derives great importance from the very fact that it is being used as the medium for conveying God’s message to humankind and allkind. It is being used as well for returning the creatures’ responses to the Creator.
That a message originates in God implies that God desires to communicate with his world and with humankind. It shows that he is not indifferent to what he has created and is now creating. That God sent and sends his Word to us indicates that he has a lively desire to establish and maintain a mutual relationship with us. He took the initiative and the necessary steps to fulfill his intention. God’s Word is therefore a word of grace.
That God’s message might be receivable by those to whom it was addressed, it had to be designed so as to be suitable to its destined receivers. That the message was actually received therefore implies that he who sent it is aware both of the existence of its receivers and of the conditions of their existence. Christians therefore believe it to be important that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.7
If the world is capable of carrying God’s message, and is being created at least for that purpose, it can be understood and appreciated in the light of that specific purpose. The created world derives an inalienable dignity from its having been entrusted with the carrying of God’s Word.
If the created world were disorderly, disobedient and unfaithful to its aboriginal purpose, it would not be able to transmit God’s message without losing it in transmission. If the divine message did not continue to exist in a form which preserved the intention of the sender, it would not correctly communicate the sender’s intent. “The heavens tell out the glory of God and the vault of heaven reveals his handiwork. One day speaks to another, night with night shares its knowledge, and this without speech or language or sound of any voice. Their music goes out through all the earth, their words reach to the end of the world.”8
At Bethel, Jacob realized that between God and where he was in the world, there is a ladder of communication over which messages from God and reports from the world may be transmitted. In the Old Testament the “angels” function as God’s special messengers.9
The prophets of Israel were able to discern the message of God from the ongoing story of God’s dealing with their people. Moses apprehended that the divine name was “I will be what I will be.” This richly cryptic name, of course, asserted the sovereign freedom of God to do what he wished to do without compulsion by any other. It also indicated that the Israelites could come to understand the God with whom they had to deal only after they had experienced what he would be doing for, with and through them over a long period of time. Through an extended series of adventures in which God showed his hand, the Israelites would gradually learn more and more about the God who journeyed with them through history. Their knowledge of his ways would always be growing as they lived with him through a vast assortment of trials, sufferings and victories.
God’s revelation to Israel would be a developing thing. The people understood mat they must never make a graven image of God. If they were to establish a static, lifeless idol as a normative conception of God, their understanding of God would be frozen at some inferior, undeveloped level. They would then miss out on even greater things yet to come.
The books of the Bible record snatches from God’s ongoing conversation with Israel over some three thousand years. He has been to Israel what he has been and he will yet be what he will be.
The nation of Israel was constituted by a holy covenant—by the commandments which the people received from God and by the obedience of the people in response. To be cut off from communication with God or from God’s people was considered to be the ultimate punishment, one which would bring despair, meaninglessness and death. When God’s commandments had been ignored or disobeyed, these intrusions of “Sin” could be recognized by the onset of those kinds of consequences. The resumption of open communication between the people and God was regarded as a sign of his forgiveness and continuing acceptance. The effective continuance of the word of God indicates that he does forgive, and is both caring and faithful. God’s family feelings for his people do not abate.
That God used Israel and the physical world to convey his message to humankind is seen with beautiful clarity in the story of the nativity of Jesus. His Jewish mother’s body was derived from the physical, chemical dust of planet Earth. God’s word, coded in human flesh, was carried in the womb of the woman Mary, on the back of a donkey to Bethlehem.
Within a rough stable constructed from the native stones and wood of the area, the newly born Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth. The fibers in that cloth had grown either within plants or upon the backs of sheep. When Mary and Joseph laid Jesus in the manger, they were laying him, so to speak, in the arms of the world. From the deep silence of his infant sleep, the word of God was speaking eloquently of his reliance upon his faithful world.
The world which God has been creating is clearly important to him. He not only made it in the beginning, but he keeps on remaking it, providing for it, accepting it and calling it “good.” That Jesus’ flesh was actual common flesh, that he depended for sustenance upon provisions from this world and upon a human family of a human nation, makes God’s family feelings for his created world very clear. For almost twenty years as a carpenter Jesus worked with the materials of the world in the construction business. He made useful things from wood which he himself had cut and brought home from the hills. Because of his working experience, he understood the feelings of all who plan with their brains and work with their hands—the world’s builders and transformers—the workers, the managers, the designers and engineers.
When Jesus was working with wood he was communicating his message of loving concern for people and animals through the medium of his materials. One can imagine that the oxen appreciated the careful design and comfortable fit of a Jesus-made yoke.
As Jesus paid attention to the things around him in the world, they in turn in their own ways delivered something of the ongoing message of God to him. The creative word which is involved in the creating of everything in the whole world spoke to Jesus out of everything. From the ordinary things which he and the people experienced, Jesus drew the magnificent parables for which he became famous.
About the age of thirty he publicly devoted himself full-time to serve the great message. Using his parables Jesus told people what God was saying to them through yokes and doors, in the building of houses and towers, in the sowing and growing of seeds, in the shepherding of sheep, the care of vines, the investment of money. These commonplace, “worldly” matters were very familiar to his listeners.
For him the silent voices of created things kept confirming and reiterating the word of God which was already resonating throughout his entire being. He and they were in tune and “on the same wavelength.” Winds, waves and the fish of the sea could hear his voice as he heard theirs, and they obeyed him.
Jesus never wrote down his message on parchment or paper. Nevertheless he succeeded in etching his story deeply into the memories of those who were with him day and night for three years. As with a pen, he inscribed with his actual living self upon earthly history as well as the everlasting memory of God. The world has not yet ceased to tell of the things he said and the deeds he did.
The only time Jesus himself is reported to have done any actual writing was once when he wrote on the ground. Accusers were confronting a guilty woman. They needed reminding that they themselves had been made from the dust of the earth. God has written a message of grace in the dust. He does not destroy the dust because it is only dust. He can take the dust of the ground and write many kinds of life into it. Who can tell what God can produce from dust—given time? Even dust is therefore important to the Creator. That the dust can stand up, even in the organized form of an impulsive, passionate lawbreaker, is an awesome divine achievement that deserves the utmost respect. The worst “sinner” is actually a marvellous miracle of God’s creative grace.
Jesus wanted people to grow in God’s grace without hindrance. He wanted everyone to become as whole as possible, both as individuals and as people together—God’s family. He showed great concern for every aspect of human well-being. In his presence handicapped people were made whole. His influence on the development of medical science and social medical care has been extremely important.
No individual person, of course, can have and be everything. This means that wholeness has to be the wholeness of a community. People who are well equipped and prosperous can help others to become whole by sharing their gifts with them. In a measure such help can make up for the others’ disabilities and deprivations. People can complement and supplement one another so that in the domain of God no one need lack anything. Jesus warned his followers not to store up and keep exclusively for themselves the gifts of God or his message. These must be passed on and communicated to others, whatever their social class or distinctive status might be.
Jesus utterly disregarded the conventional lines drawn between Jews and Gentiles, male and female, sacred and secular, Pharisee and sinner, rulers and the powerless, superiors and inferiors, insiders and outsiders. God’s message was addressed to everything and everyone everywhere, irrespective of all human class divisions. It was therefore clear that everything and everyone holds a place of importance in the realm of God. Everyone must hear of God’s loving acceptance. No one must be left out. Jesus emphatically asserted that he had come to seek and to save what would otherwise have been lost.
Jesus’ concern for disadvantaged and powerless people lies at the root of modern social democracy, though Jesusless humanitarianism seems to have forgotten that fact. His feel for the importance of all people, even beyond the confines of his own nation, was unique among the founders of the world’s great religions.
Deleting the Word
The common people heard Jesus’ words gladly. But those who enjoyed special rank and privilege in the existing social structure were not anxious to have their constitutional preserves of power invaded by their inferiors. The power people understood their identity in terras of the class lines which had long been drawn in their society. They sincerely believed that God had given them their present status, and that for their own reward and enjoyment. They felt no particular responsibility for sharing their gifts with others. They believed that their places, positions and possessions were a divinely bestowed right. The message of Jesus that God loved “the world,” the “lost sheep” and the “sinners” upset the rulers badly, for it threatened their right to a privileged status.
Jesus both saw in advance and learned from experience that his vision of the kingdom of God would rile the people of privilege. He told them that, instead of starting from their inherited presuppositions, they would have to be “born again,” i.e., get a fresh start from the Word and Spirit of God. As the writer of the First Letter of Peter told those early Christians, “You have been born again, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God.”10
But the momentum of things as they have been, however, as well as the forms of the forms already in motion, are bound to resist interference by new forms and forces. “Brittle old wineskins” cannot contain the fermentation pressure generated by the powerful presence of the Word of God. To be born is to leave the former womb-life behind. If new patterns of thinking and a transformed life-style were ever to appear and prevail among them, Jesus told people that they would have to die to their old ways of life. He called them to lose their old lives by following him, promising that they would find new life under God’s rule. They were, of course, reluctant to forsake what they already had, but Jesus assured them that self-sacrifice is the road to freedom. Death is the way to life. Jesus himself claimed to be “the resurrection and the life.”11
Eventually the authorities managed to have Jesus crucified. By nailing him to a cross, they attempted to impose permanent limitations on one who had refused to recognize the authorities’ exclusive proprietary rights to the Word of God. They sealed his dead body within a guarded tomb. His enemies did everything in their power to suppress and confine the word which Jesus had identified as the message of God.
Jesus’ death should have been the devastating refutation of Jesus’ message of growth, for death permanently puts an end to growth. His dying and burial should have been the crucial contradiction of his conviction that there are no final limits upon the Word of God. Up to that point in history, death had set an absolute limit to life. No one could see beyond that wall.
Death should have totally invalidated Jesus’ admonition that those who have should share with those who have not. The dead not only lack life—they lack everything. Who can share anything with the dead, or help them? They cannot even hear the word of God—or can they?
Jesus had thought a good deal about dying. He was very aware that the forms of things in the world are always perishing. Rust, moths and thieves are at work. Today’s grass, flowers and trees are tomorrow’s ashes. But he believed that God has everlasting life and that his Word will always be powerful. God’s message can leap from medium to medium, freely penetrating all barriers, emerging in ever new codings. Jesus said that though heaven and earth should pass away, his word would never pass away.12
The living Word
Jesus’ rising from the dead confirmed the truth of his message. His unique resurrection proclaimed victory over humankind’s ultimate enemy and life’s final limitation: death. For the first time ever, a death-proof form of life had appeared in this perishing world. Jesus was indeed the enfleshed word of God. No barriers whatsoever, no dividing lines of any son, could separate Jesus from those to whom he would impart permanent wholeness. What was in him could also dwell in those whose lifelines were intertwined with his. Through the undying cosmic Christ—what Jesus contributed to the ongoing message of God—people could gain unicity with God and with each other. To all who personally absorbed its significance, the resurrection gave a thrilling, buoyant hope that salvation and everlasting life were at last available to them.
With the resurrection of Jesus a new age dawned. The rulers of this world no longer possessed absolute power over the lives of all the little people. The followers of Jesus were conscious of a realm open to them beyond the reach of earthly rulers, a realm in which they would be not only safe but blessed. The tyrannical reign of death was over. No longer did things have to be the way they had always been. The kingdoms of this world and their death sentences had been overruled by the Word of God. The resurrection of Jesus had established once and for all that he himself was the very Word of God and that his embodiment of the word of God was true. His followers believed that someday the whole world would have to recognize Jesus as Lord, because the God who vindicated Jesus will have the last word about everything.
Because Jesus1 body had participated in his resurrection, there was now reasonable hope of some significant future even for the physical world, for “nature,” for history, and for human achievements. The ultimate power behind all things had entirely approved everything that Jesus had said and done and promised. The resurrection had clearly revealed those values which are upheld by the Creator. The organized dust of the earth—Jesus’ physical body—which had been part of all his saying and doing, had been preserved and transformed, sharing fully in the most momentous event of all history. Jesus had promised, and it now seemed reasonable to believe, that lives and events and achievements which shared in the life-values of Jesus will be preserved through death. Even as he himself was preserved, so also these will be accepted, transformed and restored for God’s future and everlasting approbation. Jesus, as the lord of life, will not only inherit all the treasures that stemmed from this world—he will eventually share “his jewels” with those who shared their lives with him and those whom he loves.
After his resurrection, Jesus’ followers began to travel everywhere vigorously proclaiming this good news, offering new hope, everlasting life and ultimate meaning. People who held other faiths inevitably asked Christians why they had fixed upon the person and words of Jesus as the focus of their faith instead of upon other religious leaders and lore. The apostles replied simply that it was the life of Jesus that God had chosen to honor by resurrection, rather than any others. Jesus had lived a human life that had pleased God all the way through. All limits upon that earthly life had now been removed. The qualities of that meaningful, guiltless, victorious, deathless life were now therefore available to all people who would participate in it by faith and by obedience to God’s Word. “Christ in you” summarized the gospel which expressed his followers’ hope of sharing in his glorious future.13
“Primitive” peoples everywhere could understand quite easily the news that they could receive the life of Jesus. They were already familiar with the notion that a person can be possessed by another “spirit.” But when the Christian gospel came to sophisticated people whose minds had been conditioned to think according to the Logic of Definition, the message of interparticipation was apt to be rejected. By the principles of logic, two beings that occupy the same space at the same time, sharing an identical outline, are one being, not two. No two beings therefore can occupy the same volume of space at the same time. If it were otherwise, of course, it would be impossible to identify things clearly, and that could only make for confusion.
To rational “definers,” the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that Christ would dwell in their hearts,14 would therefore appear to be absurd and illogical. When Paul prayed that Christ would be formed again within the Galatians,15 and that the life of Jesus might be made manifest in the mortal flesh of the Corinthians,16 it would sound like pure nonsense to non-Christian Greeks. Paul believed that Christ lived in him,17 and that each believer is part of Christ’s new body.18
The biblical writers, of course, were familiar with the commonsense fact that food, after being internalized by swallowing, lends energy to life and nourishment to growth. It was easy to use the model of eating bread and drinking wine to describe the way in which Jesus is received into one’s life.
Fresh air must be breathed in from outside a person to maintain and revitalize life. The Greek word for “breath” is the same as the word for “spirit.” Jesus had said, “The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life.”19 Jesus had also called his disciples’ attention to the fact that the life which is in a vine is also in all its branches.20 In some such way, believers could abide in him and his word could abide in them. Those who wrote the story of Jesus’ life and sayings recorded that he had often spoken about the likeness between planted seeds and spoken words. A seed conveys to another place an encapsuled bit of the life form from which it came. Quite similarly, words are miniforms of the lives of people, capsules freed up for flight elsewhere. The word patterns used by a speaker transmit to others his or her characteristic personal style and tone and emphasis. We can recognize the voices of persons we know fairly well. We can even learn to anticipate in advance the kind of things they might say. When we receive the words of another person with whom we wish to maintain an important relation, we take them seriously. Those words can enter our lives in such power that they can actually shape our life and behavior. Given enough time with certain people, always receiving their messages, our own style of living begins to resemble—whether faintly or obviously—that of the persons to whose words we have been receptive.
Whether those messages come to us from that certain person directly or indirectly, being receptive to his or her words is the same as accepting the sender of the messages. Jesus said, “Whoever receives me, receives Him who sent me.”21 Also, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.”22
Word is powerful presence
The strictly logical mind balks before these participatory thoughts that are commonly expressed in the New Testament. We ordinarily define a “thing” as that which occupies the space inside a certain boundary or surface. Until the mid-nineteenth century, like all commonsense people physicists believed that with only a few exceptions, objects have clean-cut edges and definitely terminal surfaces. Things act upon each other only when their surfaces come into mutual and immediate contact, one of them either pushing or pulling at the other. To people holding such beliefs, phenomena such as gravitational and electromagnetic attraction between bodies were most mysterious. How can there be action between bodies at a distance? Surely nothing can affect another object unless it approaches the object itself, or sends out something else, such as a signal or a bullet, to do the job?
Clear evidence nevertheless accumulated indicating that the powers centered in objects do not end at their limiting surfaces. Gravitational and electromagnetic “fields” exist around things. These fields make a difference to other things, even those located at a distance.
Field theory is now generally accepted by physical scientists even though, according to older conceptions, it doesn’t make logical sense. Physicists no longer worry about how action can occur at a distance. They have largely abandoned the notion that things have absolute boundaries which coincide with visible boundaries. If “distance” is empty space between things, no absolutely empty space exists anywhere. There are fields everywhere. Particles of matter/energy are not strictly localizable. An electron may be conceived as affecting the entire universe!
Knowing what we know now, we must say that a thing is where it acts. The sun’s center may be 93 million miles away, but its gravitational field is operating right where you are presently sitting, for it is continually warping the earth’s linear motion into an orbit. The sun’s heat and light, which are essential if life is to continue on this planet, are operating right here and now. It is impossible to draw a firm line between the sun and its outpourings. Out from the sun’s superheated core there radiates a measurable “solar wind” which extends in all directions beyond the farthest planet of the solar system.
In the same way, each person has a “presence”—a field of influence which he or she exerts upon things and other persons in the surrounding region. The words “present” or “presence” usually mean that a person is “within reach” or “within the same room.” They never imply that a person’s presence is entirely confined to his or her biological body. If our voice can reach people across the river and we can see them standing there, we might even stretch the meaning of “presence” a bit and admit that they too are as present as we are. But if we can’t see them and aren’t sure that our voice could reach them, we would likely say they are absent.
If we really believed in classical logic and tailored our words according to strict definition, we would say that a person is absent from any place which is outside his or her skin, at some distance from his or her biological being. But in this respect we apparently don’t really believe in strict logic. We can accept anything as present if we can somehow influence it directly, or communicate with it quickly by our own personal efforts. Radio and TV, to say nothing of telephones, have greatly extended our understanding of “presence.” Today we should be able to accept the truth that where our influence and communication go, we ourselves are present, even though we aren’t conscious of being there.
We must no longer consider our skin to be the boundary of our self. Our field of influence must be included in the conception of our presence. When a certain man or woman comes into a room, the atmosphere and whole situation can suddenly change. A ruler has presence wherever his/her laws are being obeyed. His/her representatives speak in the name of the ruler. Because the ruler gave the message to be delivered, the words of the ruler’s messenger are taken as the ruler’s own words. The ambassador’s authority is derived from the ruler’s authority.
Personal presence as social outreach and communication extends far beyond the skin of a person’s biological body. By verbal and nonverbal communications of many sorts, persons affect one another. Forms originating with one person can inform and transform the ways and lifelines of other persons. Messages can change people’s attitudes, actions and habits, as welt as their image of the world.
Every message combines a report with a command. The report part is what it says about the state of the sender. The command part is the power of the message to alter the mind or behavior of the one who receives it. They said about Jesus, “His word was with power.”23
Catching up with the word
In the light of developments in physical field theory and contemporary communication theory, it would seem that biblical expressions concerning “the word” are much more realistic than the outmoded conceptions of the classical logic which we inherited. Expressions in the New Testament which used to seem illogical, and therefore incomprehensible, have once more begun to come into their own. If studies in Christian communication catch up with contemporary conceptions of communication, and if theology begins to take today’s physics and information theory seriously, important but long-neglected biblical conceptions may once again take on meaningful force in theological circles.
Whoever receives Christ’s words with an open and accepting mind is receiving Jesus with his attendant graces and gifts. The mind saturated with Jesus is eventually impressed with the same character as Jesus’ mind. Paul boldly asserted to the Corinthians, “We have the mind of Christ.”24 Where Jesus’ words go, Jesus is.
When a pebble falls into a pond, waves go out in ever enlarging circles. In a similar way the “splash” effect which Jesus made by. coming to this world carries on, generation after generation. His influential presence is still going out to the ends of the earth in the form of words and deeds which retain the pattern of their origin. In one way or another God’s message in Jesus is still moving out to all people and to each new generation. That message is a continuing wave of resurrection which is sweeping through and transforming the world.
The first disciples received Jesus’ words and, during the rest of their lives, passed them on to others. They were transmitters, relay stations, media, channels, establishing new relationships between people and God. In the presence of the apostles and in their words, individuals felt the powerful presence of the word of God, right there, at that time, reshaping their reality and reconstituting their identity.
hi accepting Christ’s vision of what human actuality could become, they were already being changed from within. Other more discernible differences in their outward behavior began to appear. It was as though a “Christ-virus” had penetrated the inner structure of their life and altered its coding so as to reproduce there some of the characteristics of Christ rather than those of their previous personal life-style. Christ’s message was being reencoded in other human lives, both individually and socially.
For the earliest Christians, Jesus was a basic analogue, a pattern of relationships which was capable of being extended to the whole universe. Education replicates in students a corpus of inherited wisdom, knowledge, values and skills. Education obviously influences lifestyles. The message of Jesus not only changed people’s beliefs and worldview; it also changed the way in which they lived. Christians believed that God himself had touched their lives in Jesus’ message, and they responded in prayer and worship. They shared their gifts with others, rendering genuine and costly service to people whom they knew Jesus loved. Thus in a changed life-style, each Christian’s life was imprinted with the image of Jesus, much as a Roman coin was imprinted with the image of the Roman emperor, the symbol of “the Roman way.” The apostle Paul believed that believers with unveiled faces, “beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”25
The word of God was understood as having gone out with power to transform the world. The word was as powerful an instrument as the sword for conquering the world. The sword of the Spirit is the word of God.26 In fact, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit… and there is no creature hidden… from the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”27
The word of God must be seen, then, not merely as a report about God’s thoughts, attitudes and desires, nor merely as revealed prepositional beliefs with doctrinal content, but as the effective presence of God, as God in action, changing the world toward Jesus-like newness. At its clearest the realm of God may be seen in that state of affairs which results when and where God’s Word, as discerned through the person, words and deeds of Jesus, is given due and proper priority.
Since the coming of Jesus, the world has been in ferment with personal and social changes which embody something of his vision and values. People everywhere have more and more appreciated his sense of the importance of each human being. His own self-sacrifice has inspired a great sharing of gifts with others. His boundless compassion toward all has animated enormous efforts to relieve human distress.
But social movements which in some ways reflect Jesus’ humanitarian ideals do not always adopt his methods. The distortions, bitterness and bloodshed which accompany social, economic and political revolutions make it difficult to discern the influence of Jesus in them. However flawed and problematic some movements, revolutions and institutions may be, deep down within many of them the forces unleashed by the life of Jesus are still at work. No doubt God is using all these developments to reshape the world for his own purposes. God’s creative activity is not confined exclusively to so-called religious matters. He’s in the world-making business.
Today’s technical developments have provided the word of God with new communicational possibilities. In recording tapes made with iron oxide coatings, “the stones” have acquired a voice and can indeed cry out the words of Jesus. Glad tidings can now be transmitted easily to every land by radio, television or movies.
Via the news media the whole world quickly learns of the distress arising from disasters anywhere on earth. World church organizations stand ready to initiate relief measures and are among the first to take action. Nutritional, pharmaceutical and medical science have provided techniques whereby the pain-relieving, disease-curing, health-giving potentialities of natural and synthetic substances have been made available. Modern facilities for transportation and communication have effectively brought into reality Jesus’ prophetic vision of “one world, God’s world,” which many now also perceive as “spaceship earth.”
Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth—builder, healer and teacher—dreamed of such things. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go to the Father.”28 His dream of the kingdom of God throughout the whole world is technically feasible right now—if only people would consent to become the world of his word. The sweetest music God will ever hear will sound out
When the whole earth gives back the song
which now the angels sing.29
1. 2 Peter 3:5.
2. Genesis 1:1; John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2-3, 11:3; Colossians 1:16-17.
3. Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:19-20.
4. John 1:1-14; Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 1:20-23.
5. Luke 19:40.
6. John 11:15.
7. John 1:14.
8. Psalm 19:1-4 (NEB).
9. Genesis 28:10-17; Hebrews 1:14.
10. John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:23-24.
11. John 11:25.
12. Matthew 24:35.
13- Colossians 1:27.
14. Ephesians 3:17.
15. Galatians 4:19.
16. 2 Corinthians 4:10.
17. Galatians 2:20.
18. 1 Corinthians 12:27.
19. John 6:63.
20. John 15:4-7.
21. Luke 9:48.
22. Matthew 10:40.
23. Luke 4:32.
24. 1 Corinthians 2:16.
25. 2 Corinthians 3:18.
26. Ephesians 6:17.
27. Hebrews 4:12-13.
28. John 14:12.
29. E.H. Sears, “It came upon the midnight clear,” v.5.