Between Heaven and Earth

Spirit and Truth in Human vs. Divine Culture

We are talking about culture, religion, technology, and our view of God. The real question is what can we really know about God? Last week we looked at what it meant to worship God in spirit and in truth. 

As a sinful man, I am neither spirit filled nor truthful. How can I be truthful? Because I’m a sinner ensnared by the father of lies as Jesus called him in John 8:44. I can only acknowledge my need of God’s grace. To worship in spirit and in truth is to center our worship upon God and what he does, not upon me and what I do. Like the Samaritan woman, I can’t worship in spirit and in truth, I do need, as Jesus promised, living water. I need God’s grace. Only in that way can I worship in spirit and in truth. 

To worship God in spirit and in truth is to worship centered on God and what he does, which means to be centered on God’s grace. Worshiping God in spirit and in truth means that we approach God with a humble and contrite heart, recognizing our sinfulness and need for his forgiveness, it means that we seek to glorify God in all that we do, whether it be in our private devotions or in our public worship services. Because at the heart of true worship is an acknowledgement of God’s grace. 

Grace is the unmerited favor of God, which means that we receive God’s blessing and forgiveness even though we don’t deserve them. In other words, grace is a gift of God that we cannot earn or merit. It is the living water that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman as a free gift. 

When we worship God in spirit and in truth we are acknowledging that our salvation is not based on our own works and our own good deeds but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. We are recognizing that all good things come from God and that our worship should be directed toward him. Therefore, to worship God in spirit and in truth is to center our worship on God and his grace. It means that we’re not trying to earn God’s favor through our own effort works. Instead, we’re acknowledging that God’s grace is the foundation of our salvation, and we’re seeking to respond to that grace with a life of worship and devotion. 

The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well, recorded in John 4, that we talked about last week provides a clear example of how Jesus redirected the focus of worship from cultural traditions and rituals to a culture of grace. When the woman at the well engaged in conversation, she initially focused on cultural differences between the Jews and the Samaritans, including their place of worship. She asked Jesus whether it was better to worship on Mount Gerizim, which was the traditional place of worship for the Samaritans, or in Jerusalem, which was the traditional place for worship of the Jews. 

Jesus response was not to take sides in that cultural debate, but to point the woman toward a deeper truth. He told her that the time had come when true worshipers should worship the Father in spirit and in truth, rather than being limited by cultural traditions or physical locations. The statement emphasizes the importance of the heart of worship rather than the external practices or cultural norms, which we often so much emphasize. Jesus was directing the woman’s attention away from the external differences between Jews and Samaritans and toward the common ground of God’s grace. 

Furthermore, Jesus went on to reveal himself to the woman as the true Messiah—a revelation that transcended cultural and religious boundaries. He was, you see, everyone’s Messiah, the same Messiah for the Samaritans as for the Jews. He was the Messiah for men as well as for women. This revelation and the subsequent transformation of the woman’s life served as a demonstration of the power of grace to break down cultural barriers and bring people into a new community centered on Jesus Christ.

Worshiping God in spirit and in truth means that we are not bound by external rituals or traditions. While there may be value in the traditions and practices of the church, our worship should not be limited to those things. Instead, we should be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and allow our worship to be guided by the truth of God’s Word. We must value commitment to spirit and truth over the culture of our faith communities. 

What is our religious culture anyway? How many persons does it take to make a culture? Does God have a culture? 

The concept of culture is complex and multifaceted and there are a number of people needed to make a culture. Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that if two or three gathered together in his name, he was there. So maybe that’s a minimum number for a culture. 

Generally, a culture can be defined as a shared set of beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that are passed down from one generation to another in a particular community. This community can be as small as a few people such as the family unit or can be as large as a great nation. The size and scope and scope of culture can vary widely depending on a number of factors including geography, history, language, religion, and ethnicity. 

Some cultures are tightly knit and cohesive, while others are more diffuse and diverse. Additionally, cultures are not static, but rather are in constant state of evolution, adapting to new circumstances and new influences as well as new information and ideas. 

Does God have a culture? Since God is not a human being he does not have a culture in the same sense that we do. However, throughout the Bible God is depicted as having certain characteristics, values, and behaviors that can be seen as forming the basis of a divine culture. For example, God is often described as loving, just merciful, gracious, compassionate, and these attributes can be seen as shaping the way in which God interacts with humanity. 

In addition, the Bible provides a framework for how God expects his followers to live and to behave, which can be seen as forming a distinct cultural identity. For example, the Ten Commandments provides moral and ethical guidelines that have shaped Christian culture for thousands of years. Similarly, the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament provide a model for how Christians should live and interact with the world around them. 

While God does not have a culture in the same sense that we do, the Bible provides a framework for how God expects his followers to live and behave, which can be seen as the shaping of a sort of distinct cultural identity. But how does an unchanging God keep up with an ever-changing culture? On the surface, at first glance, it may seem that an unchanging God is incompatible with a rapidly changing culture. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that God’s unchanging nature actually provides a stable foundation for navigating the changes of culture.

First and foremost, God’s unchanging nature is not a limitation; rather, it is a reflection of his perfect and eternal nature. Sharon talked about the infinite size and the all-inclusive nature of God’s bubble. God’s unchanging nature means that he is always faithful and true to his promises, and that his character and attributes remain constant throughout history. 

This provides a firm foundation for believers to build their lives upon, even as the culture around them shifts and changes. In addition, while God’s nature remains constant, his relationship with humanity is a dynamic one and responsive to the changes of culture. The Bible is filled with examples of God working within the cultural context of his people, adapting to his message and approach to reach them where they are. 

For example, God spoke with the ancient Israelites in ways that they could understand using their own cultural traditions and practices to convey his messages. Similarly, Jesus spoke in parables that were relevant to the cultural context of his time, using everyday examples to teach timeless truths. 

God’s unchanging nature does not mean that he is disconnected from the world around us. He is intimately involved in the world working through his Holy Spirit to bring about transformation and renewal. As Paul writes in Romans 12:2, we are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, which is a process that takes place as we engage in the world around us in a faithful and thoughtful way. 

But here I propose that God does have a culture, which I’d like to call the culture of grace. God’s culture of grace is not bound by time. It’s not bound by secular culture or by rules. God’s ways are timeless, not dependent upon data or information or knowledge. Therefore, God is not bound by change in the ever expanding database that is constantly putting pressure on religion and religious culture. 

This is an important concept. God’s culture of grace is timeless and is not subject to the changing cultural norm or rules of society. As an all-knowing and all-powerful being, God’s ways and actions are not limited by the constraints of human knowledge, understanding, data, or ideas. The Bible affirms that God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9) 

Furthermore, God’s grace is not dependent upon human cultural norms or rules. The concept of grace is based on the unmerited favor of God toward us despite our unworthiness. This grace is not something we can earn or deserve through our actions or adherence to cultural practices. Instead, it is a gift freely given by all by God to all. 

While the world and cultural norms may change, God’s grace remains constant and unchanging. As the Apostle Paul writes in Hebrews 13:8, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This means that the truth and the grace of God remain constant regardless of the changing cultural and societal norms of the world. 

Religion and cultural practices are not the same as the truth and the grace of God. While cultural practices may be important to people and can provide a solid sense of identity and community, they should not be equated with the unchanging truth and grace of God. Religion can sometimes become bound by rules and regulations based on human traditions, rather than the teachings of God. And this can lead to legalism and unhealthy focus on external practices, rather than a heart which is transformed by God’s grace. 

Because religion is man-made and based on rules, rituals, and information, it is constantly under pressure to change. A culture of timeless grace, on the other hand, is immutable. New data, new knowledge, new information that need to be reassessed, reworked, and reassimilated do not have to be handled in an economy and a culture of grace. In short, it is not dependent upon us and our works and our ability to see something new. But our religion is based on God’s grace, which is immutable and timeless. 

It is true that religion, being man-made, can be subject to change over time as societies and cultures evolve. Religious practices and rituals may be influenced by social, political and cultural factors leading to changes in beliefs and practices over time. However, a culture of timeless grace is exemplified by an unchanging truth and grace of God. It is indeed immutable. 

That God’s ways and actions are not limited by the constraints of human knowledge or understanding and his grace is not dependent upon cultural norms or human rules does not mean that our understanding and interpretation of God’s grace cannot grow and evolve over some time. As we study the Bible and learn more about God’s character and nature, our understanding of his grace may deepen and expand. 

However, the core truth of God’s grace remains unchanged and unchanging, providing a firm foundation for believers to build their lives upon. Religion, being man-made, is in contrast subject to human error and influence, New data brings new ideas and new points of view. Religious practices and rituals may be based on human traditions rather than the teachings of God, and may be subject to change over time. 

This is not to say that all religious practices and rituals are inherently flawed, but rather that they should be evaluated in the light of the changing truth and grace of God. There is a need to process new ideas and new knowledge. While religion may be subject to some change over some time, God’s bubble is infinite. His timeless principles and his culture of timeless grace do not require any kind of adjustment. They are immutable. As we seek to grow in our understanding of God’s grace, we should be mindful of the influence of human traditions and the need to respond to new information, fresh data, and current understanding. 

Religious culture can be defined as a set of beliefs, practices, and values shared by a community of people who identify with a particular religious tradition. This includes beliefs about the nature of God (or gods), the meaning and the purpose of life, and the moral principles and ethical standards that guide behavior. Religious cultures also encompass rituals, traditions, and practices that help to express and reinforce these beliefs and values. 

Secular culture, on the other hand, refers to beliefs, attitudes, and values of people who are not necessarily religious and who may reject organized religion altogether. This includes cultural norms, social practices, political ideologies, and those that are shaped by factors such as science, technology, economics, and social change. 

One of the ways in which secular culture puts pressure on religion to change is through the influence of secular values and ideas. For example, as society becomes more diverse and inclusive, there may be pressure on religious communities to become more accepting of different lifestyles, identities, and beliefs. Similarly, as scientific knowledge expands and challenges traditional beliefs, religious communities may be forced to reevaluate their understanding of the world and their place in it. 

In addition, secular culture may put pressure on religion to change through political and legal means; for example, laws and policies related to issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and freedom of speech may come into conflict with religious beliefs and practices, leading to tensions and debates about the role of religion in public life. 

Overall, while religious culture may be resistant to change, secular culture can put pressure on religion to adapt to changing societal norms and values and can lead to tension and conflict between religious and secular communities, but can also provide opportunities for dialogue and understanding between different groups.

The prodigal son (Luke 15) had a religious viewpoint based upon his culture, his rules, and rituals. His father had a religious viewpoint based upon grace. The Parable of the Prodigal Son presents two different religious viewpoints based on cultural and personal beliefs. 

The prodigal son had squandered his inheritance on wild living and ended up in poverty. He eventually returns to his father in shame and repentance. From a religious perspective, the son’s action can be seen as breaking cultural norms and religious rules, leading to his downfall. He had sinned and he had to pay the price for his actions. 

However, the father’s response to the prodigal son’s return presents a different religious viewpoint, one based upon grace. The father’s reaction is not to punish the son for his wrongdoings, but to welcome him back with open arms, forgive him, and throw a great party. In this viewpoint, the father’s actions represent the concept of grace, which is the idea that forgiveness and acceptance are freely given without any requirement of repayment or punishment. 

The son’s religious viewpoint is one that emphasizes the importance of following religious rules and traditions, while the father’s religious viewpoint is based on the principle of grace and forgiveness. The son’s perspective is focused on external behavior while the father’s perspective is based on the internal condition of the heart. 

Overall, the parable of the prodigal son highlights two different religious viewpoints, one that emphasizes rules, traditions, and punishment for wrongdoing, and another that emphasizes grace, forgiveness, and acceptance regardless of past actions. I’m proposing this concept for discussion today. 

A religion based on grace is resistant to secular pressure. A religion that doesn’t rely on information, data, and knowledge but instead relies only on God’s grace—such as Christianity in its true form—must be resistant to secular pressure because grace-based religion emphasizes the importance of a personal relationship with God and a reliance on his grace for salvation rather than on religious practices or rituals. 

An emphasis on grace makes it less vulnerable to secular pressure to conform to changing cultural norms. You will never have to deal with new ideas and new data or new knowledge if your bedrock principles are resting on grace. One reason for this is that grace-based religion is centered on an unchanging truth about the grace of God rather than on the shifting opinions and ideas of secular culture. 

The foundation of grace-based religion is the belief that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and is not dependent upon cultural practices or human rules. Therefore, if cultural practices or societal norms change over time, the core belief in God’s grace and salvation remains unchanged. 

Furthermore, grace-based religion can provide believers with a sense of identity and purpose rooted in the unchanging truth of God’s word and the transformative power of his grace. This can make believers more resistant to secular pressure to conform to changing cultural norms as they have a deep sense of belonging and purpose that transcends the shifting values and ideas of secular culture. 

So I’d like your thoughts this morning on how secular culture has influenced religion in our society. Are there ways in which religion has resisted secular pressure? What are some of the challenges that secular culture presents to religion, particularly in terms of changing cultural norms and values? How does religion based on grace different from religion based on rules and rituals when it comes to resisting secular pressure? 

Are there ways in which religion can engage with secular culture without compromising its core beliefs or values? In what way can believers rely on God’s grace to resist secular pressure to conform to changing cultural norms and values? How can believers strike a balance between holding fast to their beliefs and engaging in dialogue with secular culture? And what role can grace-based religion play in promoting justice and equality in a secular society? 

Can religion and secular culture coexist peacefully, or is there inherent conflict between the two? And how can we navigate tensions between secular and religious values for a diverse society? In what way can believers draw on an unchanging truth and the grace of God to resist pressure to compromise when the truth is of similar challenge? 

So I’d like your thoughts today about worshiping God in spirit and in truth, about how culture is resistant to religion and religion is resistant to culture, and whether a culture of grace and a religion of grace is— because of its inherent newness—resistant to change. 

David: That the word of God is unchanging is beyond question. The key to all of this seems to me to be that worship is private and individual. It takes place in the privacy of the closet. Therefore, to me, a gathering of two or three people is not (or should not be) for the purpose of worship; rather, it should be for the purpose of applying God’s word—God’s truth, which exists in spirit inside us—to society. 

As the two or three become twenty or thirty and two or three thousand, there develops a need for social organization and ethical social norms, and that’s where God’s word can be applied. It flows downwards from the spirit. But worship, which I personally define as the acknowledgement of God or Goodness—is something we all feel in our spirit and recognize as truth, whether we are Christian or Buddhist or atheist.

This is why I think that there is no real difference between secular society and culture vs. religious society and culture. They are based basically on the same thing. 

There’s no question that God’s word does not change but society does. For example, militaries around the world are developing autonomous soldiers—machines, robots—with the kind of intelligence that GPT has, giving them the autonomy to kill at will. God’s Word—God’s truth—is: Thou shalt not kill. There’s no ambiguity there. Whether we read the Bible or the Koran or Richard Dawkins we fundamentally know and hold that as truth. It exists in the spirit contained within our minds. 

But as society changes, how do we apply that message? How do we apply “Thou shall not kill” to autonomous killer robots? It’s a problem we’ve never had to face before but we need to deal with it now. God’s truth has not changed a bit but society has changed a lot and we need to deal with that. But we can’t do it through worship. We mis do it by applying what we know in spirit and in truth—in our mind (or conscience, or soul)—regardless of our culture. 

We must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s—and social obedience is Caesar’s—but render unto God that which is God’s, namely, the worship you render when you pray in your closet,.

Donald: Certainly our relationship with God is personal. It’s not a corporate thing—it’s an individual thing. I certainly have always recognized that my church is not going to provide salvation for me—again, it’s a personal thing. 

It has only been in the last decade that I have even pondered the idea of separating religion from my personal thoughts. They are so entwined that it’s hard to tell one from the other. I don’t know if they are equivalent, but they sometimes seem entwined practically to the point of equivalence, though that would be extreme.

I don’t think grace was talked about very much when I was a child. It was much more “These are the rules and this is how we behave. The road is narrow.” We had to pay attention to our behaviors, and that defined my personal religious traditions until I joined a non-denominational BSF (Bible Study Fellowship), which has specific rules about not using reading materials other than the Bible and not talking about one’s doctrines or church or sports or politics.  

We studied the Bible and extracted from it things that seemed to be behavioral. That’s what we seemed to focus on. Can a highly organized religious organization be based upon grace? Because I don’t think grace was central in my understanding of my religion, and that’s unfortunate, it seems to me. 

Yes, we all should have our own personal devotions, but corporately is where we really seem to express our worship moment. I’m having a harder time thinking of worship as something you do in your closet. No, worship is something I do in church. 

That’s kind of the way I think, and then to listen to Don and talk about grace-filled church in highly organized religion, I’m just having a difficult time putting that all together based upon my traditional ways of thinking.

David: I think of the Roman Catholic going to confession and saying: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, and I did this, that, and the other.” So the sinner already knows it. God has given the sinner the grace already to understand what s/he has done wrong. Why must s/he confess in the church confessional and feel guilty if they don’t? Isn’t it enough that in spirit they’ve recognized what they’ve done and clearly feel some remorse for it? 

Confession, to me, illustrates the dichotomy between corporate worship decreed by organized religion and the individual worship decreed by God. God is inherently recognized—worshipped—in the personal recognition of sin. Before the sinner goes to church to confess, s/he must have recognized her or his sin (and therefore have recognized—worshipped—God) in spirit and truth in a real or metaphorical closet and admitted “I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong. Please forgive me. I’ll try not to do it again.” It is by God’s grace that we can worship in that way, and everybody does it—religious or not.

Reinhard: To me, religion was given by God for us to organize. Ever since God separated his remnant people, the Israelites, and set them aside as the apple of his eye and a channel through which to communicate his purpose to humanity, there have always been challenges. Isaiah 40:8 says that the Word of God will stand forever and we worship God based on his moral law. But throughout history, the moral law has always been challenged by advances in science and technology. Governments reform or make new laws to meet such challenges.

On the other hand, we are well equipped, it seems to me, based on history and God’s character, to do what we need to do. We can see from Biblical history through the Dark Ages to today that If we stay close to God, no matter what challenges we face, we will prevail.

Even now, I think we will get through the challenges posed by AI just fine, because AI has a good purpose. The biggest threat comes from the devil, who tries to shake our beliefs with humanistic ideology. I saw a magic show on YouTube in which a piece of chalk wrote on a blackboard by itself. The Bible talks about such devilish deception running amok at the End Time, enticing people who don’t know God and are not close to him to believe in another entity that seems to have God-like power. 

The power of evil is going to grow more and more, but through discussions such as ours in this class we remain on the right path and we’ll be fine until the end, as long as we acknowledge and recognize the dangers, in our discussions. 

Paul reminded us to assemble together to worship, so even though God may not have organized religion directly, he orchestrated it indirectly and, I think, blesses the forms of religion, the community we have with other people, as in this Zoom meeting. I think as long as we try to find the truth and seek a good relationship with God and with each other, we have what we need to stay strong in the belief that his grace will always look out for us. 

If we do wrong, if we transgress sometimes, it is very comforting to know that we can always listen to God. 

Anonymous: First of all, Dr. Weaver has eased my concern about AI. I no longer see it as a threat. His remarks have opened my eyes to the unchanging God and worshiping him in spirit and truth, that he is our fortress which is not going to change. God will never change, no matter what happens, and as long as I worship him in my closet, and the conscience about my behavior (back to Donald’s point) and bask in his grace, continually, unceasingly, regardless of my condition—all that makes me feel more secure rather than fearful or concerned or worried about technology going crazy. 

However, I have a question: That’s for those who trust and see God’s grace. What about the rest? What about the scientist who makes the robots that kill? What about people who live in a way contrary to God’s culture, not caring about salvation but blindly going straight forward to the other side, to the other extreme? How would their end be? How will God interfere in their life? How will his grace turn them around back to him? 

It’s impossible for us human beings to know. So all we can do is pray and present them before God and show them grace and our behaviors and our attitudes toward them. We can love our enemies. God gave us all the instructions and advice about how to live in this wicked world. If we follow his rules, I think we can we can change the world. 

On the other hand, I would still worry that no matter how true a representative I would be of God, in my love and in my sharing grace with those who are completely different from me, that it would be still impossible for me climb that mountain of difficulties. How can we move this mountain? 

Michael: With regard to the issue of personal religion vs. organized or corporate religion, I guess it’s easy to say that corporate religion has been declining and will probably continue to do so. But what about personal religion? Has it been declining or growing? Has it changed? 

If we equate religion to corporate religion, then yes, we can say religion is in decline, but if we equate it to personal religion, then it might not have changed, even with technology, even with societal values and changing laws. 

But why do we need corporate religion? Is it like a societal proof that God should save me, because I’m going to church, the other people can see me, they can judge me to be worthy of it? (That is false, of course, because you’re looking for other gods to think you’re saved.) Or do we need religion in order to learn and to be in community? 

The community part is fine but the problem with expecting that you’re learning from your church is that (it seems to me) most of the things that you learn in church are not right about God. They don’t teach you the right stuff. They teach you the wrong stuff. 

Maybe this decline in organized religion is matched by an increase in personal religion? And maybe, in a sense, if that’s a better or a truer way of worship, things are getting better. It depends on what you equate religion—the word religion—to. 

Don: Those are very important observations. They make me wonder if God is behind the decline in religion.

David: I too thought that was very insightful and also what Anonymous said, particularly concerning the mountain. To me, grace is what moves that mountain; therefore the mountain is not something to worry about. Right now, concern about the downside of AI is being expressed at the highest levels in government and in business, including some of those developing the AI. They are showing apparently genuine ethical concern about what they’re doing. They’re also expressing angst that if they don’t do it, a competitor will, so they face a seemingly no-win dilemma. 

But the very fact that they’re considering the ethical implications at all is to me a sign that God’s grace is kicking in. Those people, whether or not they go to church or consider themselves Christian and so on, have goodness inside them. They have God within. They have the Holy Spirit. They have God’s grace working in them. 

It’s interesting that the Babelonians had no such concerns, going by the narrative in the Bible. They just went right ahead with their tower. But their modern-day equivalents—the tech giants—are calling for a pause in the building of today’s Babel.

Of course there will be unethical individuals for whom it’s not a concern and who therefore do constitute a mini mountain, but I think society as a whole—goodness as a whole—will overcome it.

Donald: There is certainly something between highly organized religion and personal spirituality, and people who are a part of organized religion are always going to be skeptical of people claiming to be SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) and worshipping privately. Organized religion may say they are fooling themselves.There’s probably some tension the other way, too, with SBNRs being skeptical of religion’s traditions and fanfare. 

The mutual skepticism is not personal. COVID probably played a role in driving people to worship in private, and some of them may not want to go back to the old way of worship in church. The decline of organized religion accelerated during COVID but as things open back up, people have come to understand that they have choices in worship. 

David: The churches don’t want you to know your choices. The priest in the confession box doesn’t want the confessant to know that they could they could confess all by themselves in a real or metaphorical closet. And the typical Catholic churchgoer indeed does not know that. 

The reason is what Don spoke of: Grace has not been stressed by the church because it might put them out of business if churchgoers knew that they had a confession box right at home, in the closet, with the best confessor in the universe—God himself—ready and eager to take their confession, rather than a middleman.  

The church may help people who don’t realize the power of grace to lift from them the burden of something weighing on their conscience. Maybe it helps to be absolved by a middleman in return for 12 Hail Marys. There must be a great sense of relief, if you don’t have grace. If you have God’s grace, I think you’re able to forgive yourself. You recognize that you have done wrong but that God’s grace has bestowed forgiveness.

Carolyn: Way back when everyone went to the temple and brought their children to be blessed, was the temple just a temporary measure until Jesus’ crucifixion, his great gift to humanity? The life of the people before the crucifixion centered on community, and the temple was very much a part of that. 

But after Jesus, was it better to go to the closet rather than the temple? Or is it better to go to the temple and to the closet? As Donald said, these things are rather entwined. We need grace, for sure; to me, that is the all important thing and is the joy I have learned. But was the temple back when considered “corporate”?

Don: It’s a good question to leave hanging until next week. 

* * *

Leave a Reply