Looking for God in Messy Places
A gestalt shift is a visual switch of perspective. While looking at an unchanging image we see first one thing and then another. For instance, in the picture below you can see a duck. Or a rabbit. Or a duck:
Another familiar example of gestalt shifts is the vase or chalice that can also be two faces peering at each other:
The lesson we draw from gestalt shifts is that perception is interpretation. The universe we inhabit constantly bombards us with an infinite variety of colors and sounds, smells and textures. Such complexity is more than we can possibly take in all at once. So we filter and sort all of this before we even become aware of it.
The philosopher William James said that, if we didn’t bring some sort of order to this tidal wave of input, we wouldn’t have what we know as experience at all. We would be awash in a buzzing, booming confusion.
In other words, what we see we have already interpreted. We don’t see things simply as they are and then figure out what they mean. As another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, put: We don’t just see. We see as. And our assumptions—the stories we have already accepted about how life works, what we’re like, and what people in general are like—shape our perceptions before we even realize it.
The phenomenon of Gestalt shift suggests that higher consciousness involves checking to see if another perspective is available. As new perspectives emerge, the assumptions that have been shaping—and perhaps narrowing—our perceptions begin to surface.
Gestalt shifts are not only perceptual events. We can change our minds. Most of us have experienced a change of heart about things or people. We’ve come upon a new way to see our situation.
Jesus came to trigger a Gestalt shift that would ultimately change how we see ourselves, our fellow humans, and the entire universe. As Richard Rohr puts it, Jesus came to change our minds about God. At least, I can tell you that Jesus has done that for me.
As a college freshman I entered an agnostic phase. During spring break that year, three of us spent Spring Break in Daytona. As we were strolling the Boardwalk, a woman roughly our age approached us and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
Fresh from studying the problem of evil, I asked the young woman how she squared faith in a loving God with the overwhelming amount of human misery. Unfazed, she responded that God does not cause this suffering. That’s when I said, “So God is just a spectator, floating above us at a safe, comfortable distance?”
Years later, I realized that my assumptions about God were woven together and distorted by my childhood experiences of my father.
Distant, uninvolved, and self-absorbed, my father would Intermittently make it clear that I didn’t measure up to his standard of manhood and would point out changes that I should make. And then off he would ride into a sunset of his own choosing until next time.
In other words, my experiences with my father influenced my perception of God. Only, I had not the slightest idea that this was so. In time, Jesus presented me a very different perspective of God in a messy world. And I think that during Lent we have the opportunity to let him do that for all of us yet again.
In the Episcopal Church, many congregations will begin the Eucharist with what we call The Penitential Order. In other words, we start our services with a confession of sin. As apart of the liturgical movement, we have the option to recite the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue.
Additionally, on the Third Sunday in Lent of this year, the Old Testament reading recalls the giving of the Ten Commandments.
This focus on the Decalogue is at once a spiritual opportunity and a spiritual risk. The opportunity lies in seeing God from a Christ-inspired perspective. The risk arises from the assumptions many of us have not yet unearthed and challenged.
Some of us will bring to the reading of the Ten Commandments inherited, unexamined assumptions about a law-and-order God: God created us and handed us rules to follow. When we follow the rules we will be rewarded. Violating the rules brings punishment.
This reading renders God as stern, judgmental, and apparently more interested in rules than in real people. If we accept this concept of God, our highest spiritual aspiration will be rigorous adherence to the rules for fear of punishment and desire for reward.
Jesus interprets the Ten Commandments very differently. Look, for instance at the Sermon on the Mount. Among other themes, Jesus draws our attention to the commandment against killing. (Matthew 5:21-22)
In essence, he says this. Scripture tells you not to kill. But I’m here to tell you that even when you fail to respect the dignity of another person you’ve as good as committed murder. The contempt you heap upon others injures their souls. And just as importantly, your actions reveal that you are suffering from a fatal heart ailment, a soul sickness. You do not recognize God’s beloved as worthy of your own love.
Jesus loves us enough to show us the coldness of our own hearts. And he’s not telling us merely to shape up or risk losing God’s love for us. Jesus is God’s love in the flesh come to heal our weak hearts.
Jesus shows us that God is Lover and Healer, not a Punishing Judge. When we see this about Jesus, the Ten Commandments reveal themselves not as rules but as a vision of human life. God, the loving God, dwells in our midst. We are glad for one another’s good fortune and safe in each other’s embrace. Knowing ourselves as loved with infinite abandon, we love each other without fear and without reserve.
With some images that offer a Gestalt shift, I struggle to see more than one perspective. I have to turn my head to one side or step back a few paces. I need something to move me into a new place to see things anew. That’s what Jesus has done in my life. Jesus has changed my mind about God.
Jake Owensby is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC). As the author of his blog: – Looking for God in Messy Church – Bishop Jake is here challenging his readers to re-consider the perspective of God as Punishing Judge, in order to discover – in the life and example of Jesus – that God is primarily; Lover, Healer and Redeemer.
This can be a little challenging to those Christians who have been brought up to the understanding of God as Judge, rather than God as Healer and Redeemer. One of the problems with this understanding of God is that we are sometimes tempted to judge other people’s openness to “The great love of God as revealed in The Son” – which is the message of the Gospel in the New Testament revelation of the life and witness of God’s Son and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
In the latest saga in our Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand (ACANZP), the recent Christchurch Diocesan Synod – which met specifically to discuss endorsing or rejecting the Provincial Church’s Working Group’s recommendation on Same-Sex Blessings in the Church – there were two distinct understandings of the issue at hand:
(1) Based on a traditional ‘Sola Scriptura’ understanding of a few verses of Scripture which were interpreted to mean that same-sex sexual relationships were taboo.
(2) Based on a contemporary (Anglican) understanding of Scripture as ‘Guide’ to our understanding of God’s relationships to God’s human children through the new lens of social and biological revelation about the aetiology of homosexuality.
One of the problems of the ‘Sola Scriptura’ school of theology, is that it too often seems to dismiss the other 2 bases on which Anglicanism is predicated: those of Tradition and Reason. While Tradition has usually become open to changes in culture and context – but with due regard to the ‘esse’ of the Credal basis of the Christian Faith – the other important element of Reason – based on the ability to ‘discern the fruits of experience – seems to have been put on the back burner.
The cultural context of the writers of both Old and New Testaments seems, by those addicted to ‘Sola Scriptura,’ to have been totally disregarded – especially in the area of human behaviour. This should not be too surprising – in view of the fact that the ‘Keepers of the LAW’ (the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day) would have been most reluctant to accept that their purity rite of circumcision would no longer be a necessity for the male children of God’s Covenant. Jesus’ insistence on a ‘New Covenant’ would have been reprehensible to the Jewish establishment. That is one reason for which they elected to kill Jesus. They saw him as breaking their sacred traditions
The ‘Sola Scriptura’ believers’ reluctance to accept any change in the understanding and accommodation of the newly-declared variety of sexual-orientation amongst human beings – based on the SIX VERSES of Scripture, written at a time when such a biological possibility seemed impossible – is still alive and kicking in religious circles – notably is Islam and certain conservative Christian communities; whose militancy requires them to ‘battle’ against what they have chosen to regard as the ‘powers and principalities of evil’ who promote such ‘worldy ideas’.
One cannot but empathise with Bishop Jake’s paradigm here – that of our perception being all to often clouded by our own subjective experience and upbringing. Unable to countenance any understanding of God’s Mercy as even more important a feature of Divine Provenance than God’s Judgement; human beings are sometimes unable to discern the ‘Bigger Picture’: That all human beings are ‘fallen creatures’. However, in the infinite love and mercy of our Creator God, we have been redeemed – not by our own holiness, but that of God alone.
Our given sexuality is the gift of God – no less to the same-sex-attracted person as to the heterosexual ‘norm’. Our task, as human beings (and as members of the Church, the Body of Christ) is to learn to live with that reality as well as we are able.
In a time of the devaluation of heterosexual marriage, anything that helps to build up society with examples of other faithful bonded relationships within the law of that society ought to be celebrated.
Part of this celebration – for me at least – was the FACT that – in a secret ballot – our Diocesan Synod of Christchurch decided to support the enablement of Motion 29, so that loving, faithful, committed same-sex Christian couples – if our General Synod decides to – may, one day, please God, be recognised in our Church .
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand