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An ongoing conversation

I have a friend who successfully manages his own stock portfolio and is constantly encouraging me to do the same. He has a knack for finding companies that are undervalued. A few years ago, he called and told me about a European company that had quadrupled his investment in a matter of a few months. He wanted me to invest in the company too.

Long after the details of our conversation faded from my memory, its tone stayed with me. My friend was ecstatic, and I mean that in the religious sense of the word. He spoke as someone who had journeyed from a mundane world of scarcity to a sacred one of abundance. He was awestruck and fascinated by this power that had so mysteriously multiplied his wealth.

Just a few years before this conversation, my friend had confided in me that he had decided to stop attending church. While his attendance had dwindled over the years to just Christmas and Easter, even that had become for him too much.

He recounted a moment during a Christmas Eve service that had ended with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When he heard the words, “Send your Holy Spirit, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup of blessing which we bless may be to us the communion of the body and blood of Christ…” he was confounded.

He had heard these words before but had never really paid attention to them. Now they sounded weird, superstitious even. Did people really believe that an invisible spirit would descend, indwell the bread and wine, and somehow make Jesus really present to people who ate them? He said that he could not with integrity come forward and partake of communion and that he would not be going to church again.

For a number of years now, my friend and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation about the deeper spiritual issues of our lives and whether or not the church today addresses them in any meaningful way.

We do not understand our conversation to be a private matter but rather a public one, for we see the core issue facing so many people today, old and young, baby boomers and millennials, as the issue of spiritual power.

We ask ourselves: are there places and times in which the material and spiritual worlds coalesce and the presence of God manifests itself in inexhaustible abundance or is the material world a closed system of matter and motion? If such cornucopian places exist, where are they to be found and what role do they play in our lives? Is the communion table such a place? Is 11 Wall Street, New York City, NY such a place?

Some fruit from our conversation

John Calvin was right. All people are religious whether they acknowledge it or not. They feel deeply the contingency of their existence. At some level, they know that they live from breath to breath, drink to drink, meal to meal, birth to birth and that, without the gifts of air, water, food, and conception, they are dead. But they are often uncertain about where to find the source of these gifts, uncertain about the identity of their giver.

Like Gilgamesh of long ago or Ponce de Leon, they are searching for the fountain of life.

Many people today no longer find this source of life at the communion table. They do not believe that the fingers of Jesus can multiply the loaves and fish and feed as many as are hungry, and they do not believe that this miracle repeats itself at the communion table. They find all that weird, superstitious.

And I get it. I too live in a western world that constantly whispers in my ear that everything around me is nothing more than matter and motion. There are certain Sundays when I am listening carefully to the words of the communion liturgy—in the few churches that actually use the liturgy—and imagining the world that they invoke, and such a world seems to me if not weird at least implausible.

Many people find this source of life in other places, one of them being 11 Wall Street. Outside stands a huge, bronze image of a bull, the ultimate symbol of fecundity in religions since ancient times.

I cannot count the number of political speeches, editorials, commercials, and advertisements that I have analyzed over the past 30 years that encouraged people to believe that there are no limits to growth and to believe in Wall Street’s fecundity—my all-time favorite is the 1986 Merrill Lynch commercial of a bull roaming the open prairie with a choir singing in the background: To know no boundaries.

Jimmy Carter of course ran afoul of this belief when he released his Global 2000 Report affirming the limits of growth. Many argue that this report, not the hostage crisis, cost him re-election.

The mythology that surrounds Wall Street suggests that both the resources of the earth and the resources of human ingenuity are limitless and that the current economic arrangements bring these limitless resources together in such a way that Wall Street—and the international system it represents—is our fountain of life.

And this I do not get. Why do people not find such a belief weird and superstitious? We know that the resources of planet earth are limited, and we know that human intelligence and ingenuity are deeply flawed. We know that the current economic system, which for us Reformed types can be a means of grace, is easily corrupted. The zeal to “maximize” profit drives companies to cut labor costs that deny many workers a livable wage and to pass on the environmental costs of production to future generations. We know that maximized profit is held in the hands of fewer and fewer people who live their lives in isolation from a growing number of people who lack the resources to pay for such basic needs as health care, much less participate in Wall Street.

My friend and I have more questions than answers when it comes to understanding the manifestations of the presence of God in our world, whether at the communion table or Wall Street. But we agree that our beloved Reformed Church has lost much of its spiritual vitality and is vulnerable to false prophets with schemes to restore it. We hear from vision-casters who say that we should run our churches like businesses, that ordaining women violates the will of God and weakens the church, that contact with the LGBTQ community will make us impure. These would-be prophets are healing the wounds of our people too lightly.

We in the church need to go deeper and probe the difficulty we in the West are having experiencing the real presence of God in our world. If we address this issue and begin to find peace, comfort, and a sense of belonging in the loving arms of Jesus, maybe our fears would subside. Maybe then we could find the common ground that would help us move forward together on other issues and end this painful rending of the body of Christ.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

5 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Dr. Boogaart,

    I would like to focus on one phrase you wrote:

    “that contact with the LGBTQ community will make us impure.”

    Maybe you might consider rewriting that idea. I would like to believe that you know that is not the argument of virtually anyone who embraces traditional gender and sexual concepts. That is the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that causes division.

    I couldn’t agree more with the last paragraph.

  • mstair says:

    The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (Romans 8:16)

    If someone doesn’t get it, is it their experiential shallowness that is leaving them feeling weird and superstitious?

    Jesus said, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3: 8)

    Could it be that our American culture of greed, “pregnancy termination,” and all-tolerant license has simply grieved The Holy Spirit?

    “No language can adequately express this solemn truth, that the Holy Spirit rejoices and is glad on our account, when we are obedient to him in all things, and neither think nor speak anything, but what is pure and holy; and, on the other hand, is grieved when we admit anything into our minds that is unworthy of our calling” (John Calvin)

  • Have we sinned against God by our greed and God has left us to be unsatisfied with that greed as our punishment?

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Tom, for an interesting article that asks, where does God truly manifest himself in our world? Is there a spiritual power within the Christian religion or do we find power on Wall Street or in financial success? Is there a spiritual reality beyond the materialism of our world? Where does our search for the fountain of life begin and end? Perhaps through a “Live Aid” concert of the 80″s. You, Tom, seem to imply that such fountain of life is found in the church and in Christ. But perhaps even the church, as it compromises with the pragmatism of the world, is not the source that it has been in the past. Perhaps, as your friend contends, Christianity is little more than superstition and emotion, based on a very implausible story of a miracle working Jesus whose present reality is based on the subjectivism of the individual.

    You write this article as though the Christian religion is the only plausible religion that offers an inner experience of God. But in reality, there are hundreds of such religions all offering some form of religious ecstacy or nirvana by which one experiences the reality of God in one’s life. All claim divine inspiration (as does the Bible and Christianity), and all suggest that they alone offer the connective tissue to God. Could it be that all religions but mine are false? Or is it a more likely scenario that all religions are false including my own? What grounds can I offer to suggest that my religion is the only true way to God, and the only way to experience him (her or it)? Most will come back to their own subjective experience. Thanks, Tom, for a thoughtful article.

  • Ann Clark Carda says:

    “John Calvin was right. All people are religious whether they acknowledge it or not.” I haven’t heard that before but really like it. Is it a paraphrase of something from The Institutes? I’d like to use it if you don’t mind giving me the original quote. Thanks!

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