EDITORS NOTE: Longtime friend of Red Letter Christians, Doug Pagitt, released a new book today on reimagining life in God. It’s called Flipped. You can learn more at his website. We’re glad to share an excerpt here.
Perhaps it has happened to you. You are making your way through life and suddenly find yourself upended by an idea. It’s the kind of idea that stays with you and eventually makes a home in your thinking. Over time you can’t imagine life without it.
I call this a Flip.
The Flip that turned me around as a pastor and a Christian writer, as well as in my personal life and faith, was a notion that caused me to realize God isn’t who I thought God was. It’s very possible that God is not who you have always assumed God to be. The realization comes to us in different ways.
For me, the Flip came when I was in a hotel room in San Diego and talking with a man I barely knew. My assumptions about the world and how it works were upended.
Sometimes Flips are impossible to ignore. At other times they are so subtle you could easily miss them. You spend the rest of your life trying to understand all that this change means for you and for others. The Flip can take you from being dead certain about an idea or a person or a story to a place where you aren’t certain what you believe anymore.
The Flip that hit me in San Diego was like a wasabi shot to the brain.
I should explain that I love wasabi. A lot. Wasabi is a paste made from the stem of a horseradish-like plant. The paste most often is served with sushi, and there is good reason for the combination. The nearly medicinal benefit of the plant is thought to kill bacteria. It goes perfectly with the uncooked fish often served in sushi. My love of wasabi is not for its health benefits, though; it’s for the kick. Not just any kick, but a head-snapping, nasal-clearing, eye-widening kick.
While the Flip didn’t make my eyes water or my nose run, it did leave me feeling cleaned out, tossed around, and even a little stung. It was as if a direct path connected what I heard to all of my ideas of God, humanity, and what life is all about. I had known before that I didn’t have it all straight, but never did I dream that an encounter with a guy in a hotel room would bring such clarity.
It was 2004 and I was one of the organizers of a national pastors’ conference. It might seem that life-changing conversations about God would be common in this setting, but these events seem to involve a lot more mundane chitchat than life-altering conversation. In situations where so many people are committed to the religion industry, most conversations stay well inside the boundaries of what we already think. No pastor wants to risk his or her job by crossing too many lines.
But I’m not interested in boundaries. I’d rather see what is possible just outside of what we all think. Curiosity is far more important to our faith than the false security of established certainty.
That might be one reason I liked LeRon almost immediately. He was a respected theologian and one of the presenters at the conference. I sensed he had a lively, curious mind. I was walking by when I heard him say, “And that’s when I stopped thinking of God as a separate single subject.”
Wait. God is not a separate single subject? God is not separated and removed from humanity? That means . . . And so the Flip began.
It was almost as if I heard one of those Laurel and Hardy double “whoopee” sounds in my head.
God is not a separate single subject. This idea may not strike you with the power it did me. And if I had heard it at another time it might have slid by me without notice. But on this night it hit me hard. It danced with other thoughts that were important to me but seemed out of rhythm with so many of my assumptions about God, humanity, and life.
That’s the thing about Flips: once they start, they are almost impossible to stop.
I realized I could think of God in bigger, more integrated, more expansive ways than I had before. I had always felt bound by the more classic descriptions of God. I don’t mean the “chummy big guy upstairs” image or the “old man with a white beard” caricature. It was something far more crucial than that.
Prior to this, I had only heard God described in terms of difference and distinction from humanity and creation. The central understanding of God was that God is different. It was as if the important thing about God was that we have absolutely nothing in common with God.
There is this scene in the feel-good movie Rudy where Rudy is trying to figure out his life’s call. His priest says, “Son, in thirty-five years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts. There is a God, and I’m not Him.” In my past understanding of God, the vast distance between God and humanity was almost a point of pride.
The people I talked to about God in seminary and afterward were convinced that God is, quite simply, Other. But here was LeRon, a Christian theologian, suggesting that is not the only way to think about God. And, boy, did I want that to be true. Flips don’t force us to think in a new way. Rather, they conspire with thoughts that already are in our heads.
I jumped on the idea that if God were not a separate being from all things in the cosmos, then we need not simply say God exists. We can say that God is existence. All is In God.
I wanted to live with God directly and passionately. I did not want God to be some distant being that I needed to please. I didn’t want to access God only through a system of faith or religion. I didn’t want God to be distant at all. But for so long that seemed like a prerequisite for being Christian. You had to begin by believing that God is Other, and then you would follow certain steps to bridge the gap.
I was welcomed into the Christian faith with the understanding that God could live in your heart. I resonated with the personal nature of this: God was as close as my heart. But that was not the full story. I was told I had to adhere to a set of rules if I wanted to make my heart God’s home.
But the Flip allowed me to consider that we live in the heart of God rather than the other way around. It took time for me to get comfortable with this understanding. Flips don’t immediately settle in and start to feel normal. It takes a while.
This notion of our living in the heart of God may not immediately draw you in. While I am now convinced that it lies at the heart of Jesus’s message and even that of the early apostles, I suspect these ideas might make many people nervous. They certainly did me.
It is not essential that anyone immediately embrace a Flip. It is far more important to give it serious consideration. In the weeks following the San Diego conference, I remembered verses I had memorized in my early days as a Christian. These words from the Bible suddenly were saying so much more than I had noticed before. Flips not only open new pathways, but they also help us reconsider what we have become comfortable with.
One of the Bible passages that kept coming back to me was actually a song sung by first-century followers of Jesus. It’s recorded in Colossians.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation,
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that
Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him —
whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood
of his cross.
From the start of the Jesus story, people were saying and sing ing, “All things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him.”
Like me, the early followers of Jesus were trying to live beyond the idea that God is in some places but not in others, in some people but not in other people, in some times but not in other times. Rather, all that exists is In God. All things are held together In God. And all of creation is being reconciled or seeking to live harmoniously with God.
Over time a passage from the apostle Paul has become one of my favorite constructs for understanding this. Paul said in one of his most famous sermons: “In God we live, move, and exist.”
We are In God.
What a Flip.
God is not a separate subject that we talk about or relate to through belief, behavior, faith, or practice. Much better than that, God is the very existence of all things. We are called to live congruently within the existence that holds all things together. This notion resonates with beauty, intrigue, majesty, and mystery.
When we are In God and not simply relating to God or serving God or walking with God, we are able to find not only our lives but all parts of our lives in the story of God.
Recently I was talking with some people for whom this was a new idea. Katelyn said, “This reminds me of a conversation I had the other day with a friend who is a Buddhist. She told me the reason she is a Buddhist is that Buddhism has a way to include pain and suffering. I feel like understanding ourselves In God also makes room for that. It seems like nothing is left out.”
Katelyn asked several questions about all this, maybe questions similar to ones you have. She said, “I like this idea, but is it really Christian?” I knew right where she was coming from—I have asked myself that same question.
I have come to believe that not only is it Christian, it is the primary understanding of God that we learn from Jesus, Paul, and others. For me, it’s the only way that Christianity makes sense.
This Flip can change your understanding of God and the way you live. I’m not suggesting a one-time shift in how you understand a theological idea. Rather, it is a journey of experiencing life In God. I have not yet worked out all the nuances and implications of this Flip. But I have great faith that there is as much to be gained by the act of Flipping as there is to sticking the landing.
When we open ourselves to a Flip, we enter a process of change. We can live, move, and exist as people empowered by the constancy of the love, care, and life of God. That might help explain why Jesus introduced so many of his Flips with the phrase “You have heard that it was said . . .” He was reminding us that, in the past, we were taught to think about God in a certain way.
Then Jesus would introduce a Flip: “But I say to you . . .” The Flip, if you take it to heart, can change your life by changing the way you understand God.