Monday, December 7, 2015

Reviewing Philip Yancey's "Reaching for the Invisible God"

Philip Yancey is possibly my favorite writer on theology, and that is despite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that he often doesn’t answer his own questions. 

Some readers might take comfort from reading theologians who seem to have it all figured out, the spiritual optimists who know God has a plan for everything and never doubt either His presence or their own faith. Spiritual optimists aren’t wrong, but as a natural pessimist it often leaves me feeling like a failure because although I know these truths from the Bible, I so often don’t feel their reality in my life. God’s presence is nebulous, elusive, and as for my own faith…actually, perhaps the least said about that debacle the better.

So when I see books written under the titles Where is God When it Hurts?, Prayer: Does it Makes a Difference?, The Jesus I Never Knew, Disappointment With God, and Reaching for an Invisible God, even the titles are encouraging. Not the questions they raise, but the fact that there is someone else out there asking them. Every book by Philip Yancey that I’ve read has been authored with humility, sensitivity, and (somewhat oxymoronic considering the sensitivity) brutal honesty. 

In the latest book I read, Reaching for the Invisible God, Yancey poses the question of how we can truly know a Being so far above us. It’s a daunting question to understand, much less to answer.  It made me reexamine the way I think about God. My conception of God is so often lazy and small. “Wrong,” to describe it in a syllable. And there is no possibility, at least in my lifetime, of having a complete and right view of who God is, because He is so much bigger and different and pure than I have the capacity to imagine. This causes another problem, Yancey points out: If God is beyond our comprehension, how can we mere humans relate to Him?

In a few of the chapters, Yancey goes through a progression of a believer’s relationship with God, titling the chapters “Child, Adult, Parent.” It seems to imply that we are to relate to God in a similar way as we relate to other people. This implication shocked me. Could it really be that simple?  Isn’t that a bit disrespectful, approaching God on our level when He is so much higher than all creation?  But since we cannot go upward to Him, is there really any other way to approach Him, than on our own lowly plane? 

I then thought about how I relate to others. I’m so wrapped up in my thoughts and feelings, and am fully aware that outside of myself, there are other similarly self-contained, self-centered worlds living in the brains of the people around me. In a way, everyone but me is an “outsider.” As a child I was not aware of this. I was the main character of my reality, and the feelings and inner workings of the “side characters” around me were merely B plots. I put little effort into figuring out “how people tick” as a result. 

Now, as an adult, I have a greater longing for close relationships, friendships, empathy and understanding. Perhaps it’s part of being an introvert, but I put a great deal of meditation on my relations with others. God certainly deserves at least that much thought and effort, not to be treated as the ironically-named deus ex machina, a tool for me to use to soothe a troubled conscience or deep loneliness. He is a Person, more than any other person I’ll ever know, and therefore worth every bit of reaching I can muster.

Like most writers on Biblical matters, the Bible is Yancey’s main resource, but he also utilizes his background of journalism to illustrate deep theological points with memorable anecdotes from traveling, personal memory, literature, history, even movies. It’s a sort of collage, each piece different, but creating a cohesive picture. He points to other Christians who have struggled in their faith, not as failures, but as inspiration to keep on running the race that is set before us.  

Above all, Yancey points to God Himself. Because while it might seem an insurmountable ordeal to reach for an invisible God, the important thing is that the gulf between us is not insurmountable.  Because He is reaching back.

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