Surprised by God (2018), by Chris E. W. Green – A Book Review
Sometimes I have found myself strangely moved while reading one of the classics written well before I was born. I remember wading through the 1315 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s, War and Peace (1869), one winter a few decades ago. By spring I felt my world had expanded immensely and my self-perception as a modern pilgrim had been altered in ways I am still trying to figure out. Great writers of all times have a way of doing this to people.
But sometimes I come across a short book written yesterday that stops me in my tracks long enough to connect the dots on some important faith and life issues. I don’t even remember what prompted me to order Chris Green’s 86 page book, Surprised by God. In any case, it arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago. And when I began to read it I was soon reminded of the saying that “precious things sometimes come in small packages.”
The back cover informed me that Green is an Associate Professor of Theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland. Would this be a standard Pentecostal tract of sorts, I wondered. What had I gotten myself into, I thought.
It didn’t take long to realize that Green was drawing from a wide spectrum of writers including some of the early church fathers like Maximus the Confessor, John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo, as well as a raft of Christian mystics like Bernard of Clarvaux, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila and Simone Weil. On top of that Green is constantly in dialogue with later theological luminaries like Karl Barth, Soren Kierkegaard and Diedrich Bonhoeffer as well as more recent theologians like David Bentley Hart, C. S. Lewis and especially Rowan Williams.
A common thread running throughout the book is that of contemplation; specifically how proper contemplation can help us understand God. Indeed, the sub-title of the book is, “How and Why What We Think about the Divine Matters.” And it seemed to me that every sentence had special significance. The challenge for me was what parts not to underline!
Each of the twelve short chapters features a specific lens through which to look at God and to understand how God works in the world. It would be a good exercise to write a concise summary paragraph about the focus of each chapter. I will focus mostly on two chapters that had an impact on me.
In Chapter One, “What to Do When the World Is on Fire,” Green makes a strong case for contemplation as the only appropriate response to a chaotic world. He challenges the notion that contemplation is mostly an interior exercise for one’s own satisfaction; instead, he says, “…contemplation frees us for worldly living.” Of course it is an interior experience, he states: “In contemplation, the Holy Spirit broods sweetly over my spirit, slowly and secretly freeing me from ‘slavery to cravings and fantasies.'” But always, Green insists, it is not for personal satisfaction alone, but “…to find ourselves through losing ourselves in God’s enjoyment of our neighbor.” And further, “We do not pray, hidden away in spiritual ecstasies, while the world burns…we are strengthened to live as Christ lives, giving ourselves fearlessly with him for the life of the world.” All this is a helpful step in my attempts at contemplation – knowing that it is not something I do so much for myself as for the world!
In Chapter Two, “How (Not) to Believe in God,” Green suggests that we sometimes come to know God best by letting go of our ideas about God that are false. He quotes Meister Eckhart’s prayer, “God (as you really are) rid us of God (as we imagine you to be).” If we think we have grasped God, we likely haven’t because, “God is always greater.” He calls this the way of negation; others have referred to it as the “via negativa.” First, we learn that God does not exist but God simply is his own existence. That is he is greater than what is, as the scriptures declare, “God is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Knowing this keeps us from making anything that “is” into an idol. Second, we learn that God is not sometimes present and sometimes absent. “No feelings, however profound, ever bring us nearer to God or God to us. In the same way, no lack of feelings can take us away from God – in fact, God is nearest to us when we are least aware of it.” Third, we come to see that God has no needs, which means that God cannot be manipulated. So we can say, “God creates and saves for nothing but our good. All that he does, like all that he is, is gift.”
And so the book continues for another ten chapters, each one providing some profound insight about the nature of God. I will conclude with a few random quotes that struck me as significant.
“Our desires are not so much out-and-out corrupt as ever-so-slightly bent.”
“Like Mary and Martha, we must come to know that we are called not to enjoy the presence but to be that presence for others.”
“Jesus weeps because he is taking into himself human experience in its fullness.”
“In the words of Christoph Blumhardt, every one of us must undergo two conversions: first, from the world to God; then from God to the world.”
“Freedom simply is in obedience and obedience in freedom.”
“Jesus wants to be dependent upon us as he was on Mary, the God-bearer.”
“Merton observes that we hate thinking of ourselves as beginners, and yet in the life of faith and prayer we are always only beginners.”
Speaking for myself, virtually every one of the 86 pages of this small book brought some new thought or perspective about faith and life so that, indeed, I was “Surprised by God.”