December 15, 2017

Dr. Mike Wittmer: Heaven Is A Place On Earth: The IM Interview

wittmer-220-px-wideAs we were discussing the subject of “Can We Be Too God-Centered?,” I remembered an excellent book I’d read a couple of years ago: Heaven Is A Place On Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters To God by Dr. Michael Wittmer.

I contacted Dr. Wittmer and he graciously agreed to a blog interview here at Internet Monk.com. Check out the interview, leave your comments and check out both of Dr. Wittmer’s books. Here’s the brief bio he provided.

“Mike Wittmer is Professor of Systematic Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Grand Rapids is the home of Rich DeVos, who owns the Orlando Magic, who bounced Cleveland from the NBA playoffs. Mike grew up in Northeast Ohio, and has been waiting his entire life for Cleveland to win a championship. Now, thanks to his Christian neighbor, the ordeal continues. Mike distracts himself from his cursed teams by spending time with his wife, Julie, and their three young children.”

1) Dr. Wittmer, it’s great to have you on board for the IM audience today. We’ve had a vigorous discussion on the subject of your first book and I immediately thought of you as we explored this subject of the relationship between Christianity’s view of creation and its view of God.

How would you identify the typical evangelical misunderstanding of the relationship between heaven and earth, God and human beings?

Many evangelicals think too little of God’s physical creation. They wrongly suppose that matter doesn’t matter or worse, that matter is the matter. This leads them to suppose that their spiritual soul is good and their physical body is bad and that a spiritual heaven is good and this physical earth is bad. So salvation becomes escapism. The goal of life is to slough off this body and troubled planet and go to heaven, where their divine-like souls can twinkle and shine forever. Of course, this is precisely what the Gnostics believed, but as I show in Heaven Is a Place on Earth, there is not one verse of Scripture which supports this view. Instead, the biblical hope, as N.T. Wright explains so well in Surprised by Hope, is the restoration of this creation.

2) An atheist might say something like this: Christianity claims that God is infinite in every way. This necessarily means that human life has no real value, since all value and importance belongs to God. Therefore, at the core of Christianity is a kind of self-hatred, i.e. you must hate yourself and do away with yourself so that God alone can matter forever. Why would anyone want to be part of a religion that zeroes out the significance of everything human?

Some evangelical leaders unwittingly support this idea when they leave the impression that God is selfish. They say that God exists solely for his own glory. He is like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the glory that we are obligated to give him. While they are right to say that the infinite God is the most real and valuable being in the universe, they are wrong to suggest that God is selfish.

Because God is Triune, a community of self-giving lovers, he is unable to be selfish. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sacrificially serve the others within the Godhead, so they create new others—you and me—to love. God did not have to create us, but given who God is—a community of self-giving lovers—it’s not shocking that he would do so.

Here’s the point: God is committed both to his glory (because God is one essence) and to our flourishing (because God is three persons who necessarily love the other). So God’s infinity is not an obstacle to my value, but because the most valuable being created and cares about me, I have real value. God’s infinite value does not cancel my finite value, rather it establishes it.

I wonder if an atheist can make a similar claim to human value. It seems that if there is no God and if this life is all there is, then we and whatever we do doesn’t ultimately count for much.

3)How would you relate these two ideas so that one does not overwhelm the other:

We are to glorify God in all things; therefore, how do you glorify God by drinking orange juice?

Answer a) We glorify God by not thinking about orange juice, but by thinking about God as the creator of orange juice. b) We glorify God by enjoying the orange juice.

I don’t like (a) at all. How can you enjoy your glass of orange juice if you’re not even thinking about it as you drink it? David Naugle told me recently that another esteemed evangelical leader so emphasizes God the Giver that he leaves the impression that we aren’t allowed to enjoy his gifts. We can’t enjoy orange juice because we like it, but must see through it to God above. Personally, I think we bring glory to God when we enjoy the juice and thank him for it. It’s not that complicated!

4) How does worship contribute to the right understanding of the relationship of God to the ordinary activities of life?

I wrote my dissertation on Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, and I concluded that we need to combine his “Christ above culture” and “Christ the transformer of culture” models. Christ above culture reminds us of the supernatural/natural distinction—that though we exist entirely on the natural level we will never be satisfied until we know and love God. This will keep us from the temptation of idolatry as we work to redeem culture and creation. Everything matters—because Christ is Lord of all, but not everything matters equally. Worship reminds us that the kingdom of God is the pearl of great price, worth more than anything else in the world (Matt. 13:45-46), and then it sends us into the world as yeast to transform it for our Lord (Matt. 13:33).

5) How would you counsel someone who said they were changing their major from engineering to theology because they wanted to glorify God with their lives?

I would inquire about their motivation. Do they think they will glorify God less as an engineer? If so, they don’t understand the Christian worldview. Every so often I meet students who come to seminary from this wrong, Platonic motivation. Actually, it’s a big reason why I decided to enter the ministry when I was in high school. So God can use wrong motives for good, but it’s best to clear this up, as I do with my students, and assure them that they may well bring glory to God as a pastor, but they may bring him just as much glory in a secular field. I teach them to find their calling by asking What am I good at?; What do I enjoy doing? And what does the world need? If you can find where these lines intersect, you can know that whatever you do is a calling from God, whether that is preaching a sermon or drawing a blueprint.

6) Someone once said that we ought not try to be more religious than God. Bonhoeffer enigmatically wrote about “religionless Christianity.” Are these ideas useful?

I have said that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. He is 0% angel. So Jesus did not come to turn us into angels who are constantly engaged in spiritual activities, but he came to enable us to thrive in our human lives. The Christian faith is an earthly, material faith. The physical world is both the object of God’s creation and the scene of his redemption. There is no salvation without a physical incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. So yes, evangelicals who sing the Platonic line (and they are many) are ironically attempting to be more spiritual than God. This was the Corinthian problem. They thought they were too spiritual to have sex (1 Cor. 7) and believe in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15). Paul told them that they are so spiritual that they are no longer Christian! (1 Cor. 15:12-17).

I’m not sure that we know enough about what Bonhoeffer meant to say whether we agree with him, but I do think that some are appropriating a similar idea in dangerous ways. The declaration “Everything is spiritual” is true if we mean that everything in the world matters in God’s kingdom, but it’s dangerously false if it is used to flatten the distinction between the natural and supernatural realms. Gathering for corporate worship is not the same as having a conversation in a coffee shop; reading Scripture is not the same as reading Charles Dickens; and prayer is not the same as twittering. If we forget the transcendent value of God, we will also lose the value of everything else. If everything is spiritual, then nothing is.

7) Have Catholics, in general, done better in articulating and practicing the relationship of God and creation than Protestants?

I think that Catholics have been just as influenced by Plato as Protestants. The Catholic hope is for the beatific vision, an unmediated gaze into the glory of God which apparently happens in some heavenly state. I may have missed it, but I am not aware that the Roman Catholic Church has done much with the biblical hope of a new earth, at least in comparison to what we find in the Kuyperian tradition. Historically, the Reformational worldview first took root in Luther, who rebelled against the Catholic dualism (celibacy trumps marriage; poverty trumps money) when he renounced his monastic vows and all attempts at a higher “spiritual” life and became an ordinary, married pastor. Since Protestants from the beginning had a creation-affirming impulse, I’m reluctant to say that Catholics have a leg up on this one.

8] Tell us about your other book and about any other projects you are involved in?

My latest book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, attempts to bring some biblical sanity to the emergent/conservative conversation. I address the big questions that many people are asking, questions about salvation, other religions, hell, homosexuality, Scripture, and truth. Each chapter begins with the conservative extreme that I grew up with, presents the understandable emergent reaction, but then shows how many of them react too far. I don’t argue for middle ground between emergent and conservative extremes but call the church to embrace what is right in each. We must love like the liberals say and value right doctrine like the conservatives are known for. As John writes: his command is to believe in the Son and to love one another (1 John 3:23). It’s not an either/or but a both/and.

My next projects are still in the planning stage, but I may try my hand at an evangelical assessment of Karl Barth and/or a book which explores how we might keep our faith in a secular and pluralistic world. I haven’t yet found an 80’s pop song title to appropriately cheapen the content of either project, but I’m hoping that something will pop into my head before I’m finished. Everyone needs a shtick, and though I hit on mine by accident, now that I’ve started I feel pressure to keep it going. At least my books come with a soundtrack!

Comments

  1. sue kephart says:

    Ed,

    I am called to worship God. I can do that alone or in commuity. Part of that call is in community.

    I understand your mental frustration regarding the division of the Church. Which worship is “right”. I do not know. God loves variety. Look around at His creation.

    Corporate worship is the basis of my Spiritual practice. God created us as social beings. My South American neighbor says their is no word for being alone in his native tongue. There is also need for silence and solitude and service to others and so on. For me weekly corporate worship is the foundation for the rest. What is your Spiritual practice foundation?

  2. sue kephart says:

    Also Ed,

    I think we sometimes need to examine ourselves to see if we have an authority problem. I say this because it is something I need to keep constantly before me. If we can not be obedient to the Church authority that God has placed over us then we have little chance of being obedient to the Lord.

  3. “What is your Spiritual practice foundation?” – Sue.

    You asked, so let me see if I can answer your question (with apologies for hijacking this thread with my life story).

    I was raised in the Southern Baptist church from birth, primarily in Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama. My father was an ordained deacon and the son of an ordained Southern Baptist missionary / later pastor. I spent my entire life up until leaving home for college in the Sunday AM/PM and Wednesday night life of a typical SBC kid growing up in the sixties and seventies. I am eternally grateful and appreciative of the example of my parents and for all my parents did in exposing me to the gospel. I chose to give my life to Christ of my own accord at the age of 11. When I married after college, my wife and I maintained an active membership in various SBC churches for the first 22 years of our marriage. As I said earlier, I walked away from regular Sunday attendance about a year ago.

    I was ordained as a deacon at the age of 26. I taught adult Sunday school of about 5 years and spent about 10 years in various choirs in the churches I have belonged in addition to serving as a deacon, a myriad of committee, and other volunteer positions. I’m told I am a gifted high tenor. I was one of the “in” folks at the highest levels of lay service – you know, one of the ones asked to open Sunday night service in prayer and such.

    I worshiped as a member of a Southern Baptist church in Germany for 3+ years. I have likewise worshiped with Nepali Christians while doing volunteer work there for a month in 2007. At various times in my life I have participated in worship in Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and non-denominational services while visiting friends or after moving to a new area and looking for a church. My wife and I have tended to gravitate back to that which we were raised on, namely the SBC.

    Don’t confuse my lack of Sunday AM attendance with a lack of appreciation of biblical authority. I continue to maintain strong ties with my church and meet weekly with one of the pastoral staff to receive his counsel on the questions I have and to serve in other ways (engineering design work for church projects, maintenance, video tape production of church events, etc.). Right now I am rewriting the administrative procedures for my church’s fine arts school.

    You seem to think I have some chip on my shoulder and think anyone that is a regular, upstanding member of a church in good standing is somehow out of touch with my “enlightened” views. If I have given that impression – forgive me. That is not my intention. This is not about someone else’s journey; it is about my journey and I only want to express the frustration, confusion, insights and questions I encounter. I am thankful for this forum to express them.

  4. sue kephart says:

    Ed,

    By Spiritual practice I meant things like your prayer life, study, service, self denile and so on. Although I enjoyed the Bio. I like hearing peoples’ Spiritual journey and also their religious journey.

    I am glad you are in touch with your Church and Pastors and continue your church work. May I suggest looking for answers regarding worship outside your SBC tradtion. I am not suggeting that the SBC has anything wrong. I am saying sometimes we need to open up to see some new realities that give us new insights insteed of looking at it with the same eyes.

    May God Bless your journey.

  5. Sue,
    Since you are obviously looking for the “a-ha” hole in my spiritual life that would somehow explain my aberrant behavior I will be a snot and not answer.

  6. sue kephart says:

    Ed,

    I am not looking for anything. Sorry if you took it that way. I don’t think your behavior is aberrant. I am just curious as to why you find Sunday worship unsatisfactory and also trying to be helpful.

  7. sue kephart says:

    ok great: not many are reading this anymore so I can be a bit piggy!!! I have been reading this over trying to figure out why some are having difficulty with Sunday morning worship.

    Years ago my husband and I made a commitment that we would go to ‘church’ on Sunday unless we were (as we say) throwing up. Why? It is a spiritual discipline. It’s how we follow Jesus. We do spiritual disciplines because we are His disciples.
    So on Sunday we go. If we are at Gethsemani we go to Mass. If we are with his family we are Methodist. Some times we are Baptist or non-demons but mostly we are Lutherans.

    We do other spiritual disciplines ie daily Lectio, morning prayer and compline. We help the poor and give service where we see the need. We are great family celebrationist!!! We seek guidance from Sp. direction and Spiritual friendship. We spend time in solitude and silence and centering prayer. We seek retreat opportunities. I teach centering prayer to those who want to learn and we are both involved with small group ministry. He has a full time job and I have a part time small business. We do church work for our congregation. There is more but I have said enough.

    Why? It’s what makes our lives work. We love the Lord and desire to be His followers. I can’t wait to get to church on Sunday. To worship and receive Him in the Eucharist. I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to be there.

    Peace,
    Sue

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Some evangelical leaders unwittingly support this idea when they leave the impression that God is selfish. They say that God exists solely for his own glory. He is like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the glory that we are obligated to give him. — Dr Wittmer

    Isn’t that the same “bloated spider” analogy that Lewis uses to describe Satan in the preface to The Screwtape Letters?