Now that I'm "between churches," struggling to figure out in what context I'm most inclined toward Christian worship and discipleship, I find myself revisiting seemingly solved questions. How important to vital faith, for example, is the experience of a direct encounter with God?
When I was twenty, that question was the ball game, but prior to that, I'll be honest, it wasn't even an academic question to me. I didn't associate belief in God with encounter of God until college, with its rampant evangelical subculture.
Since then, direct encounter being the ball game, my theology has coalesced around it--rightly so, I'm generally inclined to think. After all, the scriptures tell us two things far apart from each other but intimately connected to each other: (1) human beings are created in the image of God and are "inspired" (life breathed into) by the Holy Spirit, the breath of God; (2) Jesus--Son of God, second person of the Trinity and image of the invisible God--took on flesh and dwelt among us. By God's incarnation but no less by God's entrusting us with his image, the Bible tells us, our humanity is intimately and uniquely connected to God's divinity.
And yet, over the years I've also encountered plenty of people whose faith is not dependent on an acknowledged direct encounter with God. Some of those people think people like me are being weird or silly when we use language of "personal relationship" or "direct encounter"; others are downright traumatized by it. One person's innocent testimony of God's goodness becomes another person's crisis of faith: "That's never happened to me; maybe God doesn't exist--or worse, maybe God doesn't like me."
So I find myself wondering lately how important touch is to faith. Can we really believe without it? What does it add to our faith experience?
I've been on a Peter Rollins kick lately. He's the author of several books, and part of his approach to writing and communicating is to play with Scripture. I've written about that elsewhere, but his example continues to be a helpful thought experiment for me. So below please find an imagined mashup of four Bible stories: a bleeding woman who sneaks up on Jesus; a priestly guide for dealing with bleeding women; a spoken encounter between Jesus and another woman; and a wrestling match between God and an unlikely patriarch. I doubt it solves the question of how important touch is to faith, but maybe it can help us think a little more about it.
A large crowd followed and pressed around Jesus. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she went to see him, but the mass of the crowd, and her reputation among the people as unclean, meant that she could not get near him. So she climbed a tree and stared at him from afar off, praying silently for liberation from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. But there was the press of the crowd, and he was expected at the home of Jairus, whose daughter was dying, so he continued on without stopping to discover where his power had gone. And so the woman’s healing passed without comment.
The woman, knowing what had happened to her, trembled as she climbed down from the tree and made her way to the local priest. He was familiar with her long suffering, and on learning of her miraculous healing, he praised God and sent her out from the community for seven days. On the eighth day she returned, bringing two young pigeons to the priest. He sacrificed one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering on her behalf. In this way the priest made atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. And she went away praising God.
Several weeks later, Jesus returned to her town, to check in on the daughter of Jairus. Once again the crowd followed and pressed around him, but this time the woman entered the fray with boldness and interrupted Jesus as he walked. “Hosanna to the son of David!” She shouted toward him. “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!”
At once Jesus realized that the power that had gone out from him those weeks ago had gone to her. “Woman,” he told her, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
But though his disciples pressured her to move on, she refused to leave until he laid hands on her and blessed her. And as he did, the bleeding returned.
And she went away praising God.