True Religion Is Below the Surface

In an article for the Stillspeaking Daily Devotional UCC minister Dwight Lee Wolter, who did not enter church until he was 34 years old, noted that after visiting many different churches and religious and spiritual groups he decided he needed to grow some roots. As he puts it, he did not want to be a spiritual water skier, bouncing along on the surface from one faith experience to another. He realized that he needed to be a spiritual scuba diver, exploring faith in the depths. He believed it was necessary to explore deep into the well of one’s faith, rather than just skipping along the surface.

Surface religion is often the kind of religion that is death dealing, whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or whatever. But the deeper we go the more life producing it becomes.

Richard Rohr has argued that what makes something secular or sacred is determined by whether one lives on the surface of it or in the depths of it. He says, “Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you get into the depths of it—even your sin.”

Think about it. To follow our sin—our addictions, our biases, our ill feelings, our anger—down into the depths, beyond our denials, deferrals, and defiance, beyond our lies, excuses, rationalizations, and justifications, is to find God there. The Spirit dwells in our deepest self.

To stay on the surface of religion, to stay on the surface of sacred or holy things often leads to using these sacred things in death dealing ways, the way Paul did when he was a persecutor of Christians.

On the surface we tend to miss the point. On the surface the need for real change gets obscured by endless debate about right doctrines and proper rites and holy practices.

In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner puts it this way: He says that our original self, our self with the print of God’s thumb still upon it, the most essential part of who we are is buried deep in all of us as a source of wisdom, strength, and healing. This is the self we are born with, and then, says Buechner, the world does its work.

The world sets in to molding and making us into what the world would like us to be. And because we have to survive in the world, we try to comply. We try to make ourselves into something the world will approve and applaud.

In the process of living out this story, the original self gets buried so deep most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead, we live out of all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.

When the Apostle Paul met the living Christ he also met his deepest self (see Gal. 1:11-24). This is the self that is in union with God. This is the self that we are created to be. Our deepest self is committed to life, not death, love, not hate, forgiveness, not revenge, reconciliation, not alienation, compassion, not malice, kindness, not meanness, goodness, not evil.

When Paul lived on the surface of his religion he was a persecutor and a murderer, intolerant of those in his religion who did not conform to the norms of his brand of Judaism. But after he encountered the living Christ, after his deeper experience of God he sees the world in a completely different way and his life is set on a new course.  

Part of what is involved in moving from the surface where the powers of death are swirling around into the depths where life is generated, where our deepest self resides, is being able to open all our lives up to God.

I love the way Buechner puts it: “We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human . . .”

The key is opening all this rich human compost up to God by inviting God to help us sort it all out. We have nothing to fear, because in Christ we meet a totally compassionate God.

Albert Schweitzer was an amazing man. In his life he was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work.

In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Fred Craddock tells about the time he first read the book. He was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds. Fred was in Knoxville and read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.

Fred bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of Christ. After the concert Fred was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a while Dr. Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, sort of like the Einstein of the religious world. He was holding a cup of tea and some refreshments. Fred was waiting for his chance to have at him.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.”

Fred said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Fred remarks, “And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” I suspect that Dr. Craddock dug a little deeper into his faith that day.

Wherever you find compassion and care for the sick and hurting, wherever you find people working for peace, welcoming the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downtrodden, caring for the most vulnerable, loving the enemy, working for the common good, standing up for equality and fairness, you will find Christ, you will discover the power of the gospel, the power of life at work in the midst of death.  

The power of the gospel that Paul encountered on the Damascus Road is the power to bring life out of death, and if we go deep enough we will set it loose and it will set us free.


  1. Thank you so much Chuck for reminding me again of what it's all about. Thanks for helping me pull back the layers and see God's desire for me in a clearer way! You are truly one of God's gifts.


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