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He Pitches His Tent next door to Us

A Muslim teacher in India once talked to me about his search for truth. He had been an Imam in a small mosque until his congregation split on a matter of ritual orthodoxy. One of the issues was this: While leading prayers should the Imam hold his arms crossed in front of his chest? Or should he keep them on both sides of his body? The Imam, whom I will call “Ahmed", left his post when it dawned on him how people claimed to know “the Will of God” without any real evidence. It shook his faith in Islam.

“I decided to study other religions”, he told me. “I spoke to Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and Christians. I attended prayer services. I listened to scripture commentaries and sermons. I tried to follow the advice of various spiritual guides. I was like a man in a thick fog ready to join any passer-by in the hope that he would know the way. . . ” As far as I know, Ahmed is still searching. Having lost his previous certainties, he has become a casualty of the world’s religious confusion.

If we admit that we are walking in a fog, would it be so impossible to imagine God himself taking an interest and walking at our side? I know it sounds incredible; but then, are not life itself, and our individuality and so many other facts, incredible? If God is my origin and the source of my search, why would he not show his face to me in a more personal way?

So far I have spoken about God in somewhat general terms, but to do justice to the topic of this book that will not be enough. The time has come for me to share my deepest feelings and most personal experiences as a Christian. I want to explain why belief in God helps me, confirms me. I want to express how close I know him to be, in spite of my inability to understand him fully. I want to put into words why it is meaningful to me to be a Christian and not just a general believer. How shall I begin?

Fundamentalist Christians would probably expect me here to produce a “testimony”, to narrate “how Jesus saved me”. What I want to do is different. I am not comfortable in the company of fundamentalists, even if they are Christians. I respect their sincerity and admire their zeal. I am sure that my own experience agrees in essential points with theirs. Yet we are poles apart in other respects. I shudder at their contempt for the beautiful religious traditions outside Christianity. I cannot stand their overbearing certainties. I am suspicious of their charismatic enthusiasms and their scriptural literal-mindedness. I may well have found the same treasure that they have, but without losing my identity as a seeker, a man of this world, a realist — I hope — with both my feet on the ground.

God became human in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus he made himself known to us and offered us healing and love. Incredible though these beliefs may be, they are, I am convinced, absolutely true. And I know this not only because I possess rational proofs for them but because they give new meaning to my life. What I appreciate most of all is that, while God could only speak to me, heal me and love me in his reality as “the Other”, he managed to do so “from within”. Even in his transcendence he affirmed his immanence. Let me explain this more at length

So far in this book we have focused on God as the origin of everything we are, as the source from which we spring. We find God also in “otherness”. Imagine I were to think, in presumption or plain stupidity, that the world belongs to me; that I can subject the whole of reality to my thought and influence. Soon I would find out my mistake. For the world proves to be different from what I might have thought or liked. I meet opposition, suffering, death. I meet other people who have their own needs and desires that vary from mine. I have to come to terms with this “otherness”. It challenges me. If I pursue this “otherness” to its ultimate root, I find out that it can only be God, the origin of all individuality, the radically “other”. (1)

I need “the other”, because as long as I am thinking my own thoughts, I am speaking a monologue. Only when I meet “the other” do I enter into a dialogue and engage in direct contact with reality. Psychologists have shown that we need this dialogue for our full development. We need more than to experience participation with all reality through the warmth and security offered by a mother who caresses us and feeds us; we also need to meet the challenge of a father who speaks to us and makes demands. Facing us in “otherness” the father helps us discover our own identity in opposition to other realities in our world. (2)

There can be no doubt that our two most fundamental experiences of God—the immanent approach of oneness and the transcendent approach of autonomy—are based on these deep and early psychological stages of our development. (3) A healthy relationship to God requires both. The feeling of closeness we had to our mother, of snuggling against her and sucking her breast, released in us a basic capability for trust and mystical experience. Similarly, seeing our father’s face and hearing his voice released in us the ability to act as an autonomous and yet responsible person. The contribution of the father is great: (4) it begins real human communication; it initiates the process of giving and receiving mutual love; it offers the possibility of healing through reconciliation. It is only through an “I-Thou” relationship that we become fully human. (5)

Now, if such is the case it becomes plausible that God if he is a god of love, should at some time or other make himself known in a “father function”. What I mean is this: as the creator within us and the inner judge, God is somehow exercising his “mother function”. We are comforted and reassured in feeling one with the source of all being. But if God wants me to discover my own identity as a person whom he loves, he could hardly leave my impressions about him to the “otherness” which I experience in this world. Though some people love me others do not. Though some events bring me happiness, other ones sadden and discourage me. Left to myself I could not help but wonder what intentions God, “the other”, has in my regard. This in turn would throw serious doubt on my own basic respectability and lovability as an autonomous person. To put it plainly: how will I ever know that God really loves me as a person, if he does not take the trouble to speak to me and say: “I love you!”?

And this is precisely what I, as a Christian, believe God has done. Through Jesus Christ he made himself known as a person interested in each one of us. He offers us healing and forgiveness—something we could never presume without his explicit assurance and explicit affirmation. He also tells us, what we might have guessed but could never know for certain, that he is love; that he invites us to a personal relationship.

Love comes from God.
Only the person who loves is a child of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God
for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

I stand at the door and knock.
If you respond to my voice and open the door,
I will enter your space and share your food;
and you will share with me. (Revelation 3:20)

The whole of biblical revelation, starting from the Old Testament right through to its climax in Jesus Christ, proclaims this one exciting and meaningful message: God is not just a nondescript impersonal power; like me he is a person who knows and loves; he offers me his personal friendship.

Since he is infinity itself, eternal, utterly transcendent, what would have been more natural than to expect an overwhelming message “from above”, a manifestation of stark power that would establish his “otherness” for good? Such, at least, would have been our human thinking. True to his own nature as the inner wellspring of all that exists, God chose a different path. Even while revealing his otherness, he wanted to approach us “from within”. He did not want his word of revelation to contradict his immanent tenderness as creator. So what did he do? He spoke to me, healed me, loved me as a human person.

Some people have contended that incarnation, God-becoming-human, is no more than a religious dream. It originated in the fantasies and longings of human beings deprived of “human” contact with God, they tell us. And, in a manner of speaking, they are right. People were looking forward to an incarnation, as the history of various religions shows. It was natural for human beings reaching out to God to imagine that he would manifest himself to them in human form. But what could have remained just a dream, God turned into reality in a way no one could have anticipated. Is this so strange, if we remember that it is God in the first place who inspires people’s deepest religious longings?

The claim that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate must be substantiated with evidence; as I have done elsewhere. (6) What concerns me here is that, given such evidence, it becomes entirely plausible in the context of God’s communication with humankind. Indeed, if he wanted to make himself known to us as someone who loves us and heals us, the way of the incarnation as believed in by Christians, makes excellent sense. In Jesus Christ, we believe, God himself shows his face. Both the real humanity of Jesus and the identification with God are required to make the belief tenable.

I say “identification with God” because only this renders the incarnation real. This is what the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus entails. In him “the (eternal, uncreated) Word became a human being and pitched his tent among us, filled with grace and truth. We have seen his (divine) glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son of the Father” (John 1:14)

Jesus Christ,
though he was in the form of God,
did not reckon equality with God a thing to hold on to.
He emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant
by being born in the likeness of a human being.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself even more
and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

Whatever Jesus said, was said by God. Whatever Jesus did, was God’s doing. He was God among us (Matthew 1:23)

At the same time he was truly human. He had a spirit and a body as we have. He had to grow and learn, eat and drink, work and sleep, succeed and fail as we have to. He possessed all our weaknesses except sin (Hebrew 4:15). He shared our human fate of suffering and persecution. He even died a painful death at the hands of ruthless opponents. He could not have been more human, and yet it was precisely his human life that has become the most revealing and powerful image of God’s love for us. It is the human Jesus who became the reflection of God’s radiance on earth, the sea! of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). It was Jesus as a human person who was constituted son of God in power. (Romans 1:4).

God made his love known to us by this that he sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. Love did not come about by our love of God, but by his love of us and by his sending his Son to be healing for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

God showed his love for us in this that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8)

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son in order that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

For centuries people have looked at the incarnation as something from the outside; as they considered creation and judgement. The incarnation was presented as God leaving his eternal, distant abode to step into our own small world. The concept was partly based on biblical imagery: Jesus came “from above” and “ascended again” to return to his Father. The vocabulary of his “coming” and “going” could so easily stress his other-worldly origin. But it is not the only, nor perhaps the most accurate, way of looking on the incarnation.

Suppose we approach the whole process from within? Suppose we see in God not the architect, but rather the inner soul and life-force that produced the whole universe? Everything that exists would exhibit some of the exuberance of his being: his beauty, his power, his unimaginable riches and splendour. God’s own nature as knower and lover would shine forth even more clearly in human beings who carry his image in their spirit. Would it be so surprising if in the course of time this same ebullient self-revealing God were to express his love and concern by investing one of those human beings with an overwhelming measure of himself? The incarnation, thus seen as God’s special presence erupting within humankind, would be in line with God’s progressive self-manifestation through creation. Though always remaining a free gift the incarnation would complete and fulfil what he had already begun by causing created things to spring into existence.

This is what the New Testament actually teaches in the letter to the Colossians. Even though Jesus Christ appeared millions of years after the beginning of creation, he was there, in God’s thoughts, from the start. He was the climax and summit of God’s self-revelation. In him everything else God was doing in the universe would become meaningful.

Christ is the image of the invisible God,
the first-born heir of all creation.
For with a view to him all things were created,
in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones, powers, lords
or other spiritual authorities.
All things were created through him and for him.
He comes before all other things.
He is the head of his body, the Church.
He is the beginning, the first to be risen from the dead,
that in everything he might be pre-eminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Colossians 1:15-19)

We should remember that this confession was written with our human earth in mind. To other intelligent creatures in distant parts of the universe God, the inner creator, may well have revealed himself in other climactic incarnations. To us, human beings, he revealed himself most fully through Jesus Christ. By doing so he respected our human autonomy. He spoke to us, healed us, loved us as one of us.

But how does the incarnation affect us? Does it give us newness of life? What does it consist in? Can we say that this new life too is something he creates in us from within? We will see about this in the next chapter.


1. E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh 1969.

2. E.H. Erikson, Identity, New York 1968, pp. 96- 100.

3. H. Faber, “Wisselende Patronen van religieuze ervaring”, Tijdschrift voor Theologie 11 (1971) 225-48; A. Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, pp. 134-6.

4. Obviously the two parents exercise both a mother and a father function. I retain the exclusive formulation for clarity’s sake.

5. The concept of the “I- Thou” in a religious context has been worked out well by M. Buber, I and Thou, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh 1937; “The Eclipse of God”, in Religion and Ethics, Harper and Row, New York 1951.

6. J. Wijngaards, Jesus For Ever. Facts and Faith, Catholic Truth Society, London 1987.

Next? Go to:

His Spirit Flows in Our Veins

The Way in to GOD

Creator in us

Inner Judge

Beyond thought



This course is based upon the book God Within Us by John Wijngaards and published by Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1988..

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