Below is an interview which I conducted with author and speaker Dave Hickman regarding his new release ‘Closer Than Close’ (a book which attempts to bring “union with Christ” back to the forefront and comes highly recommended by me).
Paul: You did something pretty rare in that you dealt with many abstract theological ideas in a way that a non-academic can easily understand. Was it a struggle to maintain such readability?
Dave: It was very, very difficult; I knew it would be. Almost every book on the topic of “union” with Christ is written for an academic audience. Even “contemporary” books that attempt to be more accessible are still either too long, too complex, or written with an overbearing seminary professor in the back of the authors mind. I took two years to research the doctrine of union with Christ, and in doing so, read dangerously close to every book I could find on the topic. I then took six months to process the information and filter it down into the most important “big idea” of the doctrine. I then took another six months to actually present that “big idea” in writing using personal stories, popular analogies, Scripture, and witty examples. In the end, the book is 168 pages that I (hope) average, ordinary Christians (like me) can understand and appreciate. Fredrick Buchner once said that writing is like, “opening a vein.” For me, writing Closer Than Close was more like trying to squeeze a pumpkin back into a seed. It was very hard—gut-wrenching to be honest.
Paul: I was struck by how Trinitarian your book was in that you zoned in on God as three persons with three individual roles. Can you shed some light on your own personal journey to better understanding the Trinity in this way?
Dave: Growing up in the evangelical church, I heard a LOT about Jesus. A LOT. I rarely, however, heard much about the role or persons of the Father and Holy Spirit. Because Jesus was the sole focus of the Christian faith, the Father and the Son drifted off into obscurity in my mind. This served to divorce Jesus (in my thinking and faith experience) from the life and love of the Father and Spirit, and ultimately from my own human experience. In short, the “union” of the Holy Three was not center stage, but secondary to my “personal relationship” with the second person of the Trinity (i.e. Jesus). When I discovered salvation as a “union” with Christ, it naturally led me to awaken the beauty and wonder of the union God has eternally shared with himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. This is the union of all unions. Rediscovering my personal and corporate union with Christ led me into a much more Trinitarian understanding of God in faith and practice.
Paul: Throughout the book an underlying theme is to rest in Christ, not self-effort. Why do you feel some Christian leaders are weary of emphasizing this?
Dave: Because, as one pastor fearfully asked, “If Christians are already as “close” to Jesus as possible, what’s the motivation for ongoing discipleship?” **Facepalm** The wide-swath of evangelical soteriology presents discipleship as the ongoing and perpetual attempt to get “closer and closer” to Jesus over time. This can be achieved, per most evangelical expressions of sanctification, by doing things you “should” (i.e. reading the Bible, praying, and going to church) and NOT doing the things you shouldn’t (smoking, drinking, and hanging out with people who do). This has led many into the dark (and never-ending) abyss of performance-based acceptance, and a works based proximity to the person of Jesus. The “pastoral” concern is that if salvation is communicated as a perfect union between the believer and Jesus, then Christians may become apathetic in their spiritual “walk.” While certainly logical, this is simply not scriptural OR practical. This “proximity” based logic, as some theologians have argued, is rooted in fear and control. To show this logic wanting, I like to point to my union to my wife, Monica. When I asked Monica to marry me and become “one” with me 14 years ago, it was not so I might have the opportunity to become apathetic in loving her and serving her. No! In fact, the opposite is true. I asked Monica to become “one” with me so that I may understand her (and myself) MORE and come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of my “one flesh” union with her! Therefore, the “spiritual life” is like the “married life”: It’s the ongoing process of deepening my awareness and appreciation of the union I already share with God the Father, Son, and Spirit, NOT the process by which I strive to become more and more “one” with God over time. In the words of Richard Rohr, the Christian life is one of having “already arrived.” If this is true, then the pursuit of God is over; we have been “found IN him.” We have been made one with Christ, not 99.9% “one” with the hope of being faithful enough to one day become perfectly one with him. Awakening to the freedom of our ever-now union with Christ changes our motivation for prayer, scripture reading, and the like. How could it not? Instead of approaching these disciplines with a dreadful sense of “should,” we are free to approach those holy moments with a heart full of awe and wonder at the ineffable union we already share with the Father, Son, and Spirit. If that doesn’t fire us up as believers, and provide us with a renewed sense of joy and excitement in our communion (common-union) with God, we may want to check our spiritual pulse!
Paul: Do you find any merit to their concerns?
Dave: Of course. But again, the concern is rooted in a fear of freedom not an appreciation and thankfulness for the freedom we have. The argument that, in union with Christ, Christians will want to sin MORE, is simply not true. Why? Because, if we have died with Christ, as Paul says, we have died to sin by virtue of our union with him! If we are fearful that being united to Christ will birth a desire to sin more, we do not understand the gospel! Fear is never a healthy (or lasting) motivator; love is. When we awaken to the freedom of our union with Christ, and understand who we are IN Christ, we discover a life free from striving and one that is defined by abiding; a life not based by “proximity” to Jesus through our effort, but one of gradual and grace-filled conformity to the one in whom we are united. With that said, the spiritual disciplines, in the words of Richard Foster, are one of a “disciplined grace.” There is a work for us to do, but that work has more to do with intentional positioning than constant pressing. The work is to position ourselves (like “working” on our tan) in order for the Son to do what the Son does naturally—conform us into the image of himself.
Paul: Do you have any pointers for those of us who struggle with the tension between legalism (or “doing” for God) and inactivity?
Dave: This presumes that “inactivity” is non-spiritual. This dualistic understanding divorces our everyday lives (i.e. boiling eggs, doing the dishes, showering) from our “spiritual” lives (i.e. praying, reading the bible, and going to church). Sometimes, the MOST spiritual thing we can do is to sit alone in silence and solitude (i.e. “do nothing”). Abbot John Eudes Bamberger in writing to Henri Nowen, said it best to his dear friend:
“When you are faithful in [silence] (i.e. inactivity) you will slowly experience for yourself in a deeper way. Because in this useless hour in which you do nothing “important” (i.e. “spiritual”) or urgent (i.e. “should”) you have to come to terms with your basic powerlessness, you have to feel your fundamental inability to solve your or other people’s problems or to change the world. When you do not avoid that experience but live through it, you will find out that your many projects, plans, and obligations become less urgent, crucial, and important and lose their power over you.”
Many see “inactivity” as “useless.” This is simply not true for anyone who has spent time in silence and solitude. Brennan Manning once argued that, “Failure to simply be with the Father, as the beloved, without doing anything, is to gouge the heart out of Christianity.” Christianity is not about “doing,” but about “abiding” (See John 15). Filled with the Spirit of Christ, believers are able to produce fruit (love, joy, peace, etc) naturally; not produce (or become) these in our own effort. The branch of an apple tree does not “have” to strive to produce fruit. It produces fruit naturally as a by-product of simply abiding in the vine. Sometimes (for work-a-holics like me) being intentionally inactive is an appropriate and practical form of repentance from our constant striving. After two degrees in Theology and a lifetime huffing and puffing to produce spiritual fruit, I took an entire year off where I, in the words of Brother Lawrence, ceased “all forms of devotion and set prayers except those to which my state required.” And on the backside of that year, I can tell you that I grew MORE in my understanding of who God is and in the practice of prayer, than all my previous years combined. In short, I was forced, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, to “accept my own acceptance.” And sometimes, that is the hardest work we can “do.”
Paul: You talk about escapism in one chapter in particular. What do you feel has contributed to the strong leanings of escapism in churches? Do you detect a single root cause? Or perhaps different factors?
Dave: Escapism is rampant in evangelical expressions of corporate worship. Services are filled with constant stimulants (lights, videos, sounds, tweeting, etc) that keep believers from having to come face-to-face with themselves and their own depravity and their ineffable belovedness. Isn’t that what escapism is all about? Filling our lives with outside stimulation in order to mute what we know to be true of ourselves—broken but dearly loved? If I had to detect a single root cause of escapism in the church, I might point to the “attractional” approach of corporate worship. Because we know human beings (in their brokenness) are most comfortable in highly stimulating, self-evading, anonymous environments, our worship “productions” offers attendees with an atmosphere perfect for escape. In doing this, however, the church mirrors a culture in which many believers (and non-believers) long to escape. We long for silence. We long for stillness. We long to “be” and not be bombarded with messaging, marketing, and noise. The more I have come to awaken to the freedom of my union with Christ, I have found myself gravitating more to liturgical and sacramental expressions of corporate worship—communal times that are just “boring” enough for me to face myself and my brokenness and come face-to-face with a God who, despite my unworthiness, gives himself freely in the midst of my insatiable desire to hide myself from him.
Paul: You cite a wide array of scholars and authors. Which scholars have most impacted your life and theology?
Dave: Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Jurgen Moltmann, Tom Torrance, John D. Zizioulas, Robert Letham, Miroslav Volf, Donald Fairbairn.
Paul: Which authors?
Dave: George Maloney, Dom Eugene Boylan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Fil Anderson, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen.
Paul: You talk about God being a God of relation evidenced by the Old Testament. Why do you think this gets lost in many circles which tend to view the “OT” and “NT” God as different gods, and only the “NT god” as relational?
Dave: Gosh, it’s hard to get any more relational than God as revealed in the Old Testament, in my opinion. Throughout the Old Testament narrative, God is described and experienced as a “father,” “bridegroom,” “lover,” and “husband” to his people. Even in the face their constant (and intentional) rebellion, God sends prophets, priests, and kings to comfort, care for, and call his beloved people back to himself. Certainly, there are parts in the Old Testament narrative that leaves readers scratching their heads. Yet, in light of God’s supremacy and justice (which are not subject to our approval), we discover a loving and relational God who longs to not just be “close” to his people, but “one” with them. In the Incarnation, God fulfills this eternal longing through the enfleshing of his own Son who fully assumed our nature into himself, thus healing our humanity. There, in the person of Jesus Christ, we are able to see clearly who God is and what God is like in our own nature! How’s that for “relational?” In the person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, we see a God who hates injustice and abuse; and one who longs to stand in solidarity with humanity and heal our brokenness.
Thanks, Dave! Looking forward to your next book.