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How do Christians make God present? A stack of index cards

How do Christians make God present?

Several scholars who study religion (including scholars in my own sub-discipline, the anthropology of religion), have over the past decade answered this question using one important concept: “mediation.” “Mediation” occurs when humans use material forms to mediate the presence of an invisible transcendent.

Christian communities have disagreements over mediating forms. For some, mediating forms may include physical things like churches and communion wafers. For others, mediating forms may also include bodily states such as the experiences of worship, or patterned behavior such as prayer. Regardless, mediation is important. In fact, some scholars argue that what we call “religion” would be impossible without mediation.

This view of mediation raises a few questions. One is whether we should be using the term “make” in this context. For many Christians it may be too crass to say that they “make” God present. Does this mean that it is also too simplistic for scholars to use this word when we study Christians? Another question is whether we should use the term “present.” Is Christianity always centered on trying to make God “present”? Or should we instead be asking the broader question: How do Christians relate to God?

It seems to me that the relationship between humans and God in Christianity is more wide-ranging. Here is my case:

This is a nineteenth-century Norwegian mission station in Southern Africa (painted by one of the missionaries, Hans Leisegang, in 1866). I’ve studied the letters left behind from the group of Norwegian missionaries who built this station and a string of others like it. This small group of pietistic Lutherans, in colonized territory, cannot stand for all of Protestantism, let alone all of Christianity, even by a long stretch of the imagination. However, they can tell us something about how they practiced their relationships with God. Relationships, in the plural – because it seems to me they related to God in a variety of different ways.

First, they did use mediation: they used forms to convey the presence of their God. One prominent example on the mission stations was their use of square European houses in straight lines, which signaled a different material and moral sphere than their surroundings.

However, while the missionaries built European houses, they simultaneously questioned this investment of time (though the questioning did nothing to alter their practice) – because they thought it took time away from communicating God directly to the Zulus.

In addition, some material forms were used and refused by the missionaries at the same time. For example, for one missionary, Lars Larsen, it was important to have a bench on the station in case another white person stopped by – the bench was a marker of a “civilized,” Christian space. But it was also very important to him that nobody should call the bench a “sofa” (as some did), because this indicated luxury, which suggested that there was something wrong with his relationship to God.

Other ways that these missionaries related to God involved using their own bodies and selves. Using their selves was a contradictory process. On the one hand, self-denial was a foundational virtue for these early evangelicals. On the other hand, their evangelicalism also set great store by bearing personal witness. For the missionaries, both denial of their self and assertive use of their self as witness were critical parts in the urgent salvation of the Zulus.

Despite the missionaries’ witness, not a single African was baptized for the first 14 years of the Norwegian mission. Was God absent? The difficulty of the situation took hold of Lars Larsen’s body, which was “attacked” by “a corruption of the whole nervous system.”

Some time later, Lars described an unusually moving church service, in which he suddenly experienced that “the sparrow hath found a house […] at thine altars.”

At times the regular failure to achieve ideal mediation between God and people led to repetition: the missionaries’ repeated exhortation of less-than-perfect converts, their repeated circulation of Bible verses.

At other times, the failure of mediation led to a more hopeful stance of simply waiting. Heaven would come.

These descriptions have been exceedingly brief. But they have provided a glimpse into the complexity of this Protestant situation.

So, how do Christians relate to God? How did this particular group of pietistic missionaries posit the relation between God and themselves? Perhaps, on the mission station, the answer looked something like this:

In this case, the relation between God and humans is a composite one. Labeling it wholesale as “mediation” becomes imprecise. Rather, we might think beyond mediation – not in order to discard the concept, but in order to grapple with it more fully. As scholars, and Christians, usually like to do.

Featured image credit: Stories of the Divine by Mariam Soliman. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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