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Natural Habitat

• Greg Boyd

We live in a world where most people believe in some form of a God, but more often than not, people do not view God as personal or in a relationship with us. This sermon explores why it is logical to say both that God exists and is personal, and then it examines the importance of cultivating this personal interaction with God.

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John is saying God IS love in these verses, and love is defined by the cross. God’s very essence is other-oriented, self-sacrificial love. Love isn’t just a verb God does. Love is the noun that God eternally is. This implies, at the very least, that God is a personal being because only personal beings can love. Because he’s personal, he’s a God we can interact with.

In 1940, 96% Americans believed in God. In 2012, this number dropped to 90%. But in 2020 it dropped to 81%. What’s worse, of those who still believe in God less than 40% believe God intervenes, interacts with us and answers prayer. Fewer than 40% relate to God as a personal being. Most see God as a vague higher power or higher intelligence, a being who maybe explains how the world came about, but who has little relevance to our actual lives. Belief in a personal God who wants a personal relationship with us is on the downslide.

Sometimes we hear people claim that science or evolution has disproven the idea of a personal God, but in reality, neither science in general nor evolution in particular is incompatible with faith in a personal God. Others point to the problem of evil to argue against the existence of a personal God. While this is a problem, the underlying problem is that we are conditioned to look at the world and interpret the world as though God did not exist. As argued in the book Secular Age by Charles Taylor, the world has become “disenchanted.”

Prior to the scientific revolution, people lived in an “enchanted world.” People not only believed in God, angels, and demons, but these mysterious entities were part of their experience of the world. This changed as the naturalistic scientific method became a naturalistic worldview. Whereas it used to be easy to feel special in an enchanted universe, it’s now all too easy to feel like a complete nobody in a merely materialistic universe.

There are two basic arguments for believing in a personal God. The first is simple. We can believe in a personal creator God because of Jesus. There are good historical reasons for believing the Gospels are basically reliable. Jesus reveals a God who is perfectly personal. Jesus says that God is our Father and he knows the number of hairs on your head and cares about the birds of the air and lilies of the field.

The second reason is a bit more complex. Humans are personal beings. This means three things: We reason to make sense of the world, we are meaningful in that we seek purpose to life, and we are moral.

The Ultimate Reality, or the Ground of Being is either like us, or not. If we suppose the Ultimate Reality is not like us then atheism is true. This means that there is no ultimate mind, purpose, or moral value. As a result, humans are freaks of nature because we are personal beings in an environment that is absolutely hostile to personhood. If there is no ultimate reason behind the universe, then reality is just absurd.

The same is true of meaning and moral values. If we are not created by a purposeful God, and if death is the last word for us and for everything else that exists, then life is completely meaningless. Also, if there is no transcendent moral being, there can be no transcendent goodness, justice or love.

If our lives are irrational, meaningless and devoid of ultimate moral value, we’re fundamentally out of sync with our environment. This leads us to ask why nature would evolve beings that operate in such a way that is so contrary to reality, so much so that it is grueling and painful. Jean Paul Sartre stated, “Atheism is a cruel and long-range affair: I think I’ve carried it through.” If it is true then why would it be so grueling? Pain is usually an indication that something is wrong or contrary to our nature. The pain of accepting that life is absurd, meaningless and devoid of moral value proves that the atheistic view is wrong and unnatural. Since we naturally long for things to make sense, for life to have purpose and for goodness to overcome evil, the Ultimate Reality must be rational, purposeful and good. The natural habitat for humans as personal beings is a personal God.

We are personal beings whose life is in a universe whose Ultimate Reality is personal. This personal God desires an intimate, loving relationship with each of us. We are most at home as we cultivate a personal relationship with God and engage him with our words and our lives.

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Topics: Defense of Christian Faith, Presence of God

Sermon Series: Unraveling Truth

Downloads & Resources

Audio File
Study guide
Group Study Guide
The MuseCast: March 14
Concentric Circles Handout

Focus Scripture:

  • I John 4:8

    Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

  • I John 3:16-17

    We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

For Further Reading:

Hearing God by Dallas Willard

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15 thoughts on “Natural Habitat

  1. Jim says:

    Our pastor at Transfiguration suggested doing exactly that as our Lenten practice this year. Hearing this suggestion from two sources seems to make a pretty strong statement!!!
    I thought your sermon was excellent.
    One of my fellow practitioners from Monday LOP suggested I hear your sermon. I’m glad I followed throuh. Maybe someday we can meet in a wood and pray together. I liked your book where you dialogued with your Dad
    In the scheme of things, if we look for things where we are alike, it brings us together.
    God bless you

  2. Jan says:

    Woodland Hills ministry continues to bless those of us online and geographically far away — thank you! What a beautiful music ministry (“bless … our soul …”) and pastoral message about daily time set apart to make God our only dialog partner to confess, bless, and give thanks as catalyst also for two-way communication. And then the synchronicity of finding other of God’s children literally on our path for interconnection.

    This past season God’s put situations in my life to let me work through to trust in how infinite cruciform love can heal us of sociocultural harms which through all of history disproportionately fall on women and girls as a sex class (and have affected me, my mother and my daughter), much as systematic racism disproportionately harms. As a result I’ve let go of fear-based defensive posturing on some prior points of theology taught at Woodland Hills, and been at peace with God’s providence. So praise God! And those at WH willing to stand, speak and serve.

    Last week I was praying that God heal in 21st century human consciousness what Julian Jaynes approximately 40 years ago wrote about “the breakdown of the bicameral mind” as excuse for why people who aren’t psychotic no longer hear God’s voice as occurred in biblical times. But even if healed, without time set apart and designated for God, we would never come to know our Creator, Redeemer, Mother, Father, Friend. So this sermon was profoundly important!

    Sunday night at the Oscars, EEAAO with its nihilistic multi-verse romp swept the awards. The screenplay’s underlying philosophy could have been Sarte’s, or some fusion of quantum physics theoretical math and Hinduism. Despite the inherent meaningless of it all, the winning actors’ parts were written to decide ultimately in favor of family love and kindness. But without a personal God, on their own human steam.

    Sunday night the Elvis film, culturally rooted in Christianity (the mother quotes scripture, plus Mahalia Jackson singing “precious Lord…” appears on screen as well as a gospel choir and a pentecostal tent revival), won none of its 8 Oscar nominations. The theme of God’s natural morality, and the sad wages of sin, feature as subtext from the acting and story. Excellent lead-actor Austin Butler and Tom Hanks (playing the villainous manager) are both Christians in real life.

    The point about the Oscars? Popular culture, as the sermon stated, keeps becoming less and less willing to honor a personal God as providing humans with meaning, morality and purpose. There’s also an apparent global media effort to divert people’s thought away from a biblical personal God. How much more interesting (and accurate) than EEAAO’s fictional multiverse maneuvers if people were taught to see the biblical God of a partially open future Who knows every one of our free-willed alternatives (and those of fallen and loyal angels too) branching in a myriad of multiple possibilities within the fixed parameters that God has set, e.g., “Christus victor”: Jesus and the cross.

    For anybody wanting to put on a prayerful “spiritual warfare” hat in designated time with God, this might be fertile ground for bringing God’s “basileia” (reign, kingdom) on earth as it is in heaven.

    Love to all!

  3. Matthew says:

    My wife and I just listened to the teaching. Afterwards, we were discussing the brilliance of Greg´s philosophical argument for the existence of a personal God when my wife made the following observation:

    If our longings, our love, our morality etc. are anchored in a personal God that is also about longings, love, and morality (because it would be irrational to think we have and feel these things in a meaningless universe), then could one also argue that our human bitterness, our anger, our hate, etc. also exist not because of evolutionary processes, but because this personal God also has an angry, bitter, and hateful side to him and as such is mirroring our human frailties and weaknesses?

    Jesus´ life on earth and his actions toward others seem to illustrate that God is none of these negative things my wife mentioned, but Jesus also says a lot of unpleasant things in the Gospels. So do other biblical writers both in the Old and New Testaments (just read 2 Peter chapter 2 for example). Where does that leave us in terms of the character of this personal God that we are being persuaded to embrace and believe in?

    Thanks in advance for any help with this intellectual problem.

    1. Greg says:

      Thanks for the question.
      As I see it, our longing to make sense of things, to find meaning for our lives and to see good overcome evil are intrinsic to who we are and they’re all good. Bitterness, hatred and rage are not intrinsic to who we are, and they’re all bad/destructive. These attitudes result from our turning away from God. So no, I don’t believe there is anything corresponding in this to God. Yes, God can be angry, but unlike our anger, God’s anger, and God’s justice, are always expressions of perfect love.
      As for 2 Peter 2 and Jude and every other passage that seems to depict God in less than Christ-like ways, I suggest a) we read such text through the lens of the cross and thus try to find the most loving interpretation of them as possible, and b) insofar as this is not possible, we should see God stooping out of love to accommodate the limited/fallen views of his people. There is no reason to assume that every NT author saw with equal clearly the full revelation of God’s character on the cross.
      Hope that helps!

      1. Matthew says:

        It helps very much Greg. Thanks so much for the time as always. We greatly appreciate the ministry of Woodland Hills!

      2. Jan says:

        Thank you so much, Greg, for this cogent summary of the thought, care and erudition that have gone into the more expansive and scripturally supported explanations in your books!

        Just this morning in prayer/meditation I mused on how attempting to take justice into his own hands (failed 1943-44 Hitler assassination plotting) against the quintessential human monster didn’t work for even so committed a Christian as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hitler stayed alive, and by the 4-30-45 point Hitler killed himself in the bunker, U.S. GIs, e.g., U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division on the day before, 4-29-45, had participated in liberating those still alive (approximately 22,000 Jews and 45,000 other political prisoners) in Hitler’s Dachau death camp. The Army’s unmistakable photographic evidence of the holocaust genocide from Dachau and other death-and-prison-work camps moved the hearts of Americans who had previously been unaware of the extent of the horror. This was one of many sociopolitical factors that led by 1947 and 1948 respectively to the UN partition plan for Palestine and the modern declaration of Israel as a nation state.

        We as mere humans never fully know anybody else’s motivations and options for later repentance, or, even if a system or person seems 100% evil as Hitler was, whether other forces might come into play over time’s unfoldment for a greater good in the results. God on the other hand, from a partially open view of the future (not immutable blueprint), can see every possible alternative course of action — coming from billions of people (and angels, fallen or loyal) — and then potential results branching out from all those variations (ad infinitum until current history’s close with ultimate “Christus Victor” at God’s determination).

        Certainly I cannot comprehend an infinite cosmological Mind so vast as God’s (to see every ramification here on earth of what secular quantum physicists may be dubbing “multiverse” in their theoretical math). Sometimes on the partially open non-ultimate details, the free wills irrevocably granted by God (to love or not, for good or evil) of humans and angels may collide, and sometimes God can intervene without revoking free will. Scripture supports this as a whole, and Greg’s scholarship elaborates on what gets theologically called “open theism.” (This always seemed true to me from the Bible itself; plus by skipping Greco-Roman philosophy in school, I didn’t get influenced as have many male theologians fond of the neo-Platonic/Augustinian/Calvinist “blueprint” idea throughout church history.)

        Whatever God does or does not control about the daily details of the future, I entirely trust (from scripture as well as life experience watching God’s love unspool in my life) that God’s ultimate justice will deal — perhaps annihilation, perhaps more harshly, perhaps something else, because I don’t see scriptural clarity on the how of what we call “hell” (maybe it’s not our job to know the how, only the why for which our Savior Jesus Christ is the solution) — with unregenerate, unrepentant, deliberate evildoing antithetical to those of us who love God and want to be in loving relationship infinitely hereafter.

        Jesus never minced words about God’s character for both love and justice. (Nor did the prophets of the OT canon.) But I have read Christian theological treatises proposing universalism as the measure of God’s love, so perhaps there will be some mechanism we cannot fully understand by which God allows unrepentantly cruel, violent, hypocritical and/or hateful people to experience what they’ve done to others and then be allowed a chance at salvation. It’s an attractive thought until I think about those photographs from Dachau; then I’d personally favor an interpretation of “hell” as annihilation with no eternity for those who’ve done a Hitlerian level of evil to human beings made in God’s own image. Yet not being God, and not knowing as God does the hearts and potential actions of the billions of people who’ve lived on this planet, none of us can know for sure regarding what eternity (or even tomorrow) may hold for all people based on their earthly lives.

        That’s basically why I don’t believe human beings are equipped for determining ultimate justice by the current appearances of good and evil. We’re really made for love (and wherever possible in a fallen world, harmless fact-based reconciliation and real-time recompense).

        We can only be sure, looking at what Jesus did on the cross, that God loves us and wants us to love in return. Working out what that means in action is a lifelong process for any Christian.

        Eternally I’m grateful to the wisdom shared by the ministry of Woodland Hills led by Greg Boyd and other resident scholars.

  4. a friend says:

    This might help!

    The United States must significantly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.

    I must continue to increase my Peanut M&M intake until the candy industry comes to its senses about the dangers of sugar.

    Improper Formats – single premise to conclusion

    Categorical Syllogisms
    Syllogism: An argument consisting of THREE statements: TWO premises and ONE conclusion.
    Categorical syllogism: A syllogism consisting of three categorical propositions containing THREE DISTINCT TERMS, each of which appears in exactly two of the three propositions.

    This is a [intellectual] better stated philosophical problem but the good news is that it can be corrected.

    Try this site PDF: https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil1440/syllogisms.pdf.

    1. Matthew says:

      Thanks. Could you use my wife´s argument specifically to point out the logical error she may have committed?

  5. Jan says:

    For Matthew and his wife: Your comment moved me because it’s the kind of question that thoughtful people wrestle with — coming to God and seeking to understand how we relate to our Creator as reflected in the Bible as a whole and our own experiences.

    My own “human bitterness,” anger, etc. is not relieved significantly (beyond white-knuckling to socially acceptable behavior) unless I’m fully anchored in God’s supernatural love. This has required me to wrestle with and have a view of God I could find deeply lovable, providing reciprocity in the flow of compassion back and forth.

    God’s love being supernatural (Holy Spirit), my “human bitterness” is replaced — when I’m willing — by peacefulness and yes, a willingness to love others who aren’t loving to me. For a mundane example, I have a nearby neighbor who outwardly and enthusiastically supported my voluntarily leading evidential efforts on behalf of our neighborhood before the City’s zoning commission regarding unresolved health-and-safety problems with the electrical utility’s existing infrastructre preceding new houses going in. On the hearing date, however, the neighbor became enamored with the electrical utility’s attractive spokesman, then sided and flirted with him (although he was wearing a wedding band), only to throw me under the bus at the public hearing. Despite this the results worked out okay (for which I credit God), but on days afterward if I saw her outside in her yard, I felt an inner cringe and aversion. Those were my natural “fallen” human feelings. When I began praying about it, God guided me to wish her infinite love, joy and peace. Now when I see her, she’s another human being with unsurpassable worth whose journey may take her to God’s heart, for which I keep praying. We don’t necessarily share the same values and may never be friends, but the spiritual door’s now open for me to love her as my neighbor without carrying around animosity for a past feeling of being betrayed.

    So no, I don’t experience our supremely beneficent God of love and justice as having the same qualities as myself when I’ve operated from a “fallen” place of human bitterness. God and I both love; in compassion against oppression I can speak about hard truth (and make errors of my own to be recanted), but the ultimate justice for sin is in God’s hands not mine (because God’s grant of the free will requisite for loving divine-to- human relationship can be misused for unrepentant arrogance, egotism, deceit, greed and harmful worldly gain, aka sin). On that point the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus concur, e.g., Psalms 46:1, 89:1-2; Malachi 3:16, 4: 1-2; John 1:1-5, 5:37-47, 12:44-50, 15:1-0.

    There’s been a vast difference from my personal experience (being inside this skin for nearly 70 years) in when I deeply trust and love a loving God as shown most fully on the cross of Jesus Christ, and when I have not had so deep a trust. Some of this I’ve been working on for decades, as a lifelong Christian who held up her hand at age 3 wanting to be a Lottie Moon missionary. Nowadays the SBC with its new Calvinist influences might not have let Lottie Moon off the boat, but with God’s supernatural grace I can speak up about leaving that denomination while also praying in love that Jesus followers find their way back to God’s true heart and an equal priesthood of believers that doesn’t suppress the gifts of women at church.

    Without God’s supernatural power of compassion, as a “fallen” human the SBC news of the past 15 years would have me boiling with anger, and it does not. Instead God’s given me a grateful heart that Pres. Jimmy Carter (from Plains, GA where my parents were also born and raised as S. Baptists) with his signature dignity and graciousness spoke out for women in his own departure from the SBC while remaining a lifelong Christian and Sunday School teacher. Current hospice experience has been a catalyst to re-surface his kindhearted yet straightforward biblically grounded public explanation of why he left SBC, now reaching a new generation via social media. Also I’m grateful that constructive change for all people according to how Jesus spoke, acted and then died salvifically for humanity is happening at places like Woodland Hills where I don’t live, and in my own community of another state where I’ve retired.

    Love to all!

    1. Matthew says:

      I think it´s very important to mention that my wife and I are both believers. We believe in God´s ultimate goodness and love. I think my wife was only attempting to challenge the validity of Greg´s argument.

      We are also both concerned about the unpleasant (Jesus seemingly talking about hell, hades, gehenna, outer darkness, gnashing of teeth, etc.) and violent aspects of Holy Scripture, though I know Greg and others have addressed these problems in the past. I simply need to find the information.

  6. Jan says:

    Thanks for writing, Matthew, and best wishes on the search — you’re right, Greg Boyd’s answered the questions you and your wife have in his past theological analysis, and it should logically and spiritually be only a matter of finding what you’re looking for in the archives! Or in his books available on Amazon and with other booksellers. Kind regards, and love to all!

  7. a friend says:

    Example: Looking at your last comment “my wife was only attempting to challenge the validity of Greg´s argument” I consider a [dichotomy of statement] from your first comment “we were discussing the brilliance of Greg´s philosophical argument “.

    The only common [distinct term] in both statements is [argument].

    How can you call something brilliant and then challenge its validity [the two distinct premises]?

    What would be the conclusion?

    How can it be brilliant and NOT valid?

    I would think you can derive nothing here – Improper Formats as was your original first comment premise to the conclusion.

    I’ve sure you have some emotions about this but you can deduct nothing from ‘then could one also argue’ – NOT logically!

    1. Matthew says:

      Thanks. Ah ha … now I understand. I think what happened was we were talking about the brilliance and then, after a few minutes, my wife was like, well, might there be a problem in the initial argumentation? Lots to think about though. Thanks again!

  8. Arlene says:

    The MuseCast: March 14, 2023 discussing Natural Habitat
    listen starting about 11:08
    Greg said, something to the effect that progressive Christians that have gone off the deep end and bought into post modernism.

    I’m 80 yrs. old and would like to know what is a progressive Christian
    and what is postmodernism?
    I hear these words a lot but don’t know there meaning. Will someone please help me.

    1. Jan says:

      Hi, Arlene, beyond the varying cultural and dictionary definitions (plus Foucault and progeny) available online, perhaps you’d find helpful how I’ve experienced some U.S. denominations as moving from progressive (and scriptural) to post-modern (and less scriptural).

      Before recent retirement, I traveled widely across the country for work and extended projects, thus visited for long periods in many different types of churches. Now, retired and mainly staying in one place, I’ve found the same pattern (progressive to post-modern) taking over some of the denominations — who in a spirit of Christian charity won’t be explicitly named here, but are rather numerous in their variations on post-modernism (sometimes claiming even to be traditional if new Calvinist).

      The risks are mainly that these churches in ethos become like the secular world in which we find ourselves in 2023 culturally, reliant on personalities, top-down control and works-based hierarchy, instead of the called-out “ekklesia” of equals Jesus intended.

      Let me describe the differences by stating what does still seem to me as progressive without being post-modern. I have found one church where I currently live in retirement with which to fellowship in person, and it is:
      (1) progressive in not denying women their spiritual gifts fully to teach, preach, whatever the men do in church (as validated by scripture as a whole and epistolary writing if translated from original languages); and
      (2) progressively non-Calvinist (so not classically “reformed” or YRR/new “reformed”), with all gifts of the Holy Spirit accepted as from the beginning of the church age (i) by reports of epistolary writers like Paul, (ii) in Acts and (iii) extended to all believers by Jesus in the gospels of Mark and John — thus progressively non-cessationist as for the modern church age from the first century A.D. forward into the 20th and early 21st centuries, and not post-modern/cessationist/new Calvinist (which I consider post-modern for the zeal of its online and outreach presence to a younger generation re-interpreting scripture contrary to plain meaning and context).

      The church where I’m fellowshipping face to face is also not post-modern in that, unlike some other denominations, it does not partner with overtly neoliberal “faith-in-action” non-profit organizations whose charters read like one political party’s wish list and never the other party’s in the U.S. two-party secular system. For instance, some post-modern churches want their congregants to contribute financially to non-profit entities which set up ESG and DEI hierarchies of privilege that have prompted those churches’ new litanies of responsive group confession during church services (before communion) aligned to the non-profit’s ESG/DEI statements. (I was there to see and hear this!)

      This sort of secular ESG/DEI post-modern issue is currently and politically being litigated and debated with angry vehemence by both sides in the state of Florida — it may belong in secular politics, but I don’t see anything in the ministry of Jesus to make it belong in church.

      Another post-modern issue, infiltrating some churches beyond a loving acceptance of L, G, B folks, occurs when the denomination becomes so “radically inclusive” that it sides with one secular U.S. political party over the other on whether or not minor children who (perhaps only in media confusion or social contagion) identify as “transgender” should be free without parental notice or consent to act as trans at school. It raises also the concern about whether or not minor children have the maturity to start a potentially lifelong course of medical interventions (many painful, risky or unproven long-term) to change their bodies into a stereotypical gender-role appearance different from their biological sex. This seems a post-modern political perspective, not anything for the church, because other countries, including the UK, and many experts in our country, have recently taken a medical position different from the current prevailing trans political view espoused by U.S. executive branch. (There are related post-modern forms of “sex ed” in public school, drag queen story hours and the like that some denominations today embrace as acceptable creative expression without regard to safeguarding children.)

      The post-modern denominations have sometimes as well taken a position of sanctioning (or withdrawing their investments) from Israel, seemingly to side with the Palestinians as though there hasn’t been conflict on both sides (or more terrorism from the Palestinians and related Islamic groups if the history of modern Israel is considered in its 75-year span). A de facto curse of Israel by a Christian religious organization would seem post-modern in its disregard of OT scripture suggesting God would not bless anti-Israel behavior by outsiders of the nation — and indeed the anti-Israel denominations generally have suffered membership declines or schisms in the past few decades.

      Regarding your question, Greg might have been referring to other aspects of progressive or post-modern behavior. What I’ve written is only my own experience and perspective as one who loves and always prays only the best of God’s will for all, with a heart especially for today’s Christians and Messianic Jews in what appear to be increasingly anti-Christian post-modern times.

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