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Searching for God Knows What
by Donald Miller
Nelson Books, 2004

review by John Tintera

Donald Miller relates a story in his new book which illustrates an ever-present danger to the Christian Church. During a seminar with a group of Bible college students, he tells the class that he is going to run through the key points of the Gospel, leaving out an important aspect. He proceeds to talk to his students about the sinfulness of human nature, the importance of repentance, and our need for purity in thought and deed. He deliberately makes no mention, however, of Christ. At the end of the speech, the students are scratching their heads about the missing element. It’s the Christless Gospel which troubles Miller and inspired him to write this book. He explains, “To a culture that believes they ‘go to heaven’ based on whether or not they are morally pure, or that they understand some theological ideas, or that they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. At best, He is an afterthought, a technicality by which we become morally pure, or a subject of which we know, or a founding father of our woo-woo spirituality.”

In order to highlight the problem with a Christless Gospel and to come to an understanding of why it’s such a temptation for Christians, Miller lays out what he sees as the psychology behind our religious neuroses.

Let me try to be precise by what I mean by “psychology.” In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis highlighted an aspect of human experience which he saw as the sine qua non of our nature—our inherent sense of right and wrong. From almost the time we’re out of the cradle, and certainly by the time we’re out among our peers, we humans demand fair play from each other. I can remember being on the playground endlessly debating with friends what the rules of our games should be and whether one of us had broken them. Most of the time our games looked more like the floor of Congress than a sporting event. Lewis observed that the force behind this is conscience, the existence of which was the basis for his brilliant defense of belief in God and the truth of the ancient creeds of Christianity.

Miller’s search “for God knows what” has also entailed a keen interest in what makes us different from the beasts in the field. Not surprisingly, Miller’s theological psychology hearkens back to the playground too, though he takes a slightly different tack from Lewis. While Lewis draws his psychology from the positive existence of conscience, Miller’s starting point (like that of St. Augustine before him) is the tainted conscience. For Miller, the primary experience on the playground stems from what he calls a “lifeboat” mentality. The image of the lifeboat comes from a thought-game in which one of his grammar school teachers asked the class, “If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbageman, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the others, which person would we choose?”

On the playground, we all learn and participate in a version of the lifeboat game. From the time we’re children onward, social stratification is inherent to our interactions with our peers. A hierarchy is formed where some are “cooler” or more loved and loveable than others. For Miller, the existence of the lifeboat mentality can only be understood from the perspective of the Fall. In Eden, there was no need for a lifeboat since all the love and acceptance we needed came directly from God. After our fall into sin, however, humankind began to suffer from a kind of compulsion to keep the number of seats in the lifeboat scarce. Somehow we figured that we get ahead every time we throw someone new overboard. We act out this scenario in a million different ways—none of which gets us any closer to God, our alienation from whom is the reason we set up the game in the first place.

For both Lewis and Miller, the only way out of the bind of an uneasy conscience, the lifeboat mentality, and, for that matter, the Christless Gospel is through discipleship to Christ. As noted above, Miller is most keen to observe how the lifeboat psychology plays out in the contemporary Christian scene. He is critical of the Church’s involvement in Republican politics, its moral reductionism, especially when it comes to abortion and homosexuality, and most of all its habit of minimizing the Gospel to a list of do’s and don’ts. For Miller, these are not only ways that Christians boost their egos in the lifeboat game, but are increasingly distracting us from a closer walk with Christ.

To counter this problem, Miller pulls together a list of what he sees as the hallmarks of Christ’s personality and earthly ministry, all of which are truly opposed to the lifeboat mentality. These include Jesus’s profound egalitarianism and deep belief in human equality, his love of common people, his patience, and even his ugliness. While Miller somewhat dubiously derives the latter from the Old Testament prophesy that “he had no beauty of majesty to attract us to him (Isaiah 53:2),” an ad hoc (and equally bogus) examination of several Orthodox icons does serve to illustrate his point. Certainly, an ugly or even plain-looking Jesus harmonizes better with what Miller teaches us about the lifeboat than the Jesus of, say, Hollywood.

Becoming aware of the lifeboat has all kinds of practical implications. Personally, it’s given me a better understanding of my aggressiveness and impatience as a driver and pedestrian on the crowded streets and sidewalks near my home. Since reading the book, I’ve been able to find good reason to slow down. How much of my impatience derives from my wish to toss this slow person out of my lifeboat? Reading this book has also been a Godsend for my spirituality. Miller’s gentle push toward a closer relationship with Jesus has given me the impetus to revisit some of my favorite, though lately neglected Christ-centered disciplines.

Another nice bonus of Miller’s book is that I now have a better grasp of what people in the Church mean by “seekers.” For years, I’ve been hearing about a whole population of would-be Christians who are unsettled in their worship and theology, and are having a tough time finding a spiritual home. If I am grasping Miller correctly, the heart of this movement lies in staving off any encumbrance or encrustation that might impede a loving and close relationship with Christ. These Christians are only interested in “the one thing necessary.” Whether I’m understanding the movement or not, this is definitely what Donald Miller’s message is all about. In a passage where he imagines what it was like to meet Jesus he writes, “It must have been wonderful to spend time with Christ, with Somebody who liked you, loved you, believed in you, and sought a closeness foreign to skin-bound man. A person would feel significant in His presence. After all, those who knew Christ personally went on to accomplish amazing feats….” In this and other passages, I was reminded of the mystical tradition of the Church. Although he makes no mention of it himself, Miller’s descriptions of the spiritual life seem to spring from the same fountain that fed those masters of the spiritual life Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola.

Is mysticism the next step for Evangelicals? It’s been over 25 years since Richard Foster published his million-copy bestseller, Celebration of Discipline, a book which culled its wisdom from the Church’s monastic tradition. Whether or not Miller’s book heralds a spiritual renewal in Evangelical America, it nonetheless is a needed counterpoint to the Christless Christianity and the Gospel of Success pervading our nation. In Searching for God Knows What Miller finds a more Christ-centered discipleship to which any Christian can devote mind, soul, and spirit.

Copyright ©2005 John Tintera


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