“In our secular society, there is immense temptation to place our faith, our allegiance, in anything other than Jesus. Everyone from the government to scientists to conspiracy theorists threaten to pull our attention away from the resurrected giver of the Spirit.”
Our world is packed full of religion. The Guardian recently reported that “[f]aith is on the rise and 84% of the global population identifies with a religious group.”1 This might surprise Canadians because our society feels increasingly secular—and the evidence bears this out. For the past 30 to 40 years, adults in Canada have become increasingly less religious, and the trend shows no sign of slowing despite the influence of Pentecostalism.2 However, from a global perspective, modern secular societies like ours are the outliers. The Guardian reporter anticipates this surprise: “If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts.”3 The facts are clear—people long for transcendence, so they develop narratives, symbols and practices in order to experience a sense of something greater.
Lyman Kulathungam published a book in 2012 called The Quest4 that described the way various religious groups searched for transcendence. In it, Kulathungam explored each world religion on their own terms, describing their quest for transcendence through their own eyes. Not all religious people seek salvation! Once the voices of diverse world religions were heard, Kulathungam offered ways to connect Jesus to each religion’s quest. If you’re interested in beginning a fruitful dialogue with people from another religion, The Quest is an excellent resource.
There were two notable religions missing from The Quest, however—Judaism and Christianity. That’s where Kulathungam’s recent sequel, God’s Quest, comes in.5 These two religions deserved their own book because Judaism and Christianity flip the quest paradigm. If most world religions seek some sense of transcendence, Jewish and Christian traditions speak of the transcendent God searching for them. In God’s Quest, Kulathungam argues that Jews and Christians share a common DNA which he describes as “the relentless quest to relate with and free them, especially when they are in desperate situations.”6 He describes God’s quest in narrative form by surveying the shared Jewish and Christian story from the Garden of Eden to the eschaton. Jews and Christians tell their common story with different emphases and, at times, with straight-out disagreement, but their shared DNA as objects of God’s quest ties them together.
I had a discussion with Dr. Kulathungam shortly after reviewing God’s Quest on my website.7 In that review I expressed some surprise that he passed over the story of exile and return, jumping from the Tower of Babel to the intertestamental period. I suggested that “the dynamic of exile and return (that fundamental tension in the Old Testament) is echoed in the Christian movement from cross to resurrection.” Dr. Kulathungam graciously suggested that perhaps I could fill in that blank. The remainder of this article is a brief attempt to use Kulathungam’s framework from God’s Quest to explore the dynamic of exile and return in the death and resurrection of Jesus and relate that dynamic to our current life experience.
At first, it’s strange to see Israel’s exile and return superimposed on Jesus’ death and resurrection. After all, the exile and return happened over five centuries prior to the life of Jesus. As is so often the case, however, important themes in Scripture have a way of repeating themselves. From a Jewish perspective, multiple parallels have been drawn between Israel’s experience of enslavement in Egypt with exile in Babylon. Both were existential threats—moments of utter desperation as their very lives and existence as a people were attacked. In Egypt, the Pharaoh ordered the drowning of every male child. In Babylon, an unnamed mourner grieved the horrendous loss of life as “Outside, the sword bereaves; inside there is only death” (Lamentations 1:20).
In the same way, Jesus’ death was an existential crisis for His followers. The shepherd was struck and the sheep were scattered. As Israel’s child gave His life on the cross, creation itself pulled darkness over its face. To proceed (on tentative ground) one step further, consider the impact that the death of Jesus had on the Father. Jürgen Moltmann expressed it the best. “The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son.”8 Israel’s experience of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon are anticipatory echoes in history of that moment when the author of life tasted death.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, could we interpret what we have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic as a type of exile? Fear, grief and death have forced their way into our comfortable lives and have made their presence known. Many of our elders have lost their lives to the virus. Our physical isolation and inability to worship together like we did in former days echoes Israel’s experience as God’s presence left the temple during the Babylonian invasion, as God’s Incarnate gave up His spirit on the cross, crying out in grief, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).9
Fortunately, desperate times are God’s specialty. That is an underlying theme of God’s Quest. No matter how dark things appear, God is on a relentless mission to rescue His creation. When the grieving Israelite mothers in the land of Goshen cried out, God “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant” (Exodus 2:24, NRSV). When Jerusalem was besieged and sacked by the violent Babylonian army, God’s presence left the temple and crossed the desert to appear before Ezekiel in a refugee camp by the Chebar River. Three days after Jesus was brutally murdered by the principalities and powers of this world . . . well, you know what happened!
In moments of exile and death, when despair threatens the carefully erected boundaries of our lives, God is there. God is determined to make His presence known in the midst of struggle. These uncertain days we live in reflect the uncertainty of Holy Saturday—that day following the crucifixion but prior to the resurrection. Still, there’s hope. Pentecostals, of all people, should know this hope! In God’s Quest, Kulathungam reflects on the Day of Pentecost through the lens of presence. The divine presence that Moses experienced at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites experienced in the wilderness tabernacle, and later in the temple, is now present with us. As it was during the Day of Pentecost when the church was born, so it is with us today: “self-effort is not enough; we need help and that help must come from God.”10
In our secular society, there is immense temptation to place our faith, our allegiance, in anything other than Jesus. Everyone from the government to scientists to conspiracy theorists threaten to pull our attention away from the resurrected giver of the Spirit. It remains for us to be steadfast. During times like these, God “comes as light when the sky is dark, lavishly pours out heavenly blessings, and those who receive them thank him with exuberant praise.”11
Stephen enjoys life with his wife and two sons in Bracebridge. Ont. He pastors Wellington Street Pentecostal Church and teaches at Master’s College and Seminary in Peterborough, Ont.
- Harriet Sherwood, “Religion: why faith is becoming more and more popular,” Guardian, August 27, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/27/religion-why-is-faith-growing-and-what-happens-next.
- Joel Thiessen, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 168. Thiessen concludes that “the demand for religion is likely to continue to diminish in light of dominant Canadian values that are generally at odds with organized religious belief and practice as once known in Canada” (190).
- Sherwood, “Religion.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian views this trend in a negative light: “What happens next? More prejudice and persecution.”
- Lyman C. D. Kulathungam, The Quest: Christ Amidst the Quest (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).
- Lyman C. D. Kulathungam, God’s Quest: The DNA of the Judeo-Christian Community (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019).
- Ibid., xvii
- Stephen Barkley, “God’s Quest | Lyman C. D. Kulathungam,” StephenBarkley.com, February 17, 2020, https://stephenbarkley.com/2020/02/17/gods-quest-lyman-c-d-kulathungam.
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 40th Anniversary Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 359.
- This is only one potential theological lens through which to view the coronavirus pandemic. In other places I have suggested Sabbath as an interpretive guide to our current experience.
- Kulathungam, God’s Quest, 187.
This article appeared in the January/February/March 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos by by Ryoji Iwata and Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.