The Challenge of God

In his book on the stages of faith, James Fowler noted that when people move to a higher level of faith, they tend to despise those still in the stage they just left. There’s a tendency to take one’s one new insights and wonder why this isn’t apparent to everyone.  We have compassion for those who are much less mature and we have respect (or bafflement) for those who are higher. It’s those who are closest to us, without making the changes we have made, who we have a problem with.

Then instead of providing a path for transformation, a person becomes a fundamentalist in a new way, defending and attacking rather than loving, a seemingly psychological need to bolster one’s own unsteady spiritual and emotional status.

We see this in the book of Acts.  The Pharisees were among those most committed to God’s Law.  They had a reputation for putting their lives on the line rather than give into Rome’s demands.  They were zealous and they were committed to not falling back into the errors of their ancestors.  While enduring the colonialism of Rome, they were neither co-opted nor fell into patterns of violence. They sought the path of truth in God’s salvation.

Yet, when Jesus arrived on the scene, far too many rejected him out of hand for not fitting what they thought God would do.  Others followed Jesus but wanted to make sure that this expression of God’s work stayed familiar.  They had worked out the patterns of the Law for their culture and saw this as equivalent to God’s whole mission.

Silly people, didn’t they know better?

We’re far too often the same kind of silly.

We get locked into our assumptions about who God is, and what God must be doing (and what he can’t be doing).  We assume theology is limited to a.narrow scope of a few famous authors or the questions asked by those in a certain time and place. Every church tradition has an era which it implicitly assumes was the one people were most in tune with God, then make everyone else try to fit into the styles, answers, and insights of that era.

If, however, we begin to see past these narrow boundaries, the tendency is to first get really frustrated at that narrowness and then react against it.

We get locked into binary kind of thinking. Either this or thatone or the other, them or us,  Science or faith.  The problem is that these kinds of binaries don’t take into account the complexity of actual life.  And in pushing us to one side, they leave us either ignorant or defensives.  Both Fundamentalist theology and Liberal theology fell into this trap.

“His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”

― C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength 

The tendency is to reject Modern theology altogether, without realizing that the questions of science and technology were radically disconcerting for people thrust into new kinds of life that their parents and grandparents couldn’t even imagine.  The questions asked and answered (both wrong and right ways) has helped us in our continuing journeys without us even knowing it.

But we’re no longer in the Modern era.  Like the Pharisees, we can respond with defensiveness, locked into thinking that because so much good material was developed in that era, we have to fight against any and all adaptations.  A lot of seminaries, for instance, are teaching theology the same way it was taught 50 or a 100 years ago, and take pride in this.

But there’s more to life than Modern theology, and for those of us who only know theology shaped by the early to late Modern era, we can think theology itself is at fault.  It’s irrelevant or ivory tower.

That’s not theology’s inherent nature, however, that’s just shows how we get locked into comfortable places where when we know the answers to certain questions we make sure those are the only questions we let people ask.

Religion is well known for doing this, but what isn’t often acknowledged is everyone has some kind of religion, maybe not always, or even often, one that includes a deity, but still functions as an orienting philosophy to help navigate the challenges of life.

The Modern era effectively began to end when people realized the idealized promises of science and secularity weren’t satisfying either.

How to respond?

If there’s no imagination for something more, the only way people see is to dig into what they’ve already been doing and blaming others for the insufficiency. Both Religion and Science in their fundamentalist forms insight on power as its own goal for an increasingly vague result.

“The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already… begun to be warped, had been subtly manoeuvred in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result… The very experiences of the dissecting room and the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnances was the first essential for progress.”
― C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

God isn’t locked into a certain time and place, however. Nor does God despise those who are ignorant or wayward.  God certainly isn’t asking us to abandon our humanity and dehumanize others or to reject what is good and loving for the sake of a cause.

God is the God of truth but not a simple, narrow truth.  A truth that encompasses all times and all places, all of Creation and everyone in it, a truth that is established and bathed in love.

God does a transformative work, and that is a continuing invitation to be open to this work, to see how even dead approaches to knowledge can experience resurrection. The Pharisees thought they could find life and hope in their established patterns of ordered rules and life.

The Zealots, in contrast, wanted to overthrow Rome, seeing hope only in radical rejection of what they felt was their core problem. Others just joined in with Roman and Greek culture, rejecting their traditions and their distinctions, just wanting to have the experience of cultural acceptance.

None of these were the paths God established in the New Testament, however, none of these were actually rejected by God.  The work of Christ incorporated the positives of each of these approaches in the Spirit’s transforming, diverse, yet still unifying work.

The challenge for us in a global and post-modern era is to embrace the complexity of life without despising those who don’t quite have eyes to see or ears to hear.  To be open to God’s work in our own complexity, our actions, our desires, and our thoughts, to see that addressing what it means to be human in our time is itself the stuff theology should be addressing.

We don’t need to hide from God, we don’t need to reject God, we certainly don’t need to protect God.  God invites our whole selves into sustained reflection of life, the universe, and everything.

How will you answer this challenge to those in your neighborhood?

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