What if “high and lifted up” means precisely the same thing as “ignominious”?
I think this is what Don Kraybill is saying in his book, The Upside-Down Kingdom (once again available in a 25th anniversary edition – woo hoo!). The idea isn’t original with Kraybill. I first ran into it reading Willard Swartley in an Anabaptist study of the trajectory of Biblical authority. But the idea is not original with either of them. The belief that, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, pretty much everything is the opposite of what it seems, lies at the root of Anabaptist sensibilities.
From the Anabaptists I began to understand what it means that Protestantism is triumphalistic. Even the Baptists (I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, so I believe I can say this with some authority) had shifted away from the servant theology of their forebears in the last couple of centuries towards a winner-takes-all mentality.
Triumphalism is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, and generally as an insult, so what precisely is it? Triumphalism is the belief that God is going to win, but more precisely, it’s the belief that when God (or the church, or individual Christians) get defeated along the way, it’s merely a minor set-back. It’s a worldview that sees conflict in terms of winning and losing, with no other options. It’s a theology that revels in Christ’s final victory, whether that’s expressed in the rapture (Dispensationalist theology), great wealth and perfect health (various Charismatic theologies), or even in the choice of lections and liturgies leading up to and celebrating the Feast of Christ the King in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches.
But what if God’s triumph was precisely when Jesus got nailed to the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (In other words, the resurrection is not the triumph, but rather the revelation of the triumph that occurred in death and the Divine Announcement in Hades while Jesus was dead – and notice that, for the most part, nobody believed in the resurrection. It was an ignominious announcement that was glorious only in retrospect.)
What if the distinction between winning and losing is a false dichotomy?
What if the idea that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth to do some serious smiting is simply false? What if he’s not even angry about it? (Here I’m referring to the bumper sticker that was quite popular a decade or two ago: “Jesus is coming again … but this time he’s really mad!”)
What if the final judgment of God is not fire and brimstone at all, but rather God merely showering the unrighteous continually and eternally with the rays of his love? (… which they hate, because they reject the love of God. This last one is an Orthodox bit, not an Anabaptist bit, by the way, but I suspect the Mennonites and Brethren would swoon with delight if they heard it.)
This non-triumphalistic way of thinking grows out of a particular reading of scripture. It assumes the Gospels are the normative story and both the Old Testament and the epistles (and especially the Revelation) have to be read through the lens of the Gospels. Most Protestant theology begins with Paul and interprets the Gospels through that framework; so this is a reversal of classic Protestant biblical priorities (while right in line with Orthodox priorities).
My purpose in this essay is not to defend this framework – that would require a book-length treatment – but rather to explain what it is along with a few of its implications. The two “Stirred, not Shaken” essays (here and here) assume this framework. But more to the point of this and the previous essay, this framework has implications for one’s cosmology.
There are a handful of big problems many Christians have with evolution and Darwinian evolution in particular. Among the biggest is Darwin’s insistence that there is a natural mechanism for evolution. It would seem that Darwin didn’t need God at all in his view of the universe; it leaves room for an agnostic or even atheistic view of the matter.
And I think this is the way God would want it.
Belief in God is not the same thing as belief in gravity. (Doc Habermas, my college Apologetics teacher tried to equate the two; I now profoundly disagree.) Belief in gravity has no moral component. Belief in God requires not only intellectual commitments, but commitments of the will. Michael Polanyi calls this sort of belief “conviviality.” It is not only acknowledgement of a reality; it is a happy (ie, “convivial”) relationship with that reality. This sort of belief implies that the believer thinks God is good company in contrast to a mere necessary acknowledgement.
Belief in God is also fundamentally synergistic while belief in gravity is monergistic. In other words, my belief – or not – in gravity has no effect whatsoever on gravity. On the other hand, my belief in – or not – and relation to Christ, and to Christ’s Body, does have an effect on Christ and his Body. Christian belief flows both ways while belief in gravity just is.
Christian belief, because of these interactions and inter-relationships, cannot be coerced. Being presented with irrefutable evidence that there is an almighty and moral God does not make a person want to become morally pure and submit to the Almighty. As James famously said, “Even the demons believe – and shudder” (Jas 2:19). There’s nothing convivial between Christ and the demons. This is not faith, it’s hopeless resignation.
And if God’s role in the universe – whether in creating or smiting or loving or preventing natural disasters – were blatant and the truth of that divine role irrefutable, then humans would lose an utterly vital component of their creation in the divine image: their freedom and opportunity to exercise faith, then lovingly respond to and choose God-in-Christ in gratitude. Rather it would be resigned necessity.
And this is precisely the God – the secret God, the misunderstood God – who shows up in the Gospels. After his first miracle, at Cana, the wedding steward didn’t know where the created wine had come from (John 2:9), although, John tells us, the servants knew. It was a secret miracle, but for the servants it was a delicious secret. Over and over, after a miracle is performed, Jesus commands the witnesses to tell no one. Even after the disciples figure out he’s the Messiah he “strictly charged them” to keep it a secret (Mt 16:20).
And his public miracles repeatedly got him in trouble. After casting the demons out of “Legion,” the locals kicked him out of town (Mark 5). And his most public miracle of all – the resurrection – was denied and suppressed by the leadership.
And this Gospel trajectory brings me back to the manner of creation. It fits completely into the divine character depicted in the Gospels that God’s role in creation would be secret and completely deniable by those who choose to do it. God doesn’t desire service because it’s inevitable, God desires it because we are grateful, and secrecy serves that end far better than triumphalism.