God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

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Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

New Growth in the Soil of Decay

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of months although I have been writing quite a lot. But the tone of my writing has been too negative, so it’s ended up in the trash bin rather than the blog. It’s easy to be a critic; it’s easy to postulate about what’s wrong with the world. It’s better to find a way forward.

The most dramatic trend in the last two decades (if it were a play, it would be a grand denouement) is the catastrophic failure of Liberal culture. To be clear, I am not referring to liberalism and conservatism as we tend to think about it today. They are in fact two versions of Classical Liberalism, the broad category I have in mind. These two versions (that we call conservative and liberal) have suffered a catastrophic failure of vision and will. The reactions to this failure, nativism, nationalism, tribalism, political philosophies that are exclusive rather than inclusive, are seen with horror by those of us who are true children of the Enlightenment. And there are certainly reasons to be horrified by many of these expressions, whether its the denial of science, the tendency toward xenophobia, etc. What is more difficult to see is that all of these movements are new sprouts growing from the fertile soil of spoiled fruit. The nature of these new sprouts is what has captivated my thinking for the last while. Many of the sprouts are noxious weeds, but not all. It is in discerning the difference where dreaming dreams and proclaiming visions needs to become a core bit of our contemporary kerygma.

So where is the good in the midst of this collapse of the Enlightenment hegemony? First is the rejection of the inherent reductionism that marks the Enlightenment. Reality is made up of far more than science and empirical inquiry can study. Furthermore, the part of reality science to which science does have access, always turns out to be more complicated and interconnected than anyone imagined. As a result science studies a subset of that which is necessary for true knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell is fond of using the automobile as an illustration. What is the ontology of the automobile? Said another way, what is its most basic function? What is it best at? We can consider the question from two different perspectives: intent and result. Intent looks forward ; it describes our hopes and desires, while results looks backward and describes what actually happens. The intent is that an automobile is designed to get us place to place. From this perspective the ontology of the automobile is as a conveyance, and it’s actually pretty good at that. But we could argue that looking back (considering cold, hard results rather than hopes and dreams) the automobile is even better at (1) killing and injuring people and animals, (2) polluting the air and other environmental degradation, and (3) undermining community by allowing and possibly encouraging the insular existence of the suburbs and exurbs. Looking back rather than forward, the ontology of the automobile may be better described as a destroyer, destroying life, environment, and community.

We more commonly call the gap between intent and actual results “unintended consequences.” There is a very real sense that one of the primary agendas of the Enlightenment was to take control of our world. Rather than leaving our destiny to chance and the vagaries of nature, we would control it and determine our own outcome. Now there is overwhelming evidence that we humans are incapable of this because we are not capable of considering all the consequences.

The anti-science backlash we see today, from anti-vaxxers to global warming denialists, is an expression of this exasperation we have with the hubris of science. Nature is brutal but it doesn’t seem to be quite as stupid as science sometimes turns out to be and there is a strong desire to to once again cooperate with creation rather than re-create it in our own fallen image. Of course the pendulum has swung too far. There’s a big difference between humble science and simply being anti-scientific. But we have an opportunity to learn humility and develop a new respect for the inherent wisdom of the created order.

A second “good” which is arising from the collapse of Classical Liberal culture is the rediscovery of our connectedness. The Enlightenment idea of the individual at its most radical rejected this connection. Ever since Descartes (the “I think, therefore, I am” guy), theologians have been fighting a rear guard action to re-establish the Christian idea of the “person”—a being whose self-understanding doesn’t come from within (the mind or the will) but from relationship. This emphasis on the untethered individual has been magnified with industrialization. The modern city, based on industrialization, which doesn’t need families or artisans who mentor other artisans, but only worker drones to keep the machinery humming, accompanied by the ease of transportation (have I said anything about the assumed vs. the real ontology of the automobile?) promotes individuality to the point of isolation.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been push-back, beginning with aid societies, and then the growth of labor unions. The shape of the current push against isolation is rather amorphous and it’s hard to tell exactly where it is going. But it is something that can be happily capitalized upon by Christian communities. Isolation is not normal. But rather than rail against it, we have the opportunity to offer authentic examples of the true alternative.

I went into some detail above about how trying to control nature almost always backfires. There is now an openness to the value of cooperating with nature. There is a parallel in our personhood. History shows that individualism and its resulting isolation, leads us to think of a neighbor who is too close to be a hinderance, and sometimes, even an enemy. But society is increasingly open to the value of relationships, the push and pull of communities, and the dangers of privacy as an absolute right. Just as we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with nature, so we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the principle of cooperation with other people in our communities and society.

There are other examples of this moment of opportunity in which we live, but 1,000+ words and two examples will suffice for now. Rather than complain about what might seem to be the collapse of society, I want to explore how we can capitalize on the tender shoots of positive growth that we see all around us.