Monday, July 27, 2009

Trust and God

I've been reflecting a lot on the amount of distrust I encounter in life, particularly from Christians who express concern over my academic, entertainment and even health choices. I freely admit that I make choices that many of my friends would not entertain, but the assumption that my choices are naive and leading me towards a supposed path of destruction, well that really troubles me. I've often commented on the culture of fear that is North American Evangelicalism, fortunately it is not all there is to Evangelicalism, but it is pretty darn pervasive. So it has me thinking about the roots of fear and the reasons why, Evangelicals in particular, should not be ruled by fear. So I want to reflect here on the connection between trust and God.

Now, my presupposition here is a particular understanding of God. I am not confident that these observations will translate for readers who have either no concept of God or an impersonal concept of God. In the abstraction of god concepts the rules change. But for those of us with a commitment and conviction towards the personhood of God, it is the relationship with that person that hinges entirely on the notion of trust. This clearly translates into human-human relationships (and even relationships between other animal species, for example your trust for your dog will dictate the freedom to which your dog will be given). When I distrust another human person, then I withhold something of myself in the relationship. The reason for this is my fears (often well grounded) in the other's ability to compensate my trust appropriately. Here is precisely the issue that theodicy seeks to illuminate - how can we trust in any God who allows evil to ravage the earth? But here again the presupposition of God's personhood is called into question: is our confidence in God based on a notion about how God should act towards our species? Based on what? I love the answer that Job provides - surveying all that goes on in this world with all the various forms of life God asks Job if Job might not be able to do things better? Job is silent where often we are not.

In our discomfort with the often harshness of reality, we make God out to be the villain. In fact the Jobian account does the same in the introduction that intimates God as the bad guy. Certainly, the primitive karmic notion should work in favour of our comfort - should it not? Probably the best proof against such naive notions of God-human relations is the incarnation of Jesus. In the incarnation God is not distant and arbitrary, but present and made co-sufferer in the rigors of life. Jesus does not come advocating our comfort, but rather doing the right thing no matter the outcome and the cost to our comfort. The maxim of if it feels good, do it is utterly washed away in the self-emptying of God through the person of Jesus.

Often when I encounter people who are suspicious of my life they are not interested in hearing the ways that I integrate my spirituality into such activities - even when I play games with friends I am hoping and praying for opportunities to see God's Kingdom manifest (even if that is so simple as entering into the rigors of their lives with them). But that is not what the accusers hear, it is that I am living outside of the constraints their own fears have inflicted upon them. So there is not even an opportunity to find God in the midst of these activities, they reveal the limits of their trust in God.

Now, to be certain, there are activities that are not healthy for anyone to engage. That is not the question here. I would be the first to declare that immoral actions play havoc on ones soul. And even in very wholesome activities, one can encounter situations that should be suspect, lest we think that there are safe places where we can be comfortable in a naive way. (BTW I wholeheartedly reject the notion that naivety is somehow closeness to God, I think often it is more of an unwillingness to let God be God, but this should be another post.) The proof is rather to be fully engaged and aware when one lives. Aware and conscious of God's presence, but even more our own presence towards the situation. Often, I am convinced, it is simply assumed that I engage in activities without thought, as if I'm blindly stumbling towards a trap.

An example is my recent adoption of a yoga practice. The reality is that I've spent a lot of time thinking about yoga, discussing and learning even before I attempted to get on the mat. And once I got on the mat I didn't stop, in fact I'm even conscious of the music that is used in practices, did you know that there is Sikh worship music that sounds incredibly contemporary Christian? It is precisely because I know yoga is a spiritual practice that I engage it with a critical mind. Unfortunately that term critical mind often means, for Evangelicals at least, critical about there being any value in something rather than coming to understanding and really thinking through the implications of a practice. But it isn't just thinking something through that becomes my criteria for engagement - it is a matter of trust.

Trust, in the context of God as person, means that I don't enter into any practice alone. In fact it is in the context of engaging with life that the character of my trust relationship is defined and honed. This doesn't mean I'm naively assuming God will rescue me from any wayward decision I might make - heavens forbid. Rather that God is ever present, even in terrible mistakes, and a hugely contributing factor to my ability to engage, understand and partake in all life has to offer. My friend George once said that the need is to trust God's ability to lead more than the devil's ability to deceive. I think that is wise. Trust brings freedom. When we trust our relationship with God then it opens space to have real relationships with each other. This is foundational to ecumenical dialogue, and the chief obstacle for Evangelicals to engage with other religious traditions (except to denigrate those traditions in an attempt to maintain the comfort of assumed superiority, in other words to pander to fear).

Trust is the way past fear. Perfect love actually cannot allow fear to rule the day. Which leads me to question how much North American Evangelicals actually get the message of God's love. I am not advocating doing what feels good, or even whatever you want. But trust is about doing the right thing, even when it is a risk, even if it risks the notions you have which seem to protect your comfort. My hope is that my fearless life might be an example, an example of life lived to the fullest in and through the presence of God.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Something to Ponder from Bram Stoker

"To believe in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American who so defined faith: 'that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.' For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of a big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck. We get the small truth first. Good! We keep him, and we value him; but all the same we must not let him think himself all the truth in the universe."
Abraham van Helsing

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Naked Church

Whenever I travel I love visiting churches, usually Vineyards. What was a special treat is going to Rothsay Vineyard, the church we affectionately call the Naked Church, and finally meeting the Haywards! So nice. My favourite part was having a whole lot of them gather around my family and pray into us. I love my ecclesial family. Oh, we are on the road, not for too long though. Posts might be sparse.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Too Much Jesus?

In thinking about Moltmann's Hope Theology, the question of Christology takes the center stage. I am reminded of Neuhaus' claim about Pannenberg and the particularity of Christian history and its claims for Jesus. Eventually Pannenberg finds common ground, at least with many Jewish scholars, in the coming reign of God (focus of his hope project). But is this true with Moltmann as well? And if it isn't then what is the problem? I mean, the Christian claims about Jesus are pretty lofty (and I believe rightly so), but does this present a liability to the Theology of Hope? At the very least it presents some tricky obstacles.

The main issue is one of history. Is history something we take at face value or is it something we need to impose a framework (worldview maybe) upon? There are several realities of history that we need to bear in mind here: a) history is accomplished b) history has winners and losers (and it is not always easy to see who is who) c) history is told by the living who interpret the past d) history is not the test of veracity.

That last one is where I think many evangelicals trip up. We like to read history as support for our preconceptions, just like we do with our sacred texts. What we end up with is a very skewed view of history. One year I decided to study Count Zinzendorf, the much loved patron saint of the 24/7 movement. What is interesting is Zin was one wacky man. No doubt he championed pietism and has had an indelible influence on the history of the Church, but it is a sanitized version of the Count that we know and love. History, seen this way, is merely a tool to serve an ulterior motive. When we treat history in such a way we not only miss the lessons of history, but we grind underfoot those caught on the underside of history.

If Christology is the lens we bring to our reading of history, then we end up with a sort of his-story, but not with the whole-story. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for a high Christology, but if our theological reading of history continues to trample underfoot the losers of history, then really we have done nothing but comforted our ears with what we want to hear. This does not stop us from looking for Christ in history, I am not suggesting we delimit the sciences, but it is the imposition of Christ onto history that is the problem. In this theology should be the second act and it should be a redemptive (not deformative) act.

But how does this square with a Christology that claims Jesus' as the hinge of all that ever has and will happen? If the Christ event is the one defining event of all history, then can we not make the assumption that all history is ultimately his-story and the rest, if there is anything, is superfluous? I think that ultimately the question comes down to why we need such certainty in our Christological assumptions. My concern is that we are simply treating the past with the same fear we treat the future - we need to mitigate our risk by increasing our certitude. However, this is not a stance of faith it is a stance of fear. History can be both and needs to be both if Christ is to enter into history as saviour and redeemer.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Grace petering

Part of writing the last post was the realization that this theology of grace is more what I want to see in Hope Theology, I needed to get it out to recognize that. I think I can build this case, but it is not as simple as I would like.

Another aspect of grace that I really want to explore is grace as the great equalizer. I really dislike the notion of spiritual levels, that is an understanding that some people are further along in their spirituality than others. The reason I dislike it is because I've seen many examples of this simply manifesting as arrogance. Don't get me wrong, I do think there are some people who just exude wisdom. But usually they are the last people to claim a higher level of spirituality. Grace is a great proof against such nonsense.

Grace says that our relationship with God is contingent on nothing I could achieve in and of myself. It is freely offered with no strings attached. Now this bugs people. How can that horrible adulterous backstabber have a clean conscience before God while I, the one who works so hard to please God, have the same standing. It strikes us as unjust. But the reality is it has nothing to do with justice, at least not in the ways we like to conceive of justice. It is a triumph of mercy over judgment. It doesn't mean that God leaves us messed up (when we are messed up), but that God meets us individually with the same offer of grace. It means that even though each of us is treated as a completely different person, we are all loved and accepted in the same way.

OK now I can move on to Christology, that one will be a bit harder to tackle.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


The last couple of posts, and likely many of the future posts for this summer, are simply stream of consciousness writing to help me process the themes I'm studying for my comprehensive exams in the Fall. The first theme is Hope Theology. I'd love to have feedback and even challenges, I'm going to try and stay within the frameworks of each theme when interacting though - even where I disagree with the dialogue partners in that theme. Just to give you a heads up, my next theme traces Kingdom of God theology from Dodds to Fuellenbach (Ladd is a whole theme to himself!). But on with the show...

I mentioned that I would tackle grace and Christology in their own posts. Grace has been a really interesting pre-occupation for me. I have argued in the past that evangelicals have a pretty wimpy notion of grace, at least some of us do. It was really The Future of Hope (Volf and Katerberg) that convinced me of that. But, what has me thinking about the importance of our theology of grace is my growing yoga practice.

In yoga there is a lot of discussion about karma. It is actually quite nuanced, so to do it justice I need to acknowledge that there are karmic notions that place an impetus on grace, grace being an impulse that opens the possibility for us to exhibit good karma (prevenient grace perhaps). But typically the notion of karma is simple and attractive - if you do good then good will happen to you. Even Jesus affirms such a life philosophy through the golden rule. In fact this notion of karma is consistent throughout world religions. (Many naive Christian theologies are actually adaptations of this simple idea of karma.)

Karma is a way of trying to navigate the ambiguities of life while affirming a moral directive. Karma explains theodicy in a mechanistic causal relationship that is actually fatalistic, especially when expressed in terms of inherited karma. Consider the Hindu caste system, which attributes families of origin with karmic debt. What is interesting is that these systems and ideas fit well into the cyclic views of life experienced by agrarian societies. What goes around comes around and as the Jewish wisdom literature says, a curse does not arrive without a cause. But while there is a cyclic aspect to life, one that is helpful to acknowledge if you livelihood depends on seasonality, Judaism introduces a different thrust in history. History is not the endless repetition of karmic cycles, but rather a journey that is best articulated by a theology of grace.

Grace actually has nothing to do with responsibility. Although even the Apostle Paul will tell us that our response to grace should be nothing short of complete surrender. But grace never hinges on our actions. Rather grace begins and ends with God. Grace gives God the first and last word in every situation. Grace initiates our journey and grace leads us forward. The great symbol of this is the Exodus.

Recognizing the paradigmatic shift that the Exodus presents, Moltmann presents his critique of Christianity in a chapter called the Exodus Church (ToH). Yet, he doesn't focus on an exegetic (Gutierrez is worth reading here) but rather a critique. He shows the ways that Christianity has simply become mired in cultural expectations, robbed of a real vision of hope. This is clear in the indictment that missions are basically useless unless they inspire hope, I would add that any form of evangelism that does not engender hope is equally useless. Hope, in this case is rooted in the promise of God (ToH 328). Just as the Exodus leads a people to the promised land, so hope becomes our utopian (sorry Dodd) expectation in history. Grace is the mechanism of our participation in this hope.

Grace should rightly be seen as the activity of God (God alone) at work in the world undoing the ravages of sin. Grace functions always like an invitation. Like a gift it must be received, engaged with and enjoyed (or endured). "[W]e can have it only by confidently waiting for it and wholeheartedly seeking it." (ToH 326) Grace is the promoter of hope, the assurance that the project of the restoration and renewal of this world is God's own project. Grace is God entering into the suffering of this life for the sake of the whole world.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Interventionist History And Theodicy

A key aspect of the Theology of Hope is their theory of history. In many of the Pentecostal/Charismatic communities I've been part of, an interventionist view of history prevails. That is a view where God intervenes in history from another place, often bending the natural order. This view of God as miracle worker is often questioned by those who wrestle with theodicy, specifically why does God seemingly intervene in some situations and not in others? While this denotes an underlying karmic expectation of God, it is a legitimate complaint. If God is so fickle as to pander to the cause of just those who (especially in affluent countries) pray the "right" way, then is that a God worth worshipping? I think not. Fortunately, Theology of Hope offers a different, and I think more satisfactory, approach.

It is important to note that Theology of Hope has its roots in WWII. It is theology after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. And it is theology that is convinced that hope for the world has to be hope for the victims of these tragedies. These events can lead one to think that God is distant from and unconcerned with the follies of humans. But neither the deist clockmaker or the fickle interventionist will do as God - both should die.

Theology of Hope places history as the main place of God's activity. But not as a puppeteer pulling strings from the outside, rather as an actor who has entered into our history with us. This theology takes a distinctly incarnational view of God's relationship with history. But it also takes very seriously an idea the aforementioned views of God reject - God is a passable participant in history. God doesn't enter history to eradicate the mess carte blanche, God enters into history to live our suffering with us. This notion of historical solidarity is not passive. It comes as a response of God to the cries of God's people - just as in the story of the Exodus. But also like the Exodus we learn that God's people undergo the journey of hope, even though they may never see the final destination (and like the Exodus the journey continues to unfold).

History is not some preview to the "real" show. At the heart of interventionist notions (and its only response to theodicy) of history is the idea that ultimately this world does not matter. Theology of Hope rejects this view of history. History is where God meets us. God's action in history opens up possibilities for the future of this world. It is hope that says all the deaths and suffering of this world is not in vane, it is not just to be endured until the real show begins. It means our lives count - or should count! It calls us to act and gives us the resources to act beyond our assumed capacities, simply because we act with God. (Implicit in Theology of Hope are theologies of Grace and Christology, I will turn to those in further posts.)

This view of history is also the proof against a reason controlled deistic world of laws. If God works outside of laws then God is guilty of failing to intervene in the most horrific situations. If God is restricted by the laws then God is simply a functionary and probably no more than a construct of our minds. But God who meets us in the midst of life, where life is a dynamic range of possibilities (grace) opens a place for God's activity in history. An activity that does not violate our freedom, yet calls us to a deeper freedom that involves our conscious participation in God's project of undoing the ravages of what might easily be called our sinful acts of freedom in this world.