Trump and the Practical Apostasy of Evangelicalism

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I am saddened and angered by a sense of betrayal. Betrayal on a number of fronts, but especially from conservative Evangelicals.

Before going on with some of the hard things I’m going to say here, let me qualify myself some. There are Evangelicals I love and respect. I know not all Evangelicals fall prey to the chronic problems in Evangelicalism I will be criticizing. Further, every camp has its own blind spots, including my own. Yet Evangelicalism at large is riddled with problems, and their support of President Trump has exposed many of them like nothing I have seen before.

My background is Evangelical, so I have a long and close connection to these people. I grew up under the influence of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh, and Billy Graham. I know that world intimately. As a homeschooler and then Bible college graduate, my whole life and identity was once wrapped up in that subculture.

But for some time now and for a variety of reasons I have moved away from Evangelicalism. I came to disagree with a lot of its common stances: for example, its rejection of critical Biblical scholarship, suspicion of mainstream science, misrepresentation of history, opposition to LGBTQ rights and identities, complicity with racism, promotion of patriarchy, glorification of violence, unbridled capitalism, antipathy toward pluralism, denialism over climate change, anti-intellectualism, legalism, cultish acquiescence to authority figures, tendency to conflate the gospel with American civil religion, and so on.

But beyond disagreements with specific claims, I also came to oppose what I see as Evangelicalism’s pervasively wrongheaded spirit and priorities. As a rule, I find it anti-intellectual and narrow in loving; emphasizing dogma over evidence, power over love, exclusion over inclusion, security over justice, and entrepreneurship over authenticity.

I’ve had a lot of flashpoints of pain as Evangelicalism and I have gone more and more our separate ways. I remember when 19,000 Evangelicals would literally rather children starve then for World Vision to let married gay people work in their offices. I remember when a swath of Moody students and even a Moody professor attacked a black student group for speaking what should have been an obvious truth about racism in America. I remember these things and more.

But this election cycle and in particular the way white Evangelicals have largely supported Donald Trump has been the most painful unmasking to me of hypocrisy and moral corruption within Evangelicalism.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Bible is fallible (for example, see Sparks or Stark). This does not necessarily undercut it serving as an authority for Christians alongside others such as reason, experience, science, or the fresh leading of the Spirit. My study of both the Bible itself and religion more generally indicates to me that love is at the center of authentic spirituality.

Love is God’s primary attribute and, redeemed and empowered by His love, our primary duty is to love God and love others. This is the central message of Jesus and the Bible. The world religions disagree on many things, but most agree that the Highest Ultimate is primarily loving, good, or blissful and that we are to treat others as we would want to be treated. Such notions are backed up by the phenomenology of religious experience, miracles, and our ethical intuitions.

But because Evangelicals refuse to accept this, they make the Bible into an idol and act in ways that are profoundly unloving.

For example, because of a handful of texts that condemn homosexuality, they treat LGBTQ people in ways that can only be described as hateful.

They mock them and condemn them. They compare their most intimate relationships to pedophiles, sex with animals, pollution, rape, and murder. They isolate them, suspect them, and treat them with revulsion (even those who are trying to follow their rules). They claim natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or AIDS are God’s judgment for our “wicked” acceptance them.

Many Evangelicals insist that not only is their love wrong, but even their unchosen attractions and indeed their sexual or gender identities are as well. Contrary to science and experience, they insist they chose this and can change it. Some of them force their children to go through the torture of “conversion therapy.” Others literally try to cast out the “demon” of homosexuality. Some kick their children out of their homes to the streets, or speak from their bully pulpits about the necessity of doing so -“turning their children over to Satan,” as it were.

They buy into debunked theories about what causes gayness: a distant father or overbearing mother, for example. They offer quack “treatments” to “fix” it, such as exercises to find their supposedly suppressed “inner” masculinity or femininity. As indicated above, other “treatments” such as shock therapy are not so mild.

They do this in spite of crystal-clear evidence of how important relationships are to our well-being – how fundamentally we are wired for that – and how unaccepting environments drastically elevate LGBTQ persons’ susceptibility to depression and suicide. They do it in spite of evidence that these people largely do not choose these identities and  in most cases cannot choose to be otherwise (though they can choose to act in non-conformity with them). They simply refuse to listen to LGBTQ folk when they try to explain these things or share about their experiences.

In recent years, this hostility toward gay and trans people has become a hallmark of their identity and one of their top political priorities. This, apparently, is the line they are willing to die on. Not caring for strangers, widows, orphans, or the poor (even though the Bible has loads more to say about that.) Those things would be too costly and threatening. No, hatred toward gay and trans people is easier. That’s the name of the game.

They actively seek to bar gay and bisexual couples from being able to marry the person they love, with all the benefits that come with that. They seek to pass bills making it easier for LGBTQ folk to be fired or denied housing or medical care simply because they are gay, bisexual, or trans. Under the guise of religious freedom, they seek to pass bills that make it easier for businesses and colleges to discriminate against gay people. (I’ll admit some of the issues and specific cases related to this last point are more tricky and debatable than others.)

They seek to bar trans people from using the bathroom that marches their gender identity – which can endanger trans individuals and is a source of anxiety and shame. They spread statistically and scientifically misleading propaganda about LGBTQ people being sexual predators (or predators posing as such). They’ve done this for years.

Some on the fringes insist LGBTQ people ought to be castrated, imprisoned, or executed; something that was not so fringe until just recently (or even today in other countries like Uganda where Evangelicals have actively campaigned for such measures).

And to add insult to injury, they say they do all of these things because they love gay people. They’re just trying to save them from themselves. But as I’ve said, their only basis for saying this is their idolatry to a fallible human book.

Science and experience are unambiguous about what loving LGBTQ people as embodied creatures means. It means welcoming them, listening to them, celebrating them and their families, and standing up for their rights. Evangelical opposition to these things can only be called “love” if love is divorced from embodied flourishing – a sort of Gnosticism.

I have seen the Spirit working in powerful ways in my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans brothers and sisters. Many of them are quite evidently bearing the fruit of the Spirit. I can see the wholesomeness and goodness that comes from their partnerships and how they flourish in communities that treat them with respect.

Really this isn’t that difficult. And unlike other minority issues, granting LCBTQ rights doesn’t cost anything (outside of shedding an untenably ideology, which I realize can be painful). Evangelical hatred and willingness to sacrifice their LGBTQ sons and daughters to the idol of inerrancy is scandalous. It destroys lives and brings ill repute to the gospel.

And they voted for Trump precisely because of his promises to enact policies that would make life harder for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans individuals and families.

Based on idolatry to inerrancy, Evangelicals also often treat women in dehumanizing and unloving ways. In varying degrees, many of them accept the patriarchal norms of the Bible as God’s unalterable will.

I believe there is a minority thread within the Bible (particularly the New Testament) that is more egalitarian. Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image (Genesis  1:27). In places, women are celebrated as prophets, leaders, apostles, teachers, or deacons (Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14; Romans 16:7; Acts 18:24; etc.). Jesus treated women with respect and let them learn and follow him alongside his male disciples (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). This was radical for those times. Arguably Paul’s language of mutual submission and his command for husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:21-31 Colossians 3:18-19) in his version of the household codes  was meant to gently subvert Greco-Roman patriarchal norms.

Even just the logic of the New Testament’s pervasive love ethic would seem to imply egalitarianism when combined with what we know about history, sociology, and what women tell us about themselves.

But despite this minority thread, the Bible is predominately patriarchal. It teaches in many places that women are worth less than men and are essentially “owned” and controlled by them (see Coogan).

For example, fathers could sell their daughters as slaves ( Exodus 21:7) and were the ones to arrange their marriages . A woman’s vow could be nullified by her father or husband (Numbers 30:3-16). In the ten commandments, women are listed among other possessions men are told to not covet (Exodus 20:17). If a raped woman was not yet “given” to another man, her father might choose to give her to her rapist as a wife, provided they never divorced (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Captive virgins could be forced to become wives (Numbers 31:15-18).

While the New Testament generally tries to soften and even arguably subvert this kind of patriarchal teaching, it doesn’t do away with it. It gives more explicit “proof texts” to Christians who take a hierarchical view of gender roles than ones who take an egalitarian one. Hierarchical views of women have been the norm throughout church history and they are the predominate ones today among conservative Christians.

For example, the authors of Ephesians and Colossians command wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). The author of 2 Timothy prohibits women from teaching men and says they must learn from their husbands (2:11-13). He also implies that the reason for this is that women – like Eve – are more gullible; but that they will be saved if they maintain a traditional docile role epitomized by bearing children (2:14-15). The author of 1 Peter says that wives must submit to their husbands and consider them masters even if they are treating them “harshly” (1 Peter 3:1-6 cf 2:18-25)

Between this and Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, many abused women have been pressured to simply “grin and bear it.” Other texts that encourage reconciliation and forgiveness have been used to pressure victims of all stripes (women, children, etc.) to get back together with their abusers after a simple “I’m sorry.” Religious abusers manipulate this masterfully.

And since women are excluded from leadership, men have the inside track in credibility and in setting the agenda of what issues are on the front burner. It’s no coincidence, for example, that spousal abuse and marital rape were not taken seriously until the second wave feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s, with women gaining more representation for the issues that concerned them.

I could spend a lot of time detailing how much damage these kinds of teachings have done: to women I know, to policies and social norms, in other societies with analogous views (such as traditional Islamic ones). This patriarchal mindset that sees women as objects to be possessed and controlled plays into rape culture, a paternalistic view of women as less intelligent or more fragile, and it plays into male entitlement in men’s dealings with women. It is straight up evil. It is NOT God’s eternal, perfect will. But many of the Biblical authors seemed to think it was. We have to be honest about that.

In contrast, many of the women in my life are strong leaders and gifted co-workers. Relationships I’ve seen characterized by mutual respect and egalitarian decision making seem more healthy and loving.

In voting for Trump, many Evangelicals downplayed the harm his words and actions have caused women. They again indicated how little they value women and how opposed or indifferent they are to many policies which are important to women.

On these things Evangelicals are often wrong, but at least they are consistent. On so many other things, they are not even willing to follow the Bible. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they emphasize purity culture and blind obedience but neglect more important matters of justice, mercy, and love.

For example, the Bible says in multiple places that God’s people are to care for the “stranger” or “alien” in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:19; Psalm 146:9; Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2; etc.). This isn’t just supposed to be a personal impulse; many texts indicate that it is a matter of (political) justice (Exodus 12:49;  23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; 22:21; 23:9; 24:22; 25:35 Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 24:19-21; 26:12; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 47:22-23 Malachi 3:5; Zechariah 7:10; etc.).

The actual sin of Sodom (not the made up one of “being gay”) was greed and inhospitality toward strangers and the poor (Genesis 19; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 10:14; Hebrews 13:2). And honestly, this is as simple as following the Bible’s pervasive love ethic.

Yet many Evangelicals support policies and a candidate who threatens the lives of refugees and immigrants and often treats foreigners as less than.

In the same vein, one of the Bible’s most dominate themes is care for widows, orphans, poor people, and the vulnerable. This is mentioned repeatedly in the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:21-24; 23:6; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 15:13-15; 24:19-21; 26:12; etc.).

Failure to insure such justice is one of the prophets’ major indictments on Israel that led to her judgment (Psalm 10:14, 17-18; 146:1, 5-9; Proverbs 14:31; 19:17;  Isaiah 1:10-17; 3:14-25; 10:1-3; 58:3-7; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; 22:3, 13-19; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 16:49-50; Amos 2:7; 5:10-15, 21-24; 6:1-7; Micah 2:2; Zechariah 7:10 Malachi 3:5; etc.).

Such care is central to Jesus’ gospel (Luke 1:52-53; 3:10-14; 4:18-19; 6:20-26, 33-36; 7:22-23; 10:25-37; 11:39-42; 12:16-34; 14:12-14; 16:19-31; 18:18-30; 19:8-9; Mark 12:28-31, 40; Matthew 6:1-4, 19-24; 10:7-8; 15:32; 18:21-35; 25:35-40; etc.).

And it was distinctively characteristic of the early church (John 13:29; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 5:1-11; 6:1-7; Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:22-28;   1 Corinthians 11:20-22; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 3:3; 6:8-10, 17-19; Hebrews 13:5; James 2:1-17 ; 5:1-5 1 John 2:15-17; 3:16-18; etc.).

Much like with foreigners, many of these texts imply that this care was not just charity, but was a matter of justice. This is implicit or explicit in most of the texts surveyed. But specific examples include the following: Farmers were commanded to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so the poor could eat (Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Usury was condemned so the rich could not prey on the vulnerable (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Leviticus 25:35-38). After seven years, debts were to be cancelled and slaves set free, and after fifty years land was to revert back to its original owner (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15).

Yet, based on their misuse of a handful of texts (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), many Evangelicals see a special concern for the vulnerable and extra economic measures to ensure their well-being as negotiable or even as harmful “enabling.” They tend to support typical Republican policies that subsidize big business and the rich, cut funding for social safety nets for the poor, oppose health care for everyone, and glorify unbridled capitalism. Knowingly or unknowingly, they support economic exploitation of people here in the US and in other countries. They seem unconcerned about increased income inequality. Though they claim to be pro-life, they often oppose measures to help the poor that actually mitigate the reasons poor women often feel compelled to have abortions.

And now they have voted for a man who literally brags about his greed. In voting for Trump, they are supporting our increased move toward oligarchy and unfettered exploitation of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). He told us to love our enemies and pray for them, forgive those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek  (Matthew 5:38-48; 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-36; John 20:23; etc.). He condemned violence and retribution, instead calling us to leave vengeance in God’s hands. He demonstrated such radical enemy-love and forgiveness in his own example (Luke 22:49-51; 23:34) – an example the New Testament repeatedly call us to imitate (Philippians 2:4-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 John 3:16; etc.).

Love saturates the New Testament’s moral vision. It is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), the “royal law” (James 2:8), the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), and the most enduring virtue (1 Corinthians 13). The early church up until Constantine took this mandate of love and forgiveness seriously (Romans 12:9-21; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 3:9; etc. see Sider). The Bible’s ideal vision for God’s coming kingdom – a kingdom breaking into the world through Christ – is a pacific one, where swords are beaten into plow sheds (Isaiah 2:4).

While admittedly such values can never be fully transferred to a this-worldly government, it does seem that a preference for peace, magnanimity, fairness, and restraint with others (where possible) would be closer to the kingdom ideal. It seems like preventative and restorative measures would be more in keeping with this spirt then purely punitive ones (though obviously the latter are necessary sometimes).

But Evangelicals voted for a bully of a man who glories in brutality: wanting to bring back torture, “pound the hell” out of ISIS, kill innocent people, punch protesters and others he disagrees with, beef up our already bloated military even more, and exploit other countries under the threat of force. He is apparently unwilling to address systemic violence and racism in our law enforcement. In his view, more people need guns, not less. He and Evangelicals tend to favor the most harsh punishments, including bringing back the death penalty.

The Bible is clear that lying is wrong and truth is paramount (Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9; etc.). Just logically, truth and trustworthiness are of bedrock importance in a leader.

But Evangelicals trusted and voted for one of the most dishonest persons to ever run for office. Their tendency to anti-intellectualism and  gullible faith apparently made them easy targets. As Valarie Tarico says, they have become a people of exploiters and exploited.

Relatedly, the Bible is clear that we should not gossip or slander others (Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 1:29; James 4:11; etc.). Common norms of decency and honesty also suggest this.

And yet Evangelicals lapped up the GOP’s slander of Obama, Clinton, and others. To be clear, there are legitimate areas to critique these figures; genuine faults and mistakes. But so much of the angry fervor that was whipped up was baseless (e.g. Obama being a Muslim and not really American, Benghazi, democrats wanting to take your guns, the election being rigged, Jade Helm being a secret plot to take over Texas, etc.).

The Bible and particularly the New Testament exalt humility, servanthood, and sacrifice in a leader (Luke 14:7-14; 22:25-30; Philippians 2:1-11; etc.). But Evangelicals have voted for a man that epitomizes arrogant boastfulness and who is transparently egotistical and self-serving.

Jesus’ teaching about neighbor love ideally universalizes the sphere of people we are supposed to care for (Luke 10:25-37). The teachings of the other great religions and even humanist ethics  have also tended toward expanding the circle of concern. Even so-called “identity politics” aims to do so. For example, feminists at their best aren’t against men or wanting to have a leg up on them; they just want equal rights and an equitable standing to them.

In a globalized and interconnected world that faces challenges such as climate change that will depend on us coming together, things like equality and mutuality are more important than ever.

Yet, in the face of this Evangelicals voted for a man who seeks an “America first” approach. And specifically, a white America, a “Christian” America, a rich, male, and non-disabled America. To the degradation of everyone else. Conservative Evangelicals often seem to buy into a rugged individualism that is neither true to reality nor to spiritual (Trinitarian) values of interconnectedness and loving care for one another.

The Bible’s teachings on love, compassion, and human equality as well as common decency indicate that racism is wrong.

Yet, Evangelicals have a troubling history of either actively supporting racism or not taking it very seriously. Many European Christians appealed to the “doctrine of discovery” and a sense of “manifest destiny” to justify stealing native peoples’ lands and  enslaving or killing them. Evangelical Protestants campaigned to bring slavery to the colonies. Since the Bible has more “proof texts” to support slavery and nothing that directly condemns it, conservative “Bible believing” Christians were among the fiercest defenders of the institution. They saw abolitionism as a liberal assault on the authority of God’s Word.

After the modernist controversy that birthed the Fundamentalist movement, conservatives tended to be suspicious of social justice movements in general. White Evangelicals were among the most resistant to the civil rights movement and this resistance played an integral role in the rise of the Religious Right. Since then they have made greater strides towards racial equality. But for a number of reasons including still segregated churches, unacknowledged privilege, and antipathy to social science and social justice, they are often less than fully engaged allies for racial equity.

But many Evangelicals rewrite this history to lesson their guilt and not have to face America’s “original sin” of racism and white supremacy. They wax eloquent about our “glorious” Christian past. They pretend like they were reformers when they were most often the lethargic or the actual oppressors. The pretend like racism no longer infects us. Or they at least downplay the (structural) complexity of it or the misery it inflicts, from Standing Rock to Ferguson. And now they have voted for the candidate endorsed by the KKK who ran on a barely concealed platform of white nationalism.

They claim they care about religious freedom, but vote for a man that has vowed to strip the rights from people who don’t think like they do. In reality, many only care about their Christian privilege, and for some, a literal Christian theocracy.

They say they care about the Constitution but voted for a man who threatens freedom of religion, free speech and the press, an impartial judiciarate, due process, and who evinces totalitarian impulses.

They say the want to “Focus on the Family” and are the party of “family values.” But what they really mean is white heterosexual middle-class families. They certainly don’t care about gay families. They seek to undermine their rights and family structures at every turn. They don’t care about minority families. They seek to see immigrant families torn apart by deportations. They support the devastation that the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration has caused to black families. They seek to cut off social safety net support for poor families. Until recently, they were disdainful of divorced or single-parent families.

They say they are pro-life, but in terms of policy are often pro-guns, pro-war, pro death penalty, anti police reform or accountability, anti-poor, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-minority, climate change deniers, anti-gay, against preventative community health measures, and so on.

They say when it suits them that “character counts,” but then elect a vulgar man who is a liar, an adulterer, a bully, a thief, a peeper and genital grabber, perhaps a rapist, a bigot, an arrogant and greedy person, an owner of strip clubs and casinos, a man who glories in power and celebrates violence.

Many people thought it ironic that when Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife posed next to Trump for a photo, a prominent framed picture can be seen next to them of Trump with a playboy model. The hypocritical contrast to past Evangelical posturings was palpable. The world took notice.

As Robert P Jones notes,

In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement [that a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life]. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dyke between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office (emphasis mine).

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently tweeted, “The culture that warned me against moral relativism is now the hardest to convince that character, truth, and compassion matter.” I agree.

At the root of so many of these problems is that too many Evangelicals hold to a theology that emphasizes power over love. I have written on that here.

While this post may seem harsh, I have elsewhere been more gentle in calling Evangelicals to live up to their own tradition’s high principles.

And whether through gentle exhortation or more searing prophetic critique, I will continue to stand up for the truth and call my Evangelical kin to repent of their practical apostasy from the way of Jesus.

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God’s Love, Bliss, and Goodness – Introduction

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In this series I will spend a number of posts explaining why I think God is primarily loving, good, and blissful. I will argue that this is the dominant view of the Ultimate in most religions. I will argue that miracles and religious experience show the divine to be primarily benevolent. I will argue that our moral intuitions about ethical living imply that God is good. And I will also foward a number of pragmatic arguments for assuming that God is fundamentally loving and good.

I view this as a cumulative case. Some pieces of evidence are more important than others (for example, miracles and religious experience). Some pieces might not convince all on their own. But together I believe these arguments provide a strong basis for believing that God is predominately good.

God’s love and and goodness and the various ways this flows out to others and then back again is the heart and soul of my theology. While I have sought to make this entire series on “Essential Theology” balanced and wide-ranging; it started with God’s love in mind and has been building up from the beginning toward this the center, the crown, the capstone of my theology.

The task that lays before me is to prove that this isn’t merely my own opinion or wishful thinking, There are number of reasons to believe that the Ultimate is primarily loving, good, or blissful.

Since this series is mostly meant to cover core or essential aspects of the divine that are well evidenced and widely agreed upon, I willl not give a fully fleshed out exposition of what such a benevolent face to the divine means. Such an exposition would require going beyond the core, inclusive, interfaith format of the series and I suppose, in the fullest sense, would not even be possible. This series is meant to be an exercise in “mere theology.”

Nevertheless, I think evidence I present and the various angles I use to approach divine goodness will help flesh that out some. It is also impossible to completely avoid specific judgments or debatable claims. In the end, various religious paths do contradict each other – at least in their self-understandings. So I will occassionally foward my own view on a matter and seek to justify it.

I do not think that God is only loving, good, or blissfull. I think he is also just and will judge evil. I believe he might have additional goals and plans other than loving us humans. It isn’t all about us. There are also troubling questions concerning his relationship to suffering/evil and his apparent distance, hiddenness, or indifference to some who would know him. As well, we could register here the (somewhat) conflicting and ambiguous nature of his revelation to various cultures and individuals. There is a “dark” side to God. A harsh or indiffernt side to him. A side that can be disconforting (to say the least), even inspiring fear.

But is this “darker” side to God a fully true understanding; or is it in some cases a missunderstanding based on faulty dogma or ignorance about God’s intentions and relationship to the world? I believe that in some cases it is the latter. As I said, I believe God is also just and will judge. But is his justice and wrath equal or even superior to his love? Or is love at the center of who he is? What is God’s character like? What kind of being is he?

I was raised in a tradition that tended to see God as bi-polar. He was loving but also wrathful. And these attributes were more-or-less equal within him. Balanced. In Calvinism I was taught that God had to predestine some people to eternal conscious torment in hell to exhibit this wrathful side. It wasn’t that God started out loving everyone and desiring that they follow his way, only judging them when they willingly chose to stray from this path. There are theologies that teach this. In fact, as I will show, something like it is probably the dominate view.

But I was taught that God foreordained most people to inevitable chose evil, with the specific intention of punishing them so as to bring glory to himself by exhibiting his justice and (so they said) accentuating how amazing his grace really was to those he had chosen to be saved. In effect, this and other analogous theologies makes God’s love secondary. Other attributes predominate and even in discussions of God’s moral character, love is just one aspect there. It is not God’s primary impulse. Indeed, in Calvinism it would seem that wrath is actually more central to God’s character, since he only chose a “remnant” to save and the vast majority of his creatures to suffer eternally.

I note in passing that this isn’t just academic. What people believe about God has implications toward their quality of life and how they treat others.

While I believe in God’s justice (as I have said). I adamantly disagree that it is on par with God’s love. I wholeheartedly reject a scenario like the above where God is pictured as delighting in tormenting his creatures.

While I do not deny God’s justice or the troubling “darker” elements to how he has set up the world and chooses to interact with it; in my view this side to him is secondary and temporary. God is loving, good, and blissful and he desires good things for his creatures. Where those do not (yet) obtain, this is due to our own rejection of his way and/or have to do with evils he allows for an eventual greater good that will be realized. By turning to him, we too can enter into this life of love that will enrich and transform our lives.

In the following posts, I hope to defend this conception of God, starting by looking at the surprising consensus about it in the world’s religions.

 

It’s About Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently. The love of God. The love of Jesus. The love of people one for another. The more I live, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it’s about love. What do I mean by love? Is this just some mushy, sentimental, hippy dream? It was Larry Norman who cracked, “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.” We all know that the feeling of love is ephemeral and often fails us. We know that there are deep-set problems in our lives and in our world that see of no simple solution. So when I speak of love, I’m referencing more than mere sentiment and I’m not saying it’s easy. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? Not so much. We need a love that looks reality in the face and kisses it.

What do I mean by love? I am writing (more or less) about what Christians call agape love. As J. I.  Packer says, agape is a decision to do good to others with the purpose of in some sense making those others great. Right out of the gate we see that this love is more than sentimentality. I will argue shortly that love is not at its most healthy without empathy and warmth; but even when we don’t FEEL like it, we can choose to act lovingly toward others. How else could we make sense of such commands as, “love your enemies”?

Packer goes on to say that agape makes others great by serving not their professed wants but their observed real needs. We all know that sometimes indulging others’ whims is not genuinely loving. A parent does not give-in every time her child “must” have something.

On the other hand, we also know that sometimes others think they know what’s best for us and are unflinching in their assurance that we conform to their unrealistic template for who we must be. That is why the OBSERVED part is so important. Agage doesn’t just give in to others’ whims; but it also doesn’t try to force an untrue or unrealistic archetype onto them. It takes seriously what we learn about the world through all forms of knowledge. It factors in what we know about humans generally. But it pays especially close attention to the person or persons in front of us whom we are trying to love and it sympathetically asks, “what would I want, what would I need, if I were in his shoes, with his set of gifts, flaws, desires, and beliefs…?”

Sometimes “love must be tough.” That is, sometimes love means confronting someone else or denying them something they want that is not good for them. If in our current milieu the non-religious might tend more toward an overly indulgent love, it is safe to say that the religious tend toward the other extreme. As the saying goes, “only Christians shoot their wounded.” We all know the kind of “love” that “confronts” with a sheen of pious “concern” but with no real warmth, no true empathy, no heart. We also know of the spittle-flying rage and judgment that sometimes comes out of religious communities. Such words and behaviors don’t even make a pretense of love.

While love must sometimes be tough, I suspect it usually does not. Even where it does, this must always be done with humility, tentativeness, warmth, and after doing our own soul-searching—taking the beam out of our own eye first, so to speak. It must be undertaken with true empathy for “the other” and with real effort to spend time with them and learn about them. Love at its best spends time with others and really gets to know them.

This ties into my next point. Love is anything but cold, calculated, utilitarian action based on what is in our or others’ best interest. While love is more than a feeling, love is most definitely a “warm” word. And make no mistake; the warmth of real fellowship is one of our greatest needs (if not our greatest one). While love is a choice and an action, I fear sometimes the Christian community underplays the warmth of love in their reactions against sentimentality. When we reflect on love at its best; thoughts of laughter, joy, grins, and ecstasy come to mind. Part of the power of full-fledged love is precisely the joy it exudes.

Agape love also has a trustworthy and persevering quality to it. I see a lot of this in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind. It keeps no record of wrongs, it forgives. It’s this graciousness, warmth, and extraordinary ability to see the best in others (even when they are at their worst) that draws people in and can change the world. I think here of Bishop Myriel’s decision to forgive Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

I also think of the safety and encouragement spoken of in The Choir’s song “A Friend So Kind.” In one of the best summaries of love I’ve heard, they sing, “When you feel ashamed and ugly inside. You need someone who cares, with whom you dare confide. To stare into your dark soul to see hope and light. And tell you, ‘You’re glorious, I know you’ll be all right. You’re beautiful, I love you I know you’ll be all right.’ There is no mountain of virtue higher to ascend. No quality more divine. Than to be a friend, ah to be a friend so kind.” This, THIS is what most of us crave.

If all of this sounds a little too perfect, it is. We are flawed and often act in an unloving manner. We hurt each other and we’ll do it again. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthy ideal to shot for. Many of us have had the chance to see people who exemplify such love, however imperfectly. We can all chose to daily and hourly treat others in the way we would like to be treated. Where we fail, we can apologize, get back up, and try again.

And there is good news! The gospel is that God loves us like this! He loves YOU like this! He came down as a man in the person of Jesus to learn to sympathize with us in our suffering; to teach and exemplify how to love God and others; to call us to turn from our selfishness and malice and instead love others in this way in the new order he was establishing; to die for us to save us from our self-centeredness and shame; to rise again giving us hope that we too can one day fully experience this new order manifest in the flesh. The gospel promises that God’s goodness is big enough to forgive us the worst of offenses, granted we repent. Resting in God’s love we have sanctuary. And our experience of this extraordinary love and forgiveness can and should be a powerful compeller to so love and forgive others.

A Conversation on Love vs. Power As At The Heart of One’s Theology and Ethics

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Image by culturaljetlag.wordpress.com

[This post is based on a Facebook conversation I had with friends. It includes the original post and my responses to two questions. I’m pleased with it because it helped me tie together some disparate thoughts I had on a range of issues such as Calvinism, colonialism, inequality, how we become like what we worship, and how solidarity with others is just as important as a sense of duty.]

People deify power. It makes them feel safe and in control. We all crave this, especially in times of crisis.

Much harder, I’m finding, is consistent and utter devotion to Love. That takes risk and sacrifice.

But Love, when perfected, casts out fear. In a roundabout way–a narrower, more arduous way–it leads to a deeper kind of power and assurance.

Love and power can co-mingle, of course. But one or the other of them will always take the lead. Always.

I will have a lot more to say about this in the coming days, because it is absolutely the crux to everything I am about. But I’ll close for now by asking you this:

Do you worship a god whose power and entitlement limit how and to whom his love is expressed? Or do you worship a God whose power is definitively – even essentially – guided by his bottomless wellspring of love?

Choose carefully. We tend to become like what we worship.

Do you treat others as means to getting what you want? Or do you treat them as precious ends in and of themselves?

Do you create hierarchies in your mind of what kinds of people are really important–what kinds of people are worth humanizing; empathizing with; actually engaging in fellowship; and allowed to be the full range of things you might want to be yourself? Or do you treat others – ALL others – as perfect equals?

Stated this way, it sounds like an impossible ideal. Foolishness. Which of us does not miss that mark or need God’s grace?

But there is a movement, friends; a direction and goal you and I are headed. A habit of the heart and hands. One way or the other.

God’s grace is not a cheap grace. It urges change. Because it loves Itself, it loves us, and it loves those around us.

Choose wisely, my friends. As for me and my house, we will choose Love.

QUESTION 1): “I wonder how you are defining power.”

ANSWER: I have a few things in mind.

Perhaps its easier to describe than define in any absolute sense. I guess power in general has to do with the ability to do something. We talk about power a lot in the social sciences. That’s because it has such potential to either benefit (e.g. “empowerment”) or harm (e.g. “oppression”) others.

I guess I’m referring to a negative way that power is often understood and/or used. Often power is viewd as “aversarial, limited, coercive, and potentially exploitive.” I have power over you if I am the winner and you are the loser. I have power over you if I can dominate you and you serve me. I have more power if I can engineer the social system such that I am more likely to start ahead or get ahead based on something like my gender, race, class, or what not. I have more power if I can horde more resources or better control the social network and environment than you.

I think you can see the problem with that way of conceiving power vis a vis humans. Instead, as Jesus said, those who would be leaders are suppose to be servants (Matthew 20:26) who work for the common good – perhaps especially in regard to those on the margins who are most vulnerable. I think that actually fits in pretty well with social science notions of “shared power” and “empowerment.”

The idea here is that humanity is like a connected web. We are all in this together. We all have dignity and worth and unique things to contribute. We should all have our basic rights respected and our basic needs met. If we can focus on our shared identity and keep expanding the web of who we consider as “in” our group or family, so to speak; we begin to see that helping others is like helping ourselves. And helping others really can be empowering, both to them and us. There is a generative synergy and dynamic to love that is real and powerful.

But love can also take risk and what feels like a “humbling” loss of power or privilege. It can feel very “weak” at times. Perhaps in an absolute sense and from a human perspective, it really does sometimes involve a loss of power. That’s why I said that love should be the guiding force. Our power should be guided by love; not our love meted out on the basis of what is convenient or expedient to us. But that is in many ways unnatural and so it takes intentionality and work. All the more so in that social science shows us that people with power or privilege have a hell of a time giving it up or even recognizing it for what it is. Those of us who have various types of privilege tend to see actual inequalities as a “fair” status quo and any increase in the equality of a historically oppressed people group as an “unfair” threat to our power.

This interplay and contrast between power and love is also important in terms of our theology about God. So much of what I see as wrong and harmful in theology has to do with emphasizing God’s power over his love. Let me give you a few examples.

Classical theism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence and invulnerability. God is unchanging, unmoved by emotion, and meticulously controlling and forseeing of every action. A lot of contemporary theology (for example, process theology or open theism) emphasizes a more dynamic and relational view of God. They tend to see classical theism as too beholden to Greek philosophical categories rather than the covenantal Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures or the incarnate God in Christ of the New Testament. Their resistance to much of classical theism is also because they tend to prioritize God’s love over his power. For me, I probably have more respect for classical theism than some; but I agree with their insight that God’s relationality and love should be emphasized more centrally.

In the middle ages there was a dispute that continues between those who thought that God’s will was the final determiner of what is morally right or whether his will is essentially constrained by a specific kind of moral nature. For those who sided with will; God could literally command that murder, rape, or lying was right and these would be morally binding simply because of God’s sovereign choice and authority. God’s power/will is not constrained by anything inside or outside him. This view is known as philosophical “volunteerism.” It has been rejected by most theologians because it is Biblically, morally, and practically disasterous.

But I believe that Jerry Walls and David Baggett are right that Calvinists (and I think others) fall into a sort of practical volunteerism in trying to justify morally abhorant actions or commands by God as his sovereign right. I agree that God has the authority to command human action, but what is plausibly taken as his commands needs to fit with his good nature, and preiminantly with his love. So many of the harmful norms blindly promoted or accepted in some religious contexts recur because God’s will is emphasized over his love.

I think Calvinism itself shows this dynamic of power over love. Calvinism tends to see God’s sovereignty as his primary attribute, with his main goal as to bring glory to himself. He controls everything toward that end. He forordains and controls people such that they would fall. Some he determines to remain in sin so he can punish them eternally and exemplify his justice, all to his glory. He determines some to be eternally saved, all to his glory. All of this happens unconditionally and irresistably. There are numerous problems with this related to justive and culpability for evil. But perhaps the biggest problem is the eclipse of God’s love by his power. As Austin Fischer puts it, love becomes just another cog in the glory wheel. How different this is from the Triune God who IS love (1 John 4:8) and who humbled himself enough to become incarnate and be crucified because of his love for the world and for their salvation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16; etc.).

I’m going to quote philosopher Jerry Walls and New Testament scholar Joseph Dongell at length here because I think that they capture well this difference of love vs. power as at the center.

“In a fascinating historical study, British theologian Colin Gunton identifies key points at which he believes some central Christian doctrines got of track. One particularly interesting development is that in Western theology since Augustine ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ Gunton sees this manifested in the way the doctrine of double predestination is understood in some traditions. Part of the fundamental problem, Gunton believes, is a deficient understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love (Mk 1:11; Jn 3:34-35; 5:19-20; 17:20-26). Because he has such a nature, he genuinely loves all persons and genuinely invites them to share his love (Jn 3:16; 14:19-21; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:7-12).

As we saw in chapter five, Calvinist John Piper recognizes the possibility that God may not choose his son for salvation, but he insists that he would adore God in that case…Does Piper’s attitude reflect piety at its best, or is it deeply at odds with God’s character revealed in Scripture? Interestingly, the title of the article in which Piper insists on adoring a God who might consign his son to hell is “How Does a Sovereign God Love?” We believe Piper has the question backward and that that his article reflects the unfortunate subordination of love to will that Gunton identifies. Given the full revelation of God in Scripture, the question we should be asking is, how would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?

When love is subordinated to will, then the fatherhood of God, which is emphasized in the Trinity (Mk 1:11; Jn 1:18; 5:19-20; 17:20-26; 20:17; 1 Cor 15:20-28), takes back seat to the image of God as King or Ruler. God’s essential relational nature as a being who consists in three persons becomes secondary to the notion that God is a sovereign monarch whose will cannot be thwarted.

Without the benefit of the New Testament, such a perspective is perhaps understandable. This is not to deny that God’s love is revealed in the Old Testament (Lam 3:22; Hos 11:1). However, the full meaning that God is love was revealed in its clearest light only with the incarnation (Rom 5:8; Gal 2:20; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:9). In the brilliant light of the incarnation, we learn that from all eternity there was love between the Father and the Son (Jn 17:24, 26). Moreover, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost revealed that God’s eternal dance of love included the third person of the Trinity as well (Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6; 5:16, 22; Eph 3:16-19). That is why love is not merely an activity of God – it is his very essence.

In a nutshell, our case against Calvinism is that it doesn’t do justice to the character of the God revealed in Scripture. It does not accurately portray the holy One who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps 103:8), the God for whom love is not merely an option or a sovereign choice, but who is such that his eternal nature IS love (1 Jn 4:8)…

By subordinating love to will, Calvinism fails to glorify God as he has revealed himself in history and ultimately in the incarnation of his Son. The love of God as revealed in the incarnation is not a matter of mere words but the Word made flesh who actively seeks the well-being of his fallen children. A love that truly and passionately promotes the well-being of the beloved, even when it is costly, is the sort of love that has existed from all eternity in the Trinity and was revealed in the life of Jesus. This is the kind of love, moreover, that God commands his children to demonstrate by following his example (1 Jn 3:16-18). Because God loves all sinners in this fashion and actively works to promote their eternal well-being, there is rejoicing in heaven when one of them repents (Lk 15:7, 10). A God who commmands this sort of love and who positively delights in the repentance of sinners surely has no need or desire to show his sovereign power by passing over some fallen humans, nor would he truly glorify himself by doing so.” (“Why I Am Not A Calvinist” 218-21).

I hope that this illustrates more what I mean. I think there is an intimate and important connection between the emphasis in theology and in ethics – between who we worship and who we become. If we view God as good in a way that is primarily loving and only secondarily judgmental, there is an organic link between God with his character and what we are seeking to become, how we are to live.

But many view God as a tough judge who sees us as scum, who could explode in anger and judgment, who is furiously wrathful with us, who loads burdons on our backs, who demands right doctrines/beliefs, a micro-manager, a bully, authoritarian to the core, etc. But he wants US to be loving. His justice is different than our own. His love is different from our own, self-serving. This either creates a yawning gap between the God we are suppose to love and the commands he gives us or, I think more often, it creates leaders and people who become like this idol they have made God into. Is it any wonder that this view often creates nitpicky, authoritarian, egotistical, rigid, narrow minded Christians? And it is no coincidence that it is Calvinists who emphasize God’s authority who are most likely to be obsessed with the authority of males over females and with Christian privilege in American government.

In the anthology “Global God,” theologian William David Spencer has an interesting chapter entitled “God of Power versus God of Love: United States of America.” The book charts various global perspectives on God, comparing them with how the authors see God as revealed in Scripture. Spencer’s chapter is one of two on God in America. Spencer argues that throughout American history, Christians have tended to emphasize an “imperial” view of God that has propped up their colonial greed and sense of “manifest destiny” granted by “Providence:” “Those who saw themselves called by such a God also saw themselves as invested with a portion of that absolute power to subdue the land and its inhabitants as ‘Providence’ so willed.” He argues that if they would have seen God’s power as essentially guided by love and as calling us to mimic that love, especially as exemplified in the person and teachings of Jesus, the history of the Americas might have been very different.

I could give other examples or find other connections, but I think you can see what I mean.

QUESTION 2): “…By whose measurement should we make everyone perfectly equal? I mean, I agree that we should all be granted the same rights and have the same access and opportunities to succeed (and fail) in life. But…I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a state where you could treat every person the exact same way, and I can see how bad things would get trying to accomplish that.”

ANSWER: I don’t mean exactly the same. I just meant that we would treat everyone the way we would want to be treated; that we would (ideally) see everyone as family. This implies the equal rights and equal access to opportunities that you mentioned. It implies the end of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, extreme class and wealth differences (I recognize that there will always be some differences there, that people need incentives to work hard) and all other socially constructed forms of discriminatory difference or oppression. It involves a spiritual sense of brotherly and sisterly love that I believe transcends even this and (I believe) can only divinely given.

Allan Johnson captures some of what I mean in his book “Privilege, Power, and Difference.” He writes about how what he calls the do-a-good-deed approach of moral principle has a limited ability to motivate dominate groups to give up their privilege in seeking a truly fair world. What is truly needed is a sense of collective ownership and family. He writes,

“It [the do-a-good-deed approach] depends on an impulse of generosity toward others, and this impulse tends to rise and fall depending one how secure the privileged feel in their own situation…

The do-a-good-deed approach also rests on a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’–the ‘us’ who help and the less fortunate ‘them’ who get helped. The problem is that the former feel very little reason to identify with the latter. When ‘we’ who are not poor or with disabilities, for example, help out ‘those people’ who are poor or with disabilities, there can be a real seperation and distance even at the momen of reaching out to help. In fact, the act of helping – of being able to help – can reaffirm the social distance between the two groups and heighten everyone’s awareness of it. Thus every such act of giving to others is always a statement, intended or not, of one group’s ability to give and the other’s inability to get along without it. And in a society that counts independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency among its highest cultural values, it’s impossible to avoid the negative judgments attached to those on the receiving end and the status-enhancing judgments conferred on those who give.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more than to people, which can lead to disconnection rather than connection. I take care of my children for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection with them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their welfare. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsible I’ll feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor. It’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience then as ‘others’ whom I decide to help because I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and can’t be part of without paying attention to what goes on in it.

Another problem with acting merely from a sense of principle is that part of the appeal is the good feeling it gives people about themselves when they do it, which can motivate them only in the short run. Confronting issues such as sexism and racism is hard and sometimes painful and even frightening work, and feeling good about being virtuous isn’t likely to sustain people over the rugged course of it.

What can sustain them is a sense of OWNSHIP, that the trouble is truly THEIR trouble and not someone else’s, because this means their responsibility to do something no longer feels like an option. It isn’t something they can choose to do if they’re feeling in a generous mood or can “afford” to at the moment. It is, quite simply, one of the terms of their participation in the world they live in, however large or small they define it. Without that sense of ownership, serious work on issues of privilege will always be what Roosevelt Thomas calls a ‘fair weather’ item on the agenda” (p. 72-73).

I know that this sense of humanity as one connected family or “in-group” is not natural to humans. We have evolved to value our children and biological family over others and our immediate in-groups vs. other out-groups. That’s why I say it is an ideal to be progressively sought. That’s also why I suspect it can’t be fully obtained without becoming connected with God.

In saying it is an ideal, I acknowledge that there can sometimes be ethical dilemmas. For example, in a life-and-death situation were we have to choose between our family living and some strangers living, we’ll likely choose our family. And I think if that’s truly the case, we should! But more often the choice is between great privilege and wealth for our families and a little less of that to help others who desperately need it. Between giving those in our family or in-group an extra leg up over others and sacrificing to give that unfair advantage up so that everyone can have an equal opportunity.

This article contrasting Donald Trump and Pope Francis’ contrasting visions might also help show you the vision I have of the world I’d like as well as the difference between the ideals of “vulnerable” connected power and personal “invulnerable” power. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/09/28/4320668.htm

Essential Theology: the Everywhere God

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I believe that God is omnipresent, that he in some way exists everywhere. This follows from him being the Ground of all Being. If everything everywhere continues to depend on his upholding for its existence, then he must inhabit and infuse everything with his sustaining power and presence.

I suppose one could see God as a proximally distant, deistic first cause who wound the universe up like a machine and who now lets it run independently, free from direct contact with him. I guess this is a possiblity. But it is not the classical view of God. Nor is it the typical one of many traditional peoples – who tend to see everything infused with the divine.

In my view, the omnipresence of the divine is one of the most widely agreed upon and (I think) best evidenced aspects of God. It is held by Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians,  Neoplatonists, Chinese philosophers, many Native Americans, and others as well. Buddhism and Islam have, in different ways, a view of the divine that is effectively analogous to omnipresence (see below). It is also taught by most sources of sacred revelation of which I am aware.

While some texts in the Hebrew Tanakh might seem to limit God’s knowledge and locale, others emphasize his unsurpassed knowledge and his presence everywhere. That God is omnipresent is also the view of modern Judaism. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord?” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Christianity affirms God’s unique revelation in the incarnation of Jesus, but it also teaches that God is omnipresent. “[there is] One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Hinduism sees all things as manifestations of Brahman, though our ignorance masks this reality.  “All that we see in the world is Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1).

One source describes it in this way: “Thus, Brahman is conceived of as the very essence of existence and knowledge, which pervades the entire universe, including every living being. The goal of Hinduism is to somehow “wake up,” and realize one’s own connection to the divine reality that may be called Brahman or God. Because God is everywhere, God is also present within each living being.” http://veda.wikidot.com/brahman

In ancient Chinese religion, Tian (“Heaven”) was the Supreme Being. Although conceived of as personal, at other times it was seen as an almost pantheistic force. Tsu-Kung Chuang writes, “Tian ultimately became a symbol for the universal and inherently good principle of creativity constantly functioning in the background as the source and origin of all things, permeating all things and unifying all things into a harmonious whole” (Spencer “The Global God” 191-92).

Many Native Americans also believe that the divine is omnipresent. Algonquin tribes see Manitou as the personal spiritual life force that manifests in everything. I remember watching a documentary on the American West. In one episode the narrator chronicaled a treaty the Cheyanne agreed to with white settlers. Sensing deception, they warned the settlers that “the everywhere God” would see if the treaty was broken and judge them if they were unfaithful to their word (as they in fact were).

In some Buddhist understandings, Nirvana is an enlarged and transformed state that envelopes perception of all things.

Keith Ward characterizes one Mahayana Buddhist viewpoint in this way: “Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world…That means that the attainment of nirvana is not a transfer from the empirical world to the realm beyond; since there is no realm beyond; there is only the one world, seen either as empirical or as transcendental. Thus it is that ‘All sentient beings intrinsically abide in eternity and are entered into nirvana’ (46). All that is needed is to realize this, and the unsatisfying nature of impermanent nature (which was always in a sense illusion) will be overcome in the experience of absolute bliss (which is only seeing the same reality in its true nature)” (Ward, “Concepts of God.” 64-65).

Because Islam so emphasizes God’s transcendent uniqueness, it is hesitant to associate God with anything in the world. Some Muslims deny that God is literally omnipresent. They say he only resides on his throne in heaven. To say he is everywhere or in everything is idolatrous. However, this view would also say that God’s knowledge is omnipresent. They would say he sees all things, controls all things, and can be confessed, worshipped, and vitally encountered anywhere. In effect, this is not wholly different than what others mean by God’s omnipresence.

Other Muslims, while being careful to reject identity between the Creator and his creation, do affirm that God is omnipresent. Sufis particularly seek a mystical, loving union with God. And in my view something very like divine omnipresence seems implicit in Quranic texts: “And indeed We have created man and We know what his own-self whispers to him. And we are nearer to him then his jugular vein” (Quran 50:16).

In spite of this broad agreement I should note that not everyone sees it this way. Many Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and African deities are spacially limited. Many traditional societies have a pantheon with a Supreme God who is distant from the world, and then lesser deities and ancestors-spirits who are more connected to everyday life. Even here though, the spiritual realm touches everything.

These commonalities might in some cases be based on philosophical or pragmatic reasoning (on which more shortly). But I believe they are more widely grounded in religious experience. People can experience God or the transcendent in a wide range of contexts – in nature, at a fiery religious service, in tender moments of human affection, in meditation, prayer, or reflection, and in other places too. Virtually any place or object can become a locus or channel of the divine. This might be more concentrated at specific holy sites, rituals, or objects (whether due to God’s will or simply human convention, I can’t say).

However, to many traditional peoples and mystics, it is not coincidental that almost anything can become a place of divine encounter. Rather, from a mature spiritual viewpoint God is in and behind all. Either (as some would have it) God is the only most Real entity and everything else is an illusion of which we must free ourselves. In this view, the goal is to be completely (re)unified to God or the Ultimate by disciplined shedding of the ego and attachment to the ephemeral world.

Or, in what I see as a more balanced approach, the world and individual personhood are real and of great worth, but they are thus precisely because God has so endowed them and purposed them and inhabited what is best in them. The goal of the spiritual life here is to simultaneously enjoy and value our physical life and embodied individuated relationships with others (in balance and in seeking to redeem them in line with moral ends) while also more and more seeing and adoring God in and behind them. This is a both/and enterprise. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

So anything that is good and beautiful can be enjoyed in itself, but with the deeper additional significance of seeing it as a manifestation of the overflow the transcendent goodness and beauty of its eternal Source in God. Any moment of suffering becomes a chance to perceive our merciful, compassionate God suffering with those who suffer.

I believe a mature view of God sees him as most identifying with the suffering and vulnerable. Thus, as we are more and more connected to God and able to see him in and behind the world, we begin to grow more and more in compassion and in a thirst for the liberation of others (liberation in any and every way, from any and everything that inhibits them from flourishing and from being connected to God).

This commitment to others and to God – this commitment to all (including a balanced self-regard) naturally begins to wean us of unhealthy ego and immoderate attachment to physical things, comforts, or pleasures. It’s not that those things are illusions or bad in and of themselves; it is rather that an enlarged view sees them in light of the vision of God and his coming kingdom of love and justice, where eveyone is able to flourish and so simultaneously enjoy God and the world.

So a moderate form of discipline and loss of self-focus unfolds. But it is not legalistically forced or artificially and inflexibly dictated by wooden rules. Rather, it grows organically. Spiritually. The law kills, but the Spirit brings life. And although a death to an outer self is called for – and this is scary and hard; one discovers that there is a deeper and fuller self underneath that is able to enjoy and relate to others, the world, and God. But precisely BECAUSE of its deeper connection to our unshakable and good God, it is more loving, joyous, and stable; less attached to any specific, transient thing.

The more extreme view that relativizes the world is not completely wrong. God can use that; though there are real dangers and abuses there too – particularly when it is not just self-chosen but forced on others.

In my view, there are extremes on both sides. It is wrongheaded to denigrate the physical. One can become so “spiritually” minded that they are no earthly good, and thus are not all that healthily spiritual after all. But I also know some people deeply involved in physically helping others and in striving for justice who get overwhelmed at the scope of the need and the obstacles and setbacks in reaching it. Some of them tend toward harsh anger, discouragement, bitterness, and disillusionment. This is completely understandable. But in my view they could use a spiritual infusion of love, hope, and vitality.

Perhaps God uses both types of extremes to balance us out. Or at least people drawn more towards one or the other without denying its counterpoint. I feel that one of the strengths of my perspective is that it accounts for both a real physical world and a real transcendent realm. And it doesn’t hold these in opposition to one another, but sees them as united in God’s purposes.

But I digress. The point in all of that was to say that the spiritual life, people’s encounters with God, often suggest God’s omnipresence and arguably are predicated on it.

Let me expound on that a little more, because I believe that God’s immanent omnipresence helps explain and synthesize a range of spiritual experiences that are sometimes interpreted as contradictory.

People sometimes experience what feels like elevated states of union with a personal God where their individuality is swallowed up in an ocean of divinity (as it were). Obviously the Being encountered seems enormous, infinite, absolute. Some experience an emptying of self and a unified state of being that feels non-personal or at least different than personalistic conceptions of God. Some people have transcendent experiences of what seem like becoming one with nature or the universe.

If God can choose to come in different forms and is united to everything by virtue of his omnipresent upholding; could it be that people are experiencing heightened connections to him or to the natural (or spiritual) world through him? Could this doctrine be potentially applied flexibly and inclusively to synthesize a larger array of ultimate-seeming spiritual experiences? I think so. I will write on that more when I discuss God’s immanence and also when I write on God’s inclusivity.

As I’ve said before, I believe that God is transcendently distinct from his creation (however intimately connected they may be). And to be clear, I don’t believe that God is the only spiritual entity. I believe in angelic beings and also evil demonic ones. As well, human physical and spiritual capacities can sometimes delude us. So it could be that some experiences are simply delusions on the level of hallucination and that some are of other spiritual beings that are greater than us, but are not Ultimate Reality. Experiences have to be evaluated as they come. But I’m not satisfied with current dogmatic/exclusivistic criteria. I think God is bigger than that and that there are more rational ways to judge seeming religious experiences based on the ultimacy, weightiness, and (especially) goodness of the object or person encountered.

There are pragmatic reasons to assume that God is omnipresent. Most theists believe that God is just and will judge the world in perfect wisdom. But how can he do that without being everywhere present to see and understand people’s words and actions in their context? Belief in God’s justice as the upholder of the moral order is a major reason various peoples have inferred that God must be omnipresent (or something very like it).

Finally, I embrace God’s omnipresence because of the good spiritual and moral fruit it brings. As I expounded on above, it is plays a central role in mysticism and in connecting all of life to worship and centered love for God and others.

It plays into what theists call “the fear of the Lord.” As Morgan Guyton writes, “Honor is called ‘fearing God’ in the Bible, not because honorable people are walking through life in constant terror, but simply because they live as though the most important and powerful being of the universe is right next to them at every moment” (Guyton “How Jesus Saves the World from Us” 63).

This can involve a healthy soberness in light of God’s justice and a future accounting for how we live. It can involve a sense of his ever-present love, sympathy, graciousness, and empowering. Seeing God’s spark, image, or Self in others can foster compassion and a sense of co-identity with them.

It is because of this broad agreement grounded in religious experience, rational and pragmatic inference, moral and spiritual fruit, and possibly even divine revelation that I believe that God is omnipresent.

Depression, Robin Williams, and Me

(I originally shared this two years ago to friends in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. I think it is still worth saying.)

Like many of us here, I’m grieved by the death of Robin Williams. I was moved by many of his movies growing up and into today. Dead Poet’s Society was brilliant, as was Good Will Hunting. Hook, Jumanji, and Aladdin left great childhood memories. And the list goes on and on.

But Williams death strikes close to home for other reasons. As I looked at pictures of him and read about his life and career, I sensed subtle areas of similarity. Very subtle, of course. Hah. We are very different people and I could never hope to reach his heights. But it was a little eerie.

The biggest similarity – the reason I was so interested and also the reason for this post – was Williams’ battle with depression. It appears that Williams took his own life after battling severe depression. And depression is a thing I know something about.

I’ve dealt with recurrent low moods for much of my life. Partly because of my life experiences, partly because of some seriously warped beliefs I ingested as a young man, and partly because of my personality and psychological makeup; I’ve also long dealt with feelings of worthlessness. On a few occasions, these things have morphed into full-fledged depression. As some of you may know, on one of those occasions I had to drop out of college for a year because I was seriously considering killing myself.

I don’t say these things to draw attention to me. I am mostly in a better place now – something that at various times in my life, I could never have envisioned. I say these things so that perhaps others who are be going through these things might know they are not alone. Certain people might be more predisposed to it, but depression can strike anyone. It isn’t just a down day or a down week. It isn’t rational or something that can (necessarily) be just explained or prayed away. Sometimes it will be a temporary spell. Other times it might be a life-long struggle.

What does depression look and feel like? Wikipedia has this to say, “A person having a major depressive episode usually exhibits a very low mood, which pervades all aspects of life, and an inability to experience pleasure in activities that were formerly enjoyed. Depressed people may be preoccupied with, or ruminate over, thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt or regret, helplessness, hopelessness, and self-hatred. In severe cases, depressed people may have symptoms of psychosis. These symptoms include delusions or, less commonly, hallucinations, usually unpleasant…Other symptoms of depression include poor concentration and memory…withdrawal from social situations and activities, reduced sex drive, and thoughts of death or suicide. Insomnia is common among the depressed. In the typical pattern, a person wakes very early and cannot get back to sleep…Hypersomnia, or oversleeping, can also happen….A depressed person may report multiple physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or digestive problems.”

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say they feel depressed after a bad day or a discouraging life event. While that might be analogically true, people need to realize that clinical depression is much more serious than that. According to the DSM, one must have severely depressed moods for at least two weeks for one’s condition to be considered a major depressive episode.

In psychology we talk about the interplay between the psychological, social, and biological. All these spheres can affect if and how we experience depression and how we can deal with it. Sometimes depression is brought on by a tragic life-event. Sometimes there is nothing like that and it is more a chemical imbalance. Sometimes it’s a perfect storm of things that conspire together to bring it about.

Likewise, sometimes just talking with others – friends or a counselor – can help resolve it. Sometimes one has to try different combinations of medication to help deal with it. This might be temporary, but others discover they may need to be on medication for the long-term in dealing with natural low moods. Knowing ourselves and our bodies and taking good care of ourselves through exercise, healthy eating, and owning a balanced (“kind”) view of ourselves, with realistic expectations, are important. For some extreme cases, people are willing to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)–which is safer than it used to be, but should definitely not be tried until other forms of treatment are exhausted.

And there ARE extreme cases. In my abnormal psychology class, we read an article by Andrew Solomon about his experiences with depression and his subsequent research into it. At his worst, Solomon could hardly move and could not muster the will to eat on his own. This can be serious stuff, folks. Please, please don’t shrug it away.

As a Christian, at it’s best, I have found what I take to be my relationship with God to be a huge help in dealing with the darkness. God gives me gracious love and endows my struggles with moral purpose and the ability to bless others. But I must also say that God has sometimes seemed very absent and that religion and religious people have often contributed to my depressions. When you see and feel so much suffering, it can be hard to believe that God is good. As a young man, I came to believe things about God that made him into a self-centered and demanding tyrant. I came to view humans as vile and only having worth as pawns in God’s eternal plan to bring glory to himself. This was oppressive and dehumanizing, and I still struggle with vestiges of it. I know I’m not alone there.

Many of those close to me, including my family, understood more about psychology and depression. They supported me and I am grateful for it. But some of the people and thinkers I most respected back then were deeply suspicious of depression. To them, it smacked of self-centeredness and excuses. There is a large strand in conservative Evangelicalism that reacts against “secular” psychology, self-esteem, and the like as “un-biblical” and “man-centered.” Supposedly, we just need to get outside of ourselves and depend on God. I cannot emphasize enough how damaging this kind of mindset can be to those who are well and truly struggling with depression. We all need a nudge to do the right thing sometimes. But cajoling others to suck it up and just trust God while they are in the abyss of depression is NOT the way to go. Instead, ere on the side of love and grace and “weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

One last thought: Some of us might have to deal with these kinds of things our whole lives. That thought can seem overwhelming, unbearable. But please know there is hope. I’m living proof that one can go from a place of utter hopelessness to vitality. It’s not easy and the darkness is always there, just under the surface. But it can get better. Really. I mentioned Andrew Solomon earlier. Solomon has gone on to get his Ph. D. in psychology and has written some amazing articles and books on depression, children with severe disabilities, and other things. In fact, many of the most accomplished artists, musicians, poets, and (yes) comedians have dealt with depression or other tragic things in their lives. The same could be said in other fields.

It is possible to develop meaningful relationships with others. People can be cruel. But many will appreciate you for who you are. Likely many already do. They do not see you as simply a burden. Again, it’s not easy; but you can get to a place of reasonable health and purpose in your life.

If you are in the abyss of depression, please reach out to someone. Talk to a trusted friend or family member or think of seeing a therapist. There is no shame in it. I’m here too if you ever need someone to listen.

Marvelous Musings On the Eve of My First Anniversary

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One year ago today* I married the love of my life.

It was a day of ups and downs. Both Jen and I are shy people and we were exhausted coming into that early morning ceremony. We found strength by focusing on each other, looking into each other’s eyes.

After the festivities, the highlight for me was actually afterwards when we went to the back field to play with the kids and watch the sunset. Words cannot describe how sublime that was. Truly one of the best days of my life.

Few people know how well nigh miraculous this serendipitous turn in my life has been. For years I struggled with crippling shyness and anxiety around girls, and extreme self loathing.

Video chatting with Jen just a few weeks ago, the evident joy on her face – a most precious gift that cannot be bought – reminded of something I wrote during my dark days at Moody.

Bear with me here. To get to the light I must first survey the darkness a little bit.

“When I must interact with girls I feel like my lack is naked before them. I just ‘know’ that they can sense my weakness, my lust, my pitiful nature; and so I just want to get away from their gaze. I don’t want to be reminded of the fact that I am overweight, that at best I am a ‘good friend’ a ‘nice guy.’ I do not want to be reminded of the fact that, compared to others I am plain, boring, devoid of wit, the kind of man a girl settles for for securities sake but who fails to stir her soul. The fact that I know my foulness and am not sure I could ever let myself expose that to the kind of woman I would seriously consider romantically. Nor do I think I could trust that having been exposed to this she would experience joy in me; pity perhaps, fondness, but not the trusting joyful trembling that I see in the faces of many girls who are in loving relationships with the quality guys here at Moody.”

Pretty depressing stuff, right? I entered my thirties without having ever been in a serious relationship. I had one disastrous encounter with a woman that almost shattered me. I had all but given up hope of finding a life partner.

And then, unexpectedly, God brought Jen into my life. We started out as friends messaging back and forth on Facebook.

The first time I called her, she was too shy to speak. On my first trip to the Philippines I almost broke her heart.

We had drifted into being in a relationship without having really talked through it. A fearful, doubt-ridden me broke it off. Ever cautious, we had to work through a number of issues – some real and others just mental.

It wasn’t until my second trip to the Philippines that I was able to relax into Jen’s love in a more unabashed way.

To state the obvious, Jen is strikingly beautiful. I actually find her shyness to be highly attractive. It brought out my tenderness, confidence, and even jocularity. Perhaps nowhere but in the Philippines would anyone think to characterize me as a “cowboy.” Lol. God knew what he was doing.

Jen is a sensitive person with a kind heart. I’ve always found kindness to be a most attractive trait. She is servant-hearted and loyal toward those she cares about.

She loves God with a childlike faith. She loves children and flowers and natural beauty. She has good friends and a good family (definite selling points). She is unbelievably funny.

Beyond these draws and others, I found that we had ridiculously good chemistry with one another. This diminutive, shy woman could be extremely affectionate and even fierce. What a marvelous enigma.

That second trip helped solidify our love. Numerous deep talks, intentional explorations, and everyday loving words and actions to build the other up were starting to have an effect. Over the years we’ve built an strong foundation of trust through our honesty, intentionality, and affection.

And I saw all of that in microcosm two weeks ago in our video chat. This woman – my wife – was beaming at me and speaking with love and joy and nary a restraint. Who would have believed it? Miracles do happen.

Happy 1st anniversary mahal ko and asawa ko, Jennylyn Sales Smith. I’m so blessed to have you in my life. You will never know how much you mean to me.

*Actually written a few days ago.