Faith Thinking Aloud

Is There a God?

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[This post was intended originally to become the first chapter of a book-length conversation responding to questions I hear people, especially younger people, asking or implying. I don’t know how or even whether I’ll continue in that direction.]

“There is a god!” exclaims the person who has just experienced a moment of satisfaction or relief triggered by an event perceived as good and right but not truly expected. After a seemingly endless search, a job has come at last. A villain has been thwarted and made to suffer consequences. Indeed, a payback for someone else’s wrongdoing (often labeled popularly as “karma”) may be the most frequent trigger for this exclamation which, to be sure, is not actual faith or even a serious affirmation of the existence of a deity, but merely the voicing of delight in some unexpected but welcome rightness or good fortune in a world where so much goes wrong for people without power while the powerful seem to get away with the cruelties of their greed and privilege and even to be rewarded for them.

“Is there a God?” is a question of no concern or very little concern in biblical faith and thinking. Believing that there is a God, that God does in fact exist, differs so much from faith in God that there may seem to be no connection between the two. But here I urge caution.

In my youth, I read a book titled Our Faith written by the theologian Emil Brunner for his sons. Brunner begins the first chapter with this question, “Is There a God?” but his answer might surprise many people. In what may seem little more than a wave of his hand, he dismisses the people asking this question as idlers or as skeptics voicing mere intellectual curiosity about how anyone might craft an answer. I know where he was coming from. It can sound as though the questioner were implying, What do you have to say, believer, that might provide casual interest or, failing that, cynical laughter? Come, amuse me with your answer.

But there is another possibility. People do not always lead off with their real questions but guard against exposing their deeper and more painful concerns. Sometimes – just maybe sometimes – the real but unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, question is, rather, “Is there a God for me?”

Is there any God for me? Am I just an accident in a world with no Creator? Does my life have any meaning or purpose? Does it matter how I live if there is no answer to why I live beyond the biological facts of my birth and, so far, continued personal existence? Am I responsible for anything, and am I accountable to anyone beyond myself? Do my choices really matter, or is all human life merely a balance between pleasure and pain (with the former overbalanced for a few and the latter for many)? Is hope an empty word or just a lofty term for delusional optimism? Are we alone in the universe? Who is to say what is just or unjust, right or wrong, helpful or destructive?

I have known people for whom the question was not of God’s existence but of God’s attitude toward them. Not, “Does God exist?” but, “Does God hate me?” This deeply painful question is quite likely to trouble people whose conditions of existence are regarded as shameful, deficient, abnormal, or even sinful by their society, their parents and their parents’ churches, and their peers. Am I the child “of a lesser god” or of no god at all? These may be people wondering why they have to be who they are and what cruelty made them different in ways they did not choose, no matter what is said about their supposed choices by people who condemn them. But doubt about there being a God “for me” can come to anyone at any time in life.

My first draft of a response to the question, “Is there a God?” grew long and complex. Here I stop, at least for now, with an imperative for myself and other people of faith who care how they represent to others the God in whom they believe. Respect the questioner! I may hear only what the person’s mouth says and catch the tone of indifference, amusement, cynicism, scorn, or presumed superiority. God hears what the heart says.

How to respond is a different question, and I’m sure I cannot spell out an answer for all situations. The answer seems to me unlikely to be an argument, a well-formed and carefully-worded defense of the faith, for if the question really is deeper and more personal than it sounds, the answer must be personal and relational, too. The person covering vulnerability with cynicism or indifference will need to sense vulnerability in my response, in me, before, maybe, opening up. Besides, the goal is not to convince the mind that, yes, there is a God. As I said at the outset, that question is unbiblical and of little concern for faith. An unloved child does not need to know that there is, indeed, such a thing as love in the world but needs to know, feel (experience!), and believe (however cautiously), that there is love for her/him/them as a person.

Is there a God? Who cares? Is there a God for me, for us, and for this seemingly god-forsaken world? Let our answer start with and emerge from respect for the questioner.

The Laughter of Fools

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Many years ago, I saw a Peanuts comic strip which, as I recall, began with other children laughing at Charlie Brown, not in true amusement but in derision. Nothing is funny. The children are being cruel, finding delight in making Charlie feel as much shame and rejection as they can force upon him. They are dismissing him from acceptance as a person. Upon reaching his home, Charlie hears someone on the radio extolling the joy of hearing children’s laughter. In the final frame, Charlie Brown kicks the radio.

This morning on Facebook, I saw a short series of comic strips from “Tom the Dancing Bug” grouped under the question, “What comes after Peanuts?” Following the alphabet, the strip answers, “Q-nuts” with obvious reference to QAnon. One of the strips in the series has Charlie Brown saying to two little girls that we would do well to follow science and take the precautions needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. The girls make no reasonable argument or, indeed, argument of any kind but just laugh and laugh as though something genuinely funny has happened. But no, their laughter is without humor. Nothing funny has occurred. Theirs is the mocking laughter of fools.

It has become fashionable on Facebook and, I suspect, on other so-called “social media” platforms to react with derisive laughter emojis to any serious comment that does not fit into the MAGA world-view. A report on a young black woman’s lawsuit against a local Bible college she alleges discriminated against her to an extent that damaged her student years there has drawn dozens (at least) of those dismissive little laughy faces. Those little laughy faces serve as a cowardly way of refusing to consider any opinion, insight, or experience that, if regarded thoughtfully, might threaten the comfort of unthinking certitude in which other people’s pains, experiences, and aspirations are rejected out of hand.

Let me be clear about something: my use of the term “fools.” Have I ever myself spoken or acted foolishly? Yes, I have, as we say, “played the fool” and lived to regret it. Is there anyone among us who has not played the fool, ever? I doubt there is such a person, and likely people imagining themselves to be such always reasonable and wise persons would, in that imagining, be playing the fool big time. Besides, someone important to me has warned against demeaning another person by declaring with an assumed sense of superiority, “You fool!”

It seems always easier to play the fool in a group of like-minded people doing so together in unified and mutually reinforced folly. The group has the advantage of providing cover for the individual and, also, of being able to gang up on the person who expresses a concern that challenges the group’s shared ignorance, prejudice, or cowardice.

So, we have the trending practice on social media of seeing a serious concern raised and immediately responding with a laughy emoji which becomes the face of refusal. Refusal to think. Refusal to care or even consider. Refusal to respect. Refusal to respond as an adult human being.

Such easy refusal damages us as a society. It shuts down public conversation and tempts us to regard the “other side” in our polarized nation as not worth even talking with. It insulates us against sympathy or empathy with other people. It separates us into our comfortable echo chambers where we hear only reinforcement for what we already think and believe. Certainly, it threatens our democracy and all our social institutions. Now, with yet another surge of the COVID-19 virus in its Delta variant, it threatens our very lives, but even without the virus (though we are not without the virus and have dimming hopes for being without it any time soon), it drives down and tramples the very idea of a United States of America and the concept of public good.

And what would be the response of refusers to this blog post? The laughter of fools, I suppose.

A Discouraging Word

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Yesterday, I posted a comment on one of our Lititz, Pennsylvania, Facebook group pages. A woman had asked why the town was holding a super-spreader event this weekend. Predictably, her question ignited angry retorts from the “freedom!” (without public responsibility) crowd.

The craft show is a big event drawing tens of thousands of people in good years. The two main streets are closed as they and the Lititz Springs Park are lined with tents and booths. The event is also important for the town as it raises money for the community’s benefit. From the event Facebook page: “The money raised through renting out spaces to the crafters, subtracting expenses, is given right back to the community. The Rotary Club of Lititz donates to nonprofits such as Lititz Springs Park, Lititz Library, Warwick Community Ambulance Association and local fire companies.”

The retorts to the woman’s question included the usual laughter emojis, which I suppose are a way to “own the libs” for people who have no reasonable reply to offer. They were not the responses I found most discouraging.

I suggested that the fear that this year the craft fair could become a super-spreader event was not bogus and that, according to our current numbers, Lancaster County could be in for a very rough time with the virus. For so doing, I drew the usual disparaging retorts: a so-clever abuse of my nickname, a recommendation that I stop watching CNN, and more laughter emojis, plus a small chorus of, “Stay home if you’re afraid,” “It’s a personal choice,” and “I’ll be there with no mask!” Discouraging? Yes, but not unexpected. I should note that my rather understated comment drew more than a few positive emojis as well. So, “America’s coolest small town” does have people taking seriously the resurgence of the virus with its Delta variant that is attacking children in new and troubling numbers.

Two further retorts, however, stood out as discouraging. One woman posted, “I just want to be free and have fun!” As someone noted recently, “Freedom without responsibility is mere adolescence.” I felt my own dark thoughts troubling me as I imagined the headstone for a child’s grave inscribed (as it surely would never be) with, “My mother just wanted to be free and have fun. Well, Mom, now you’re free of me. Have fun!” What a terrible thought! But we are in the midst of a resurgent pandemic, and a pandemic kills without regard for its victim’s age or the depth of grief it causes among parents left not only with horrific loss but also with the self-blame of, “If only I had . . . .” I wish it would not happen to any parent or any person, but I fear there will be parents left blaming themselves in their grief.

The second discouraging retort came from another woman parroting a vacuous argument I had heard before: that because she could still smell odors through a mask, the mask obviously did not protect her from the virus. Upside down and backwards. Of course I can detect odors through my mask. I need to be able to breathe, and I’m wearing a cloth mask not a gas mask. I wished I could talk rationally with the woman, but Facebook is not the forum for rational conversation on a subject that has aroused anger and resentment. What might I say?

You’ve been outside on a cold day when you could see your breath.  What you’ve seen is the small cloud of respiratory moisture droplets you are exhaling, and they can carry the virus.  Your mask keeps most of your moisture from escaping to infect other people, and their masks likewise protect you from their exhaled moisture.

What discourages me in these Facebook exchanges? First, I find discouraging the adolescent (and prevalent) misunderstanding of freedom as personal liberty without public responsibility. Second, I am discouraged by the deliberate dissemination of empty, silly arguments designed to deceive the gullible who are only too happy to repeat them in foolish and dangerous defenses against unwanted personal inconveniences such as getting the shot and wearing a mask.

I find myself wondering how we will escape the ravages of this pandemic without widespread tragedy to prove the lies false and the bravado foolish. I hope that as a county, state, nation, and world we can come to our senses without first having to bury more and more of our children and other loved ones.

Two False Arguments about Gun Control

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One fallacious argument is that many things, including bare hands, can be and are sometimes used to kill people and, therefore, the murder weapon does not matter but only the actions of the person doing the killing. How is this argument false?

The issue is purpose – the purpose for which the implement is designed and made. The purpose of cars and trucks is transportation. Yes, motor vehicle accidents kill people, but killing is not the purpose for which motor vehicles are designed, manufactured, and sold. As one Facebook comment I read recently argued, a scalpel can be used to kill (therefore, supposedly, gun control is unnecessary). Yes, a scalpel can be used to cut murderously, but its purpose is to cut surgically in order to heal bodies and preserve life.

In contrast, “America’s gun,” the AR-15 is designed to kill many people quickly, and the weapon has no other purpose. It is for killing people. This purpose sets it and some other weapons apart from all the other things, including bare hands, that can be used to kill accidentally or intentionally. One man advocating on Facebook in favor of the AR-15 assured me that hunting had nothing to do with it. We had a brief but straightforward conversation with no name calling, but when I asked him if insurrection did have something to do with it, he made no further reply.

Another fallacious argument is that police do not prevent crimes but only show up after a crime has been committed. How is this argument false?

How can anyone have data on how many crimes were prevented? Is someone keeping count of things that did not happen?

I realize there might be ways, such as comparing crime statistics in under-policed areas with crimes in highly policed areas, but such comparison is rife with possibly unequal factors, and so I doubt it would provide evidence of anything useful. For one thing, police attention is likely to be focused on high crime areas which may still have more reportable crimes than other areas but still fewer than they would have had without police presence.

When I’m driving on a highway and spot a police cruiser, I check my speedometer and, even if I’m under the speed limit, might touch the brake pedal reflexively. When I see police presence at a high school sporting event, I suspect the likelihood of fights has been reduced. How many fights did the presence of police prevent? Maybe none. Maybe several. How do we count what did not happen?

Businesses install alarm systems that notify the police of a possible break-in, and they post the warning that such systems are in force. The knowledge that the police will respond quickly should be enough to deter an even minimally intelligent thief or vandal.

I consider it insulting to police officers to suggest they don’t prevent crimes but only show up too late to help anyone. I’m sure much of police work involves hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of sudden high intensity and danger. I also think it’s reasonable to assume there would be more crime and, yes, more killings if no police were available.

If we are going to discuss gun control and, yes, disagree about it (and, of course, we are), let’s at least see to it that our logic is logical and not deceptive. We need to act for the public good, and honesty with each other would help us get there.

Very Brief Reflection

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Preaching that no longer proclaims hope for deliverance nor calls us to put our trust in the God who delivers the distressed extols instead the psychological and social benefits of faith. It is a preaching of adjustment and accommodation. It is not gospel but just religion. It is Moses going back down into Egypt to teach the Hebrews to accept their slavery and make the best of it. It is Jesus patting the sick on the head and telling them to embrace their diseases as life’s way of strengthening them inwardly. It is the slave catechisms of the American churches promising the people in bondage God’s approval if they obey their masters and make no trouble. It is hope dismissed and faith domesticated.

Stand and Wait

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Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live. (Ezekiel 18:31-32 NRSV)

Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; (Ezekiel 33:11 NRSV)

Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19, the Corona virus pandemic that has killed more than two hundred thousand people just here in the United States. Though he knew better, Trump has consistently dismissed the virus as a hoax, a conspiracy against him, or a mild problem no worse than the flu. Our current president has been the outstanding purveyor of misinformation about this pandemic and its true dangers.

Facebook this morning is oozing both satisfaction and disgust. “I wouldn’t wish the virus on either candidate,” says self-righteous outrage at the thought that anyone would call Trump’s infection karma or express pleasure of any sort at the news. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, hardly a fan of the president, takes the civilized approach of wishing the Trumps recovery and good health. Others do indeed celebrate this turn of events as the just deserts of a president who has deliberately misled his followers and insisted his servants put themselves at risk, mocking any who dared wear masks in his presence.

What is likely to happen if Trump’s case of the virus proves mild? Will he not use his narrow escape from the ravages of COVID-19 to double down on his dismissal of its dangers and refusal to do what the nation and world need to control the infection and death rates? Will he not gloat and swagger as more people die? Will he not try to shame people who take precautions and even incite violence against them? How could we possibly expect him to do otherwise when such has been his method of operation all along?

For those who care what the Bible says, we are assured that God takes no pleasure in the death of any person. But. The rest of the message is that God wants the wicked person to turn from evil ways and act justly.

Trump’s infection is not something to celebrate, but his presidency is even less so. What are the chances he will turn, face the truth, and act justly? Our own medical science suggests the chances are nil. We have no cure for malignant narcissism, and a lifetime of practiced cruelty, swindling, and bullying present an overwhelming challenge to hope for repentance from a man who refuses to admit he has ever done anything for which to ask forgiveness.

But, we read, “with God all things are possible.” My skepticism whispers in my ear that moving Donald Trump to repentance, a true change of heart and way of life, would make walking on water look like a party trick, but such matters are left to God, not to me.

So, what do I pray for Donald J. Trump? I cannot bring myself to pray for his quick and easy recovery, knowing he would use it to mislead and destroy more people, to strut his arrogance and further inflame his cult followers to violence. Neither will I pray for his death but only for God’s grace for the nation, the world, for the children in cages, for the victims of his racism and cruelty, and, yes, for Trump himself. But God’s grace excuses no evil but, rather, deals with it, offering life to the wicked who will turn from the evil they have been doing.

My watchword, then, for this day, this turn of events, is what Moses is told by God to say to the Israelites caught between the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian chariots. Stand, stand firm, and wait.

Disruptive Child

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My wife is an elementary school teacher, now retired. Because she had effective skills in classroom management and discipline, she was able to keep control of some very difficult children many of whom had severe mental and emotional problems and severely difficult lives outside of school. But she was the adult in the classroom. She had authority, even if not so much as teachers had formerly. She also used her authority fairly and did not demean or humiliate even her most difficult and disruptive students, and so they respected her.

Even so, the disruptive child took far more than his or her fair share of time and energy, not only from the teacher, but from the other children in the class. Day after day, too much had to be about that one child (even though there was often more than just one, multiplying the theft of time and energy). Dealing fairly and empathically yet firmly with a disruptive child is exhausting.

At suppertime, the disruptive child consumed more than one share of our conversation about the school day. He or she always hovered around the edges, if not occupying dead center, of conversation about the class as a whole.

What happens when the disruptive child is not a child but an adult with power, far greater power than anyone else in the room? Last night’s so-called debate showed us what happens. Nothing restrains him – not decency certainly but not any authority, agreement on rules, or reprimand from the moderator either. He continues to act out and steal the show no matter what.

Donald Trump has been stealing the show for years. During the 2016 campaign, I began calling MSNBC a Trump channel. Not Fox, but MSNBC. Why did I call it a Trump channel? No matter the topic of conversation, no matter that the news item triggering the topic was about Hillary Clinton, the focus shifted back to Trump. I could only imagine what it was like on pro-Trump channels or shows.

How can there be a debate when one candidate is committed to lying, lives by lying, and doubles down on his lies, then steamrolls over all attempts to counter his lies? Last night we saw that there cannot be.

The disruptive child needs help. The insatiable craving for attention, the bullying of other children, and the determination to dominate the classroom cry out for help, but the needed help is difficult to give day after day, and the effort takes its toll on all the children as well as on the teacher. If Donald Trump were not in power, he would be deeply pitiable. But he is in power, and he says (and for once I believe him) that he is determined to abuse his power in every possible way to stay in power and out of criminal court. Pray for him? Yes, but first pray that he is removed (and vote to remove him) from power so the American people and the victims of his cruelty can be free of him.

Stability or Change?

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(Fourth in a series contrasting religion with faith and discipleship)

Religion, as I am using the term in this series, arises from our human desire for stability fortified with assurances of survival, comfort, approval, and peace. In contrast, faith and discipleship are called forth by gospel, which means good news from outside the parameters of the established systems of life. Religion rests in sameness: “Give me that old-time religion” that was “good” for my ancestors and now is “good enough for me.” The religious settle down into a quiet place that is predictable in its continuity and, therefore, manageable. Gospel promises change. Disciples follow in faith a new way that leads they know not where, but they go forward into the unknown because they trust the one whose way it is, the one who has walked that way ahead of them, the one who has promised to be with them and to guide them.

From the Prophet of the Exile come words bearing promise for the people whose hope has dried up, who have been defeated and crushed by an empire too powerful to oppose.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19a NRSV)

This prophet announced the unthinkable. The unbeatable empire would fall. The God-forsaken exiles would be forgiven and healed, aroused to hope and courage, and led home to rebuild their ruined land. The powerless would be strengthened because the One coming to reclaim them was the Lord of the universe whom no mere empire could impede.

Religion is easily co-opted by the current empire, by the reigning royalty of whatever type. Once co-opted, the established religion sanctifies the status quo, declaring God’s approval over and over again of the way things are and the way things work. “Law and order” becomes the pseudo-pious cry of the powerful for continued repression of the powerless because, after all, the catchphrase “law and order” means only the enforcement of the current orders of the society, and the powerful are the ones who get the laws passed in their favor.

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? (Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)

Tyrants love religion but fear and hate gospel that calls the people to reject sameness and long for something new that promises, not “peace, peace, where there is no peace,” but the triumph of justice for those denied it and hope for those who have been pushed down so far they cannot even imagine feeling hope.

Yet, even “the gospel” itself has been co-opted by the established powers and so turned into good feelings now and heaven after death. Today, the most dynamic form of American Christianity (if not the most thoughtful), evangelicalism, has been domesticated into the lap dog of Donald Trump, barking only at those who dare speak against his corruption and cruelty or question his multitudinous lies.

When Jesus introduces his good news from God, he announces the coming of the reign of God. His announcement is good news for the poor, the outcast, the shamed, the repressed (including women and others regarded as lesser humans), and the powerless. The old orders of power and of religious self-righteousness now face the judgment of God, and those who will be blessed are the grief-stricken, the impoverished, those who hunger for justice denied, and the day laborers who cling to meager life each day without hope of rest or advancement.

Gospel – good news from Jesus the Christ – announces God’s judgment upon all forms of self-satisfied and self-preserving power. But judgment comes to open the doors of hope. We must be freed from the grip of systems of power that perpetuate injustices and turn even faith into an insipid, self-serving packet of assurances designed to pacify us rather than revitalize us. The newness of the reign of God is for those who want it, who hunger and thirst for it, who long to welcome it despite having no clear idea how it can come when the powers in control of life seem so overwhelmingly powerful.

So we walk by faith (trust) and not by sight. We do not try to take charge because, even if we were to succeed on our own in overthrowing the old and establishing something new of our making, it would not be the reign of God, the new creation, the consummation of all God’s promises. We protest what hurts and destroys the vulnerable, what exploits many for the over-advantage of a few, what discriminates against unpopular minorities. We join with others in common cause even when their motivation for seeking justice differs from our own faith. And we wait, never forgetting that what we are waiting for is better than anything we have ever known. Waiting is not passive. We’re not to be sitting on our hands (or just wringing them in despair). There are choices we must make – none perfect, but some clearly wrong, which makes not choosing a poor choice for faith to make.

Discipleship looks forward in faith and hope, daring to leave behind the security of established orders of life which are now revealed to be unjust and phony. Disciples answer the call: “Come, follow me.” We may not know where the new way will lead us, but we trust the one who calls us.

Helpful Shakeup

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Much of religion, Christian and otherwise, has always been the attempt to persuade God (or the gods) to give us what we want, whether it be security, victory in warfare, peace in our homes, or eternal life. The primary task of faith, however, is moving us to want what God wants for this world and all its people and, yes, its non-human creatures as well. I grow in faith and discipleship if I am learning to want for myself what God wants for me and to want for others what God wants for them (with enough humility to realize I am not in charge of dictating to them what they should believe or do). Jesus does not tell me to love others rather than myself but to love my neighbor as myself. No self-hatred is required. Some sacrifice of self-interest may indeed be required, but we are to care for the life and well-being of our neighbor because we are learning to know ourselves as people God loves and cares for. We matter to God, but we need to grow into the family business, so to speak, which means learning to care about what God cares about, to be hurt by what hurts God, to work for the changes God wants in human life and societies, and to long for the day when God’s longings will be satisfied.

“Thy will be done on earth!”

Last time, I listed some questions that belong to religion in contrast with a life of faith and discipleship. They were not evil questions, but they were shallow and restricted to the management of life (and the prospect of death) in self-interest. Religion really is the human attempt to manage God. Faith is humble trust in the God who cannot and will not be managed. The more I fool myself into thinking I have all the answers about God and life and can rest comfortably in those answers, the more clearly I need better, deeper, and more honest questions. If I refuse to allow myself to hear better questions from other people’s expressed doubts and anxieties or from my own suppressed doubts and anxieties, life will slowly (or sometimes quite suddenly) hammer me with them.

Here again are the first three of the questions I listed that have generated religion for as long as people have thought about life and realized how tenuous it is:

  1. How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
  2. What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
  3. What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?

At a crisis point in Israel’s history as God’s covenant people, a prophet (Micah) speaks out for the people in their frustration with being judged for their injustices, self-deceit, and religious practices intended to pacify God. They sound like petulant teenagers demanding to know what it takes to get their parents off their backs. How many sacrifices do I have to make to please you, God? Do I have to slaughter every animal in my herd or flock? But then the frustrated and resentful religious people step over the line: Do I have to sacrifice my own firstborn child to shut you up? Child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel, and the question is as offensive as it can be made. I have paraphrased it (see Micah 6:1-8) to show that offensiveness. But if Israel will not be Israel, the covenant people, they are still creatures, and so now the prophet addresses them, not in their chosen people status, but in their raw humanity.

“What is good has been showed to you, human! What does the LORD require of you, but only this: to act justly and make justice happen, to love kindness and faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here religion gets slammed up against some truths about God upon which the Bible, the prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth insist:

  1. God cannot be controlled or managed.
  2. God does love this created world with its creatures, and God will not abandon it despite its corruption and delight in evil done to the vulnerable.
  3. The individual person matters very, very much to God but not as an individual apart from others because human life is relational, and the human becomes a person in relationships with others and responsible relatedness to human society and to what we call the natural world.
  4. God calls us into our rightful humanity.
  5. We cannot secure our own lives, but we can live them in humble trust, and God will honor that trust.
  6. God has special concern for the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, the shamed, and the oppressed or enslaved.
  7. Judgment is not itself the truth of God, even though judgment is sometimes necessary to open people to God’s truth, which is love that forgives, heals, and restores.
  8. As we are the creatures who can know God’s love and learn God’s will for healing the corrupted creation, we are made responsible to represent God’s love to each other and to the creation.

Doubt is not the enemy of faith. True enough, stubborn cynicism can shield a person from faith, hope, and even love, but honest doubt arising from the real anxieties, fears, and disappointments of living does the opposite: it opens a person to trust, hope, and love. The religious enemy of faith is authoritarian certitude: “Here are the questions you are permitted to ask, and here are the correct answers! Just learn them and accept them on faith!”

Enough for now. We have entered a time when, even here in North America, Christians will need to learn what it means to walk humbly (much more humbly than we have walked previously) with our God. If we do, then I believe we will hear our call to discipleship renewed.

Keeping It Comfortable

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The questions we ask, consciously or unconsciously, determine what we will expect from our religion, and thereby also set limits on how much we will allow religion into our lives, how far we will go in committing ourselves to religious beliefs and practices. This much but no more.

Religion, as I said in my previous post of the way I am using the word in this series, is intended for control. We want to feel stronger, more centered, better able to keep on top of life. We want to be enabled to stay optimistic. Indeed, optimism is the modern North American creed, and so the religious are likely to exclude questions that delve too deeply into any negatives that challenge an optimistic outlook and a tacit belief in progress. Religion wants faith to dispel doubt even when doing so requires silencing our own fears, griefs, anxieties, and disappointments as well as the cries of the oppressed or cheated.

Here are some of the questions that belong to religion as I am using that term in contrast with faith and discipleship.

  1. How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
  2. What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
  3. What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
  4. How do I get blessings or good fortune?
  5. How do I overcome my fears and self-doubts well enough to maintain the positive, optimistic outlook demanded by our society?
  6. How do I become associated with the right kind of people?
  7. How can I come to deserve a long, successful, and happy life?
  8. How do I get into heaven (and stay out of hell or oblivion)?
  9. Can I get help with overcoming my fear of death or the living death of deep dementia?
  10. How much do I have to give?

These questions are not terrible or evil, but they are shallow and restricted to self-interest and the management of life for the security and prosperity of the self. Biblically understood faith does not obliterate self-interest. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not instead of caring for ourselves. But the questions above allow me to be religious while centering my concerns in me. Even charitable deeds can be focused on how good they make me feel about myself for doing them and how grateful the people I help are expected to feel. An effusive thank-you note can go a long way toward securing another contribution or mission project from a church.

There are times in life when our minds need to be calmed with assurances, when trust needs to rest in its belief and not raise challenges. The Bible offers a great deal of comfort to the troubled, but neither the prophets nor Jesus came merely or even primarily to comfort and reassure the people. Moreover, the comfort truly offered comes within the context of the call to discipleship.

Let me close for now with an analogy. If I were to enter into love with only questions of, “What’s in it for me?” I would not be allowing myself to love for real. My expectations for a relationship would so restrain my commitment to giving of myself and letting myself become vulnerable that love would be choked off, strangled. Whatever relationship I might be able to maintain would be kept superficial and not allowed to mature. So it is with religion kept too self-restricted to grow into faith and discipleship.

The alternative, however, is not just zeal or being “on fire” for the Lord. Enthusiasm can be just as self-centered as rituals of comfort and reassurance. What we need is a deepening. My next post will seek to explain what that deepening means.