I was once asked to apply for a job at a Christian school and, after meeting with the headmaster, felt it best to turn the offer down for multiple reasons. One reason in particular was that I felt my theological perspectives might be called into question at some point, given the current milieau I knew existed at this school. While I felt it in my best interest to say no, I also felt it right to engage the theological issues head on by outlining them in a letter that invited discussion and interaction. I post a portion of that letter here in the same vein.
To me, theology begins with the question: Who is this God? This particular God, for there were many from which to choose among the cultures and religions of the biblical writers. As a community trying to make sense of the experiences they were having in relation to this particular God (YHWH), what they felt to be true was perhaps the starting point for their search. The early biblical writers felt, for example, that this God was a God who did not need violence to create life (as did the gods of the surrounding cultures—Tiamat and Marduk, in particular, whose violent shredding of each other’s bodies gave birth to the sky and earth; their blood mankind, etc.). For the early Hebraic community (a community in bondage to many different cultures throughout their early formation—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, etc.), their God was unique in how he acted and reacted to his people. A god who sang creation into existence is a radically new and different god than those who embodied the myths of the dominant cultures that held the Israelites in captivity. A god who calls a people to him for the purpose of relationship and sides over and over again with the poor, the victimized, the marginalized and the oppressed, is unheard of in Ba’al or Osiris. I believe the biblical texts came forth as a series of responses to the community of Israel’s question: just who is this God? That is why, to me, the Genesis creation account is much more powerful in its original form (poetic myth) than as a scientific treatise on how the world came into being. The story is much richer as a comparative contrast between the God of Israel and the gods of the surrounding (often dominant) cultures. It is almost as if the writers of Genesis are saying, “Our God does not act out of violent rage or petty jealousy. Instead, His spirit breathes across the waters of chaos and brings life” (quite opposite to the myths of the surrounding religions, whose gods initiated chaos that led, all-too-often, to death). We miss the beauty of the story when we ask of it the wrong questions (how/when rather than who/why). What is transformational for us in the Genesis account is not the number of days, but the comparative analysis of how this God acts in and through creation. He is, from the very beginning, turning chaos (the surface of the deep) into life! The “aha” moment comes when we see this God do what no other gods have done before: work in the broken places to make all things new!
I believe the bible shouts these core messages: “Return to me and I will be your God and you will be my people”; “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does YHWH require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”; “Behold, I am making all things new!” This I believe more than anything else. I believe these concepts, fully fleshed out, are more important than the debates we engage in about women preachers, worship songs, pre/post/a-millennial eschatology, creation vs. evolution, and all the rest. I am convinced God does not care one whit upon which side we land in these debates while children die of starvation in the streets, widows get cheated, orphans drink polluted water, the prisoners are not visited, the naked are not clothed, and the fatherless are not cared for. In fact, I think the voice of the scorched prophet rings as loud today as it did under the reign of Jeroboam: “Away with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the music of your harps. I will not accept your burnt offerings” while the oppressed are continually held in bondage (all too often by the communities claiming to be most religious, by the way).
Now, it is not that a Christian should not have an opinion on these issues, but we must guard against the very dangerous practice of making doctrinal debate and argumentative conversion the issue and not transformation and healing. A God who makes all things new is not one who makes everyone believe as Pat Robertson does, but one who never stops working to make that which was broken whole again. By the way, if being Christian means I must accept this terribly demonic idea that God somehow punished Haiti and its broken, dying, bleeding, suffering men, women, and children for any reason whatsoever, I will be glad to hand in my Christian credentials at the nearest church. I am in search of the heart of God first and foremost, and I will walk away from both Christianity and the Bible when it hinders that. Fortunately, I think it is only wrong or misguided interpretation that hinders both Christianity and the Bible from revealing the divine pathos of God.
What if what Jesus meant by “kingdom of heaven” wasn’t so much a place but a way of life? What if in everything that he did, said, acted upon, lived out and died for, was to show a way of life rather than punch a ticket to a place? How might that reshape the way we follow Him and seek to live as he lived? I am not arguing that there is not a heaven, I just think that he lived an ethic that pointed to a way of life rather than to a “bridge” or “gate” or “secret password.” I am convinced that Walter Brueggeman is right when he points to Jesus as the living embodiment of a way of life intentionally designed to not only run counter to the dominant consciousness of the empire, but to dismantle it at its core. In Jesus, we have the ultimate criticism of the royal consciousness; one who not only calls out the oppressors, but who also—in his life, ministry, and death—comes to embody the very traits of the alternative community. Jesus willingly violates the social, political, religious, and economic conventions of his day that stood to protect the current distribution of power by: objecting to the Sabbath as a means of economic enslavement; eating with outcasts; touching the undesirable and the forsaken; associating with women in public who were not his kin, and on and on. In his life and ministry, he dismantled the reality and rationale of the dominant culture by calling into question everything upon which that society was based. He debunked the myths of the empire by turning them on their heads. His woes are pronounced against the rich, the full, the ones who “get it right” while, in contrast, his blessings are for those who are without hope; those who live in poverty, hunger, and grief; those searching for meaning. This, perhaps more than any theory of atonement, explains why the established religious, political, social, and economic powers sought his public death on a cross. By calling into question their politics, economics, cultural norms, and even doctrinal beliefs, Jesus called out the injustices of the ruling institutions and was thus dealt with in the way of the empire—silence by any means necessary. To me, seeing this as a way of life is far more transformational and challenging than as a mere ticket to a utopian paradise. I can be ok with saying that whatever the afterlife may be, it belongs to God and that my work is to embrace heaven as a way of life to be engaged in here. What does it matter if I make it to Italy and can’t speak the language or understand their customs? To become Italian is a different thing altogether. This, I believe, is the purpose of the birth, life, ministry and death of Jesus: to shape us into heaven, not stamp our passports there.
Where we as Christians have failed to be relevant historically is precisely in those places where we have clung to our fundamental decrees to the detriment of actual engagement with the “sick angels” (to borrow from Walter Wink) of our culture. Jesus did not come to offer his followers Kool-aid and a magic carpet ride to the sky; he came to say, “The dominant consciousness of the empire does not get the last word. The last word is not to be one of oppression, injustice, and dehumanization, but of transformation and healing.” Where we have missed our grand opportunities (and must now work hard to reclaim them), is in the narrative we shape as Christians seeking to partner with a God who is working to make all things new. If Matthew 25 tells us anything, it is not that we don’t know where he is at work, but that we are too sanctimonious to go there ourselves (remember to whom Jesus is speaking that parable and what their response was initially). We want to be right in our debates over the issues, and God just wants us to be engaged in the places where he is already at work. We want to justify or explain hurricanes and earthquakes and God wants us to sit beside the diseased, dead, and dying and hold their hands, feed their stomachs, and comfort their distress.
As you can see, I let everything ride! I look forward to the dialogue!