Over the last few years, one of my favorite preaching topics has been the abandonment of self-interest, selfish ambition and conceit that is extolled in Philippians chapter 2. The call to humility contained within that passage culminates with “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (2:12) which, I remind the congregation I am addressing, is difficult to do with someone else’s theology tucked under your arm. To be free of your own conceit requires being free of theological tenets that establish authoritarian norms of belief. It is to acknowledge that certainty is the opposite of faith, not doubt.
My attitudes about authority, or rather my near total distrust of it, result from being both subject to its abuses and an abuser. While being almost a poster boy for dominant culture – a white, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, heterosexual, fully-abled, protestant male – I have spent most of my life around the edges of society. As a child I was noticeably different in size and demeanor, and I was easily bullied both at school and home. As a self-medicating, drug abusing teen I opted to forego college education to secure a future in the business sector, utilizing learned skills as a highly functional addict.
After prying doors open into the business world, I became relentless in my pursuit of profit and power, both of which I wielded unscrupulously and manipulatively out of self-interest, accumulation and, eventually, fear of failure. While being acceptable as a business partner, as a hard-living, hard-driving, ruthless power addict I was never quite suitable to socialize with polite society. Just as a reformed smoker is the most critical of tobacco addiction, a reformed authoritarian devoid of ethics may become the most distrustful when it comes to excesses of power and authority. I know the enemy well – I used to look at him every day in the mirror. This is the baggage and attitudes I bring to the task of theological reflection.
Theology throughout the ages has been a largely rational process that cycled between developing, reinforcing and rejecting traditional doctrinal tenets – deciding Christian orthodoxy or the “fundamental truths of the faith” Virtually all theological methods have used scripture, tradition, revelation, and reason as sources for orthodoxy, although admittedly to varying degrees. In the more recent decades, assortments of liberation, feminist and political theologies, to name but a few, have developed, holding experience aloft as the primary source. These tend to devalue orthodoxy in favor of orthopraxis, which may best be understood as the fundamental ways of acting faithfully in the world. Each of these theologies, however, has developed concepts of orthopraxis that, while being contextual in origin, are still hoped to have universal application. Many times, then, they have ended up competing with each other, as well as traditional theologies, as each seeks to establish itself as an authority.
While integral to my formal childhood religious education, my views of some of the long-standing authoritative characteristics of God, i.e. omnipotence, immutability and omniscience, have been greatly influenced by my mother’s fascination with more esoteric religious expressions. Suffice it to say that at eleven years old I argued in two different venues that the quality of being all-knowing would require that God be responsible for “all bad things”, a rather childish way of battling with theodicy. While many of my beliefs have undergone various transitions throughout my life, my rejection of an all-powerful, all-knowing God is based on the same child-like (-ish) logic that I possessed as a youngster. If God knew all and could do all, God would not have allowed me to suffer so miserably, and would not still allow so many to be so severely oppressed. The God of love, the source of my hope then and now, was the one who provided me places of respite in which to find escape and safety. God was not one who turned a blind eye or, worse yet, orchestrated the torment.
None-the-less, I did grow up with negative attitudes about God, not the least of which is my aversion to “God the Father”. As the concept of God the Father was drilled into my head religiously, I began to resent God. I walked away from the church at the same time I left my father behind. I had been instilled with the seemingly indelible image of God as an old, white-haired, bearded man and, after arriving in the U.S. – after escaping from my persecutor – older males became my targets for retribution. I consciously thought that I was punishing God for my depression and misery. Twenty-something years later, after hearing for the first time I can recollect about the Mothering God, I wept pitifully and, eventually, returned to the fold.
Mine was something of a radical conversion following an attempted suicide. The local Presbyterian church, which my (then) wife attended, being “liberal”, had little room for someone who believed he was born again into a new life in Christ. While attending this church and being told repeatedly that I had simply experienced a psychological conversion, I also attended a non-denominational, Pentecostal church that embraced both my testimony and rebirth. Many things were comfortable about the second church but, because of the worship centered on an almighty God in control of everything, I eventually slipped back into the un-spiritual ethos of the other and became, somewhat uncomfortably, liberal. God was still male at the Presbyterian church, just not omnipotent and omniscient.
To what, then, do I grant authority?
Christian theology began as an intermingling of traditional interpretations of Hebrew scripture, itself inextricably intertwined with pre-existent indigenous beliefs and practices, and Greek philosophy. The New Testament and other early Christian writings were, in and of themselves, diverse theological interpretations of events read in light of various extant traditions and experiences. It is my opinion, then, that all theological thought is constructed from sources that are, at best, mediated through human lenses and, at worst, may be based more on the self-interest of those wishing to gain or maintain power and privilege than divine revelation.
In answer to my own question, since I approach any source of authority with suspicion, I hold reason as the most important since, through reason, I analyze and digest the others. Reason, however, is not limited to processing knowledge gained empirically, but also what is felt or trusted through faith gained by examining the other sources. Since faith knowledge is ambiguous and contextual, it stands to reason that no deduction based on it could be elevated to the position of an absolute truth.
Tradition is the source which I hold in the least esteem. I do not automatically discount tradition, but rather subject it to scrutiny. Tradition generally develops in efforts to promote or protect ideas developed in particular places and times. Being temporal and, many times temporary, the underlying reasons for its establishment, as well as the identities, attitudes and agendas of its proponents need to be examined critically.
Scripture, despite being filtered, edited, redacted and infused with theological contrivances in order to develop tradition, is of critical importance in my theology. When I returned to the church, I was puzzled by the range of translations available and the differences between them. Being again suspicious, I opted to learn to use existing literary and electronic tools to try to weed out the distinctions using Hebrew and Greek. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s hermeneutic, involving emphases on both deconstruction and reconstruction through “suspicion, proclamation, remembrance and creative ritualization,” proved invaluable in determining for myself that the Word of God was contained within scripture, but not necessarily identical with it. Ultimately, however, scripture and tradition provide the bases for my faith and, as such, I do not believe either can be accepted or discounted fully without engaging my faculties of reason.
With regards to God’s creation of the universe, I accept scripture and science as contemporary understandings within the contexts of extant knowledge. Just as quantum physics explains a black hole in terms that don’t exist in regular physics, science explains creation in terms that did not exist in the ancient world. Undoubtedly, however, changes in scientific knowledge will continue to negate long-held beliefs and provide truths that are, in fact, more true than previous scientific truths. Just as science thrives on theory, theology thrives on the uncertainty and tension that results from a general inability to know God and God’s activity absolutely. All knowledge of God or God’s creation is a construction of humans for particular times and circumstances, and the personality, cultural preconceptions and existential circumstances of the person who knows is intimately intertwined with what is known.
It follows, then, that there is no truly objective or universally applicable knowledge of God, and that any attempt will result in failure to fully describe God and will leave conflicting notions that exist in tension with each other. This tension insists that human imagery of God that works for a specific circumstance in time and space will be ineffectual or even harmful in another. John Cobb Jr., in Process Theology as Political Theology, describes this best when he asserts that “the human problem is that we all too often commit ourselves to particular past products of the creative event … but the effort to preserve them can easily work against the process that produced them and that can produce new goods. Commitment to such already-realized values is idolatry …”
Central to my own Reformed tradition is the uncomfortable affirmation of the “majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love”. Unpacking this entire tenet of Reformed faith may be too unwieldy for this paper, but it deals with the key criteria of God and providence and, because of the derivative theology of election, anthropology. It also raises many questions for my own theology.
The Confessions, besides scripture the doctrinal basis for the PC(USA), include the basic traditional characteristics of God found in the traditional theologies – God is omnipotent or almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal and immutable. The Book of Order, however, states: “God created the heavens and the earth and made human beings in God’s image, charging them to care for all that lives; God made men and women to live in community, responding to their Creator with grateful obedience. Even when the human race broke community with its Maker and with one another, God did not forsake it, but out of grace chose one family for the sake of all, to be pilgrims of promise, God’s own Israel.”
The concept of omnipotence seems to become fuzzy as it ventures from the historic confessions to the Book of Order, where a middle road is taken that affirms God’s sovereignty as well as human free-will. The concept of “the election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation,” however, throws the balance scale back in favor of the “omni’s”, since election requires God’s foreknowledge of human events. Of course, the doctrine of Total Depravity, the concept that humans cannot help themselves but can only naturally gravitate towards sin as a result of the Fall, muddies the waters even further – just how much free-will do we possess? Into this thick soup of apparent contradictions Reformed theologians, among many others, have ventured, usually by divining complicated arguments involving God’s voluntary refusal to use almighty power and humanity’s limited freedom to resist God’s coercion.
What is at stake? For me these concepts have to be understood differently. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and controls all events that affect life, or whatever humans do in their natural life has absolutely no effect on their salvation or damnation, Christianity would be void of any ethical imperatives. The first, no free will whatsoever, makes God responsible for every event caused by nature or humanity – good or evil – and the second, free will without consequence, makes a mockery of the succession of prophets and Jesus who exhorted humans to live in righteousness. If “election” is reframed as “choice”, wherein God chooses to persuade humans to act in certain ways but leaves in tact their will to demur, the unacceptable concepts of omniscience and omnipotence still leave God with the responsibility for evil. It would mean that God knows what will happen, but refrains from using almighty power to prevent evil from happening. God would be a callous god. These concepts, then, require further unpacking to lighten their load of traditional baggage before I can accept them.
If God is a god of love and works closely with humanity to care for creation, I need to accept different concepts of God’s knowledge, power and election. I find these in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the process theology of Charles Hartshorne, who asserted that God has knowledge of what has been, and an eternal vision of hope for creation, but not foreknowledge of events. John Sanders, a “conservative” open theologian states about God’s creative process and human free-will, “God takes the risk that humans will act in ways [God] does not want them to.” Process theology goes further when it maintains that, in order for God to be blameless in evil, God can only be understood as lacking both the foreknowledge of evil and, therefore, the ability to prevent it. God cannot use power that foresight does not produce.
By my extrapolation, humans made in the image of God – imago Dei – must have both free will and free reason. Of all the particularities of human beings, only a few are universal. Gender, race and cultural effects immediately dispense with certain human aspects as particulars of God because they are not the same in all humans. While I perceive God to be a God of all genders and sexualities, all colors, all ethnicities, etc., I have looked for attributes that are more common than diverse. Of those remaining, reason and the ability to actually have faith are among the most prominent, in my mind. Both reasoning and being faithful require free will, otherwise they would simply be conditioned responses to specific stimuli. Faith, belief in what cannot be proven, demands an improvable future. Since I accept fully the notion that God’s knowledge is limited to what has and is occurring, and God has eternal hope for the future – even if it is based on a likelihood of probability that a full knowledge of history would provide – it stands to reason that God is an entity with and of faith as well as reason. Our hope is in an improvable future, just as is God’s but to a far greater degree. Human beings attempt to reason through events as God does. Our hope then lies in God’s promise to love, interact with and forgive us into the future.
I can then understand God’s election as God making choices to call on or persuade humans to act on God’s behalf and to have faith in Christ. Humans have the choice to elect to acquiesce to God’s entreaty, or to deny it. In choosing to ignore God’s requests, humans may sin by ignoring or being complicit in the suffering experienced in God’s creation, or even simply in turning their backs on God. This is also consistent, in my opinion, with a concept of God’s sovereign righteousness, since sovereign can mean “autonomous” and righteousness, in biblical terms, means “living in right relations, doing justice and having mercy”. God’s call on our lives – God’s effort to persuade – is to live in righteousness with God and God’s creation. Our response to that request is entirely dependent on our theology.