Friday, May 20, 2011

A Generous God

A Generous God

In a recent article in Christian Century, pastor Peter Marty argues in favor of what he calls a “generous God,” favorably citing Pastor Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Marty claims that “charging Bell with being a universalist doesn’t work” in part, because “the idea never appears in the book.”

Really? What the broad Christian tradition has understood as universalism* never appears in the book? Not only are many of Bell’s ideas lifted straight out of the 19th century universalistic tradition, but Marty also goes on to describe Bell’s project—correctly or incorrectly—as being based on “the firm conviction that Jesus is bigger than any one religion.” Marty continues, “He is the cosmic Christ who will not be co-opted or owned by any one culture.” A few lines later, once again representing Bell, Marty writes, “Christianity does not save. Islam and Judaism do not save. God saves.”

Let me offer two further examples. Because Jesus opens many of his parables with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Marty claims that Jesus speaks in the language of promise, not threat. Of course he fails to mention that many of these parables end with the threat of exclusion from this kingdom. In fact, the threat of eternal judgment comes from the mouth of Jesus more than anyone else in the New Testament.

Marty also quotes John 3:16, “God so loved the world…” emphasis on “world.”  According to Marty, “Had John been interested in shrinking the gospel or lessening the scope of the cross, he might have proposed that “God so loved only Christians.””

Hmmm. Did Marty not read the rest of the verse, let alone the following verses (or the preceding verse for that matter)? The Bible I have says “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say “that whoever believes in whatever god they have access to or feel good about.” It says, whoever believes in him, Jesus Christ.

The point of the text in its context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is that God loved people so much he was willing to “be lifted up,” that is, to die for them in order to reconcile them to God. All that is required, is belief in this truth. In fact, as verse 18 points out, those who believe will not be condemned but those who do not are “condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  Oh yes, those words come out of the mouth of Jesus.

What is curious to me is why Marty and others are so repulsed by the accusation of universalism*. If someone were to sit in my classes, they would come away with the clear idea that I am a Calvinist, not because I necessarily state that up front, but because anyone vaguely familiar with Calvin’s teachings would recognize that I am quite comfortable with much of what Calvin affirmed with regard to Christian doctrine. Calvinism may make me unpopular with some, but that is not ultimately my problem.

Likewise, the teachings that Marty affirms are clearly universalistic*. Yet, he wants to eschew the idea that he (or Bell) are universalists. My question is why. If you believe that the teachings you espouse are the correct way to understand Christian doctrine, and if those teachings fall clearly inside the boundaries of what the Christian tradition as a whole has identified as some form of universalism, why not just admit to being a universalist* and defend your position?

Even more curious to me is the tone of folks like Marty. For example, Marty is critical of believers who assert that Scripture teaches some (those who reject Christ) will suffer eternal separation from God. He suggests that making such a convicted claim amounts to spiritual immodesty. The only “modest” position is agnosticism on this matter. Yet Marty seems to know with at least as much conviction that Scripture teaches no such thing. So how does his conviction amount to spiritual modesty while the conviction of his opponents is not?

Beyond that, Marty is also convinced that those who walk through the door of his church who have been spiritually injured by these spiritually immodest “devout believers” will not be wounded by either him or those who populate his pews. Aside from the rather thinly veiled arrogance in such a portrayal, if he is wrong in his convictions it would seem that these folks will walk away just as spiritually injured by his teachings as they would walking away from those more devout folks he is quick to criticize.

All that is to say, that when you put together texts like the very ones Marty mentions with the general dealings of God with his people in the Old Testament, one gets a pretty clear picture of what God requires from those who are to be considered part of his kingdom. That being said, taking a further step down the path of “who’s in, who’s out” is unwarranted. Ultimately, the eternal destination of each human person is God’s decision and God’s alone. It is not up to us to speculate on the destiny of either Ghandi or Osama bin Laden.

But it is also irresponsible for Christians to suggest that what you believe and who you worship does not matter. In Scripture, God clearly tells us how to have abundant life in his presence now and in the age to come. To allow folks to think that we really don’t know anything at all about the way of reconciliation that God has offered is, as far as I can tell, the ultimate spiritual injury.

* While philosophers of religion have made distinctions between  “religious pluralism” and  “inclusivism” (positions that do not deny that some persons might be finally condemned to hell), and full “universalism” (a position that says no one will be in hell), most run-of-the-mill evangelicals, as well as a significant number of older systematic theologies, consider these two distinctions to be types of universalism. If Marty and others don’t like the label “universalist,” why not self-identify as “inclusivist” or “pluralist”?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Love and Rejection

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone about universalism, the idea that sooner or later, all people, even those who have rejected God, will be welcomed into God’s presence. So I started thinking, salvation in Christ is a gift from God. And its not just a gift from one person to another, a gift between beings of equal status or position. It is a gift to humans from the creator of the universe, the being that gives all humans life, breath, and everything else.

So imagine the president of the United States coming to the house of an illegal alien, let’s call her Joanne. The president knocks on the door and offers Joanne the gift of citizenship in the United States. He holds out the papers that confer this status on her.

What if Joanne chooses to slam the door in his face? What if she invites him in, then grabs the paper, throws it in the fireplace, and beats him up? Or maybe, as he holds out the gift, she shoves it back in his face shouting an expletive as she does so?

Now maybe the president thinks that this gift is so valuable, has the potential to make Joanne’s life so much better, that he chooses to stay and keep the offer open. How long should he wait? How long should he keep offering? Forever? Would he be unjust or unloving if he tells Joanne that she has 5 days to decide whether she wants to accept this gift or not? And what if while he is waiting, Joanne’s hostility toward him increases? What if she opens the door throughout those 5 days and cusses at him, and throws everything from garbage to rocks at him? Should he extend his offer? Is it possible that the longer he holds out the offer, the more hardened she becomes against his offer? Don’t we even know of people like this?

It is beyond my finite mind to comprehend what infinite love and infinite justice and infinite holiness really look like, let alone adequately describe them. But the biblical text suggests that there is a limit to God’s offer of fellowship with him, whether that is depicted in God’s relationship with his people in the Old Testament, or the warnings that Jesus himself gives to those who reject him in the New Testament. Love and justice are not mutually exclusive and they come together in some mysterious way in God’s embrace of those who accept his offer, and his exclusion of those who do not. And every biblical indication points to the notion that the optimum time to accept God’s offer is now; and the Bible also indicates that the ability to change one’s mind about that acceptance ends at death.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Crazy Faith

1 Kings 17:7-16 Elijah and the widow at Zarephath

This text was the lectionary reading for June 8, 2010. My notes from that day indicate that I was struck, as I read the story, by the widow’s faith. I have usually heard this story preached in terms of God’s provision or faithfulness. In fact, the theme of the responsorial psalm in the lectionary is God’s faithfulness to his people. While that may be a legitimate theme in the text, the widow was the focus of my attention.

Perhaps she stood out to me because she was a mother. Elijah finds her gathering sticks to make a fire for the last meal she will make for herself and her son. “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die” (v. 12). I have never been in those sorts of dire straits. I cannot even imagine the sort of poverty that knows that death by starvation is a reality. I can picture the images I have seen from war-torn countries, particularly in Africa; pictures of women holding dying children with bloated stomachs. Perhaps this is what it was like for the widow during the drought in Israel and the surrounding areas.

But then comes the most amazing part of the text. Elijah commands her to go ahead and make this last meal for herself and her son from the little bit of flour and oil she has left. But first, he says, “make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me.” After she has fed Elijah, she may make something for herself and her son. Elijah then promises her that if she does this, God has told him that “the jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land” (v. 14). The crazy thing is, she goes and does what he says!!

Why would I think this is crazy? Call me a terminal skeptic, but I can envision myself, walking back to my hut thinking, ‘ok, so he says the flour and oil won’t run out, but how can I know that? If I make him the bread, even a little loaf, and he is wrong, I will not have enough left to make another loaf and my son will starve. And if I feed my son today, I may be able to beg for food, or find something somewhere for tomorrow. But if I feed this old man, I can’t even get through today. And who is this god of the Israelites? If he’s so powerful, why do we not have rain?’

Of course that is not what the widow does. She does exactly what Elijah commanded her to do, and the outcome is exactly what Elijah said it would be. Amazing! Which makes me wonder about my own faith, or the lack of faith. I wonder how often I hear God’s voice telling me to trust him, and I make my circumstances worse by trying to figure something out in what seems to me to be a more pragmatic way. I wonder how often I don’t even listen for his voice, but just soldier on, working out everything on my own, forgetting that the Creator of heaven and earth would love to help me out. If anything sounds crazy, that does.