What Good is God?

The following is an essay I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.

The Christian faith has a role to play as more than a personal salvation machine. Too often, especially in the American context, Christianity operates as little more than fire insurance for fearful souls, an incantation of proper belief that assures one of heaven and requires little else than allegiance and a tithe. To approach the Christian faith this way is to ignore the rich tradition of prophetic social critique it arose from and has engaged in for two millennia, and its ability to address the social injustices present in the world today. In particular, I believe Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God brings powerful theological tools to bear on what is the pressing theological question of our times: how does God relate to a world that is seeing patterns of authoritarianism, war, and suffering play out again and again?

dancingwithgodThe present historical moment is one of great instability and upheaval. The rise of far right elements in the West, religious extremism in the Middle East and Africa, and authoritarian nationalism around the world has put any talk of an “end to history” to rest. The rising tide of extremism mirrors the interwar years, when fascism rose amidst economic struggles and cultural upheaval. To compound our present crisis, the fading impact of religious belief and growing distrust of institutions puts the church in a crisis of necessity. Due to the fact that Christian evangelicalism has played such a large role in getting the world to this point (through its political fealty to right wing movements), the church at large is facing the question of what good it can do, or whether it is even necessary anymore.

This question pulls out further for many outside of the faith, to ask “what good is God?” If we are seeing a pattern of historical repetition, where this kind of crisis happens again and again, and if in fact Christianity has helped usher it in multiple times, why should anyone trust God or those who claim to represent the divine? Amidst so much human suffering, where is God? What does God have to offer?

Karen Baker-Fletcher engages strands of open and process theologies in Dancing With God that work towards an understanding of God that can have meaning in today’s world. For Baker-Fletcher, “God is a divine community, consisting of three distinctive, interrelated agents or actions.” (Baker-Fletcher, 54) These three agents are in relationship with one another, taking part in a divine dance. This relational, creative nature is reflected in God’s plan for Creation: a loving community of being. (Baker-Fletcher, 64)

She then moves to answer the question, “why evil and suffering?” (Baker-Fletcher, 75) In her view, God created the world, but preserves the free will of beings in the world. This free will, combined with a limited view of creation, comes up against the laws of creation. “When violated, these laws result in negative consequences, namely experiences of suffering, pain, and death.” (Baker-Fletcher, 76) God is not responsible for the suffering and death in the world; rather, we are. Sin is a consequence of mortality. To eliminate our ability to sin would be to eliminate our freedom to be.

What, then, is God’s role, if not as a fixer? Is God any good if God cannot or will not stop us from hurting ourselves? Baker-Fletcher answers in the affirmative. Through the Incarnation, God came to know what it is to suffer. God experienced this human reality, and thus, gained understanding of it. Because of this, God can now be an authentically “healing and resurrecting” (Baker-Fletcher, 153) presence in the world. God can speak with authority to our situations because God knows what it is to suffer. And consequently, the justice of God’s kingdom can be understood as the good news it is, because we know it comes from a place of experience and not abstraction. Humanity can draw on God in order to create a better world. By ourselves, we only eventually destroy and hurt; but by being in relationship with a healing God who knows our struggles, we can envision, and create, a better future. (Baker-Fletcher, 163)

This vision of God – source of creation and beauty and community and life – that Baker-Fletcher sketches answers the question of what good is God in the midst of our historical moment. God is the hopeful center towards which we orient ourselves, knowing that evil and death don’t get the last word. The Spirit that created the entire universe is a Spirit of love and live, and we only have to trust that Spirit and draw on it to begin the work of healing and reconciliation. Without it, we are adrift, answering to the law of power. God is the universal truth that can guide us into a better future.

Christianity has a duty to reclaim the notion of God as good, as having a role to play. But this means rejecting the lure of worldly power and might for the better way of humility and love. Working with God in a co-creating relationship, Christianity can be a force for a better world.

Advertisements

The Power and Meaning of Resurrection

 

The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is at the heart of the Gospel story. This story, and the reality it invokes, defines Christian thought and sets the faith apart in a special way. St. Paul write to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17 NRSV). But what does it mean that Christ has been resurrected? Is this a claim asking believers to suspend their understandings of metaphysical reality of life and death and accept that a fleshly body died and was reanimated two thousand years ago? Or does it mean something more? And if so, what? The Resurrection is crucially important to the Christian faith, not because it reveals a magic-working God, but because it reveals a God who stands in solidarity with human suffering, and consequently, proclaims hope to humans amidst our suffering.

resurrectioniconThe writings of Paul are the earliest Christian writings we possess today. Written decades before the Gospels, Paul’s undisputed letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) provide the earliest lens of what the church believed about Jesus, at a bare minimum. Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot. Ehrman relates what isn’t in Paul:

“We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptations in the wilderness, nothing of his teachings about the coming Kingdom of God. We have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead. We learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, of his cleansing of the Temple, of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, or flogged, and so on.”

We do, however, hear of the Resurrection, as one of the few important events surrounding Jesus that Paul describes. The longest and most important Pauline explication of the Resurrection can be found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, which was quoted above. This chapter serves as the center of Paul’s argument in the Epistle, and presents the Resurrection of Christ as the forerunner to the coming resurrection of all human beings at Christ’s Second Coming. His full account of the Resurrection tradition is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15: 3-8 NRSV). Notice that Paul’s account of his own encounter with the resurrected Christ does not need to be differentiated from the appearances that are recounted in the Gospels themselves; Paul understands it to be of the same form and importance.

The Resurrection sees great further development across the four Gospels included in Scripture. First, in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, we get little more than we see in Paul. Chapter 16 tells the story of three women coming to the tomb and encountering a heavenly messenger who tells them Jesus is resurrected; however, many scholars now believe this chapter to be a later interpolation, which means originally Mark most likely included no Resurrection story.

Matthew, the next earliest Gospel, includes a resurrection Jesus, who appears to his followers and gives them the Great Commission, whereupon the Gospel story ends. Luke has a resurrected Jesus who appears to two disciples on the walk to Emmaus, and then eats with them. Later, he appears to the full group of disciples and implores them to touch him, saying “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39 NRSV). He then goes on to ascend into heaven. Finally, in John, Jesus is resurrected, and has many appearances to a great variety of people, including doubting Thomas, who sticks in hands in Jesus’ wounds and finds him to be a real, flesh-and-blood body. In this last Gospel, the story of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances goes on for two chapters. How far we have come from Paul’s bare account of the Resurrection, written half a century earlier!

The preceding inventory of Resurrection stories from Scripture serve to show that a uniform, clear understanding of the nature of the event was disputed and unclear even within the first hundred years of Christian tradition. What can we discern from these stories today, but more importantly, what do they mean to us today? Clearly, Paul’s understanding that Jesus’ Resurrection was but the first act in a rapidly approaching general resurrection has been proven false. And scientific advances over the last 500 years – in biology, physics, and cosmology – preclude a literal understanding of a dead body reanimating and ascending upwards to a heaven from fitting within a rationalistic worldview. So, what was the Resurrection, and what does it mean?

iconresurrectTyron Inbody provides some powerful understandings of the event in The Faith of the Christian Church. “The New Testament does not speak of the resurrection directly.” Throughout Scripture, no physiological explanation of Jesus’ body is given. Thus, anyone who claims a physical reanimation of Jesus is speculating extra-biblically. Reason cannot be shed here. “Jesus was not resuscitated; he was resurrected.” What we know about the Resurrection, then, must only be speculation, formed within the bounds of reason, tradition and experience. “The resurrection is an inference; no one saw it.”

For Inbody, the theological significance of the resurrection turns on a non-physical understanding of its process. “The idea of resuscitation completely misses the theological meaning of the resurrection.” The resurrected person was most definitely Jesus; the Gospel stories place importance on the moment observers recognized Jesus: “there was a continuity of identity between the one who died and the one raised.” But that doesn’t mean it was the literal body that had hung on a cross appearing; in fact, to say so would defeat the importance of Resurrection story for Inbody. “It was his body transformed from one mode of existence to another, a new mode of physicality or a new mode of corporeality.”

The transference of Jesus’ identity to a new form of being, beyond death and a defeated human body, reveals the power of God over death and sin, not as a destructive power, but a recreating and reforming power. “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of God’s great work of redemptive transformation, the seed from which the new creation begins to grow…God does not annihilate the past and death but transforms them, releases new power, makes them into a new creation.” Explaining scientifically how the resurrection happened isn’t what’s important; all that matters is that “something happened,” something that God did to defeat death, not in some other plane of metaphysics, but here in our world, as we understand and experience is now. “Though exactly what happened is beyond our understanding, it is an event affecting history.”

So, what does “what happened” mean for us? We can look back to Scripture for the answer: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12: 3) The resurrection of Christ reveals the fulfillment of God’s solidarity with those who suffer, in that death and sin does not have the final say. Instead, God reassures those who suffer by reminding them of God’s own experience of suffering, and God can work with those moments and experiences to create a new, better world.

Karen Baker-Fletcher understands this aim of God. “For many,” she writes, “the passion of Jesus Christ during his torture and crucifixion has meaning because they take comfort in the incarnation of God, a God who empathizes with their own experiences of being sinned against.” Baker-Fletcher uses the story of the contemporary lynching of James Byrd Jr by white supremacists in Texas as an example of God’s identity with the oppressed, and the solidarity God shows with those who sin, and with those who suffer from that sin. In the story of Byrd, but also in the story of his killers, is shown a God who weeps along with us. God weeps because God also experienced suffering, torture, and eventually, death, the end of fleshly existence, the literal embodiment of meaninglessness, which is the pathological human fear undergirding much of our actions.

But out of meaninglessness, God creates meaning. Only through resurrection can the experience of suffering and death be redeemed. Hope arises when we understand that God can take the suffering and death we see around us, and work for something better. This is not to excuse the sinful actions that so often cause suffering; but, instead, it is a word of hope for the oppressed, and a word of caution for the oppressors. Hope, in that God will remove the hand holding the weak in bondage; and caution, in that no matter how hard they try, the oppressor cannot win history on the backs of others. God’s love shines through the Resurrection, proclaiming victory for life for all peoples. “God, who is all-inclusive in God’s love for the world, experiences the suffering of all and graciously offers transformative visions of faith and courage to the world.”

The Resurrection was not a physical reanimation of the body of Christ that showcased the power of God over the laws of nature, in an effort to subordinate our fear of death to some hyper-rational faith in a magician God. This understanding of Resurrection isn’t comforting to those who suffer, but is instead terrifying, asking us to believe something many of us cannot in the vain hope that it will come true. No, the Resurrection of Jesus is the story of God recreating the world in a way that ensures that death does not get the final word, but instead, love does. Jesus rose from the dead in the view of his disciples not as a body, but as the ideal of God’s victory for them, the oppressed, as a liberation from the death-dealing powers of the world. Resurrection is important, because, as Paul wrote, it reminds us that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 NRSV).

 

Bibliography

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 6th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Inbody, Tyron. The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.

And He Healed Them All

In the news today:

Health care workers who want to refuse to treat patients because of religious or moral beliefs will have a new defender in the Trump administration.

This, of course, is straight out of the religious right’s anti-LGBT playbook, right along with protecting bakers and photographers and other businesses who want to discriminate. This case, however, stands out for me, because of the direct Biblical implications.

Jesus, among many other things, was a healer. Throughout the Gospels, he heals numerous people, of a variety of ailments: blindness, leprosy, a withered hand, bleeding, even death. He heals people, by touch, who were deemed unclean and unacceptable by the culture of the time. Where other healers wouldn’t go, Jesus went. He loved the unlovable, not in word, but in deed.

thehealericonMost importantly, Jesus never refused to heal anyone.

To take just one example, flip to Matthew 9:20-22. In this story, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus heals a woman who had “been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years,” via her touching his cloak. By Levitical law, she is unclean, and he is made unclean at her touch. In the time of Jesus, this would have been unthinkable and dangerous. Being unclean was the worst thing a Jew could be, according to the Law of Moses, and the rituals required to become clean again, not to mention the massive inconvenience to a person’s life in the meantime, were onerous.

Yet, Jesus never hesitated to heal her. He did not get angry at the women, call her unclean, worry about his own cleanliness, and by extension, his own soul or salvation under the law. Rather, he simply healed, and by healing, loved unconditionally. In fact, he went so far as to tell the woman that her faith had healed her. That is, the courage and trust that she showed in coming to him, was greatly rewarded.

Those who are sick today, who might be considered unclean or unwanted, because of their gender identity or who they love, also come to health care providers in trust, and with courage, believing they, too, are worthy of their humanity, and thus of being made well and whole. I would hope that any health care provider, and especially those who heal under the name of “Christian,” would emulate the unconditional nature of Jesus, and heal all in need. No conditions, no consequences, no caveats.

This attempt by the Trump administration, and the politicized religious right, to divide and dehumanize, to make “us and them” relevant categories again, to try to institute the same kind of blind dogmatism and legalism that Jesus stood so forcefully against, can not be allowed to take hold. If someone in need comes into their operating room, someone the preacher and the politician on their cable news show told them is “untouchable,” and they go looking for a verse of Scripture for guidance, I hope the only one they find is Matthew 15:30:

“Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others, and laid them at his feet,

and he healed them all.”