America First, God Second?

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the book of Jonah, asserting that America plays the role of Nineveh in that story, not the role of Jonah (as we like to tell ourselves.) Today, I want to follow that up with a little theological grounding for that idea.

I’m doing this because I can hear folks asking, how can I equate us with Assyria and people from places like Iran or Syria with Jonah, when those people aren’t Christians, or even Jewish? Why would God side with Muslims over us, even if, as a nation, we haven’t always acted very Christian in our foreign relations?

The answer is found in thinking about the relation of humanity to God, and specifically, the fundamental orientation of that relationship. In the telling where America plays the good guy role here, the assumption is made of a Divine-Human relationship where we get to set the terms. From us emanates truth, and all else swirls around us and is described in relation to us. America is good, not on God’s terms, but on our own terms. In this telling, the great fundamentalist fear comes to fruition: truth is made relative, in this case, to the needs of American imperialistic aims. The way of God is made unimportant; instead, the way of America is the guiding lodestar. America First becomes not just a quasi-racist catchphrase, but a theological assertion of primacy.

But this gets the human-Divine relationship backwards. When speaking of God – the Divine, the Ground of All Being, Ultimate Truth – one exists in relation to God, is defined by one’s relationship to the Divine. Paul Tillich writes of the “subject-object distinction,” asserting that God can never be an object in an object-subject relation, but is always the subject.

This argument can be problematic at times, especially when the subjective God is conceived of by human beings as a capricious, angry and self-obsessed God. This subject God, around whom all else orbits, becomes “Anti-humanistic,” a God with little if any concern for humanity, but instead completely caught up in God’s own whims and desires. Humanity’s actions and existence become by-products of God, rather than objects. The subject-object relation breaks down in this case.

God as subject works, though, when we understand God as concerned with humanity, and especially, as Jesus posited, with the “least of these.” This is one of the primary and most important contributions of liberation theology to the conception of God: a God concerned primarily with the oppressed, who stands on the side of those not in positions of power.

That’s what powers my assertion that America is playing the role of Nineveh, and persons in places like Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan are playing the role of Jonah. Because God takes the side of the oppressed. And in the case of American imperialism in the Middle East, the oppressed are the people in those places who are being bombed and terrorized and killed. God sides with them, no matter their religion, no matter their creed, and no matter their nationality. In cases where unjust power in being brought to bear, God could really care less about any temporal identifiers. God cares about the flourishing of human life, in its many varied forms. God takes the side of the indigent peasant farmer before he takes the side of well-fed suburbanites in conflict between the two.

Too often, America plays  the role of oppressor to peoples in the global south and east, especially poor people of color. We do it for well-reasoned “good” ideas, like democracy or liberty. But always, these are justifications that benefit not in solidarity with others, but at the expense of them. This is where I get my grounding the say: in Jonah, we are Nineveh. I have very little doubt about that.

The Ordinary is where we meet up with Jesus

“The ordinary is where we meet up with Jesus, and he is more profoundly nowhere else.” – Romand Coles

ordinary-life1One of the most extraordinary things about Jesus, something that confounded and proved a stumbling block to even his closest disciples, was the sheer ordinariness of his existence. I don’t mean this in the sense of his teachings; clearly, he was extraordinary in the Way of Being of exemplified.

Rather, I mean the ordinary nature of the man Jesus. In him, we have a Palestinian peasant, born in a village we would not of if he had never lived, to an unwed teenage, at the very edge of empire. He was a day laborer, probably spending the majority of his life before ministry traveling to nearby Sepphoris, working long hours on Herod’s magnificent city.

But even after his entry into ministry, Jesus retained his essence of ordinary. Rather than the conquering king, rather than the over-thrower of Rome and second coming of King David, Jesus was an ordinary human, who communed with and loved other ordinary, flawed humans. He ate with sinners, loved unclean women, forgave extravagantly. He preferred the company of lepers to that of magistrates and priests. He was essentially homeless, living off the generosity and goodwill of ordinary Palestinian people. He was poor. He didn’t aspire to power or greatness. He was executed as a criminal, with no friends at his side.

Jesus was “radically ordinary,” to borrow a concept from Hauerwas and Coles. And thus, he calls us to a life of the same. Christians are not called to be purveyors of power and control. We don’t long for a seat at the table with the rich and powerful and beautiful. We don’t become insiders, and place our trust in electoral victories or temporal power. Instead, we are called to serve the “least of these.” We look for the blessings of the hungry and the meek and the forgotten. We are called to be ordinary, and thus, to be radical agents of change.

The one place where Jesus wasn’t ordinary was his extraordinary understanding of the power of relational living to change the world in a lasting and meaningful way. And so, he practiced the ordinary life of a man who meets and knows people. Simply that. And he knew that would be the key to the Kingdom.

This isn’t an ordinary that disengages. As Coles writes a bit later, “…all the arts of the ordinary that read patience as an invitation to escape from the tasks of large struggles against the gargantuan and fast-moving whirls of destruction are likewise highways of delusion.” We don’t embrace our ordinary in order to withdraw from the power of the world. Rather, we engage it as a practice oriented towards change on the macro level. The ordinary, when practiced in a way that is self-giving with no expectation of return, becomes the most powerful tool known to humanity.

So we are called to be relational beings. We make the world become the way we know it can be by changing lives, and we change lives by knowing people, talking to them, hearing them. Institutional power, political power, is important in it’s way. But the real way to change the world is to get to know the people near you, as Jesus got to know the people near him.

We meet Jesus in the ordinary. We bring the Kingdom by being ordinary.

The Immanence of God

For a long time, I’ve seen God as a transcendent presence in the universe. I assumed God to be outside of our present reality, as a distant observer. I wrote about this in a post a couple of years ago, wrestling with deism and using the Clockmaker metaphor for my understanding of God.

But this conception of the Divine has never set totally well with me. Something seemed to be off about it, about a distant God. Because I have also always believed in the idea of God as in all things, in all of us and all of Creation. But I could never reconcile these two competing ideas.

immanenceRecently, that has all begun to change. It began with my reading of The Divine Relativity by Charles Hartsthorne. This work, a seminal text in the canon of process theology, posits God not as wholly supreme and dominant, but as relative and personal. Hartsthorne’s conception of God is one defined by its relation to Creation, and to us. God is not an omnipotent king, looking over the world with perfect foreknowledge and control over our actions, completely absolute and thus unable to be affected by us. Instead, God grows and changes in relation to us, based on our own actions. Now, this necessarily implies some sense of limitation on God, but that is an acceptable thought if you think of God choosing to limit God’s self in order to more perfectly be in communion with us.

Although the text was dense and highly academic, I really feel drawn to this conception of God. This still doesn’t mean I believe in a God who works active miracles and changes in the world; Harthsthorne thoroughly dismantles this idea as tyrannical and illogical, which I completely agree with. However, I do think God is relatable, and is affected by our ability to act and interact with the Divine Being.

My thoughts of this have continued to expand on this subject recently as a result of Richard Beck’s series on immanence and transcendence over at Experimental Theology. Beck dismantles the idea of a wholly transcendent God and really sums out my feelings:

The irony of transcendence, often celebrated in praise music as the “awesomeness” of God, is how it tends toward disenchantment. With God exalted as King ruling over and above creation, God is subtly pulled out of creation. Rather than indwelling God evacuates creation.

Transcendence also tends toward deism, furthering our disenchantment. When transcendence is emphasized, highlighting God’s separateness and Otherness from creation, God’s actions in the world are conceptualized as intrusions, miraculous suspensions of the daily flux of cause and effect. But as science has progressed these miraculous intrusions are harder to believe in. And when you starting doubting the miracles of the transcendent God you, by default, find yourself in deism. A God who is out there, somewhere, but a God who doesn’t miraculously intrude upon creation.


Transcendence + Doubt (mainly in miracles) = Deism

I love this. This is exactly the dissonance and problem I’ve been struggling with in my understanding of God. And in his next post, Beck provides an answer to this problem: immanence. Or as he calls it here, a sacramental ontology:

In a sacramental ontology there is an overlap between God and creation–an intermingling of the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the mundane and the holy, the secular and the sacred, the natural and supernatural, the material and the spiritual.

With a sacramental ontology the world is “haunted” by God continuously from the insiderather than through episodic and miraculous intrusions from the outside. Creation itself, because it is “charged with the grandeur of God,” is miraculous, sacred and holy. Creation is an ongoing and unfolding miracle rather than a disenchanted machine occasionally interrupted–if God answers our prayers–by an external miraculous force.

To rethink a famous metaphor, creation isn’t a mechanism, a watch separate from the Watchmaker. Creation isn’t a machine. Creation is alive.

God exists in all things; not in the sense that all things are God, but in the sense that God is all-enveloping. Hartsthorne makes this distinction by replacing the term pantheism (all things are God) with panentheism (all things are in God.) God is not separate or distant; God is near, one with us and all of creation. God is personal and loving, not impersonal and dominant.

I’m still working this out in my personal theology, and how it affects everything. But I do know this: it reaffirms my commitments to liberation theology, universalism, social justice and environmental justice. It adds a layer of depth and sacredness to all Creation and all human beings. Sacred worth is all around us; we must do our best to preserve it where it is and revive it where it is fading. The Immanence of God deserves no less.