This summer, as has been true for the past few summers, racism has made headline news. Deep divisions have been put in the spotlight, and it can sometimes feel as if that spotlight has served to dig them even deeper.
But we can’t confront racial strife if we don’t acknowledge that it exists. The challenge is that racism does not just have a deep root, but has many deep roots in our lives, communities, and country.
"God doesn't just hate what you do. God hates who you are." — A Well-Known Contemporary Preacher
What this pastor says above, as well as much of what he says in the sermon from which this line is taken, comes from reading the Bible as if every sentence in it can and should be read as bearing the same weight as all others when we answer the question: "Who is God?"
When we read the Bible with the first Christians we begin to understand that the way they read these texts is not the way an uber-rationalist modern reads them.
Since Jesus himself was the one who taught the apostles to read the Old Testament, the way the churches they founded read the Bible is important for us, too.
God never was only the words he utters, or the ones we utter about God — just like we are never the sum total of everything we have spoken or what has been spoken of us. There is so much more to the mystery of any person than mere words; how much more so the mystery of the divine persons.
The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.
Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.
If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.
I read a lot of Trinitarian theology last semester at Duke Divinity school, most of it trying to discern how believing in a Triune God might affect the way people of different religious faiths relate to one another. The other great Monotheisms, Islam and Judaism, of course reject the Trinity as they reject Jesus as divine. But what if the Christian belief in the Triune God is the very basis on which Christians can accept Jews as Jews, Muslims as Muslims, and atheists as atheists? Different theologians have explored how the Trinity might be a good place to ground a Christian theory of religious pluralism. S. Mark Heim has gone so far as to say that God’s own inner diversity shows God’s intention for a diverse humanity, even including religious diversity. In other words: People might believe in a non-Trinitarian God because they were made by a Trinitarian God. Mind-blowing.
I wasn’t expecting to find resonance in Charles Darwin, whose name has been used in so much anti-religious fervor. But in his 1857 letter to Asa Gray, Darwin wrote about the “principle of divergence” and how “the same spot will support more life if occupied by very diverse forms.” We might not want to make a precise analogy to human society when Darwin concludes that “each new variety or species, when formed will generally take the place of and so exterminate its less well-fitted parent.”
That line of thinking could easily lead us to euthanasia. But, taken with his observation that diversity fosters life, we might say that co-existence with others forces a species to adapt, and everyone is better for it. Consider the converse of Darwin’s statement: The same spot will support less life if occupied by a unitary form. There is something life-giving – Heim might say “divine” – about difference.
Tony Jones has asked some of us progressive Theobloggers to chime in on God, you know, perhaps some kind of definition or doctrine (that word many of us progressives despise). You can read his invitation here. Tony doesn't want us to talk about Jesus, per se, but about God. I get that. He's in his evangelical context and he gets tired of all the Jesus talk. Lately it seems that the Emergent conversation has been all Jesus all the time. Now, that doesn't bother me, but then again I feel that in my end of the progressive mainline (free church progressive) we don't talk about Jesus enough. We talk about God all the time. Jesus, well, he's a bit of an enigma. What else is there to say? Nevertheless, Tony's invitation is an interesting one and I'm willing to chime in.
One caveat: I'm doing this as a way to speak of one Person of a Trinity. To speak of the One is, in many ways, to speak of the Three and the Unity. But this is just a blog post and not a 20-page essay. So ... yeah.
My answer: If you want to know God, get Religion. (Have you got good religion? Certainly, Lord!) Religion is a combined set of activities embodied by people. These activities are not limited to but may include the following behaviors: liturgy, charity, politics, and even theology (mystical and systematic), and doctrine. Religion can be communal or individual. Religion is the principal craft by which we know (cognition) and understand (hermeneutics) God.
A dear friend recently reminded me of David Ford’s gem of a book, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life. On the back cover, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it beautifully: “[This book's] spirituality is profound and reflective, yet always concrete, and never dishonest or evasive; it uses not only Scripture but literature with creative facility. Simple, yet rich. A jewel of the spiritual life in its everyday manifestations. I want to savor it with repeated readings.”
Ford traces the “multiple overwhelmings” in our lives — the forces that shake us and shape us, those with the power to wound or crush and those that are life-giving and transformative. At stake in reckoning with such tumult is the whole of our lives and our living. “How,” he asks, ”in the midst of all our overwhelmings, are our lives shaped?”