Well, I’ve spent the last three or so days driving to Alberta and back and consequently have had little time for blogging. I have, however, managed to squeeze a bit of reading in here and there on my travels, and as always the odd quote seems to leap off the page and lodge itself in my brain. Here’s an intriguing one from Samir Selmanovic’s confused, confusing, and mostly forgettable foray into religious pluralism but not really religious pluralism called It’s Really All About God:
Faith is an exercise in having high expectations of God.
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What happens when those expectations are not met?
Loss of faith, for some, lowering expectations for others, defense of God (theodicy) for others.
At the same time, I don’t really know what this writer meant in context by those words. They do not represent a common theological expression related to faith, although I have heard similar expressions from friends who once believed and now are atheists.
Another observation: the words express a view of faith that begins with humanity or human experience or human effort. That is characteristic of liberal theology. The alternative starting points would be God, as in classic and evangelical theology, or nature, as in pantheism.
The quote comes in the context of a rather vacuous passage where the author is trying to get us to see that God really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) as exclusive as we have made him in all of our particular traditions. It is quite clearly a moral expectation that Selmanovic is describing—a God worth worshiping wouldn’t play favourites, in his view.
I think you’re right that Selmanovic is starting with human experience and that this approach differs from most understandings of classical theology and pantheism. I would argue that even classical theology and pantheism start with human experience, on one level, if only for the simple reason that we cannot access anything, whether Scripture or nature, apart from ourselves. In some ways, we don’t have any choice but to start with ourselves.
I think a lot depends on the nature of the expectations, obviously. For some, the only—or at least the primary—expectations are other-worldly in nature (i.e., heaven when I die) which conveniently puts them beyond empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. For others, as Gil alludes to below, the main benefits ought to be this-worldly and involve health, wealth, blessing, lack of suffering, etc. I think both extremes are wrong and dangerous.
The space between the extremes is, as always, where the interesting questions are found, in my view. What do we expect of God? What can we expect of God? What have we expected of God historically? What ought we to expect of God? I think working toward clarity on these questions can go a long way toward a life of faith that is both realistic and hopeful.
The Bible embraces both extremes that you think are wrong and dangerous. In addition, Paul seemed to believe or expect that divine wrath was imminent and that grace through faith would spare even gentiles from that wrath. Do you expect that – imminent wrath?
No, I don’t think that the Bible does embrace the two extremes. I think the Bible contains individual passages that could be interpreted in isolation from the rest of Scripture as embracing either a pie-in-the-sky when you die approach or a health and wealth understanding, but that is not the big picture of what a life of faith looks like according to the fully story of Scripture.
Re: do I expect imminent wrath, I don’t really know how to answer that. I’m not sure what you mean by “imminent wrath” in the context of this conversation.
Most Christians believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are going to heaven when they die, or that their souls or spirits go there while they await the resurrection. Do Anabaptists believe they go to heaven when they die? I have the impression you don’t. True?
I am little confused about what you are saying. Why do you call going to heaven “pie in the sky?”
I mentioned Paul’s belief because I was trying to find out what you believe or expect in the context of the word “faith.” Paul wrote of being saved by grace through faith, in Ephesians, for example, in the context of being spared from God’s wrath. Do Anabaptists believe Christians are saved from wrath through faith? Do you?
I would say that Anabaptists share the orthodox Christian hope of eternity with God, whether that is conceived of as “going to heaven,” or participating with Christ in the new creation (i.e., heaven “coming to us”), or whatever. I certainly share this hope.
Re: “pie in the sky,” I only used that phrase in the context of the question of what we can expect of God. For some, the only expectation of God that matters has to do with the afterlife and escaping this world in favour of a spiritual paradise.
Yes (to whatever extent it is appropriate to speak of what “Anabaptists,” as a single entity, believe) and yes. I obviously don’t think this describes what I believe we are saved from or for without remainder, but it is certainly part of the package.
re: For some, the only expectation of God that matters has to do with the afterlife and escaping this world in favour of a spiritual paradise.
Is this common among Anabaptists? In your church?
It is uncommon in the liberal Christianity in which I have served. The focus in liberal Christianity among pastors is largely on changing this world. That focus is shared by some church members, but mostly they are trying to self actualize. Few want to escape this world. I think the pastors have the most dangerous beliefs – dangerous to others. They think they are working on God’s mandate. I think they are creepy.
It is a view that obviously is subscribed to in varying degrees, but certainly an escapist view of faith has featured in historical Anabaptism. I see signs of it here and there in day to day church life, but it is not prominent.
Re: “creepy” pastors with “dangerous beliefs.” That seems like a fairly harsh judgment. Regardless of someone’s theological/philosophical views, the desire to change the world for the better shouldn’t be disparaged, in my view.
Re: I see signs of it here and there in day to day church life, but it is not prominent.
Then it sounds like you are criticizing other Christians, not your own.
Re: dangerous creepy pastors
It is like we discussed, or disagreed before. I think people who believe they are on a mission to remake the world under a mandate of God are dangerous and creepy. It is not the desire for change that is dangerous or creepy, it is their belief that they are God’s representatives that is creepy. They are seldom democratic in their approach. They believe they are fighting evil – they cannot compromise with evil – they seek to destroy it, to save the world from it. I don’t think this bothers you the way it does me.
I am critical of a particular view, not people. There is a big difference. It is a view that has been prominent at various times and various places, and which continues to have some traction, however limited, in the context I am in as well. I only brought it up in the context of Tyler’s question about what happens when expectations of God are not met. I felt that it was illustrative of the spectrum of expectations that exists out there.
Not everyone who feels like they are trying to obey God in making the world a better place thinks that they are “on a mission to remake the world under a mandate of God.” I know very few, if any, who would describe a life of faith in these terms. The reason the idea of acting as God’s representatives doesn’t bother me the way it seems to bother you is that I do not understand it remotely like the way you describe it.
I realize that the context you are familiar with and reacting against is much different than mine, and that there are people who have acted in ways that you do not agree with. That’s lamentable, but it does not describe everyone. There are plenty of people who simply, humbly, and charitably do their best to love God and their neighbour every day as their “mandate” from God. I don’t think it is creepy or dangerous for pastors or anyone else to advocate and practice such an approach.
re: “There are plenty of people who simply, humbly, and charitably do their best to love God and their neighbour every day as their “mandate” from God. I don’t think it is creepy or dangerous for pastors or anyone else to advocate and practice such an approach.”
I agree with that.
re: “Not everyone who feels like they are trying to obey God in making the world a better place thinks that they are “on a mission to remake the world under a mandate of God.” I know very few, if any, who would describe a life of faith in these terms.”
I have known many. They seemed quite reasonable to themselves, and they had favorable opinions of themselves and their faith.
Certainly our different perspectives matter to what we see and know.
Hi Tyler. My answer is- that is the theme of Job to the end of chapter 37. Job, the Superman in pursuit of truth.
Replace ‘God’ with ‘Nation-State’, ‘Free Markets’, and ‘Liberal Democracy’ and you have a fair description of the supposedly ‘Christian’, ever-hopeful, but always disappointed West.
At his blog Michael wrote in the “about” section that he rejects the enlightenment. That may be what he is expressing indirectly in this comment. (I don’t know, but I wondered when I read his expression here.) I am surprised that you wrote, “Indeed.” Do you, Ryan, reject the enlightenment? Do nation-states, free markets and liberal democracy disappoint you?
I didn’t mean anything in my response to Michael other than that I think that many people substitute these things for God as the focal point of their expectations.
Although nation-states, free markets, and liberal democracy are somewhat distinct from the Enlightenment, they do disappoint me regularly. Indeed, I’m surprised anyone could proclaim themselves satisfied with their nation, markets, and democracy, and Christians in particular should not feel at rest with any penultimate good. But what do you think of this quote?
“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . It is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”
I have only a scant memory of my reading of MacIntyre’s book containing this quote. I only remember my general impression of it and After Virtue, along with other communitarian works such as those by Bellah and Hauerwas. I see communitarianism as oppression. I prefer the freedom, that communitarians associate with individualism, in spite of the nihilism that accompanies it. My sympathies are with the enlightenment and the modernity that followed. I hope liberalism survives.
“I see communitarianism as oppression.”
In that case, I guess I’ll quit quoting MacIntyre and Hauerwas at you. 🙂 But to be clear: I am in favour of free expression, the open exchange of ideas, genuine dialogue, protection of minorities, and true openness and hospitality towards the other. I am a great fan of true liberality and peace, and that is why I oppose the Enlightenment. I hope liberals survive, but I am convinced they will have to give up liberalism to do so.
I think if “high expectations” refers to therapeutic benefits and a free pass on suffering then this is not faith. But what could be a higher expectation than resurrection?
what should we expect from God?
expectation implies that we might deserve something
what do we deserve from God?
less than most people claim – i suspect
and very little more than life itself – i would wager
even that is gravy…
I don’t know, Dale… I think that in creating us, God assumes responsibility for us, at some level. It means that there was a point to bringing us into existence—that we aren’t superfluous to the cosmos. It strikes me as false humility to say that we ought not to expect anything from God and that we don’t deserve anything at all. I think that if all of us arrive on the scene, not of our own choosing, in a fallen world full of pain and suffering, God is obliged to redeem and to rescue. I think we can expect a good God to act consistently with his character and for the benefit of those he has made and loves.
Why not expect the most from God Dale? To do less would almost seem to be placing limits.
I’m having a hard time understanding why the ‘classic’ position that I apparently took leads to a sense of false humility – I might be missing something.
To me the argument is that the nature of being God makes (Him) ultimately immune to any control that (His) creation might have on him. While it is conceivable that (He) might allocate some notions of control to the created, any real control would seem to render God, God no longer.
To suggest that the created might be able to actually manipulate the control that God has by placing demands upon God seems to be problematic. (it seems worthwhile to point out that any demands that the created might have on God that might control (His) ‘responsibility toward the created, would only seem to flow out of the very qualities imbued by God in creation). It seems to follow then, that no matter how we might qualify God’s activity as being good, God still must remain consistent to his own identity – namely of being ultimately uncontrollable by his creation.
It is out of that line of thinking that I wonder how reasonable it is to expect or think we are entitled to or deserve anything more than what we have already been given. It just seems arrogant to think that the created should in significant ways be able to dictate the terms of existence to God.
If God is responsible to redeem and rescue (His) creation, which standards is (He) obliged to meet, and from what calamity (under (His) ultimate control) is (He) to provide rescue?
The only reason I used the term “false humility” is because at times Christians seem to almost glory in how unworthy they are to receive anything from God. Perhaps this is genuine sometimes, but more often it doesn’t seem that way.
Re: us making demands upon or manipulating God, or his having some debt that he owes us… I am not saying any of that. I am simply saying that the character of God gives us grounds to expect/anticipate certain things from him.
Mdaele has taken a classic position here. Ryan, I think you are out on a theological limb where you wrote: “I think that if all of us arrive on the scene, not of our own choosing, in a fallen world full of pain and suffering, God is obliged to redeem and to rescue.” I don’t mean to argue with your position, only to say that it is unusual, even in the humanist strains of Christianity. Your last sentence is less unusual, in the humanist strain, but only if “expect” means “anticipate.” Your expression here sounds like you are saying God has a debt to pay for throwing us in such a lousy world, a fallen world that we innocents did not choose or make. That may not be what you meant to say, but that is what it sounds like, Job.
I wish I could be around for the discussion, but I am leaving in a few minutes for mountains high and cool.
I think there is plenty of biblical warrant for the claim that God has bound himself to his people and that his people have the right to expect things of God. I am simply suggesting that to quote David in Psalm 138, that we have a right to implore God to “not abandon the work of your hands” and to anticipate that his character will not allow him to do so.
yes Ryan but I think you will agree that anticipate is different than expect. This is a significant semantic problem that seems to be evident in the threads here in these posts. A singular usage of expectation is clearly not in play in these conversations which I think muddies the waters and I will accept that my own usage provides little help to that problem.
Is it possible that the problem is the constant Biblical theme of “on the one hand- on the other hand” push and pull of the Scriptures?
On the one hand Psalm 8:4 asks “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” God does care.
On the other hand Paul writes, consistent with the Jewish Scriptures and specifically God’s response to Job, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” Romans 9:20 God is above all creation and owes no one anything.
At any given moment we struggle with one side or another side of these 2 aspects of God, as described in the Scriptures.
thanks James! that is a valuable insight.
For me I have found that gratitude comes more easily when I acknowledge the gift of my very existence. So finding new blooms on my tomatoes is a wonderful blessing even though it is the natural course of things for the tomato plan to bloom.
On the other hand I can see wildlife struggling under our greedy need for oil and I despair and think that God should do something about it.
I get to have it both ways…