“God Does Not Depend on You”
Over the course of the five years or so that I have been maintaining this blog, it has been interesting to observe which topics spark conversation and which do not. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that if there is one topic or theme that has tended to generate the most comments and/or traffic over the lifespan of this blog, it would be something related to doubt—whether the role doubt plays (or can play or ought to play) in the life of faith or the role doubt has played in the rejection of faith.
I suspect there are many reasons for why this topic generates interest, not least the simple fact that most of us, if we are honest, experience doubt personally, and that most of us know someone who has walked away from faith as a result of doubts that they could no longer live with or reconcile to their previously held beliefs. Doubt touches all of us, if in different ways, to different degrees, and in response to different pressures at various points in our lives.
This is as true for clergy as it is for anyone else. I was reminded of this when I read an article over at NPR a few days ago—an article which, in turn, reminded me of a post on this blog from a few years back that generated a bit of conversation. It had to do with a study of pastors who had lost their faith yet who continued to hold their positions, continued to preach and teach a view of the world that they had largely left behind.
At the time, I expressed no small amount of irritation at the arrogance and self-righteousness exhibited by those who had “grown out of faith” but were “graciously” allowing their parishioners to blunder along in their pleasant and comforting religious illusions. This still irritates me, truth be told. And I still think those who choose to walk away from faith ought to have the courage to stand behind their newfound convictions rather than hiding behind platitudes about the courage and compassion it takes to soldier on in their role in the church despite the enormous dissonance between what they believe and what they say. I don’t regret what I said about this two years ago, whether in the main post or in the comments. But I could have said more.
Some of the content of that “more” arrived via a chapter from Michael Jinkins’ Letters to New Pastors that I came across this morning. For Jinkins, more important than the issue of how to reconcile our doubts with faith is the question of how we understand the nature of God and his work in the world (and in our faith) in the first place:
It seems to me that pastors lose their faith at the end of a long road that begins by misinterpreting God as our insurance policy against life’s dangers. They then move on either to denying just how dangerous life is in a creation into which God has woven such extraordinary freedom, or to defending a simplistic, one-dimensional understanding of God as though their very lives depended on it. Both routes can lead to loss of faith. The first through the narrow, shuttered lanes of denial, the second along the crowded sidewalks of exhaustion. Both routes appear faithful (sticking up for God through thick and thin!), but both, I think, are grounded in the sin of pride (believing that God depends on us to defend God’s reputation).
God does not depend on you, either to defend God’s reputation or to hold on to your faith. Jesus Christ, as we are told again and again in Ephesians and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, fully represents God, and has faith in God for us. We can rest in this fact, even when we find this fact impossible to believe for ourselves.
The mere fact that God does not depend on us—on the clarity of our cognition, the fervency of our commitment, or the confidence of our articulation—does not magically resolve every issue related to doubt and faith. If only. But at the very least, I think, it can free us—whether we are pastors or not—from the illusion that our faith (or lack thereof) is the primary issue around which everything and everyone else in our orbit stands or falls. Thank God, it is not.
I like this. Reminds me of how we often put God in a box and limit Him by thinking that we as mere humans could actually mess up His eternal plan. We are simply not that big. Thanks for the reminder.
Thank you, Justin.
I agree with your points here, and with those of the person you quoted, even though I am not quite sure what it means to agree considering the theological distance at which I stand.
I have always wished I had more faith, although not the kind Jinkins describes. I think faith to me meant something like a right relationship with God. God’s reputation was never at stake in that. Today, I don’t think I understand faith in quite the way I once did (right relationship). Perhaps I understand it now as just a kind of letting go in a realization that the right relationship is given and unavoidable, even while sometimes that realization is not as strong as I wish it were.
LIke Pythagoras I want to hear the music in the background of life and feel the warmth of the fire at the heart of everything. I do sometimes.
I read, but did not comment on your recent entries about Colombia. What you witnessed takes my breath away and leaves me momentarily speechless. We must all witness such things, or else we won’t see the world as it is, and we won’t do what we can to change the way things are. In addition, without witnessing such things we do not really know what we are. Contrary to what the liberation theologians say, theology need not begin with the experience of the poor and oppressed. Nevertheless, theology must pass through it and carry that experience within. Otherwise, it will surely fail in the “shuttered lanes of denial” or “along the crowded sidewalks of exhaustion.”
Well said, Ken. Thank you.
Re: theology not needing to begin with the poor, I find myself wondering these days… Maybe it does or should. I’ve been spending time in the Sermon on the Mount lately, and it certainly striking – here and throughout the Gospels – how frequently Jesus seems to start (or end) with the poor. At the very least, it gives me pause… It makes me wonder if my reluctance to start (or end) where Jesus does has anything to do with the privileges I enjoy.
For some people, it can only begin the poor. I remember a woman saying that she felt closest to God when she was scrubbing a filthy floor in a third world hospital where a destitute woman was dying in the bed next to her. I observed that her feelings were connected with guilt for the privileges she enjoyed.
I don’t believe Jesus began or ended with the poor. What we see in the Bible is about all we know about him, and what we see there is something quite different from contemporary concerns about economic equality or concerns with oppression generally. He is rather a largely symbolic figure – symbolic of Israel itself and concerned with Israel, not with the poor of the world. He has nothing directly to do with contemporary social justice movements. That is not to say that theology cannot begin with the poor as it does in liberation theology, or with the experience of women as it does in feminist theology, or with the experience of the middle class in modernity as it does in existential theology. Each will imagine their own Jesus. Each will see their concerns met to some extent in scripture, or, more likely, in some scripture but not all. I think that is inevitable.
Theology, or religion, will begin where it will. I have found it beginning with ecology. But that is me. (Our tribe is growing. Don’t tell Jinkins. I don’t want him to criticize me as one of those “simplistic” ones who believe our lives depend on our understanding. We do, although our aim is not to save our lives. “Simplistic” is such an ugly dismissive word to throw at someone – I have heard it thrown often in theological circles.)
In college, when at home, I attended mass where everyone was exceeding privileged, dripping diamonds and wearing gowns and tuxedos to the celebration of the eucharist on Saturday evening before spending the rest of the evening in communion with Bacchus. The priest would tell us, effectively, “you are going to hell for your wealth.” I wondered if I were the only one hearing that message. His theology began with the poor. He saw his mission as shaming the privileged, and liberating the poor. Later one Saturday evening I saw him having dinner and wine with an elderly woman (one dripping diamonds) at an elite club. I imagined he was speaking to her about her soul and relieving her of her shameful wealth. I could not tell for sure. He was having such a good time. Perhaps theology should end with Dionysus.
Re: Jesus beginning with the poor, I’m thinking of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 or his identification of himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Luke 4. In some form or another, “good news to the poor” is a major theme of Jesus’ life, teaching, and identity.
Of course, we need – and perhaps ought – not map our conceptions of “the poor” directly onto Jesus’s context, but I don’t think it is entirely illegitimate to apply Jesus’ words beyond how they would have originally been heard either. Indeed, one of my theological assumptions is that it is in some sense obligatory that we do so.
(Great story about the dinner party, by the way. I got quite a chuckle out of that, even if of a rather grim sort 😄.)
I agree that it is legitimate to apply scripture to situations beyond its historical contexts. It has been legitimate for more than two thousand years. The New Testament itself does just that, and this practice can be seen in the Old Testament as well. I think it is inevitable. One way or another, the old language still has meaning. Such is the power of myth.
Re: Indeed, one of my theological assumptions is that it is in some sense obligatory that we do so.
Thinking here of people living in poverty or in oppression, to me it is inhuman and unnatural to not be troubled by such things, to not seek to end such things. Our theological paths differ, and perhaps our ideas about the world to seek differ, but in our concern we do not differ. You may call it obligation, where I may call it desire. Whatever it is, it is compelling.
BTW, I greatly admired the priest I wrote about.
I disagree, I believe God does depend on us. He depended on Noah to build the ark, Abraham to take his family out of Ur and start the Hebrew nation, in which Jesus was born from. He depended on Moses to lead the children out of Egypt, I can go on and on but the last thing He depended on Christ to sore us the true nature of God