Doesn’t That Make God a Hypocrite?
I have a category on this blog called “Conversations with Kids.” Early on in my blogging “career,” I discovered that the questions kids ask about God often provide a window into some pretty interesting and important theological issues. Questions like, “How do we know that God is real and zombies aren’t” and whimsical musings about whether God is kind of like an alien with an evil detector have provided plenty of good writing fodder over the years. Over ten years, this category has accumulated some fifty posts based on listening in on how my kids think about all this God business.
It’s a curious thing to observe how your relationship with your kids and the questions they ask changes and morphs as they transition into young adulthood. The questions get better. And harder. Which is a very good thing, in my view. Many people stop asking good questions about God far too soon, and just settle into a kind of static faith that contents itself with prepackaged answers for decades on end. So good questions are good things. Long may they continue.
A few days ago, my daughter called after Bible class. “Dad, we have a quick question for you. I’m gonna put you on speaker phone, ok?” Sure thing. “So, we’re reading in Matthew where Jesus calls people hypocrites for trying to take a speck out of someone else’s eye when they have a log sticking out of their own, right?” Yup, got it. “So, if Jesus tells us that we’re suppose to love our enemies in the NT… and God tells people to kill their enemies in the OT… Doesn’t that make God a hypocrite?”
I rummaged around in my theological cupboard for something useful to say in five minutes before my daughter and her classmates bounded off for lunch. Not exactly enough time for a crash course in ANE historical context or Christocentric hermeneutics! I rattled off a few ideas about how biblical inspiration works, about descriptive vs. prescriptive texts and how to tell the difference, about how some parts of the Bible say more about what people assumed about God than about God’s actual character and identity. I told her and those listening that if a way that God is portrayed in one part of Scripture doesn’t square with the character and teaching of Jesus, then so much the worse for that portrayal of God.
I ended with a hopeful, “Does any of that help?” “Yeah, I think so,” she said. I frantically sought out one last theological salvo to hurl through the phone before they all went for lunch. “Remember, Jesus said that the whole book that you’re studying is summed up in two commands: “Love God and love your neighbour. That’s it! Jesus’ words, not mine!” Even as I said this it felt somewhat hollow. A few words feel like small things when set against long, grinding narratives of divinely sanctioned violence. Even when those words belong to Jesus.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation over the past few days. I thought about “kids these days” (and then groaned inwardly that such a loathsome phrase had occurred to me). I thought about the questions that seem to occur so naturally to them. I tried to recall if I had ever felt free to ask a question like, “Doesn’t that make God a hypocrite?” when I was sixteen (I don’t think I did… But then, I wasn’t nearly as bright a sixteen-year-old as my kids are today). I thought about Peter Berger’s “plausibility structures,” about how the things that seem obvious in one sociocultural context seem anything but in another. One generation thinks God is as natural as the air they breathe, another considers God’s absence to be the default position. One has to be argued out of believing in God; another has to be argued into belief. I thought about Charles Taylor’s notion of “disenchantment” as the central feature of modernity. The world and our apprehension of it has been evacuated of God. We have no need of that hypothesis. I grumbled that God really ought to make himself less amenable to sociocultural reductionism.
But mostly, I was struck by the personal nature of my daughter’s question. She wasn’t trying to solve an intellectual problem, per se. She wasn’t trying to make the puzzle pieces fit in an abstract system. She wasn’t reducing God to a theory that contained some inconvenient explanatory residue. She was saying, in a sense, “You know if God is going to tell us do something, he’d better be willing to play by his own rules! If he’s going to demand that we be consistent, then he should follow his own advice.” Hers was a question not so much about the intellectual coherence of God or about the plausibility of this or that hermeneutical strategy, important as these questions are. It was a question that squarely honed in on the character of God. It was blunt, personal, direct, and demanding—things that we often think we shouldn’t be when it comes to questions of God (although if we were to read, say, the prophets, we might reconsider our reticence).
I wrote the preceding paragraph with U2’s new album in my headphones (yes, I know, this makes me seem almost as old as uttering a phrase like “kids these days”). At any rate, “Lights of Home” grabbed my attention with its bracing cry:
Oh Jesus if I’m still your friend
What the hell
What the hell you got for me?
Yeah, something like that.
Whatever else might be said in response to my daughter’s question (and Bono’s), I think it’s appropriate that both questions arrived on the doorstep of Advent. Advent is God’s response to the question, “What the hell you got for me?” What God has for us is, of course, Jesus. Jesus to enter our sorrow and sadness, our doubt and our fear, our sin and our ignorance. Jesus as the answer to every question demanded of God, angrily or otherwise. A child born in a manger to show us that God plays by his own rules.