by Neil Richardson.
We Christians in the western world relate our faith readily enough (more or less) to our personal lives and our churches. We find it harder to relate it to national and international affairs. Think of our divisions or our silences about the nuclear deterrent, Brexit, Britain’s housing crisis, and much, much more. Yet, in these dark times, King Zedekiah’s question to Jeremiah must be ours: ‘Is there a word from the Lord?’
In listening for such a word, we may have to wrestle with biblical and theological themes we usually shy away from. But the vocation of a prophetic Church is to preach the truth. We’re called, not to offer opinions, solutions or programmes for action, not even to preach Kingdom values – a slippery term! (1)- but the truth which sets us free, (John 8.32).
To talk of ‘the truth’ these days is unfashionable, and can be intolerant and dangerous. But this is our basic currency: the reality about ourselves, the Church, the world and God, the Ultimate Reality. And this, of course, includes the story of Jesus.
What are the themes we shy away from? I suggest four: judgement and wrath, sin and repentance. I’m not arguing that we use the words themselves; they are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all. They are certainly offputting, and we want naturally (but mistakenly?) to offer an attractive gospel.
We must face the realities to which the words point, because there is no full gospel without them. To begin here with judgement: we know Christians shouldn’t be judgemental, (Matthew 7.1), but what about God’s own judgement? When did we last preach or hear a sermon on divine judgement – final or otherwise?
A cautionary note is necessary. Most of us have inveighed against a materialistic world and all its works. But we often think of that ‘world’ thought as ‘out there’: a dark reality over against the Church. Thomas Merton, however, searchingly asks, ‘Where do I look for the world, if not inside myself?’ In any case, what charge should the Church make against ‘the world’?
John’s gospel points the way: ‘This is the judgement (Greek, krisis): the light has come into the world but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3.19).
Here is the primal sin: we humans choose darkness, illusions and idols, putting them before light, truth and the living God. And no-one, not least the Church, (compare prophets like Amos on Israel!) is exempt from this judgement.
Our currency is truth. And the reality about ourselves is what it has always been: ‘original’ sin, made though we are in the image of God. Sin, of course, is a word almost impossible for the Christian preacher to use unless he or she explains it. Many think it refers to moral failings, especially sexual ones; but they are the symptoms, not the root. Many reject the idea of sin altogether as an outdated, unduly negative estimate of human beings. But as a great Methodist historian once wrote: ‘faith in human nature…. Is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one’ (2).
Yet we can’t make ‘sin’ the centre of our preaching, even though the reality of it is all around us and within us, polluting almost everything. But we live in a culture which can’t or won’t face this reality. Maybe this is because we have become strangers to holiness and the holy.
In the Bible, people become aware of their sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. ‘Sin’ is, first and foremost, a religious and relational term; it is to ‘fall short’ of God’s glory, (Romans 3.21). Isaiah and Simon Peter recognized their own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy One, (Isaiah 6, Luke 5.11). With this we come to the theme of repentance.
The story of the prodigal son reminds us that ‘sin’ is a relational term, not a moral one. But when did the prodigal repent? Not, I suggest, in the far country. That was where he came to his senses, recognizing on which side his bread was buttered. The change of heart came later, as his father ran to embrace him, before the son had even begun his carefully prepared speech.
Samuel Coleridge, poet and theologian, wrote that Christianity is not so much the gift of forgiveness to those who repent, but the gift of repentance to those who sin. An overstatement? Possibly, but much nearer the truth than the widespread assumption that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.
The wrath of God is perhaps the most difficult of the four themes we tend to shy away from. As I pointed out in my blog of 2018, it’s best understood as the opposite of God’s life-giving light: God ‘hiding his face’, (e.g. Isaiah 64.7, in contrast to ‘the light of his countenance’ in Numbers 6.25). In this darkness, spiritual, moral and social, our idolatry and illusions slowly but surely dehumanize us, degrade our behaviour and damage our communities, (Romans 1.18-32)(3).
This is difficult language. But these disasters which we bring upon ourselves underline the truth that this is God’s world, created, redeemed and permeated by his love. But if we go against the very grain of the universe and our own God-given natures, we run into, as it were, the adverse wind of his wrath – the sure sign, especially in our current crises, that this is not only God’s world, but that God cares passionately about it and for us.
Our currency is indeed truth. It is the truth as we believe we see it in Jesus, above all in Christ crucified and risen. In that gospel there is a deep joy and a hope which is unquenchable in all the darkness and pain. We can’t make ourselves praise God in the darkness, but the Spirit will help us so to do, even in such a time as this. In the words of a saintly, early apostle to India, Father Andrew, (H.E. Hardy (4)): ‘Man’s affliction is God’s opportunity’.
- See Eberhard Jungel on ‘value-free truth’ in his Theological Essays II , (T&T Clark 1995), pp.191-215.
- Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, (G. Bell 1949, Fontana 1957), p.66.
- The homosexual practices referred to in this passage are now widely recognized as the exploitative, often oppressive and promiscuous relationships prevalent in the Graeco-Roman world.
- Author of hymn no. 172 in Hymns and Psalms, ‘O Dearest Lord…’.
27 thoughts on “The Theology We Shy Away From”
Wow – thank you Neil – this is really powerful and challenging to read, and something I need to spend some time reflecting upon.
I agree with Leslie! I would like to think and hear more of these themes. Thank you
I absolutely agree with Leslie. So refreshing to have someone unashamedly address the difficult bits of our faith! Thank you, Neil.
I just read this part again:
‘It is the truth as we believe we see it, above all in Christ crucified and risen. In that gospel there is a deep joy and a hope which is unquenchable in all the darkness and pain.’
I am currently going through some personal darkness and pain, as we all are nationally and globally, and I often wonder how those without faith find the strength and courage to go on. In this politically correct climate, too many Christians have become embarrassed by, and maybe a little ashamed of the cross and the Bible, sin and repentance, judgement and personal salvation. Maybe it’s time to claim back the fundamentals of our faith, be proud to own them, and to stand up and be counted as committed followers of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Lord and Saviour of mankind.
‘Who do you say I am?’ (Jesus of Nazareth)
Each of these themes deserves its own separate article and subsequent discussion, particularly if “they are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all” and that includes within the church. I know ministers who have trained at the same college who have radically different interpretations of these themes and others whose understanding of the themes has developed significantly during their ministry.
I have heard a sermon on judgement recently and it certainly was off-putting. It was good news for those who shared the beliefs and experiences of the preacher and terrible news for everyone else. Indeed, it was bad news for believers who looks beyond their own personal salvation and are concerned with the welfare of others.
Pavel, have you ever been on a plane and listened to the air stewards demonstrating what to do in an emergency? They always stress that we should fit our own oxygen masks and life-jackets first before helping others. We won’t be much help to others if we ourselves are dying!
Once we have secured our own personal salvation, we are in a much stronger position to help others.
The point I’m trying to make is that many sermons on judgement suggest that, while those with the “right” beliefs are saved, everyone else is deservedly condemned. I can’t see myself being happy, however wonderful the afterlife, believing that people I have known and loved have been excluded and are suffering in some way. So I am surprised that so many Christians have no qualms about what might happen to non-Christians. But then, I probably won’t qualify for “Heaven”, according to their criteria, so it won’t actually be an issue for me.
LikeLiked by 1 person
One way that I have explained “sin” to someone not familiar with religious jargon is by saying it is something that obstructs our sense of peace within ourselves. In order to “repent” or make a change we need to be aware and regret this separation. Without that we have no inclination to make a change in our attitude, our way of life. On a religious level sin becomes then something that causes us to be at a distance from the God in whose image we are created. If we break our mother’s precious vase any sensitivity we might have makes us feel sorry and ashamed. We feel distanced from her until we have “confessed” or admitted to her what has happened. Our relationship is restored when she opens her arms and cuddles us, when she shows us that she still loves us. We feel drawn like a magnet to want to change and not let it happen again.
In your analogy, Eric, what happens if the mother discovers that the precious vase has been broken before the child confesses? Does she remain in a state of unforgiveness towards him until he confesses? Or is the self-distancing all done by the child? Would she insist that, because the vase was precious to her, someone has to be punished before she could forgive?
Most loving parents punish their children occasionally, Pavel.
They do it to guide them in right ways and hopefully bring out the best version of them.
In Eric’s analogy, if the child had broken the vase by accident, his own guilty conscience would be punishment enough until he knew he was forgiven. If he had been careless or negligent, he might get a ticking off and a lecture about respecting other people’s property, and if he had deliberately smashed the vase in a fit of temper, he would probably forfeit his pocket money or be grounded for a while to teach him that his actions have consequences. He would not, however, be banished from the home and separated from his mother forever, because in a loving relationship, justice is always tempered with mercy.
Thank you for the excellent analogy, Eric!
For me the good news of the Gospel is that in spite of all the inhumanity, hatefulness and violence we see in the world (and in ourselves), the goodness of God never deserts us. Irrespective of our beliefs, or lack of them, we find in our hearts forgiveness for our past errors, courage to deal with the present and hope for the future. The Old Testament concepts of judgement, wrath, sin and repentance preached by the pharisees have been surmounted by the unconditional love of God. The love of God, as shown by the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, is unconditional, inclusive, non-judgemental and amazing. This is the love we are to offer to others ”while they are yet sinners’. This love is the “Weakness of God” that Paul identified that has nothing to do with judgement, condemnation and power over others. This doctrine of radical forgiveness is too easily forgotten, we want people to get their just deserts! But radical forgiveness is the point of the Cross, and the reality is that God forgives and forgets the wrong that has been done and this is the ONLY way God can deal with the hatefulness and violence.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Much food for thought in all the above comments!
For me, fundamentalism is only wrong when it is used as a weapon to control others.
Personally, I could not enter into inter-faith dialogue, or preach tolerance of other faiths, if I could not even tolerate my own.
Yvonne, in my questions about Eric’s story, I was trying to elicit when forgiveness came into play. Was it only when the child confessed and apologised or did the mother forgive him before that.
“I’ll forgive you, if you say you’re sorry” isn’t true forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. Forgiveness is the way we feel about the other person; it isn’t a matter of words or of actions. True forgiveness is a change of attitude within us, a healing of the resentment (which can take a long time, if we have been badly hurt; because wounds need time to heal). It’s changing the way we feel about the other person. We can forgive people even if we never have the chance to tell them, even if they are already dead, even if they don’t acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong. True forgiveness isn’t dependent on the response of the other person. It’s a matter of us rising above what has happened and not allowing what has been done to us to hold us back spiritually. Jesus was insistent that we should forgive because unforgiveness is so spiritually damaging. Surely, unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. Yet, so many preach that God cannot forgive us unless we have made confession, said the sinner’s prayer or answered an altar call.
Yes, teaching children that wrongdoing has consequences is part of a parent’s role. But I raised the issue of punishment, because in the very popular penal substitution theory it is suggested that Jesus had to be punished in our place before we could be forgiven. God’s sense of justice had to be satisfied, we are told. If the look at the Forgiveness Project website, you’ll come across cases of women who have seen their husbands and sons tortured to death in front of them and have then endured multiple rapes and been badly beaten, but have found it within themselves to forgive the perpetrators. Yet I have been told on numerous occasions by preachers and evangelists that God takes even minor misdemeanours as a personal insult against his majesty, and can’t forgive unless people ask for Jesus’ death to atone for us. That makes him less forgiving and less loving than the abused women.
I would say it is the Holy Spirit within these women which makes them able to forgive, whether they recognise him or not.
There are many variations on the atonement theory and we probably all settle for the one which sits most comfortably with our beliefs. Jesus said ‘Father, forgive them’ as he died on the cross; no-one there was saying the sinner’s prayer or answering an altar call and yet Jesus interceded for them.
Yes, many atonement theories and most in the western church have one thing in common – that something had to be done so that God’s anger could be appeased and his sense of justice satisfied. Alternative thinking has been around a long time. As Richard Rohr reminds us, “Franciscan teacher, Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), who founded the theological chair at Oxford, said that Jesus wasn’t solving any problems by coming to earth and dying. Jesus wasn’t changing God’s mind about us; rather, Jesus was changing our minds about God. That, in a word, was our nonviolent at-one-ment theory. God did not need Jesus to die on the cross to decide to love humanity. God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was just Love’s dramatic portrayal in space and time.
The image of the cross was to change humanity, not a necessary transaction to change God—as if God needed changing! Scotus concluded that Jesus’ death was not a “penal substitution” but a divine epiphany for all to see. Jesus was pure gift, and the idea of gift is much more transformative than any idea of necessity, price, or transaction. It shows that God is not violent, but loving.”
In ‘On Being a Christian’ Hans Küng puts this succinctly -“The sacrifice of Jesus was not to placate God. It is man who has to be reconciled to God.”
Why does this matter? Because traditional atonement theories, while they might help those who embrace them within the church, no longer have the credibility they once had in wider society. As A Report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England in 1995 put it “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission. The Cross should instead be presented as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God”
In his 1994 book – Crossing the Threshold of Hope Pope John Paul II reminisced, ‘Not so long ago … preachers knew how to speak of death, judgement, heaven, hell and purgatory …. in an effective and evocative way. How many people were drawn to conversion and confession by these sermons on Last Things!’ But he was not advocating that we went back to that kind of preaching. He accepted that those approaches have had their day.
The love of God is unconditional. It is grace, freely given and therefore totally inclusive of all people and non-judgmental. I can think of 10 reasons for justifying this:
1. Love is absolute. We cannot half-love somebody, and to say I will love you if you do this or that is about making a deal, having power over someone and manipulation. So the love of God is unconditional, there are no “if” statements, and it does not depend on repentance, piety, righteousness, holiness, salvation or even adherence to a faith or religious belief.
2. To say that the love of God is conditional is to make that “love” inferior to the absolute unconditional love parents have for their children.
3. In the Gospels the love shown by Jesus towards all people was radically inclusive and non-judgmental. Unlike the Pharisees he welcomed and cared for everyone, sinners, Samaritans, Romans, women; accepting them as they were “while they were yet sinners”.
4. If the love that Jesus showed to people had been conditional and therefore exclusive and judgmental then the Pharisees would have welcomed him with open arms, put him in the Sanhedrin, and he certainly would not have been crucified.
5. Paul in 1 Corinthians makes the point that the love of God has nothing to do with control or power over people. He describes unconditional love as the “weakness of God” and tells us that this is the way of the Cross and the only way God can love humanity.
6. Judgement is a purely secular matter. Our motivation is to love each other unconditionally, but in practice we need the social restraints of law and order to protect the vulnerable. We have to respond to the demand that God places on us all to care for each other and this implies judgement, but this in no way affects the unconditional nature of the love of God or the unconditional love we may feel for others.
7. To maintain that the love of God is conditional opens the door to paganism; exclusive and judgmental tribal deities demanding sacrifices to appease them.
8. To maintain that we are basically evil creatures, “sinners in need of repentance” is a deeply negative view that denies the inherent goodness in life and in the people we meet.
9. In my inner life, such as it is, the God who is my ultimate concern relates to me with unconditional, inclusive and non judgmental love.
10. As Pavel stated, if those with the “right” beliefs are saved, everyone else is presumably condemned – “I can’t see myself being happy, however wonderful the afterlife, believing that people I have known and loved have been excluded and are suffering in some way”.
As I see it judgmentalism in the church is wrong theologically, logically, socially, ethically, psychologically and biblically. I would even dare to suggest that it is not Christianity.
What I can’t understand, Robert, is why you argue so fiercely against traditional Christian beliefs.
Most Christians would agree with you that God’s love is unconditional, but even Jesus suggested that we would be judged.
How do you explain:
‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Matthew 8:22)
‘Shake the dust from your feet as you leave’ (Matthew 10:14)
‘But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble …..’ (Matthew 18:6)
If you truly believe that no-one is judged, therefore everyone is saved, why does it bother you so much that others don’t agree with you? Why spend so much time and energy trying to convince traditionalists they are wrong? Why not just live and let live?
I wonder if both supporters and opponents of ‘the traditional view’ of Judgement, Wrath, Sin and Repentance, might both be guilty of anthropomorphising God? It’s worth noting what Neil says about being warry of using these actually words.
Surely it is possible (albeit beyond our comprehension exactly how) for God to be both unconditional love and holy. Because God is holy and just and indeed loving, the harm caused by injustice produces a deep sense of judgement and even wrath at that sin (however that is to be understood or even to be acknowledged to beyond our understanding). Even to acknowledge that this sin is in some sense natural, that is part of our nature, does not require a belief in ‘original sin’ in its worsted forms or unhelpful emphasise on personal salvation requiring some acknowledgment of that sin. What Neil says about repentance, I found particularly helpful.
At no point in trying to grapple with these realities is there any requirement to believe any doctrine or to negate the unconditional love of God.
Thank you Tim!
Yvonne: Why not live and let live? The reason I argue so fiercely against traditional Christian beliefs is that I want to tell others of the amazing unconditional love of God and encourage them to come to church. Unfortunately there are preachers who preach the traditionalist message of the judgmentalist God – that we are sinners in need of repentance and if we are not “saved” we will be dammed. This is harmful, spiritually and psychologically. Too many people have walked away from the church because of it and I want the church to continue to have a presence. My wife and I avoid services where a known judgmentalist preachers is in attendance, and there are others in our church who do likewise.
As for Jesus suggesting that we would be judged: For me these sayings are either due to a problem with interpretation of the Aramaic words Jesus used or some monk or saint “editing” the text to suit his social context. The texts that stands out for me, that burn into my soul, are the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, where Jesus spoke of the utter unconditional love of God – inclusive and non – judgmental. The unique message of Jesus is the unconditional love of God. I keep coming back to the fact that if he had preached the traditionalist Jewish judgmentalist message we would never have heard of him.
Tim: I hold my hand up. I am guilty of anthropomorphising God. That does not mean I think of God as a being. For me God actually IS love, and when I think of God as love my ONLY reference for the nature of love is that which I find between human beings. Of course I do not mean sexual or sentimental love, but the intrinsic demand God places upon me to care for, and take responsibility for, the needs of my neighbour. Of course this is anthropomorphising! God is here, with us, in the actual relationship of love we have with others. As I see it every conversation is invariably a threesome – me, the other, and God; and the subject matter is love.
Not sure I understand how you can hold that the love of God can be both conditional and unconditional. Surely it is an either/or situation. For me the phrase “While they were yet sinners” implies the unconditional love at the heart of relationships in that we, and the divine spirit within us, motivates us to love the other person whatever their wrong. Similarly Carl Rogers stated the same thing in secular language: The counselling situation is only effective if we treat the other person with unconditional positive regard. And if we are motivated to love the person before us then surely God treats each human being the same way. Pavel, who explains this better than I can, stated on 30th September that unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love.
A question. Is it the case that all we know of God is love, or, to put it another way does God ONLY come to mind in the context of my ethical concern for others?
“Not sure I understand how you can hold that the love of God can be both conditional and unconditional.” Yes me too I can’t UNDERSTAND (sorry I don’t know how to emphasise here) either. Actually I would not say, conditional love and unconditional love, but Holy and unconditional Love.
I realised as soon as I pressed post that I was being anthropomorphic too, so perhaps my criticism wasn’t quite right. I guess what I meant was we, only have our understanding and we need to be very wary of pushing that too far. Our understanding of the divine, particularly as revealed in Jesus is of a God of Love. That love includes deep hurt at injustice and pain. The tradition into which Jesus comes (which although he seeks to re-enliven it and is critical of a legalistic approach, he apparently very clearly claimed to stand in) uses concepts like holiness, wrath and judgement (as well as concepts like mercy, reconciliation and restoration, with repentance an aspect of that) to express aspects of this love. I was suggesting applying our human understanding to such matters leading to a ‘traditional view’ of the wrath of God that appears in judgement and needs to be ‘satisfied’ is unhelpful (actually I feel personally can actually be extremely harmful and I am in almost complete agreement with Robert on). But I was suggesting too that drawing definitive conclusions from a human understanding of unconditional love may also not be entirely appropriate and may even lose something of value.
It seems to me, Robert, that you only believe the things Jesus said if they support your argument; when he talks about judgement you put it down to some ‘monk or saint’ editing the text.
I don’t see anything wrong with everyone making their own minds up (we can’t all be right, but we could all be wrong!) People like yourself who don’t agree with traditional beliefs can do as you do, avoid traditionalist churches and preachers. We are spoilt for choice these days as to the variations on the Christian faith; we can all find a church that suits us. Why should a traditionalist conform to your liberal theology?
People who do believe in personal salvation through the blood of Jesus might say that you are actually harming people spiritually, by suggesting they don’t need to concern themselves with personal salvation.
I like to think I love my children unconditionally, but there have been times when I have judged their behaviour and I have felt disappointed and even angry with them. It didn’t mean I stopped loving them.
God might love the sinner unconditionally; that doesn’t mean he loves the sin!
I am somewhat disappointed that my questions regarding judgmentalism are seen simply as an attack on Christian tradition or holiness. What I wish to attack is harmful Christianity with the abusive attitudes that alienate vulnerable people. I cannot understand how a God who relates to humanity in terms of judgement, wrath, sin and repentance can also be a God of Love.
For my part I do not see your questions, Robert, as an attack on Holiness, although I wonder if holiness of the divine or a call to holiness (as something distinct from ethical or moral considerations) plays a part in your thinking.
I very much share your concerns about the damaging effect of some ‘traditional’ views and think they should be raised. However, I wonder if you express the ideas in a bit of a ‘fundamentalist way’ (I am being deliberately provocative in my choice of language). I can certainly see why it could been seen as an attack, and I agree with you, so how might those who feel under attack respond? I am not suggesting these points should not be raised and raised forcibly, they very much should.
Whilst I think I place quite a high value on the rational and think trying to understand is important, is it any wonder that a mere human like me cannot understand the divine. It is at least plausible that the God of Love revealed in Christ is capable of unconditional love and (I say again actually as an aspect of that love) a concern so deep for the harm and hurt caused by ‘sin’ that there is a sense of ‘wrath’ and ‘judgment’ (at least in the sense of discernment but possibly in dispensing justice too). Repentance I think Neil is suggesting comes in rather differently. It is not the prerequisite of forgiveness but more of a response to that forgiveness.
Pavel was right to suggest each of these four deserve its own article, I would like to have seen a more positive view expanded. I think Neil is very aware of the dangers of some ‘traditional’ views and in my view makes a good case for the inclusion of the ideas (if not the words) in preaching. There was perhaps not the space to go further in to what that might actually be.
Whilst I have sympathy for Yvonne’s live and let live attitude on some levels, ultimately ‘traditionalist’ (or anyone else) who may be causing harm need to be challenged (in love); but liberals (or anyone else) also need to be aware they will not be entirely right and should listen to what actually is said and not hear just what they want to hear (be that ideas they have decided are wrong before they are spoken or that they think they are going to agree with). It is perhaps inevitable that people coalesce around those of similar ideas but it saddens me that individual congregations become monolithic or even that people choose not to attend when certain preachers are planned. I recognise I’m probably not living in the real world in my desire for ecumenism on that scale, but it does sadden me.
We don’t need to understand everything, Robert. Faith is about living with the questions, not having all the answers. No-one has the right to force their beliefs on us, but neither do we have the right to force our beliefs on anyone else. Jesus promoted unity, not uniformity.
‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart, do not depend on your own understanding.’ Proverbs 3:5
Tim, I have struggled with the issue about holiness (as something distinct from ethical or moral considerations) for a long time. I feel very strongly that holiness is nothing to do with personal piety, but everything to do with the inherent goodness in humanity. God is Love and God comes to mind when I reflect on the loving relationships I find, or I have, or try to have, with others. So for me there is holiness here, in the relationship. God not as an individualistic personal reality that we find through contemplation, but the active participant in the universal ethical spirituality within which we live, move and have our being – and when I say “our” I mean all humanity, because that love is unconditional. So we address the God that comes to mind as Our Father (not My Heavenly Father). God is the third party in every conversation and inherently social, so I am not sure He/She/It holds private conversations and certainly does not offer personal deals – like repentance in return for “eternal life”.
For me, to follow Christ is to try to live in this love. To be motivated to be outward looking rather than introspective. To recognise that we are social beings that should be cooperating with each other rather than individuals engaged in a competition – and definitely not competitive piety! To see ourselves as moving from self-obsessed hedonism to other obsessed altruism. Of course, in practice we have to judge people; lock up murderers and paedophiles to protect the innocent, but this in no way affects the motivation to love each other unconditionally.
Belonging to a church is important to me and I am quite happy to go along with most of the creedal worship but, as I have said, I cannot accept a God who places conditions on His regard for us. Too often this becomes the judgmentalism of wrath, sin and repentance and the harmful Christianity that blights our churches.
This theology based on a universal ethical spirituality is far better expressed by Caputo, Levinas, Rahner, Derrida and others. I found “The Weakness of God” by John D, Caputo particularly interesting.
Many thanks for helping me to understand these difficult mysteries. The questions are ever before me – does God ONLY arise in the context of my ethical concern for others? What is going on when we pray? And where does Grace fit into this?
The sense of justice for most humans seems to include that wrongdoers should be punished. It is inconceivable for most that the perpetrators of the Holocaust, for example, should escape their just deserts. But there is a major difference between this thinking and Christian teaching. Whether one ends up in Heaven or in Hell depends, according to tradition, not on any good or evil that one has done, but on whether one is the right kind of Christian when one dies. “Christ’s judgement will bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost.”
Let me give an example of the difference between secular thinking about justice and traditional Christian teaching on judgement: A serial killer rapes, tortures and murders 12 young teenage girls across several counties. The media call him the “Little Angel Killer”, because each of his victims had been commended in her local newspaper or on local radio or television for the work they had each done in helping others or in serving their local community. The murderer was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to life in prison. Many felt that this punishment was inadequate. One mother shouted at him, “I hope you burn in Hell!” Towards the end of his life the murderer, ably counselled by the prison chaplain, repents, converts to Christianity, says the sinner’s prayer and becomes a follower of Jesus. None of his 12 victims was a Christian, however; each just had a highly developed sense of caring for others. They might have been regarded as little angels by those who knew them, but undoubtedly they would have committed minor misdemeanours. Minor misdemeanours that are disregarded by humans, but are still sins that incur the wrath of the Almighty? And the murdered girls won’t have the opportunity to repent before death. So what do we believe judgement would mean for the murderer and for his victims? I know what I have been told time and time again by evangelists, ministers and preachers about this, and, to ordinary folk, their accounts sound like gross injustice.
Do we really believe that a God of love will judge these 12 young girls in this way? Or our non-Christian neighbours and their children? This picture of Jesus – who said, ‘Do not judge’ and ‘Nor do I condemn you’ – sitting in judgement and condemning the large majority of people simply does not ring true in this day and age. Yet, it is in the creed and we sing hymns about judgement, the need for mercy, and of being saved from terrible punishment, because Jesus was tortured to death in our place. We all fall short of God’s purpose for us and our own ideals but the sense of sinfulness that traditional church teaching encourages is often disproportionate. We have turned guilt into an art form. People laugh, ‘Oh, it’s my guilt complex. I was brought up in the church.’
Surely God is much more positive about humanity. Look at the value he put on it! Look at what Jesus says about the joy of finding one that is lost! Perhaps we should concentrate on this life and our role in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. We can safely leave what happens after death to God. If he went to such lengths to reach out to people, he is unlikely to turn his back on them in death. As F.W. Faber’s hymn suggests: ‘”We make his love too narrow, by false limits of our own, and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.”