378. and yet…

[PREFACE]

One of the classes I have this semester is called Celtic Spirituality. As a spiritual formation class, it focuses more on the practices of the early Celtic Christians than on their theology, which I’m a little bummed about since their theology is pretty fascinating.

Anyway, this week in class, after talking about the features of Celtic prayer, our instructor asked us to try our hand at writing our own Celtic-style prayer.

I hemmed and hawed for a while and I squirmed in my seat because my prayer life as of late has been pretty sparse. And the difficulty for me in this prayer writing exercise wasn’t about not being able to or not wanting to pray, it was that the prayer I wanted to write seemed wrong, heretical, maybe even unholy. But at the same time, I recognized that for prayer to truly be prayer, it had to be honest and from the heart.

My spirituality isn’t in a very good place right now. I haven’t had a healthy spirituality in a long, long time. But if the Celts are right, then God’s presence can be found anywhere, even in the darkest, deepest, dingiest bog. I’m no expert on Celtic spirituality, but from what I’ve seen so far, their instruction manual for prayer seems to go something like this: be where you are, feel what you feel, say what you want to say, and trust that God will take care of the rest.

And so finally, just before time was up for this exercise, I decided to throw caution to the wind and I wrote this prayer.

[END PREFACE]
Photo by: gnuckx

Photo by: gnuckx

God is dead,
and yet I pray.

I reach out
into the void

without
anticipation

and my hands
return empty.

And yet I pray.
And yet, I pray.

[AFTERWORD]

For me, the prayer is simultaneously bleak and faintly hopeful, which is a good summary of my spirituality right now.

And I know the “God is dead” phrase is provocative, but for me, it a phrase with tremendous depth. It means far more than what the words seem to say.

And there’s something about that comma in the last couplet that seems to hold a ton of meaning, but I’m not sure what it means.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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372. the best way to talk about God?

[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)

This post is an attempt to take up a challenge posed by Tony Jones (author, theologian, professor, blogger at Patheos). In his post, he declared, “…progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

And so, he posed this summons:

I challenge all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15.

Now I don’t know if I qualify as a “progressive theo-blogger,” but I do know that I’ve been moving pretty consistently towards the liberal, progressive end of the theological pool, so I’m going to declare myself eligible.

I haven’t read what any of the other contributors have put up yet so I have no idea what I’m up against, but the challenge sounded way too fun to not take up. And it seemed to fit right in with my whole …about God series.

And so I bring you…

[END PREFACE]

I want to begin with Matthew 18:20

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

I want to suggest that in this verse, Jesus is not the antecedent of “my name” and “I am.” Based on the verse that comes immediately before, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to God.

In the more conservative, mostly pentecostal-leaning churches I attended in my formative years as a Christian, Matthew 18:20 was always cited as a verse about prayer. It was taught as a way to encourage people to pray in groups since, for them, the takeaway message was that when people prayed together, God was there in a special, unique way.

I want to go further than that and suggest that perhaps what Jesus was really saying about God is that God only exists in relationship – that God is only made manifest in relationship, so apart from relationship God doesn’t exist (or if we want to maintain a metaphysic of God apart from relationship, all we can say is that God is inaccessible apart from relationship).

And here I want to borrow a bit of Peter Rollins who expands on 1 John 4:8 (which says that God is love) by asking the next question, “what is love?” Love does not exist. Love is not a thing in and of itself. Love is something that only appears in relationship, because there is no love apart from an other.

So in this challenge to “write one post about God,” I find myself in a strange position. If God, like love, is not a thing in and of itself then I can’t say anything about God with mere words on paper. However, I can say that God is there in the midst of your reading of this post. As I write these words in love, my hope is that they will be taken up again in love, and as they are read, there God is.

I can no more say anything about God than what anyone can say about love. We say things like “love is patient, kind, does not envy, etc.” but in doing so, we’re not saying anything about love because you can’t be patient or kind or not envy except in relation to an other. And so you’re not really saying anything about love with those words – they’re mere abstractions that can only be made concrete in relationship.

In the same way, I can’t say anything about God (who is love) apart from relationship. That’s why the relational image of the perichoretic trinity is one that most Christians hold so dear – because God (even as one tries to speak of God in/as God’s self) is still relational by definition. There is no God apart from relationship. Or to put it positively, God is love in relationship.

Now what does that mean? That sounds like an abstraction of an abstraction, and I agree. But forcing God into words and definitions and declarative statements forces God into abstraction. So let me try again to make this more concrete – and the only way to do that is to talk, again, about relationships.

If relationships always require at least two differentiated parties (and I would include the intra-relational realm here as well) then I want to suggest that any attempt to say anything about God requires us to not stop at just coming up with our own declarative statements about God. We need to take the next step and bring our differing understandings of God to one another and in so doing, we manifest God – “God is there among us.” So in a way, this whole project – having people write about God, collating the posts, and placing them alongside one another – is itself a beautiful statement/portrait of who God is.

But a word of caution is in order. If this project is about looking for the one right, true, definitive post describing God, we miss the point entirely – we miss God altogether.

But if we can hold these different posts/statements/poems/images about God together in loving relationship, God shows up. In the resonance and dissonance, in the coherence and contractions, God is there. That is God.

Indeed, it may be the best way to talk about God.

369. what we talk about when we talk about God (part 3)

[PREFACE]

So believe it or not, this monster post was supposed to be just the introduction to what I really wanted to talk about (belief in God-as-love… see the previous post in the series). But then the introduction kept ballooning and now this post is over 2,000 words long. My bad.

In this post, I’m basically describing a new (to me) way of reading the Bible – one that emphasizes love and relationship rather than morals. It can get a bit technical and/or tedious at some points – feel free to skim over those bits – but try to make it to the end because the post ends with a surprising, provocative little kicker.

As always, would love to hear your thoughts/ comments/cries-of-heresy in the comments.

(Click here for part one and here for part two)

[END PREFACE]

I want to geek out for a bit and talk about hermeneutics – the study of how we interpret and/or read texts. Most people have what I’m going to call a transparent hermeneutic, that is to say, most people read unaware of how they are reading/interpreting whatever is in front of them (novel, newspaper, tweet, billboard, etc.). However, in the past couple hundred years or so, philosophers and linguists have thought and written a lot about what happens as we read. They’ve taken a very close, very careful look at what happens in that space between the text (words on the page or screen) and the reader. What they found is that this space is immense (if not infinite).

(They also say that there’s an immense space between the author and the text, but I won’t go into that here.)

Think about the current debate about gay marriage. People who are for gay marriage approach biblical texts that talk about homosexuality differently than those who are against gay marriage. They often read the same passages but come away from them with vastly different interpretations and that’s because they’re both applying a different hermeneutic to the Bible. So perhaps the next question is, which is the correct one? Well, that’s where things start to get really complicated. Because here’s the thing.

There is no one, right hermeneutic (singular). There’s only hermeneutics (plural).

The French philosopher, Derrida is famous for saying, “there is nothing outside the text.” One way of understanding this phrase is to say that there is no singular, overarching meaning that exists outside (apart from) the text. Every reading of any given text is an interpretation and each interpretation is influenced by the hermeneutic the reader brings to the text. There is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased reading because every reader (even those who are striving to be critically aware of how they are reading) brings their unique selves (their gender, class, ethnicity, their histories and experiences) to what they’re reading. Derrida’s work eventually became systematized in what’s become known as deconstruction – a way of analyzing texts that seeks to pay attention to the many factors that go into any and all interpretations of them.

Some critics of deconstruction say that it leads to meaninglessness or nihilism. If there is no one right way to understand what has been written, then doesn’t that mean that meaning is impossible? Not really.

Think of wine tasters. Twenty different people (even twenty different professional sommeliers) taste one bottle of wine. Each of them comes away with a different description (interpretation) of the wine. They might even come away with completely contradictory conclusions about the quality of the wine, but that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as wine or taste or that the palates of the tasters are unreliable. All it means is that tasting wine is a complex experience (which is part of what makes it so great) and any description of that experience will be subjective. There is no one, universal taste descriptor for a bottle of wine. And so, you might say, there is nothing outside the wine.

Now let’s go back to the discussion about gay marriage. Some read the Bible with what I’ll call a hermeneutic of morals – they read the Bible primarily as a text about right and wrong behavior. Thus, when they come across a passage like Romans 1:26-27, that talks about homosexuality as sin, a light goes off in their head and they automatically think, oh, Paul says homosexual behavior is wrong, therefore it’s sin, and that’s that.

Now this seems like a straightforward way to read the Bible, but something odd happens when they come to other verses that talk about right and wrong. Let’s take 1 Corinthians 11:5 where Paul says that women shouldn’t leave their heads uncovered when praying. Now this seems to be another clear, moral teaching from the Bible, but even the most conservative, hardline churches don’t require women in attendance to wear head coverings – they don’t read this passage in the same straightforward way they do the Romans text. So what’s happening?

Well most of these churches would say that they have a nuanced moral hermeneutic – one that leaves room for cultural exceptions. They would say that there was something about women in the Corinthian church culture to whom Paul was writing that made head covering problematic and so that’s why he gave them that instruction; however, we no longer live in a culture where that is a problem so we don’t have to abide by that rule today. But then you ask them about applying that same cultural, hermeneutical nuance to the Romans passage, and you find that they either have yet another nuanced stance or that the nuance doesn’t apply.

And I want to suggest that when you start seeing these kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics happening, you might want to question the system at play. Again, I’m not suggesting that there’s such a thing as a perfect system of interpretation – every way of reading an ancient text like the Bible will require some level of contextual, historical reworking – but I do want to point out how and why one might begin to question any given hermeneutical approach. If you see a lot of hermeneutical shifting and dancing when the passage at hand changes, you might want to question whether the hermeneutic is a consistent one, or at least question the reasons why different approaches are taken (and who gets to decide).

As for me and my hermeneutic, I would like to suggest that

  • if, as stated earlier, God is love,
  • and if the Bible is a text whose primary purpose is to speak about that God,
  • then perhaps we should approach the Bible with a hermeneutic of love.

But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at Matthew 22:36-40 (TNIV).

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I want to suggest that based on this passage, the primary message of the Bible is love. Therefore, love of God and neighbor should be the beginning point of all Christian hermeneutics.

I also want to suggest that the commandments aren’t just about developing an abstract, individualistic sense or feeling of love. The love that’s spoken of in those two commandments is love in the context of relationship – love of God and love of neighbor. In my previous post in this series, I wrote that love is not a thing in and of itself. One can’t just decide to love on one’s own, because love is always something that happens in relationship.

Put all this together and we get a picture of God as primarily concerned with love in the context of relationships. This suggests that the overarching point of the Bible is to help us to both know God as loving and relational and to help us live in loving relationship with our neighbors.

Earlier in this post, I said that people who have a hermeneutic of morals apply one nuanced approach when reading a passage like Romans 1:26-27 (which they read as saying that the practice of homosexuality is wrong regardless of cultural context) but apply a different nuanced approach to a verse like 1 Corinthians 11:5 which says that women should pray with their heads covered (they would say that this verse only applies to the historical situation in the first century church of Corinth).

Now if we approach these texts with a hermeneutic of love, I don’t think we need to do this kind of interpretational dancing – we can use the same hermeneutic (sans nuance) to both passages. Whereas the moral reading applies a historical context onto one passage and not the other, I would say that a hermeneutic of (relational) love requires us to always take the historical context into account. Every commandment has to be read in the context in which it was given.

A hermeneutic of love doesn’t interpret the Bible beginning with the question, “what’s right or wrong here,” it begins with the question, “what does this passage have to say about love in relationship?”

With both the Romans passage and the 1 Corinthians passage, I would suggest that there was something about the practice of homosexuality in Greek culture and women praying without their heads covered in Corinth that had something to do (in those historical contexts) with getting in the way of loving relationships. The point of both passages is not about right or wrong behavior per se, it’s about the breaking of loving relationship. What we need to pay attention to is not what’s right or wrong, but what’s breaking relationship.

In the case of the Romans passage, I would argue that a hermeneutic of love would read that passage not as a condemnation of all homosexual acts, rather, it condemns “unnatural” (v. 26) and “shameful” (v. 27) acts – it just so happens that in this case, Paul is speaking of homosexuals acting shamefully and unnaturally, but heterosexuals can also behave shamefully and unnaturally.

Now the exact nature of what was shameful or unnatural isn’t specified, but read with a hermeneutic of love/relationship, I think they can be understood as relationship-breaking acts. Stated more plainly, I would argue that Paul here is talking about casual or promiscuous sex as shameful and unnatural. Read in the context of what the rest of the Bible says about it, sex is designed as the pinnacle of a loving, committed relationship. Casual, meaningless sex (regardless of who’s participating in it – straight or gay) is shameful and unnatural because it perverts the purpose of sex.

The gay marriage debate is not about this kind of shameful, unnatural casual sex. Same-sex couples are wanting the exact opposite of that – they desperately want to enter into committed, loving relationships and I say more power to them! Any barriers we (the church, society, government, etc.) place between people who want to enter into loving relationship with one another is what’s shameful and unnatural. It’s also sinful.

And yeah, I realize that that’s a radically different approach to the Bible than most people are familiar with (or maybe not, it’s certainly a new approach for me). And as I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m not saying that this way is the one right way to read the Bible, but I do think that reading the Bible through the eyes of love helps harmonize formerly conflicting passages. It’s certainly reawakened me to the possibilities of the biblical text – it’s come alive to me in a way that the moral reading I was raised with never did.

[POSTSCRIPT]

A few last things:

  • This hermeneutic of love is something I’ve come to in part through reading Peter Rollins, and partly as I’ve begun to study something called process theology.
  • I’ll have lots more to say about process theology (and Peter Rollins) in future posts. Stay tuned!
  • If anyone has suggestions on other theologians who talk about this sort of relational hermeneutic, please let me know – I’m really wanting to explore this way of reading.
  • Lastly, as a reward for making it all the way through this lumbering post, I give you this completely unrelated, but hilariously-feel-good video (be sure to click on the closed caption [cc] to get the translation):

364. what we talk about when we talk about God (part two)

(Click here for part one.)

Let me start with another story. It’s the story that actually got me thinking about writing this new blog series.

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a couple friends. We got to talking about seminary and my future plans to plant a church and one of my friends turned and asked me, “do you still believe in God?”

And then I paused.

It was a long pause.

And even when I did get around to formulating an answer, I remember it came out slowly.

And while I know I didn’t say, “no,” I don’t remember saying, “yes,” either.

There was a time, not too long ago, when that pause would have really worried me, but you know, while I was sitting in that pause, trying to figure out what I wanted to say about God, I felt totally calm. It didn’t concern me at all that I didn’t want to answer with an immediate, “yes, of course I do.”

There was a time in my life when I felt I really needed that kind of certainty – or at least I felt that I needed to give the impression that I had certainty.

But I didn’t have that certainty anymore. I wasn’t certain either way – that there was or there wasn’t a God. And again, it didn’t concern me that I wasn’t certain.

And I knew the best way for me to sort out what I thought about God was to blog about it.


More than writing about my belief (or disbelief) in God (something I hope to get to in the next post), what I really want to write about is that pause. Because a lot of thoughts were swirling around my head in the midst of that long pause, but they were all jumbled and jangled. Which is probably why I can’t remember what I said in response.

In my last post, I wrote about how I didn’t want to have an idolatrous view of God – a view of God that wasn’t really God. I think that’s one of the things I came to realize in the space of that pause. I realized, if I were to simply say “yes,” the God that my friend would understand me saying yes to was not the God I believed in – not exactly.

Let me put this another way. Imagine two conversations.

Conversation one:

John: You can shoot that target with a spear or with a bow and arrow – which do you want?
Jane: Give me the bow.

Conversation two:

John: Which broach do you want to wear tonight, the flower or the bow?
Jane: Give me the bow.

Even though Jane says the exact same thing in both conversations, she means something entirely different each time.

That’s kind of how I felt in my conversation about God. In my pause, I realized that if I were to simply say, “yes, I believe in God,” the “God” that my friend thought I was referencing would be very different from the “God” that I wanted to reference.

Conversation three:

John: You can shoot that target with a spear or with a bow and arrow – which do you want?
Jane: I want to wear the bow.
John: …?

The miscommunication in that last example is clear. John is asking about a bow and arrow, while Jane is talking about a broach, even though they’re using the same word, “bow.” And while the misunderstanding wouldn’t have been as great in my conversation, the point is the same. “God” for me was different than “God” for my friend. That’s the thing that I was struggling to sort through in my long pause before I answered.

I knew that the God that my friend was asking me about was the traditional Judeo-Christian idea about God – an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. But I don’t know that I believe in that God anymore and so I couldn’t simply say, “yes.”

I used to believe in that conception of God, but I don’t anymore. And there are lots of reasons why, but let me point out two of them:

  1. The traditional view of God is too abstract for me.
    God is far too other for me to relate to in any real way. I’m weak and can’t relate to an all-powerful God. My perspective and my knowledge is severely limited – I can’t relate to an all-seeing, all-knowing God. I am particularized in time and space – I can’t relate to an ever-present God that transcends space and time.
     
    And I don’t want to believe in a God that I can’t relate to.

  2. The traditional view of God is too concrete for me.
    I don’t want a God that can be defined. Any God that can be described is a God that’s too small, too limited, too fixed to really be God.
     
    And I don’t want to believe in a God that can be easily and readily defined.

As part of my seminary training, I’ve been interning at a wonderful church called Findlay Street Christian Church. As I was reading and wrestling with how to talk about God for this blog series, I asked my pastor/mentor how she understood and talked about God, and I really liked what she had to say. She said when she talks about God, she has to use the language of poetry – language that pushes beyond language.

And that got me thinking about a scene from the movie, Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway is sent out into “space” and gets to see all kinds of amazing galactic scenery. She’s a scientist and so she does her best to accurately describe the journey she’s on but at one point she sees something far beyond anything she’s ever experienced – something for which there is no technical terminology. In response, she says,

“…celestial event.
No…
No words could describe it.
Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet.
It’s so beautiful, beautiful.
So beautiful…
I had no idea.”

(watch about the 1:40 mark to see the quote)

Here, Ellie is confronted with something that cannot be captured with precise, scientific clarity – something that can’t be described by ordinary words. And so she says that they should have sent a poet – someone with the ability to push past the normal limitations of words.

Ellie’s sense of bewilderment and inability to translate what she was seeing into words is the same thing my pastor was getting at when she said she has to appeal to the power of poetry in order to talk about God. Because ordinary words just won’t work.

Now I suppose it’s all well and good to say that God is beyond language, but we are a communicating species and part of the role of a (future) pastor is to talk about God and so I have to be able to say something, and not everyone’s going to let me get away with quoting e e cummings or Meister Eckhart.

And so I’ll give it a shot and say this.

The Bible says that God is love.

But what is love? I actually got to hear Peter Rollins speak a few weeks ago and in his talk he said this about love. “Love does not exist, love calls things into existence.” And by that he means that love isn’t a thing. That’s why (as the eminent theologians Lennon and McCartney assert) you can’t buy love.

Love is something that happens in between, in relationship. Love is never a static thing, it’s dynamic. Love opens up possibilities in both the lover and the one loved. When Rollins says, “love calls things into existence,” he’s talking about how the thing or the person you love is constantly unfolding before you. Love is like a key that unlocks an entirely new world – the interior universe of the one loved. The lover recognizes that love is a bridge between these two realities. And in the crossing, something entirely unexpected and new is created and experienced – a sum exponentially greater than its parts.

In the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks’ character gets asked, “Sam, what was so special about your wife?” And Sam responds,

Oh, well, it was a million tiny little things that when you add them all up, it just meant that we were supposed to be together.

And I knew it. I knew it the first time I touched her.

It was like coming home, only to no home I’d ever known.

(watch around the 0:49 mark to see the quote)

That last line captures perfectly what Rollins is trying to say. In love, Sam discovered an entirely new conception of home – an idea of home that, prior to loving this person, did not exist. And in their relationship, that idea of home was made real, it was embodied in their marriage relationship – in love.

But even with all of these powerful, amazing features, love is not a thing in and of itself. You can’t bottle it up, it won’t sit upon the shelf. It only exists in spaces between. It takes up no space at all and yet it can feel larger than the multiverse itself.

So what do I talk about when I talk about God?

I talk about love. (Yeah, I know, ironic.)

Looking back now, I think this is how I would have liked to respond to my friend who asked me if I believed in God.

I think I would have wanted to say, “I believe in God as revealed in love.”

And I think that would have been an opening into quite a lovely conversation – one that never would have been possible had I just said “yes” or “no.”

[POSTSCRIPT]

Belief in God as revealed in love.

That’s a different sort of believing isn’t it?

Stay tuned, more on this in my next post.

363. what we talk about when we talk about God (part one)

[PREFACE]

(The title for this entry is blatantly stolen from a short story by one of my favorite authors, Raymond Carver.)

This post is my attempt to understand God. Nothing more (I’m not trying to change anyone else’s mind), nothing less (I am trying to work this out for myself). I had meant to take on this topic in just one blog post, but turns out, it’s gonna be another multi-part blog series.

As always, thoughts, comments, questions, critiques welcome in the comments section.

[END PREFACE]

I want to start with a story. It happened to me a few days ago.

I was hungry and went to grab a burrito at Rancho Bravo, up on Capitol Hill. I was taking a break from reading for and preparing to write this blog post so I had my trusty Mission Workshop Rambler backpack with me and stuffed inside this backpack were my iPad (for reading) and my MacBook (for writing). I got my order, put my bag down, and started wolfing down one of their amazing Bravo burritos. It was delicious, just what I needed.

Now Rancho Bravo is right next door to The Elliot Bay Book Company. They always have an interesting selection of books on display (their staff recommendations section is particularly noteworthy) and so I went over to browse the aisles. After a while, I decided it was time for me to get back to work and I knew where I wanted to go – a new coffee shop in Fremont called Milstead & Company. These guys are SERIOUS coffee nerds. They make every cup to order and before brewing, they weigh, separately, the amount of coffee and the amount of (precisely temperature controlled) water used. They don’t eyeball anything.

Anyway, I got into my car, drove over to Milstead, looking forward to reading Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection (on which a lot of this blog post is based) while drinking a delicious cup of whatever exotic bean they were brewing that day. Lucky me, I found a parking spot right in front of the shop (uncommon). I reached around to the back seat to grab my backpack…

And it wasn’t there.

I knew immediately what I had done. I had left it at Rancho Bravo, more than an hour ago.

I freaked out. I immediately made a u-turn and started driving back. All the while I thought about how much stuff I had in that backpack. I thought about how Rancho Bravo is kind of a sketchy place – you have to get buzzed in to the part of the restaurant that has their bathrooms. I thought about how stupid I had been, leaving it there. I thought about how long I had been gone.

And I prayed that it would still be there – that someone would see it and turn it in to lost and found.

The drive seemed to take forever, but eventually I made it back to the restaurant. I walked in and the first thing I did was to look at the table where I had been sitting. My bag wasn’t there. I went up to the counter and asked one of the cashiers if anyone had turned in a backpack. He looked back at me with a blank look on his face.

My heart barfed inside my chest.

But.

But one of his coworkers overheard what I had said. She looked around behind the counter and asked me, “what color was it?”

“Blue,” I said.

She reached down and pulled my bag out.

My heart glowed inside my chest.

I thanked her and drove back to Milstead.

I’ll get back to this story in a bit.

First, I want to talk about the word, “idolatry.” Basically, in Christian theology, idolatry is worshiping anything that isn’t God. The first of the Ten Commandments deals head on with the issue.

(3) “You shall have no other gods before me.
(4) “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (5) You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, (6) but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
(Exodus 20:3-6)


Idolatry is a really big deal. (Did you notice that bit in verse five about punishing children three to four generations out?)

The reason why I think it’s important for me to reflect seriously and carefully about how I understand God is because I don’t want to worship an idol.

Even if that idol is God.

Now what do I mean by that?

Well, remember that story about my backpack? After I got my stuff back, I thanked the cashier and then as soon as I got back to my car, I thanked God profusely. But what if my backpack hadn’t been there? What if instead of turning it in, someone had just walked off with it? If that had been the case, I would have blamed myself.

Do you see what’s odd about that? Get my stuff back – answered prayer, God is awesome, thank God! Lose my stuff – blame myself, I’m an idiot, I suck.

What’s up with that?

Why the two completely different reactions? If my stuff had gone missing, why did I blame myself instead of blaming God for not answering my prayers or for not being awesome? Or taken from the opposite end, after getting my stuff back, why did I immediately think that God was the awesome one? Why didn’t I just conclude that the person who chose to turn in my backpack was awesome?

And we see the same thing in sports all the time. Sometimes, when a Christian sports star wins some kind of big game or makes a big play, they make a gesture to give glory to God. Tebowing was in the news a lot these past few months and serves as a good example of this. But what happens when Tim’s team loses or one of his passes is intercepted? Does he still kneel and pray? Or does he blame himself? (I don’t know, does he? I don’t watch sports. If someone could straighten me out here, I’d appreciate it.)

My point is this.

For me and for sports stars, thanking God when things go well but blaming self when they don’t is really bad theology because it’s inconsistent.

And I think it’s even more than that.

I think it’s idolatry.

Let me get at this idea another way.

Back in ’89, a baseball movie called Major League came out. One of the characters was named Pedro Cerrano. He can’t hit curve balls because he thinks his bats are afraid of them. Opposing pitchers know Pedro can’t hit curve balls so of course, they keep throwing them at him and he keeps swinging and missing. Pedro believes that his voodoo god, Jobu, can cure his bats. There are a bunch of scenes in the movie showing him performing arcane rituals on his bats in the hopes that Jobu will cure them of their fear, thus allowing him to hit curve balls.

Most Christians would look at that and say, Pedro is worshiping an idol – a carved wooden doll that he thinks has the power to cure his bats of fear. This doesn’t work. Pedro keeps missing curve balls. Whenever this happens, Pedro thinks that he didn’t perform enough rituals for Jobu or didn’t perform them properly. He blames himself when Jobu doesn’t come through.

It doesn’t happen this way in the movie, but imagine what would happen if Jobu-believing Pedro ever did manage to connect with a curve ball. That would confirm to him that Jobu had cured his bats. And Pedro would have thanked Jobu.

Now what’s the difference between Pedro’s Jobu and the way I viewed God while praying about my backpack?

Maybe the difference is that Pedro was praying to and performing rituals for a carved wooden image that represents Jobu, whereas Christians do not pray to images or statues. But can’t an idea be just as much of an idol as a statue? In fact, an idolatrous idea is probably far more problematic than a physical idol because a statue can be thrown away whereas an idea is FAR harder to get rid of.

In the movie, Pedro eventually gets fed up with Jobu’s inability to help him hit curve balls. One day at bat, he explodes and says, “I’m pissed off now, Jobu. Look, I go to you. I stick up for you. You don’t help me now. I say ‘Fuck you,’ Jobu, I do it myself.” The pitcher throws him a curve ball and Pedro hits a huge home run. After that Pedro gets rid of his statues of Jobu and is done with him.

Idolatrous ideas, however, can’t be just thrown away – they’re far sticker than that. Because here’s the thing. Our brain is wired to make connections. Even as I come to recognize that I may have an idolatrous idea about God, that idea is linked to a wide variety of other ideas. And for someone who’s been a Christian for over twenty years, the idea of God is a pretty central one – it serves as the foundation for much of how I see, understand, interact with, and live in the world.

Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, is known for saying, “I pray God to rid me of God.” He understood that any particular idea he might have about God can become an idol and so his prayer was that God would rid him of his idolatrous ideas about God.

And I think I’ve lived for far too long with just such an idolatrous idea about God. And I don’t want to do that anymore.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’m not sure how many parts this new series will take up, but in the posts that follow, I hope to share some ideas about how I’m rethinking my ideas about God – ways that allow God to be God rather than the God I want or need or just happen to believe in at the time.

God, help me.