This is part four of a twelve week series based on Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.
Why are you bothering with this whole faith thing? Seriously – what’s your motivation?
I imagine that your responses are along the lines of learning about God, learning how to be a better person, making a difference in the world, etc. Awesome.
If you blow the whole faith thing, what is your greatest fear? If you turned your back on God entirely, what would you be most terrified might happen? Sorry for the clumsy wording – you get my point.
In the fourth chapter of his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg walks the reader through three sets of comparisons: competing Worldviews, dominant Concepts of God, and resulting notions of the Character of God. Here is a picture of those three sets for your observation:
Most of you reading this are at least open to the idea that there is “MORE” to life than the particles and force fields that hold everything together in the universe. I think I can safely assume that. (For further reading on this subject I recommend Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God).
Assuming we’re on the same page in our pursuit of “MORE” leads us to thinking about God. How we get our minds around God matters, as Borg notes: It makes a difference how we see the character of God, for how we see the character of God shapes our sense of what faithfulness to God means and thus what the Christian life is about (The Heart of Christianity, 66).
With this last quote in mind, slowly read through the Concepts of God and The Character of God comparisons and imagine how these different perspectives shape what being “faithful” might mean.
For some of you reading this, your greatest fear if you blow off the whole faith/God thing is that you will pay a very serious price as soon as you die: hell. Since CrossWalk is a church that seems to attract folks with no significant church background or those looking to recover from a damaging church background, I know this is true for a good number of you. The reason you have this deeply rooted fear is because you have been operating in the Supernatural Theism way of orienting yourself to a God of requirements and rewards; a God of law. Walk away from God and you’re screwed. Forever. Sucks to be you. This view of God has been so strongly set in your brain that you experience real anxiety at the thought of challenging that view. Yep, really sucks to be you – you can’t even question it without fear of burning for eternity. Better not question anything. Just keep doing what you’ve been told will keep God pleased and your butt out of hell…
I questioned it at a fairly early age – I was 13 years old. I grew up in a mainline denomination as opposed to an Evangelical/Fundamental one. This means that Supernatural Theism ruled the language, but the “turn or burn” rhetoric was absent from our pulpits. The notion of forgiveness itself bothered me. I couldn’t understand the whole “Jesus died as a sacrifice for my sins” piece. I knew the story and the argument, but it just didn’t add up. I even asked my sister Ann, who went into a flurry of activity to help me “get it” – at one point she murmured under her breath, this kid is really screwed up… True – I was not fitting into the Evangelical/Fundamental/Orthodox story even then. That understanding of grace didn’t seem like grace at all. It seemed incongruent that a loving God would punish someone forever if they didn’t believe the right thing.
Some people freak out when they hear or think this. They immediately jump to supposed heretical thinking about universalism, and counter with “axe murders and war mongers better not be in heaven”. Borg has a good response to this: Unconditional grace is not about the afterlife, but the basis of our relationship with God in this life. Is the basis for our life with God law or grace, requirements and rewards or relationship and transformation? Grace affirms the latter (Ibid., 67). Further, Borg connects the dots between hosting a view of Supernatural Theism versus Panentheism and the life it fosters:
What’s at stake in the question of God’s character is our image of the Christian life. Is Christianity about requirements? Here’s what you must do to be saved [and stay saved]. Or is Christianity about relationship and transformation? Here’s the path: follow it. Both involve imperatives, but one is a threat, the other an invitation (Ibid., 68).
If Supernatural Theism works for you and is making you more Jesus-like, then keep it going. It is biblical – it’s just not the only biblical way to view God. It is a way readily understood by our ancient ancestors who lived in a time when sacrifices were a regular component of religious cultic practices. I can understand that perspective. I can respect and appreciate the view. But I do not espouse the view. It does not resonate with me, and in many ways creates dissonance, is a distraction, and even a road block in my relationship with God and my quest to know God and become more aligned with God in my life.
The panentheistic alternative – also biblical – resonates deeply with me. In that view there is room for wonder, mystery, awe. As Borg notes, God is not separate, but right here, and more than here. Expansive, yet deeply personal in God’s intention and interaction in my life. I can tell you that I have experienced the reality of the presence of God in this approach, even at times when the other view would tell me it would be impossible to enjoy such presence given my state.
For those of you who have been reared in a Supernatural Theistic paradigm, making this shift really hard work. Keep it up. It is worth it. If you cannot live with it, trust me as one you know personally that there is more to learn. You can still respect what you were raised with and respect those who really resonate with it. The songs and verses can still play a meaningful role when viewed in context. But the good news is that there are new songs to sing that speak a different way that brings life and love into our lives and into the world, that raises the bar on behavior away from law and into covenant and love. It leads to a deep, mature life of response to the love we experience, and helps us to love more fully personally and as proponents of social justice. It is rich and deep. A life-pursuit of discovery and growth.