The Messiness of God, or “We don’t know it all”

July 24, 2006

I had a commenter yesterday on the increasingly lengthy comment section to my Response to Leander Harding’s piece who had misunderstood two key points of my response:

  1. God is messy; and
  2. We know more about God than Moses did

Here is a clip from my response to his post on the messiness of God:

Finally, to keep this short, you said:

“Harding’s exactly right: spiritual experience of gays and lesbians? Perfectly revelatory of God’s will.”

The short answer here is yes. But the problem is that the orthodox who are looking for a short answer are missing the point. The point is not the short answer- the point is the dialogue and exchange of stories and experiences. Not only me telling you who I am and why my spiritual experiences are valid, but you telling me the same about you. That is what binds us together as Christians. That is the “messiness” of God that you mock. I’m sorry you don’t understand it- but if you choose not to have that dialogue instead opting for a “clean and short” answer of “yes” then I am truly sorry, because we are both cheated of the experience of that dialogue when you do that.

I think that is the beginning of the messiness of God.  Rarely is it that we can answer divisive questions in the church with a simple “yes” or “no”.  That was one of the good things about the Windsor process– we were reminded over and over again that Windsor was not about an absolute standard but about being invited into a process.  The orthodox always insisted, however, that it was about a standard.  I think human nature is to lose patience and opt for a black and white answer rather than the longer relational process surrounding such hard issues because the relational processes do not necessarily result in a tangible outcome.  Unfortunately, even those who have always insisted that Windsor is about a process have recently begun shifting to judging actions to some kind of unstated “standard”, falling into this sin– because we are all sinners and do all have this tendancy.

But the need to be in the relational process, my friends, is the messiness of God.  I believe firmly that God does not so much care about the outcome as God cares about what we do to each other in the process.  Will we tear each other down in the process, or tear down walls so that we come closer together?  Will be build up fences, or build up love and collegiality?  The commandment Jesus gave was “Love your neighbor as yourself”, not “Figure out the rules no matter what even if it means you end up hating each other.”

The fact of the matter is, we will never know all the answers about who God is or what God wants.  God, by definition, is infinite- God passes all understanding.  Why then, are we so willing to forsake relationships in order to try and bound God up in our rules and definitions?  Scripture helps us to learn about God, but as we know we come out with different outcomes when using it solely to define God (see my post here for more on that).

To the poster’s second point, Moses believed God wanted us to follow all of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Now, I don’t think you need me to tell you here how out of place many of those laws seem in our society here.  Moses thought they were totally appropriate.  Did God change?  I don’t think so.  Our understanding of God has grown.  If we were standing before Moses would we be so willing to argue against the laws he wrote that we would not be willing to enter in conversation with him- the wonderful prophet of God- that we would insist that, say, eating bacon is ok despite Lev. 11:7?  Would we be willing to jeopardize any further conversation with Moses about the wonderful experiences he had because we would dig our heels in about pork?  I hope not.  Maybe we would talk about our differences, but to polarize and separate isn’t the point.

And God didn’t change, at least I don’t believe so.  I don’t believe that God said 2000 years ago that bacon was bad and now for some reason bacon is good.  I think that God stays the same, but our understanding of God grows.  That is the prophetic tradition.  That is why I say we know more about God than Moses did.  Does that invalidate Moses as a prophet?  Of course not.  It just means we have a wonderfully rich tradition with Moses as a chief player at the beginning, and we have learned a lot more in the 5000 years since then as a people.  That only makes sense to me, and I need some help understanding how this wouldn’t just make common sense.

In the same way, I believe we are now starting to understand that gays and lesbians are included in the kingdom of God.  At the risk of making a bad analogy, we just ain’t bad pork.  Maybe Moses couldn’t eat pork, but we can.  And that’s ok.  I knew there was a reason I’ve always liked bacon.

j

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13 Responses to “The Messiness of God, or “We don’t know it all””

  1. RudigerVT Says:

    Not to quibble, but I think we know *different* things than Moses. I’m not ready to reduce my understanding of Moses’ relationship to God to what made it into the OT.

    Moses could have eaten pork, and, frankly, I don’t think God would love Moses any less for that. Thanks for the faithful posting, Jeff. I’m excited for your journey as a seminarian and beyond.

    LPR

  2. Jeff Says:

    Rudiger –

    Fair enough! I’d rather be quibbling over semantics than substance.

    Maybe Moses had a clear view of a different angle of God, then- sort of like the blind men and the elephant.

    Whatever the case, I don’t think it diminishes the relationship Moses had with God-, which must have been truly amazing- and I’m not trying to denigrate that in any way. Clearly Moses was an amazing prohpet with an amazing connection to God.

    My point is just that as time goes by we, as a people, learn more about God, but God does not change. Some orthodox have criticized me of trying to change God to fit my own needs- of glorifying myself by changing the image of God to suit my own preferences. My point here is that we aren’t doing that. We are learning more about God, understanding more about God and how much God loves us. How much that love enables us to love God and each other.

    Hope that clarifies.

    j

  3. Fr. Doug Says:

    Dear Jeff,
    Your response is helpful. It is clear therefrom that this is your equation: spiritual experiences = God. God, for you, reveals himself only in our spiritual experiences. That is, as you say, a “messy” revelation. Classical Christianity claims that God reveals himself to us in his word. You’ve got 2 big problems with your rejiggering of this apostolic doctrine: (1) What counts as “spiritual”? How about, for example, the thrill and transcendence of feeling my dagger pierce my enemy’s heart? Or a powerful orgasm? These were certainly considered spiritual and revelatory of God by our pagan ancestors. (2) Everyone’s “spiritual experience” is essentially private. The minute we translate it into language, we freeze it in culture and ultimately falsify it. (This idea is evident in your distinction between the Moses-God encounter and the words of Moses.) This is the problem with all reappraiser views of Scripture. If we could ever finally access that mystical moment of God-encounter behind the Scriptural record, we would never be able to share it with anyone else. As soon as it’s made communicable through language, it becomes false. The result? God is mute. He cannot speak to a people or to the world, but only to individual hearts. There can be, in fact, no true Word of God. (A problem there with the old, classical formulation clergy are to vow at their ordinations, eh?)

    Now, to Moses. Egad! Have you never read the New Testament. Nowhere are we taught that Moses was some primitive who got everything about God confused and that that’s why we don’t keep the food laws anymore. Instead we hear there and throughout the whole of Christian history that the laws of the OT point to Christ, prefiguring his coming. Christ is the end, that is, the goal of the law. The food laws are not glibly set aside because we’ve advanced to a higher understanding of God. We are, rather, in a new economy. The very laws that insured Israel’s unity and distinction from the nations have now reached their fulfillment in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Again, your hubris and self-importance are downright frightening.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Fr. Doug –

    Thanks for the response. I can see that we’re missing each other on a very important point, but let’s lay some foundation first, because I disagree with you on a one key point:

    While I agree that Classical Christianity uses Scripture as an authoritative source, I don’t agree that it is the ONLY source. We have seen since the canon was closed that the interpretation and reinterpretation of the canon has continued to reveal a fuller picture of God to us.

    That ties in closely with the clarification I want to make, which is that I am not trying to say that we are all to go off on a retreat and individually come back with revelations which reshape modern day theology due to some kind of private spiritual experiences. No.

    But rather what I am saying is that the spiritual experience which shapes the Scripture to build out our understanding of God more fully over time is the continued revelation through the Holy Spirit in community. See John 16:12-13. I don’t believe that the things you have listed are spiritual, nor do they have the (valid) ability to shape our theology.

    But the Holy Spirit does work in mystical ways, and I don’t think any of us fully understand it. We have seen, since the canon was closed, that:

    – the Bible has gone from essentially a “private” document reserved for the educated
    – virtual elimination of the commonly held belief of “Purgatory”, at least in the Protestant/Anglican world
    – Communion moving from just being for priests to being for the entire congregation
    – Slavery becoming a sin
    – Women being eligible for leadership in the church, even top leadership (Presiding Bishop)

    We could sit here and make up a list all day long- it would probably go on as long as we would keep thinking. The point is that the Bible can justify or not justify lots of things. The Holy Spirit has helped us, over time, to learn more about God as we have moved through history. We don’t worship the Bible. We worship God. We use the Bible as one of our many tools– even a central tool, but not the only tool– to help build out our understanding of God.

    I don’t see how that is self-important.

    j

  5. Jeff Says:

    Oh – and on Moses, of course we are taught that Moses’ law is replaced by the New Covenant.

    But did God change? I don’t think so.

    Rather, we received a new revelation from God about Godself, because we were getting off-track. (My own belief is that it is because the law and the prophets all hang off love, and somehow we had lost that, or one other theory which is too long to put down here.)

    I just don’t believe God is so fickle as to change from the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New Testament in such a short period of time.

    j

  6. FrMichael Says:

    Jeff, I dispute much of your argument, but there are some easy verifiable factual errors that can stand correcting. From your list:

    – the Bible has gone from essentially a “private” document reserved for the educated

    The Bible was originally used in liturgy, a function that has not changed throughout history.

    – virtual elimination of the commonly held belief of “Purgatory”, at least in the Protestant/Anglican world

    Your caveat saves this from being technically inaccurate, but it gives a misleading impression. The majority of the world’s Christians, the combined Catholic and Orthodox Churches, explicitly believe in Purgatory (Catholicism) or conceive of Hades in such a way where a post-death purgation of the soul may occur (Orthodoxy).

    – Communion moving from just being for priests to being for the entire congregation

    There never has been an era where Communion has been just for priests, even in the most rigorous eras of Catholicism and Orthodoxy where few communicants were to be found in most divine liturgies.

    – Slavery becoming a sin

    Technically speaking, there are situations where slavery is not a sin– penitentiaries and POW camps where prisoners are required to work involuntarily. However, in the main, I won’t dispute this.

    – Women being eligible for leadership in the church, even top leadership (Presiding Bishop)

    Once again, the majority of Christians are members of churches in which women are barred from ordained ministry. I believe that is what you are getting at here.

    My basic disagreement with your “messiness of God” argument has to do your applying it to moral theology. Our difficulty in picturing God in His Essence is completely irrelevant to whether it is difficult or not for God to reveal to us His will. In point of fact, most of the moral guidelines God has given us are simple to understand, even if difficult to implement due to our sinfulness. Children grasp the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, but living them out in our lives is difficult for child and adult alike.

    I have a pretty low opinion of Episcopalian seminaries and their theological and academic standards. Nonetheless, I think that even a brief introduction to formalized Scripture study might make you realize how much you are conducting the practice known as eisegesis, which is reading interpretations into passages which were not intended by the divine and human authors.

  7. Fr. Doug Says:

    Jeff,
    You are espousing “Jeffism.” If anybody has a question about which practices or feelings are or are not part of God’s continuing revelation to his people (since we’ve gone beyond the Bible by now) just ask Jeff. He has an amazing ability to know what’s OK and what’s not. Notice, for example, this quotation: “I don’t believe that the things you have listed are spiritual, nor do they have the (valid) ability to shape our theology.”
    There, well, that settles it. Thanks.

  8. Jeff Says:

    First I’ll address Fr. Doug –

    Yes, I’m espousing Jeffism. This is my blog, and I created it for a particular purpose.

    If you want to do the same, create your own blog.

    However, you are missing something. I purposefully use language like “I believe” rather than absolutes like “God works this way” because I acknowledge that I am fallible and rely on faith on trust in my theology. I do not have all the answers, nor is there any way to “prove” that what I believe is accurate. That is why I use the language that I do.

    It bothers me a lot when people say things like “It works this way because the Bible says so” or “It is this or that” because the essence of everything in religion boils down to faith, not fact.

    Finally, what I am trying to do on my site is create a space where it is safe for everyone- orthodox, progressive, gay, straight, black, white, or whatever- to be free to ask questions, challenge, and dialogue.  Most blogs I see today get caught up in anger when talking across the divide, and that’s not my point here.  I have found traditionalists who genuinely don’t know or have never dialogued with a gay progessive person before.  I want to change that.  If you don’t like my style of blogging you certainly don’t have to read it, and God’s peace to you on your journey.

  9. Jeff Says:

    To Fr Michael, first on the facts:

    – On the Bible, yes it was used in liturgy. And if you understood Latin it was a great source of inspiration. Not until the reformation did Bible translation into common language become acceptable, and John Hus was even burned at the stake in 1415 with a translated Bible used as kindling around him. I would say things have changed.

    – On Purgatory- thus my caveat.

    – On Communion- Yes, I should have been more precise. The full inclusion by the congregation in the full Eucharistic rite- elimination of rood screens, the practice of withholding communion, the current debate on open communion, etc.

    On the moral arguments- I believe that “traditional morality” has value in most cases. But I firmly believe that all the law and the prophets hang off of love. Morality must be based in love. Morality is compassion, honesty, transparency, patience, love, peace, and so on. So-called “traditional” moral values of abstaining from drink, dance, and so on are valuable only in so far as they contribute to our ability to take care of ourselves and others. Same-sex relationships feed real moral values, for example. If they were just about having sex, then I would agree it would be a moral issue.

    On seminaries, I start seminary in a month. We’ll see if it changes the way I view the Bible. I am open to wherever God takes me on my journey. But I know that I am not alone in how I view the Bible. There are two camps in this church, and again- the purpose of my blog is to open the dialogue between us, because we’ve been so caught up in fighting that I don’t think we’ve yet had these kinds of discussions to talk about the fundamental differences because we’ve been too busy talking about sexuality.

    j

  10. FrMichael Says:

    Jeff:

    Catholic vernacular translations of the Bible long predated the Reformation. For a quick synopsis, try this link:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15367a.htm

    Besides vernacular translations, the Bible was “publicized” in means most appropriate for a mostly illiterate people– art, stories, and preaching. The literate folk would have known Latin and thus the language barrier would not have existed for them.

    “Same-sex relationships feed real moral values, for example. If they were just about having sex, then I would agree it would be a moral issue.”

    Well, sex is the crux of the matter with the TEC debate, no? I mean, nobody as far as I have read seems to be opposed to members of the same sex having friendships. The debating points among the Episcopalians, as I perceive them, are whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful in the sight of God and whether a friendship that includes that activity is the functional (same sex blessing) or ontological (same sex marriage) equivalent of heterosexual marriage.

  11. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael –

    You have a very Roman take on history. A HUGE part of the reformation was about the ability of the common man to participate fully in worship. My protestant upbringing has always taught me that almost NOBODY could understand the mass. That was a big part of Luther’s 95 theses and a big part of the popularity of the reformation.

    As I said, if it was so ok to have the text available, why did the Roman church burn Hus for publicizing tranlations of the Bible?

    Sex is not the crux of the matter- it is for some. I think most realize that the “gay thing” was the straw that broke the camel’s back in a long-standing rift between those who have a very orthodox approach to religion and those who are moving forward as they perceive the spirit to be working among them. Part of the problem as I perceive it is that we are stuck talking about the gay thing instead of the real theological issues (how to interpret Scripture, how the prophetic tradition works, etc.).

    But you are partially correct in that the orthodox see it as about sex. I wonder, though, if that is true. For instance, would they offer marriage vows to us if we were to remain celibate? I don’t think so. (Of course the point is moot because we wouldn’t ever enter into such a ridiculous arrangement.)

    Of course, we keep saying that it isn’t about sex, any more than straight marriage is. When straight couples introduce their spouses, they don’t say “this is the person I sleep with.” Sex is one part of a larger relationship. It may be an important part but it just isn’t the entirety of the relationship. “Best friends” as you’ve described it doesn’t describe, I think, the relationship of man and wife without sex, either, and that is what you imply- that we, without sex, could just be “best friends.”

    j

  12. Milton Says:

    “Part of the problem as I perceive it is that we are stuck talking about the gay thing instead of the real theological issues (how to interpret Scripture, how the prophetic tradition works, etc.).

    But you are partially correct in that the orthodox see it as about sex.”

    Jeff, I would assert that orthodox, reasserters, what have you, see the issue as your first sentence states, how to interpret Scripture, how the prophetic tradition works, etc. rather than as the second sentence.

    More foundational than sexual issues by far are those concerning man’s fall and rebellion against a perfect, holy and loving God, salvation from that sin to reconcile us with that holy God, and sanctification (daily being more and more conformed to the image {visible and tangible and perceivable to us humans, unlike pure spirit} of God in Christ Jesus). Orthodox see the Bible as God’s plan of salvation for us, preserved from human error and passed on to all generations by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:20-21 “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

    You have stated in several posts that you cannot see a God who exacts punishment on all humanity for Adam’s sin. (the gist of your comments, I think) I agree. Rather, like “disobeying” the laws of nature (also created by God), the consequences are natural ones. Step out of a window on the 40th floor, have a fatal fall. Jump into a fire, get burned. The Source of all life was simply saying that if we cut ourselves off by rebellion from the Life that sustains us, we will surely die. A green leaf that strikes out on its own in glorious freedom from the branch that grew it flies freely in the wind for a time, still green. But it must inevitably fall, lie still with no power to move itself, and turn brown, wither, and die without its source of life and nourishment.

    Isaiah 64:6 “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

    John 15:5-6 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”

    The concern of the orthodox with sex is (or should be) only part of a general concern with God’s plan for our life laid out for us in the Bible. All the arguments I have heard for the integrity and sanctity of same-sex relationships are essentially arguments from silence, ignoring the lack of ANY affirmations in Scripture of approval of same-sex relationships, versus affirmations from Genesis on of male-female monagamous lifetime marriage. Even ignoring the “clobber passages” we are still left with this unavoidable contrast. The polygamous relationships described in the Bible were all marred with strife and were presented as negative examples for us to avoid, much as Cain’s murder of Abel.

    As for the Bible approving slavery, it did no such thing. God tolerated some practices that were against His perfect will until such time as it was revealed in its fulness in the completed canon of Scripture, and even then there were negative consequences naturally occurring because of them. Paul was well aware of the bloodshed that could occur if the slave population of Rome, nearly equal in number to the free population, revolted to gain their freedom. It is with this in mind, and even more with the perspective of eternal life where none are slaves, that he advises that “each man remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free (by purchasing freedom with money), rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price (Jesus’s blood); do not become slaves of men.” (1 Cor. 7:20-23) Obviously Paul here is not giving slavery his blessing, he rather is urging us to fix our eyes on Jesus and take the eternal perspective.

  13. Jeff Says:

    And I think what I am saying is that far too much of the debate is centered not around how the theology differs. I hope that I try to point out at least how my theology differs here so that we can have better dialogue.

    I do not, for example, agree with your take on slavery. I think your point of view on the interpretation of slavery fits very nicely into this culture and this context.

    But it is not absolute. The southern plantation owners of the 18th century would have differed with you pretty substantially. Our view has changed. Jesus did not say “don’t have slaves.” I think you are stretching and putting your current perspective on your reading of Paul. The plain text does not give the eternal perspective as I understand you to mean– in that it does not call for abolition but for personal freedom if you are able. I do not read this as defining slavery as a peace and justice/civil rights issue but as defining a personal responsibility to follow a calling in faith.

    Likewise, leadership for women in the church, gay sex, divorce, and numerous other things are clearly outlawed by the Bible. There is not uniform consensus among the orthodox on how to interpret these passages; or rather how to apply them to our world today.

    I think that both sides are selective literalists. I think, though, that the progressives acknowledge it while the orthodox claim that they are being literal on the entirety of the canon, which simply isn’t possible.

    I’ve done a side-by-side comparison on the Scriptures I think both sides find most relevant here.


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