“For God so Loved the World….”

In the third chapter of John’s Gospel is found that well-known phrase, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Recently, I heard Dr. Alexander Shaia speak about this particular sentence as part of a larger presentation to a group of clergy.  He reminded us that “world” in John’s ancient Greek language and world view meant something a bit different than our reading today of that word in English.  He suggested that it would be more faithful to John’s understanding and meaning if we translated the passage in this way:  “For God so loved us in our unknowing (or ignorance) that God gave us the Christ so that we would not be locked into time and live only for ourselves.”  Admittedly, this is not so much a linguistic translation as a translation of ideas, and Dr. Shaia believes that this phrase captures better what John intended to say, given the thought-world he inhabited.

If we meditate on this translation of John’s ideas, it points us toward a key idea in our own tradition, and indeed in most of the world’s spiritual traditions:  that we are ignorant of the deeper meaning and nature of life.  We do not know who we really are — made in the image of God, on a spiritual journey that is meant to transform us so that we become more and more like Christ.  Because we do not know who we are, we become locked into a this-world perspective that is bound by time rather than timelessness.  Rather than adopting the perspective of eternity, that is, the perspective of God, of the divine, we operate from a this-world perspective, a world defined by time that is always running down or running out.  We chase after the things of this world, believing that these have something to do with who we really are.  And, in the process, we forget our true selves — we forget that our life is truly rooted not in the time-bound world, but in the timeless eternity of God.  The Christ seeks to wake us up from this unknowing, from this limited perspective, in order to open us up to our true identity and the authentic nature of life.

At the end of her book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes, “Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve:  mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.”  She points, I think, to the trinity that makes up the deepest longing of the human spirit:  to live creatively, peacefully and joyously.  If we think deeply about our lives and our desires, I think that we will find that they all really boil down to these things.  We are constantly searching for them in the time-bound world where things are always running out and running down.  So, most of the time, we catch glimpses of them, brief moments, but they do not last, and so we keep running after them.

If we realize that, ultimately, creativity, peace and joy are rooted in transcendence, in God, in eternity, then we realize that the only way to begin to experience this trinity lastingly is through spiritual practice.  Armstrong suggests that the heart of that practice is kenosis, or self-emptying, and compassion.  That Greek term kenosis is an often used term in the Christian tradition to speak of the quality of self-giving that we perceive in God (who is always giving of God’s self in creating and sustaining the universe) and that we especially see in Jesus, whose entire life is about giving of himself for others.  As Jesus himself says, it is in giving our lives away that we find life.  In other words, it is only when we transcend our own egos and go beyond our limited self-interest that we can begin to transcend the time-bound, this-world perspective that is our habit and begin to take on the perspective of eternity, that we can begin to touch the root of lasting creativity, peace and joy.  Of course, when we begin to go beyond ourselves, we also deepen our compassion as we begin to desire creativity, peace and joy not only for ourselves but for our fellow human beings and perhaps even all creatures.  And so we are moved to act with compassion toward others, to allow Christ to act compassionately in and through us, to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others.

In Christ, God has loved us in our unknowing and our ignorance so much that God seeks to awaken us to the true source of the creativity, peace and joy that we long for.  As we approach the gateway into the Lenten season, perhaps we might reflect on how we have or have not accepted this invitation to awaken.  How do we move beyond ourselves?  How can we grow in self-giving and compassion?  For that is what we must do if we seek a life that is truly, deeply and lastingly meaningful.

God and Magical Thinking

This morning I came across a news article that I found so odd, I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.  It seems that a certain state representative in Wisconsin is introducing a bill into the legislature that would lift Wisconsin’s ban on coal mining.  One could imagine a host of public policy arguments that might be raised both for and against such a proposal, but interestingly — or incredibly — the argument voiced by this legislator is not primarily about public policy.  His argument has to do with God.  It is his conviction that God would never allow us to destroy our planet, that God will always care for the earth and repair any damage we do to it.  He points out that on his ancestral family farm in Pennsylvania, they did some coal mining, and everything is fine now.  God, he says, will always make sure of that.  Incredibly, he even points to the destruction caused by the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and says that as bad as those were, everything is fine now, because God will always repair the damage.  I couldn’t help but wonder what the people in those two Japanese cities would think about that.

This bit of news comes in the midst of a discussion about 20 or so of us at Trinity have been having around Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Case for God.”  In that book, she describes how the Judeo-Christian image of God has shifted over the centuries.  Those shifts are intimately related to cultural shifts, changing human experiences and a number of other factors.   She points out in her book that our conception of God is always inadequate, because the very nature of that which we call “God” is beyond our ability to conceive or describe.  But, we often forget that, and think we know more about God than we actually do.  In some periods of human history, people have been so certain of their knowledge of God that they were equally certain that God’s will was a perfect reflection of their own will.  And the results of such certainty have frequently been disastrous.

It seems to me that the image of God held by this particular state legislator is also one that can lead to disaster.  To believe that human beings can do anything, no matter how destructive or dangerous, because God will never allow things to get too bad (though, as he admits, God apparently does allow things to get pretty bad) is nothing less than a kind of magical thinking whose outcome is to relieve human beings of any sense of moral responsibility.   We don’t have to worry about protecting the environment because God will not allow us to destroy our planet.  We don’t have to worry about using nuclear weapons because God will ultimately repair the damage.  We don’t have to concern ourselves with finding alternative sources of energy because God will never let our natural resources run out.   While some may find it incredible that there are people who hold these kinds of convictions, this sort of magical thinking with respect to God is, I think, far more common than many realize.

But, while it is tempting to make fun of the representative’s convictions, this kind of magical theology doesn’t arise by accident.  It comes about, I think, mainly as a byproduct of fear.   The world in which we live is not always an easy place to be.   We are constantly hearing about a whole range of issues that produce a great deal of anxiety.  Issues of environmental sustainability, energy and global conflict can easily seem so huge that we feel unable to truly affect any of them.  The changes that we would be required to make by taking these issues seriously are daunting to say the least and can be perceived as threatening a way of life to which we have become accustomed.   One way of responding to these fears and anxieties, to this sense of being overwhelmed, is to take refuge in a magical God who will not let anything too bad happen to us.   If we can convince ourselves to believe in such a God, then we can let go of fear and anxiety — as well as any need to change our thinking or our lifestyles.

But we cannot afford this kind of magic.  We cannot afford it as people of faith, for ultimately is makes religion look silly, superstitious and irrelevant, and we lose any credibility in speaking to the big issues that our world faces.  And more importantly, our world cannot afford this magical thinking that allows us to refuse to see the very real problems that somehow need to be faced.   The magical God in which this Wisconsin representative believes is the theological equivalent of putting one’s head in the sand and pretending that there are not real problems that require real solutions.

Rather than taking refuge in a magical God, I would prefer to see us take refuge in the God that I think we see in Jesus, a God who is compassionately engaged with the world and calling us to be engaged in the same way.  Rather than developing a theology of pretending everything will be okay, I think God would challenge us to develop a much more courageous theology that takes the world’s problems seriously and faces them head-on not with fear, but with confidence and compassion.

At various  moments in human history and in the lives of individuals, the magical theology of “God won’t let anything bad happen to us” has broken apart.  It happened centuries ago when the Jewish people, confident that they knew precisely who God was and what God’s will meant, suddenly found themselves overrun by the Babylonian army and their leading citizens taken into captivity.  It happened more recently, in the wake of the Holocaust.  In both cases, people found themselves having to reconsider their theology and their understanding of God’s relationship to the world and to our lives.   Now is not the time for magical thinking.  It is time for bold, courageous and creative thinking in response to a God who does not pretend that everything is okay, but urgently warns us that things are not simply okay and calls us to action.