Does God Like Us?

holding handsWe hear a lot, of course, about how much God loves us.  “God is love”, as St. John’s Gospel proclaims.  And the proclamation of God’s love for us has been at the core of Christianity from the beginning.

The theologian James Alison points out, however, that perhaps the most important question is not whether God loves us, but whether God likes us!  It is easy, he observes, to lie about love.   People say they love someone or something all the time, but do they really?  Do their actions really demonstrate that love in a tangible way?  A lot of suffering has been caused in the name of love — a kind of love defined as something that is meant for our good but isn’t experienced by us as a good at all.  Or a kind of love whose heart is abusive or manipulative.   One could argue that these sorts of loving don’t really constitute love at all, and yet there are numbers of people whose understanding or experience of love looks abusive, manipulative, or simply unkind.

When Christians go about proclaiming God’s love, it sadly often ends up looking less than loving too much of the time.  How many people have been lured into Christian community under the banner, “God loves you!”, only do discover that despite this alleged love, the community in question finds a lot about the newcomers not to like.   “God loves you — but God doesn’t like the fact that you’re gay.”  Or, “God loves you — but God doesn’t so much like that you’re a woman, so there’s a bunch of stuff you really can’t do in our community.”   Or, “God loves you — but God doesn’t like the fact that you act this way or do these things or have these desires.”   In other words, in so many ways, Christians today and over the years have proclaimed God’s love for humanity — but haven’t been quite as sure about God’s like for humanity.

Alison observes that it’s much harder to lie about liking someone.  While the cues as to whether someone loves us can get quite confused and mixed up and leave us wondering, the cues as to whether someone genuinely likes us are usually more straight-forward.  People often find themselves wondering about whether some other really loves them, but people don’t seem to have that same uncertainty about whether someone likes them.

Alison proclaims strongly that not only does God love us, but God actually does like us, and wants us to be well.  God’s liking of us is not suspended until we get certain things right, or believe appropriately, or modify our desires to some standard of acceptability.  God likes us as we are, right from the moment we are born.   And if we can get our minds and hearts around that profound liking, then we will know that God is safe.  We will know that we can have a relationship with God that is absolutely authentic and honest, and not be afraid that our authenticity will somehow get us punished.  God is not the dysfunctional father who believes that love involves toughening us up with various trials and punishments.   God is our friend — our very best friend — who wants nothing more than to be allowed to come along side us and journey with us, always in dialogue and companionship, encouraging us, comforting us, understanding our quirks and weaknesses with the kind of like that allows us to laugh at ourselves.

If the Christian people and communities of the world are really to preach authentically and convincingly about the love of God, we need to make sure that we are also proclaiming the like of God.  Because it is really only in the context of true, deep friendship that we will find ourselves in a relationship where we are accepted enough tot be freed into transformation.

The Hell of Divine Love

All SaintsNews reached the world this past  Sunday that Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, was dying.  That church, of course, has distinguished itself by its theology of hatred, and the hateful actions that it gave rise to, based on Mr. Phelps’s twisted, distorted version of the Gospel.  Phelps and his Westboro followers (who are, apparently, mostly members of his own family) have spent their lives telling the world how much, in their opinion, God hates various categories of people.  And they have harbored a special hatred for the gay and lesbian community.  Their “God Hates Fags” signs were to be seen at the various funerals and other events they chose to picket, though in recent years, their pickets have been overwhelmed by those who had enough of their hateful speech and actions.

As Mr. Phelps approaches the end of his earthly life, the question that might arise in the minds of many is this:  does God hate Fred Phelps?  It would be tempting for those of us who have been so upset, angered, and undone by Mr. Phelps’s massive distortion of Christianity and the biblical tradition to hope that the divine judgment will not be favorable toward him, that he will find himself the recipient of what he has dished out to others over the years, that he will find himself surprised by a consignment to a hell to which he was so ready to consign others.  But this hope, as understandable as it is, brings God down to our level.  It supposes that God thinks as we do, that the divine justice is but a reflection of our human understanding of justice.  Such a hope turns God into what Fred Phelps sought to turn God into:  a far too small embodiment of our own fears and prejudices.  We would do well to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah:

let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.…  (Isaiah 55:7b-9)

I have a feeling that Mr. Phelps will find himself in hell for a while, but it will not be a hell to which God consigns him out of anger or justice.  Instead, it will be a hell of Mr. Phelps’s own making, and one that will, I think, not last for eternity.  For I think that Fred Phelps will — as all of us will, when our moment comes — find himself, upon crossing the threshold of death, embraced by the fullness of Divine Love.  When he, and we, are embraced by that Love, we will become aware that this Love is not just for us.  It is for all.  This Love is a Love that exists beyond all rivalry, all shame, all fear, and even death itself.  This Love is a Love that teaches us, in a moment, that the words “hatred” and “God” have nothing to do with each other.  This Love is a Love whose breadth is such that all come within its embrace.  And, I think, in that moment, we will each become keenly aware of that which is within us that is Not Love.   And it will be taken away from us, if we are willing for it to be.  It will be taken away from us not through condemnation or judgment, but through being overwhelmed by the Divine Love that seeks to convert that which is Not Love to only Love.

That moment when our Not Love touches the Divine Love is a moment of hell.  It is a moment when we become fully aware of the places within ourselves that remain alienated from God.  But that moment need not last more than the twinkling of an eye, for the Divine Love will undoubtedly rush toward these parts of ourselves to embrace and transform with infinite compassion.  Yet, all that our traditions tell us is that God never forces us.  God only invites, entices, beguiles.  I suppose that were we to resist this Divine Love rushing upon us it would retreat, respecting the boundary we have established, refusing to violate our freedom even if doing so means that we will suffer as we continue to maintain at least a partial separation between ourselves and the Divine Love that longs to fully embrace us.  It is hard for me to imagine refusing the embrace of that Love when it is manifested to us so clearly.  But I suppose it must be possible.  Just as we place ourselves in various hells in this life, so perhaps some of us will persist to do so in the life to come.

I will pray for Fred Phelps this week, hoping that his moment of hell will indeed be short-lived, and that he will allow his spirit to be enlarged by the Divine Love that he so steadfastly tried to deny to so many in this life and, thus, did not experience himself.  I pray that he will learn the truth of these words for the first time:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)

Keepers of Wisdom

1Christianity, and the other religious traditions of the world, are often looked upon as keepers of morality.  Many people — perhaps even most, whether religious or non-religious — seem to look to these traditions as providers of moral guidance, the source of a society’s or culture’s rules of right and wrong.  Or, alternatively, these traditions are seen as keepers of outmoded moral rules, enforcers of moral standards that seem in many respects no longer to be applicable in today’s world.  Either view tends to see morality as occupying the heart of what religious traditions are about.

I think that casting religious traditions and institutions primarily in the role of moral arbiter misses the heart of religion, however, rather than defining it.  Because the religious traditions of the world, it seems to me, are not so much the keepers of morality as they are keepers of wisdom.

Miriam-Webster defines wisdom in this way:  a :  accumulated philosophic or scientific learning : knowledge; b :  ability to discern inner qualities and relationships insight; c :  good sense :  judgment; d :  generally accepted belief <challenges what has become accepted wisdom among many historians — Robert Darnton>;  a wise attitude, belief, or course of action; the teachings of the ancient wise men.

The world’s religious traditions contain within themselves accumulated knowledge about inner qualities and relationships  that are part of the human experience, and preserve teachings that emerge from this accumulated knowledge.  More than that, religions combine with this accumulated knowledge an accumulated experience of the human exploration into the inner spaces of humanity that we might name the soul, and the relationship between these inner spaces and the sense of “the More”, the sense of transcendent connection with the Other Other, named by many of these traditions as God.  This experiential knowledge, and the practices that go with it, have the ability to lead human beings toward a transformation that is like an inner revolution, changing our perspective on our own lives, on our relationships with others, on our relationships with creation and with the cosmos.  It is precisely this goal of transformation, this inner revolution, that really lies at the heart of our religious traditions.

Often, people like myself — what I might call professional religious practitioners — find ourselves trying to maintain an open space for religion in an increasingly secular contemporary context.  Many clergy and others seek to maintain that space for religion by insisting on the exclusivity of their moral codes, beliefs, and doctrines — because they, too, believe that these constitute the heart of what their religion is.  When you have people of different traditions all taking this approach, the effect is to close off whatever wisdom each tradition has to offer to people who are not prepared to embrace such an exclusive way of holding one’s religious identity.

What if we took a different approach?  Instead of holding our traditions so tightly, we could hold them more flexibly.  Rather than insisting on strict adherence to codes, beliefs, and doctrines, we could instead explore the wisdom of our traditions contained within the lived experience and practices of our communities, including the stories and insights found through engagement with our sacred texts.  From this perspective, we could offer to others wisdom on how to live meaningfully, compassionately, purposefully, and relationally.  And it is precisely this wisdom that is so needed in our world.

Because a “hard-edged” approach to religion in our time has tended to win the day, increasing numbers of people are losing touch with the art of living humanely; many people live devoid of any sense of meaning.   The world’s religious traditions have the resources to help people recover this art of living well, if only we could make them more accessible.

Every human culture in history has had its wisdom keepers and story-tellers.  Where are such people in our own time?  The world’s religions can offer these resources to us, if only we are willing to hold our traditions in a different way than is so often true today.

Why I’m Fine Being “Ultra Liberal” & “Theologically Shaky”

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-skyVery recently (just this past Sunday, in fact), a large church in our community decided to leave their current denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA) and join a new denomination that was just founded within the last couple of years.  Most observers characterize the new denomination as “more conservative.”   This decision, as you might expect, has received a fair amount of attention in the local press.  And, since the press is online these days, this gave people the opportunity to post comments — comments about the reasons given for the change, comments about suspected reasons for the change, comments supporting the change, and comments lamenting the change.  Someone, in response to comments about some people perhaps seeking a new church home, posted a comment suggesting that those looking for a new church might try ours.   Then, something interesting happened:  someone else posted a comment seemingly advising against choosing our church because, the author wrote, our church is “ultra liberal, theologically shaky, and membership weakened.”   The comment could not be found later, so it may have been deleted ultimately, but it did appear, at least for a while.  And it is that very comment that inspired me on the blog this week, because — for the most part — I would like to completely embrace these labels, and let you know why I’m completely fine being characterized as “ultra liberal” and “theologically shaky”.  I’ll get to the “membership weakened” comment, as well.

Ultra Liberal

In some respects, our church — like most Episcopal churches — would not be thought of as liberal, at least in terms of our worship.  We are a liturgical church, with an inherited tradition of worship that we strive to keep contemporary but whose form, symbolism, and ritual were developed centuries ago.  And most of the time, our music is pretty traditional.  So, in that sense, we could be thought of as conservative:  that is, in the classical sense of that term, which means that we have a tendency to “conserve” more ancient patterns of Christian worship and spirituality in creative ways.

BUT, I would imagine that the term “ultra liberal” in this case is meant to convey what is considered a “liberal” moral stance and way of being church.  For example, we ordain women and gay people, we bless gay marriages, and we tend to regard personal morality as, well, a personal matter.  Which means that we try hard not to pass judgment on people based on who they are, whom they love, and how they live their lives.  It’s not that these things don’t matter or are unimportant, but that they are deeply connected to a person’s relationship with God, and that who we are and how we live should emerge for each of us out of  that relationship, not be defined for us by a religious institution.  After all, St. Paul took great pains to point out that in Christ, we are invited to live not according to law imposed on us from outside, but by grace offered to us by God from within.

The term “ultra liberal” may also be related to the fact that I am not of the opinion that Christianity is the only way to reach God.  It can be a great way, it’s the way that works for me, and it’s the way I recommend to others because it’s what I know.  But I have known too many people whom I consider holy who have not been Christians, and I’m rather certain that God loves them.

So, I fully embrace the label of “ultra liberal” as a sign that I — and the community to which I belong — work hard to be open to all, without judgment.  That we aspire to be a sign of God’s kingdom in which all are joyfully welcomed just as they are, because all are loved deeply and passionately by God.   And I embrace the ultra liberal position that allows everyone to be full participants in the life of the church and all of its ministries and sacraments.

Theologically Shaky

I’m particularly happy to embrace this label.  Because, for me, “theologically shaky” means that we see the Bible not as an inerrant book that serves as a “text book” of the Christian faith, but rather as an amazingly diverse, complex, nuanced text that cannot interpret itself, but rather must be interpreted through a particular lens.  For me, that lens is Christ as I have come to know him and understand him within my own relationship with God.  The theologian James Alison (a Catholic!) points out that we always, ALWAYS read the Bible through a particular lens.  And if we think we don’t, then we simply are failing to see the lens that we are using.  For Alison, these lenses fall into one of two categories:  sacrifice or mercy.

When we read through a sacrificial lens, then we see our relationship with God as costing us something.  We see God as requiring sacrifice, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus.  We embrace the Old Testament’s seeming tendency to ascribe acts of violence to God, or at least to God’s consent.  Ultimately, a sacrificial reading of the Bible finds people guilty, and in so many ways diminishes them by means of that guilt.  And much of what has been traditional Christian theology is done through a sacrificial lens.

However, when we read through a merciful lens, then we see our relationship with God as seeking to free us to be ever more ourselves.  We see that God is not the one who requires sacrifice, but that it is we human beings who require it, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus and continuing through all the ways in which we human beings sacrifice one another.  The Old Testament becomes not a catalog of the many and various ways God will smite us if we step out of line, but allows us to see how readily we will ascribe the violence that we do to one another to God, in order to make it appear that this is the way God is.  It is using God as a cover to excuse the violence we do to ourselves and others.  Reading the Bible through a merciful lens allows us to see that God is seeking to draw us into a relationship that does not leave us guilty but grateful, and rather than diminishes us, empowers us to be beacon’s of God’s light.

It is not so much that I or we are theologically shaky.  Rather, we are willing to ask hard questions of our inherited tradition, and not simply accept the answers of the past.  I am always mindful that it is not our relationship with the Bible that is our salvation (a word which has more to do with transformation and healing than anything else), it is not having the correct doctrine or believing the correct things.  It is being in relationship with the living God.  The Bible, doctrines, and all things churchly are meant to introduce us to that relationship, not to replace it.  As our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say, “God is still speaking”.   And what some see as theological shakiness I see as a profound act of listening.

Membership Weakened

Okay, so this is rather an odd term.  And I assume that it refers to the fact that we are a smaller church (relatively speaking).  And, the Episcopal Church has gotten smaller over the years, in part because of everything I have just been talking about.   It’s not always easy to live as openly toward others as we try to live, or to live in the theological tension that comes with a questioning, listening stance.   And, our tendency to conserve ancient forms and patterns of worship and spirituality in creative ways isn’t always easy for people to get on board with.

But, we’re not weak.  We are simply smaller.  And while I wouldn’t mind being a bit bigger, smaller is not a bad thing.  Smaller allows us to have a community who feel like they know one another and are known.  It allows us, I think, to carry on holding ourselves a little more lightly, not taking ourselves too seriously even as we are up to some pretty serious stuff. And that smallness doesn’t keep us from doing some pretty great things both within our church and for the larger community.

So, I’m the Rev Matthew Dutton-Gillett, Rector of Trinity Church in Menlo Park:  I’m ultra liberal and theologically shaky.  And I’m totally fine with that.  In fact, I’m deeply grateful for it, and for the renewed relationship with God it has given me.