Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


July 2012

Violence in the Short Story

This was part of a post two weeks ago on HBC.
It had been a contentious week for God on the internet.

  • This week the parents of Trayvon Martin rejected the apology from George Zimmerman. According to CBS News:

The parents of Trayvon Martin say they have a hard time accepting George Zimmerman’s nationally televised apology.
Last night, in his first interview since killing the unarmed 17-year-old, the former neighborhood watch volunteer said the shooting death must have been part of “God’s plan” and that he prays for the Martin family daily.
“I simply really don’t know what God George Zimmerman is worshipping because there’s no way that the God that I serve had in his plans for George Zimmerman to murder my son,” Tracy Martin, the teen’s dad told CBS News.

What God is George Zimmerman talking about? It is a fair question.

  • This week Rachel Held Evans duked it out with the Gospel Coalition.

Two guys, Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson, said some nearly unbelievable things about sex within the complementarian theology that women complement men (or is it compliment?)  vs. the view that they are equal to men. Rachel takes them on:

The two have insisted that they advocate mutuality in the bedroom, and yet, according to Doug, “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party,” but instead “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” while a woman “receives, surrenders, accepts.”  What does he mean by that? What’s wrong with an “egalitarian pleasure party”? (Sounds like fun to me!)
In other words:  How is complementarian sex supposed to be different than egalitarian sex? Does preserving male authority mean that a man must always initiate sex? Does it mean that the missionary position is the only acceptable one for Christians? Is it too “egalitarian” for both a man and woman to be pleasured? Does “submission” mean that a woman must perform sex acts she doesn’t like in order to please her husband?

What is an eggalitarian pleasure party? Why can’t that be honoring to God?

There seems to be a recurring problem that is inherent to the traditional view – it is tough to get around the fact that the short story is a violent one.
What I call the “Short Story” goes like this: A short time ago (say 10,000 years) God created the world in a short period of time (6 days) and He (always ‘he’) will come back shortly (any day now) and set things right.

The short story comes from an elementary reading of both the first book and last book of the Bible that is unaware of the two different genres they were written in. It is a violent reading because (in English) it makes it look like God does what ever God wants – or shall we say – whatever God wills. God acts both unilaterally and coercively to bring about what God desires.
As one of my favorite thinkers explains

“We now know that our world, rather than being created in six days, was created in something like 16 billion years.  This quantitative difference is so great that is suggests a qualitative difference in the nature of God’s creative activity.  The idea that God spent some 16 billion years creating our world suggests that God’s creative power must be persuasive, not coercive, power.  This is the natural inference, that is, if we continue to think of the world as God’s creation.  …

Rather than a return to a premodern or early modern view: We can understand God’s activity at the beginning of our universe as of the same type as God’s activity in history. No supernatural origin must be assumed. We still have, however, the question of God’s activity at the end.  Can God as consummator be understood in the same terms?  Classical theologians certainly did not think so. For example, a book entitled Armageddon says: The second coming of Jesus Christ to earth will be no quiet manger scene. . . . Cities will literally collapse, islands sink, and mountains disappear.  Huge hailstones, each weighing a hundred pounds, will fall from heaven, the rulers and their armies who resist Christ’s return will be killed in a mass carnage. No more Mister Nice Guy!

According to this theology, in other words, God’s past mode of activity in Jesus would not suffice to bring about the eventual victory of divine over demonic power.  God would have to resort to a degree of violence that would outdo the violence of the forces of evil.  The revelation of God’s love in Jesus was not, accordingly, a revelation of the divine modus operandi: The true nature of divine power, which is supernatural, has been, for the most part, held in reserve, and will be fully manifested only at the end.”

This is not a consistent God. God acts unilaterally in the beginning, has violent periods in the Old Testament – even while being loving, is mostly super nice in Jesus, and then turns mean again at the end- which allows it to end abruptly and violently. The God of the short story is a violent and inconsistently inconsistent god.
This what we were going after on the most recent TNT. That god is a false god and an idol. It must be repented of and renounced.
I will add something here that I did not say there: people who hold that view of God are most nice people who always hold in reserve the possibility and potential right to be violent in order to bring about the will of God. It is how their God acts and they might need to imitate ‘him’ in order to bring about ‘his’ will.

  • It explains how George Zimmerman’s actions could have been a part of ‘God’s plan’.
  • It explains how the guys at the Gospel Coalition could say that “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” while a woman “receives, surrenders, accepts.”
  • It explains how people can say that while what happened to the American Indians was ‘unfortunate’ it may have been ‘for the best’ or ‘necessary’.
  • It explains how Jesus flipping over tables at church translates into carrying concealed firearms and using drones to drop bombs.

People who object always use the same 3 defenses:

  1. (S)words – Jesus told his disciples to buy swords and said that he came to bring a sword – but those are all misunderstandings we dealt with here. 
  2. Tables & Whips – snapping a whip and turning over tables isn’t the same as packing heat or using drones to bomb enemy combatants. We dealt with that here. 
  3. Spiritual Warfare – it is of no value if we deal with personal piety and the spiritual realm but skip the systems, structures  and institutions that comprise the ‘Powers the Be’ as Walter Wink called them.

Here is the simple fact: Neither Jesus’ sayings about swords, his flipping over tables or Paul’s allusions to the spiritual realm justify this permission toward violence. It is not OK to justify aggression toward minorities, women, or other religions. Our God is not behind it and does not support it. Quote all the Bible verses you want but this is not the real and living God. It is an idol and a graven image.
We need to repent of this line of reasoning and own up to the fact that we have created a God in our own image who loves all the things we love and supports all the things that benefit us.

 – Bo Sanders 


I believe in God – but not that one.

I have been burning through my Summer reading list and I seem to have stumbled onto a rich vein of form! The odd thing is that they are all books with ‘God’ in the title. There are 5 (out of about 20) but they seem to have all ended up in the middle of stack. Here are the 5 I am chewing on right now:

The PostModern God edited by Graham Ward

God & Religion in the PostModern World by David Ray Griffin

God : a guide for the perplexed by Keith Ward

The Named God and the Question of Being by Stanley J. Grenz

God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero

What is so fascinating to me in all of this is how widely dispersed use of the word ‘God’ can be. You can mean a whole bunch of different things when you say ‘God’ and only a fool would assume to know what another means when they invoke that title/name. [I touched on this a while ago in ‘I’m not sure most Christians know that‘]

It made me think back to a section in John Cobb’s introductory book when he clearly outlined what he didn’t mean when he said ‘God’.  What follows is a verbatim reproduction of that section. What I would love to hear is what you don’t mean when you say ‘God’. This will be a fun little experiment in clarification done negativa,. 

 1. God as Cosmic Moralist. At its worst this notion takes the form of the image of God as divine lawgiver and judge, who has proclaimed an arbitrary set of moral rules, who keeps records of offenses, and who will punish offenders. In its more enlightened versions, the suggestion is retained that God’s most fundamental concern is the development of moral attitudes. This makes primary for God what is secondary for humane people, and limits the scope of intrinsic importance to human beings as the only beings capable of moral attitudes. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

2. God as the Unchanging and Passionless Absolute. This con­cept derives from the Greeks, who maintained that “perfection” entailed complete “immutability,” or lack of change. The notion of “impassibility” stressed that deity must be completely unaf­fected by any other reality and must lack all passion or emotional response. The notion that deity is the “Absolute” has meant that God is not really related to the world. The world is really related to God, in that the relation to God is constitutive of the world— an adequate description of the world requires reference to its de­pendence on God—but even the fact that there is a world is not constitutive of the reality of God. God is wholly independent of the world: the God-world relation is purely external to God. These three terms—unchangeable, passionless, and absolute—finally say the same thing, that the world contributes nothing to God, and that God’s influence upon the world is in no way conditioned by divine responsiveness to unforeseen, self-determining activities of us worldly beings. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

3. God as Controlling Power. This notion suggests that God determines every detail of the world. When a loved one dies prema­ turely, the question “Why?” is often asked instinctively, meaning “Why did God choose to take this life at this time?” Also, when humanly destructive natural events such as hurricanes occur, legal jargon speaks of “acts of God.” On the positive side, a woman may thank God for the rescue of her husband from a collapsed coal mine, while the husbands of a dozen other women are lost. But what kind of a God would this be who spares one while allowing the others to perish? Process theology denies the existence of this God.
4. God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo. This connotation charac­terizes a strong tendency in all religions. It is supported by the three previous notions. The notion of God as Cosmic Moralist has suggested that God is primarily interested in order. The notion of God as Unchangeable Absolute has suggested God’s establishment of an unchangeable order for the world. And the notion of God as Controlling Power has suggested that the present order exists be­ cause God wills its existence. In that case, to be obedient to God is to preserve the status quo. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

5. God as Male. The liberation movement among women has made us painfully aware how deeply our images of deity have been sexually one-sided. Not only have we regarded all three “persons” of the Trinity as male, but the tradition has reinforced these images with theological doctrines such as those noted above. God is totally active, controlling, and independent, and wholly lacking in receptiveness and responsiveness. Indeed, God seems to be the archetype of the dominant, inflexible, unemotional, completely independent (read “strong”) male. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

I find it so helpful – once in a while – to see something stated in the negative so that I have a clear contrast in my mind.

Who Believes in Miracles? I sure do!

I know at least three people who believe in miracles: Marjorie Suchocki, Bruce Epperly and I do. I have written several times about holding onto the miraculous (as well asdealing with demons and skirting ‘Satan’)  – both as Bible reading Christians and as ministers in the 21st century – even after we have excused ourselves from the super-natural worldview of centuries past. Bruce Epperly looks to Marjorei Suchoki for some helpful language about prayer and the nature of God’s power. (Suchoki is perhaps most famous for many books including one on prayer: In God’s Presence and eschatology: The End of Evil).

What follows is a summary of a section from Epperly’s book Process for the Perplexed p. 58-60. I found it so helpful and so encouraging that I wanted to put it up here (reformatted as a blog of course). All the words are Epperly’s or Suchocki’s except those in italics.

Suchocki describes the intimacy of God and world necessary to the faithful practice of prayer.

If God’s power works through presence, and if God’s presence is an ‘omnipresence’, then one could say both that there is no center to the universe and that everything in the universe is center to all else … we can say that all things are center, for if all things are in the presence of God, then it is God who centers them. The earth, then, is indeed privileged and we do have a privileged history, for all are presenced and centered in God. Prayer in such a universe makes eminent sense – for God is always present.

From this perspective, God is, as a mystic once said, “the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

This allows us to affirm the wisdom of my mother’s kitchen magnet motto, “prayer changes things”. Suchocki understands prayer as “our oppeness, to the God who pervades the Universe and therefore ourselves, and therefore that prayer is also God’s openess to us. In such a case, prayer is not only for our sakes but also for God’s sake.” In a relational universe, prayer is essential to God’s work in our world and “the effectiveness of God’s work with the world.”

Prayer is intimately connected with God’s vision for each moment of our lives. God’s initial aim, or vision for our lives moment by moment, is grounded in God’s awareness of our joys, sorrows, needs, and loves.

God knows us better than we know ourselves and seeks to provide possibilities that join our lives with the lives of others in a way that bring beaty and healing to the world. God inspires us to prayer for others as well as to act on their behalf. Surely this is an insightful way to interpret Romans 8:26-28

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And gone who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

God moves within our lives, inviting us to reflect God’s vision of Shalom and healing in our relationship with others, whether a child diagnosed with cancer, the survivors of the Haiti earthquake, or a friend who is in the process of discerning her future vocation.

As Suchocki affirms, “prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners integrate dance that brings a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.” Accordingly, our prayers make a difference in terms of the intensity and effectiveness of God’s healing and reconciling work in the world.

While the intensity and form of divine guidance and activity in the present moment our lives shaped–and either enhanced or limited–by our past history, decisions, values, and the quality of spiritual devotion, our attentiveness to God in the present opens us to new costs bursts of spiritual energy.

Further, in an interdependent universe our prayers are an example of what quantum physicists describe as non-local causation: they create a positive field of energy around those for whom we pray, enabling them to be more open to God in a ruling God to be more creative and effective in shaping their life situation.

Process encourages people to be realistic, yet hopeful, in prayer for extraordinary life changes. Indeed, spiritual realism embraces both the concrete and the possible, regular causality and naturalistic leaps of energy. As Suchocki notes, “prayer creates a channel in the world through which God can unleash God’s will towards well-being.” Because each moment is unique, “miraculous” releases of energy that change ourselves can occur; but there are no guarantees, except God’s loving presence, in every life situation.

We see  the occurrence of events described as “miraculous” not as violations of the laws of nature, but of intensification’s of God’s healing energy as a result of the interplay of God’s visionary power and energy, our prayers, and the conditions of those for whom you pray.

Romans 8:28 can be translated this way “ in all things God works for good for those who love God” as a representative of the holistic, relational, non-coercive, and multifactorial nature of divine activity.

I find this greatly encouraging and inspiring. We get to do this wonderful thing of partnering in prayer while no longer being required to subscribe to an antiquated metaphysic or pre-modern worldview.

Let us pray.

Neither Non-Violent nor a Pacifist be

In response to  J.R. Daniel Kirk’s blog post about violence and the gospel, I thought it would be good to put all my cards on the table.

Kirk is one of HomeBrewed’s  favorite New Testament scholars and one of our favorite bloggers. He is a masterful HomeBrewer and an Academic of renown. This week he had the opportunity to catch up on his podcasts and  our TNT was one of his selected listens.

He had concerns about some of the content and in his post he said:

“What about those passages that make Jesus himself look more “violent” than selections in the Sermon might? E.g., what about the Jesus of the narrow way and crashing house from the end of the Sermon? But then there is also the question of what comes before and what comes after. There is judgment. In the OT there is war and destruction. In Revelation there is a lake of fire.”

I thought it would be good to put forward my thoughts 24 hours ahead of our recording to see what the deacons had to say.

I am not a pacifist. That label has come to mean ‘passive’ and my reading of the gospel does not allow for one to be passive in their engagement in the world.

I am not into non-violence. While I appreciate that long and astounding history of those who promote non-violence, I do not subscribe to the theory of non-violence. As a post-Colonial scholar I reserve the right of oppressed minorities to both defend themselves and to aggressively pursue their own liberation and freedom.

I do not believe that God is violent. I am resigned to the fact that humans are violent and that humans project the validation for their violence on their deity – whoever who he or she might be. Jesus shows us a different way.

So there are three ideas presented in the negative. Here are my three convictions in the positive.

  • I am under the impression that Jesus is the highest revelation of God. As a Christian, I hold that God was uniquely present in Jesus and that Jesus shows us what God is really like (image of the invisible God and all that).
  • I am a radical peace maker. I take the sermon on the mount very seriously and I am under the impression that we should be aggressive in our pursuit of peace, reconciliation and restoration.
  • I am convicted that violence begets more violence. While I am not a pacifist nor into non-violence (per se) I am deeply convinced that the problem with violence is that it begets more violence. This is why contemporary debates about war and American foreign policy are nothing more than drivel and posturing. Violence begets more violence. [ I don’t have enough time to go into how both Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are products of US foreign creation}

With that in mind, I would like to acknowledge an issue raised by Dr. Kirk’s.

Jesus flipped over tables. To quote the late Chris Farley “well ladi freakin’ da!” So what? Is that what you want to do? Flip over tables at church? Well go ahead – with my blessing! But let’s be honest – Jesus turning over tables opens the door for you to justify invading foreign counties and dropping bombs on civilians who might be enemy-combatants. Seems like a leap eh? Listen to christian radio, christian TV, or Fox News. Apparently it is not that big of a jump. If all you wanted to do (with God’s blessing) is to flip over tables at church – this would be a non-issue.

Yes, the story of Joshua is a violent one. Tomorrow on TNT we will address the issue that God told the Israelites to invade Canaan and kill all the inhabitants – as well as that that damned Lake of Fire in the New Testament.

I’m looking forward to having that conversation.


On a different note …

I have been having the conversation for almost 20 years. It almost always goes the exact same way.

Me: Jesus told us to love one another and to turn the other cheek. He also modeled it when he was ‘led like a lamb to slaughter’.

Guy: Are you telling my that if somebody broke into your house you would just let him rape your wife?

(I’m not kidding, that it almost always the first objection)

Me: No. I would not stand by and let someone rape my wife.

Guy: I thought you were a pacifist.

Me: That doesn’t mean being passive. There are many ways to resist, restrain and deter that kind of violence.

Guy: I would kill him. I would shoot him in the face.

Me: … I think there are alternatives beside killing.

Guy: You are lying if you say that you would not kill him too. And if the Americans didn’t get involved in WWII then we would all be speaking German right now!

(Hitler is almost always the second objection)


In the end, I am not a pacifist because it is an ideology that one subscribes to that takes options off the table. I am not into non-violence because it limits the response of oppressed communities. I also am not a big fan of defining yourself in the negative.

What I am into into is aggressive peacemaking. I am against preemptive war and I believe that violence begets more violence.

I would love your thoughts as we prepare for tomorrow’s show.
The debate on the initial post was hot and heavy – so don’t be shy about not liking what I am proposing.

Innovation, Context and History in Christianity

I was away on a youth service trip last week and upon my return had the opportunity to listen to the Barry Taylor podcast from the previous week’s live show. It sounded great and I was sorry to have missed it.

About 23 minutes in to The Theology of Rock, Barry Taylor talks about the play between the universal nature of music and the highly contextual nature of styles and genres. He points out that while music is said to be universal, actual songs and individual expression are very particular and specifically located. They come from a place and in a time and that lyrics – while they may get the lion’s share of attention – are nearly inconsequential in some respects to understanding what is going on in the music.

Lyrics are often an afterthought and may even be antagonistic to what is going on in the music itself. This was a fascinating point and it sent my brain on wild series of connections and contrasts in theology.

My background is in contextual theology and as I stated two weeks ago in my post about the Creeds as contextual documents (or time/place snapshots) they are neither universal nor timeless. Christian expressions – even the early Creeds – are both radically located and time-bound. Now, the objection is always that ‘they were not intended to be so – the authors surely believed them to be universal and for all times’.  While it may be true that writers of the creeds, or the Reformers or systematic theologians in general may be under that impression, we see the historical flaw in that line of thinking.

 We see now that all theology and thus theological expression are contextual expression that are uniquely located and particularly time specific. It’s not just the language (Greek or Latin or German) that needs to be translated but the ideas, concepts and content itself needs to be translated and renovated.

I would like to put forward a proposition to help us unravel the tangled web of theological history and frame – in a positive way – a path forward. I am suggesting that we acknowledge that we are always braiding or weaving a fabric from at least 3 strands:

  •  History and Tradition: Theology and other Christian expressions don’t happen in a vacuum. We never start with a blank slate. We never get back to zero – and we are not supposed to! We are part of long history with much tradition and we are to honor that even while continuing out along the trajectory provided.
  •  Context and Location: All truth is both received and expressed in cultural containers that come with inherent lenses through which we interpret what we see, experience and receive. Our job is to acknowledge and incorporate this understand as we engage our culture, place, and time in a meaningful way that is faithful to the tradition, based on the historic precedent, and aware of our modern realities.
  •  Innovation and Expression: Nothing stays the same. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Language – even about God, technology, and society are fluid realities that call for us to adjust, revisit, and renovate our understandings and activities. Christianity is uniquely designed to adapt and evolve. We are not only called to it but are empowered with a unique set of tools embedded within the Gospels and Acts of the early Church.

The trick is to stop reducing down things down to simply one element in our thinking. That reductive move is death to both understanding and applying the very message that we are talking about!  [read Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West  for more]

 It is not simply history or tradition. People who extract content without accounting for historical context or timely innovation are in grave danger of importing and imposing collateral damage every time and in every place they do so. If we do not acknowledge the particular time and unique context from which any expression emerged, then we are willfully blind to the cultural constraints and societal containers that framed the content.

 It is not merely context. We are not free to disregard the precedent of the past. The entire project of theological reflection and Christian expression is in dialogue with the historic tradition. If one wants to do something else, that is fine – I get that – but to do theology is to submit to some level of constraint within the forms and disciplines employed.

 It is not only innovation. We do need to, in fact we must, engage our time and world as it is. We can no longer afford to  retreat into a romanticized imagined past (like the radical orthodox). But neither can we simply disregard the tradition and act as if we ourselves are not cultural creatures and products of socialization and cultural-religious conditioning. We are not free to do whatever we want. The entire enterprise is to be in dialogue with the tradition, to acknowledge the contextual nature of all truth and to engage our time and place appropriately based on that.

Theology is not simply history or tradition. It is not merely context. It is not only innovation. Christian theology is a dynamic interplay between these three elements (not to mention issues of power that effected formation of things like the early Creeds). We are foolish to ignore them historically and our work is impotent if we don’t acknowledge them and joyfully incorporate them in our work today.

We do well when we incorporate the long tradition into our context and allow for an appropriate level of innovation that honors the trajectory of the tradition and provides a continuity with the precedent of the past.

-Bo Sanders 

Preaching on Satan, demons, water walking and feeding 5,000

Two weeks ago I posted a progressive take on demons and explaining evil. Last week a guy named Nithin took up a fantastic response complete with critique. I answered him and then Deacon Dan Hague voiced some concerns. Here is my response to both them (including the quick recap).

Nithin said “to simply make the devil a poetic device does not take the text seriously is may impose a western, rationalistic values on a text that does not have that.”

Two things:

  1. my approach is not a western rationalistic but an literary-textual question. I am asking first not “how does the universe really work” but “what is going on in that text” or how does it function.
  2. Instead of imposing something ON the text I am instead trying to bring something OUT of the text.

My Hermeneutic Suggestion: when preaching, we take what we usually call the application and we bring it up into our interpretation. Think about the two examples of ‘feeding the 5,000’ and ‘Jesus walking on water’.  The point is never A) you can feed 5000 people with 3 loaves, or B) you can walk on water. Our application is never literal. It is practical-poetic : something like “trust god” or “take risks”. I am saying (as a progressive) to simply take that application and move it up in the process and make it your interpretation. When Jesus calms the storm, the point is to hear the word of Christ to “be not afraid” – not that we can boss storms around.
When we come to the temptation of Christ and the showdown with the devil …. think about what is going on in that text – what is its function? It is to refine or clarify Jesus’ ministry at the beginning. Its not ‘if’ he is the messiah, but to realize that it is ‘since’ he is … what kind will he be?
The devil was with Jesus in the desert. I honor what the text says. Its just that I don’t think there is a cosmic bad guy overlord called ‘the Devil’ who is a being in charge of evil. Another way to say it is : The devil is not a creature. But there is a devil.

There seem to be two major objections to my suggestion: 

  1. It is said that those who wrote these texts (and the Creeds … I found out) surely really meant them and believe them to be taken the way that they are taken today.
  2. If they are meant to be taken this way, then we had better not stray or we will lose the power of the texts and then we will have nothing.

Now the second one I call the Christmas Problem. When people first learn that there is no Santa Clause and that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th – it would be like saying “then Christmas is meaningless”. No, Christmas is full of meaning! Just not the meaning that you had originally ascribed to it. People who read Genesis 1-3 literally are a good case study of reading a text only one way.

To the first objection, I have stated elsewhere my suspicion that we may not mean the same thing when we say ‘devil’ or ‘demon’ as those of previous centuries or those in other cultures who speak other languages. A post-enlightenment exacting use of language is not the same as a pre-modern (or non-modern) narrative expressive use of language.

Once we stop being afraid of what we lose – here is what we gain:
When we preach on the feeding of the 5,000 (men, since women didn’t count) we never say ‘So we don’t need to buy bread any more’. We never show up for Communion Sunday and ask “who brought some crumbs – we are going to multiply it”. That is never the application. We never set up a wedding dinner and just start with a couple of items and trust for the rest.
So why not just move our application ‘to trust God’ up into our interpretation?

The application of Jesus walking on water is never to fill the baptismal and ‘try it out’. We know that is not the point of the text! It is ‘take risks’ or to ‘trust God’. So why not just make that our interpretation? It is not about the physics of water walking!

When it comes to Jesus being tempted in the desert, why not focus on the economic, political and religious aspects of the story – and the function that they will play in the remainder of the gospel text?

It seems to me that we have little to lose and a great deal to gain by letting go of the wooden literal reading and trying to prop up a pre-modern metaphysic.

I have one favor to ask: please don’t bring up Bultmann. I am not demythologizing and unlike Marcus Borg I do believe in miracles. I am trying to point out the significance of the literary nature of the text and how it functions in our faith communities.

In summary –

  • My concern is the literary nature of the text
  • and how it functions in our faith communities

My suggestion-

  • move our application up into our interpretation
  • recognize that without Santa Clause or the historic literalness of December 25th, Christmas has lots of meaning.

How does that sit with you? Does that work for you?  Too radical or adventurous?  Let me know.  -Bo 

Lean-Tos and Creeds: temporary structures for the journey

I am a big fan of the early churches’ creeds. I appreciate them for their historical significance, for the trajectory that they provide, and for their value as snapshots in the formation of the tradition.

In fact, as a contextual theologian, I adore them as amazing time-capsules of expressions from a very particular time and a definite location. They tell us so much about what was going on, what was a stake, what was being combated and what was already established and settled.

I actually have no problem with the creeds. My problem comes from what certain folks want to do with ‘the Creeds’ and what they try to make them into. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

  • They are not timeless and universal expressions. They are very timely and remarkably located.
  • They are not litmus tests for modern orthodoxy. There is no sense in retreating into ecclesiastic silos, playing pre-modern word games, or burying our head in the historical sand. Too much has happened, too much has changed and there is too much on the line.
  • They are not houses to live in. They are lean-tos (temporary shelters) that were erected along the way. We are still to continue our journey and travel on in our day – in the world that is – and not set up camp in the imagined past.

This is my word picture. The Creeds are lean-tos. They are not museums designed to preserve nor are the cathedrals to be maintained. They are temporary shelters – built with the best materials that were available at the time and in that place. They aren’t blueprints of how every shelter needs to be constructed nor are they houses to be reinforced and guarded. They fulfilled their purpose and provided shelter on the journey.

Christian who get protective of or defensive about the creeds are like people who are hiking with their family, build lean-to out of love for the family and then get mad at the family when it is time to leave the lean-to and continue hiking.

Or like people who love watching birds so they knock out a wall in their house to install a whole side of windows and sky-lights for bird watching. But then they become so fixated on cleaning the glass then they stopped watching the birds and actually get annoyed at the birds for dropping what birds are prone to drop.

The creeds are great. I am so thankful them as historic documents, as developmental snapshots and as contextual expressions.
What I am not so thrilled about is people who get nasty about them, defensive or aggressive. I think it is so odd that they are about things like God’s love and divine relationship… but that they can make someone behave so unloving and take them out of relationship!

I like the creeds. I just don’t like what they do to people who take them too seriously. Like lean-tos, they served their purpose. They were great. Time to move on. We are still on a journey.
p.s.  I meant to include this in the post but forgot. I have since said it 3 comments – so I decided to add it.

“Like the book of Revelation and the Creeds –  we should attempt to do for our culture and day what they were attempting to do for their culture and day.”

This is the best that God can do

It is fascinating what happens to conversations when you take away one word.  Words are like little suitcases – people put understandings or concepts in them and then carry them around as self contained units. Its so easy! They come with these convenient little handles and you can you pack so much meaning in and mean so much when you just use one little word.

This can be especially dangerous in theological conversations. That one word can take paragraphs and pages to unpack. Sometimes it can be a very liberating experience to take a word off the table. Just say ‘if you can’t use that word, how would you talk about this?’ It is an amazing exercise.

 A few weeks ago I had fun asking the question “what if you can’t use the word ‘demon’ – how would you talk about these same things?”  I am suspicious that we who read the Gospels and New Testament don’t mean the same thing when we say ‘demon’ or ‘devil’ as those in 1st century region of the Mediterranean did. 

 So it was with great interest that I had an amazing conversation this past weekend with a group of very intelligent, but non-theological folks. We were talking about God and the subject of evil came up. What was fascinating is that I did not place restrictions on the conversation, it happened organically – they just don’t use the usual words! Never once did I hear

  • Theodicy
  • Omnipotent
  • Kenosis

I started thinking “what if we had this conversation without those three words?” They are great words, and that is part of the problem! People assume that they know what is packed into the words and so they throw them around with ease (they come with convenient handles after all).

Here was my opening statement that sparked the debate:

God is doing all that God can do right now in the world. What you are looking at is the best that God can do. God is not holding back. God is doing God’s best to make the world a better place that more conforms to the divine will.

You can understand why that set off sparks. The questions, comments, and concerns started flowing.  Is God more powerful than God lets on? Has God restricted Godself? Has God willingly emptied Godself of some of God’s power?  Can God pick up that power anytime God will and God is just choosing not to? 

 There are specifically 3 groups that have shaped my thinking on this: 

  1. The Kenotic CrowdMultmaniacs mostly, but more generally people who think that God is who we have always said God to be but that some ‘emptying’ (see Philippians 2) or self-limitation has happened. God is ‘all powerful’ or ‘all mighty’ but has just chosen to act this way (free-will, etc.)
  2. The Process Perspective – Between Marjorie Suchocki, John Cobb, Catherine Keller, and Philip Clayton they have this thing covered. I thank God for Process as a conversation partner.
  3. The Caputo Contingent – with his book ‘The Weakness of God’ John Caputo shook some of us to our core and rocked our ‘foundation’.  What if God’s strength was shown in weakness?

 I have become very comfortable with the possibility that world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?

What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?

Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?

What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?

What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

So we don’t have to ask ‘why isn’t God stopping the genocide in Africa’. God can’t. It’s just not how it works. God is doing what God can but we are not cooperating.

Now, some will say “No, God could do more but has chosen to limit God’s self” or “God has emptied some of God’s power and given it to us as co-creators and free agents – we are misusing our power. It’s not on God.”

 I just want to throw out the question “What if this is the best that God can do?” I am comfortable with that.  

Looking forward to your thoughts!  All I ask is that you try not to use ‘theodicy’, ‘kenosis’, or ‘omnipotent’ without unpacking them.  

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