Changing Convictions About God? 1996/2011 (2)

Ted Grimsrud—June 26, 2011

[This is the second in a six-post series reflecting on how my mind has changed (or not) over the last 15 years that I have been a college professor. Shortly before I finished my tenure as a congregational pastor in 1996, I preached a series of sermons on core beliefs. Here I will post segments of three of those sermons followed by reflections on what I think about the main ideas today. The three themes are “God,” “Jesus,” and “the Holy Spirit.” Here is the first post, from my 1996 sermon about God.]

I don’t think that my views about God have changed a great deal in the past fifteen years. Looking back at my 1996 sermon, I find much that I affirm. In fact, I am a bit surprised to see how much the emphases I made back then remain the emphases I make now.

This is the biggest change, I think: I would be less comfortable today simply jumping into a discussion of what God is like without first making the point that theological reflection in any area, but certainly in relation to direct reflection about God, is human reflection. We are not talking about God-as-such, we are talking about our understanding of God.

This acknowledgement that theology is always about us and how our convictions concerning God (or whatever other theological theme we are focusing on) may seem like an obvious truism. But it is significant, nonetheless, and not actually taken serious enough.

When we acknowledge that we are doing human work at least a couple of elements then enter into our theologizing. One is a sense of the relativity, the subjectivity, the finitude and fallibility of what we are doing. The second is a sense that all theology serves particular interests, is shaped by some human agenda or other, in reality has political ramifications.

One implication of the fallibility of all theology—since it is all human work— is that no theology should be used in authoritarian ways. This would include all creeds and confessions, all official statements. None of these, not the great creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries, not the honored confessions of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, can escape their humanity; that is, all are fallible, finite, subjective, relative. We may debate vigorously the truthfulness of these various human-created statements and of our own constructive efforts, but we should always recognize that every single one of them can only have limited access to the truth. Every single one of them is limited. As a consequence, all theology should have a certain gentleness and openness about it. It should never be occasion for violence against those who disagree. It should always be invitational, recognized as part of a conversation that remains in process.

At this point, what John Howard Yoder recognizes as the central insight of the 16th-century Anabaptists becomes vital—the centrality of conversation (see especially his Anabaptism And Reformation in Switzerland"") for Christian existence. If you don’t rely on violence to enforce the “truth,” you need to become proficient at talking and listening in order to negotiate the inevitable differences of perspective that will be part of any human community.

And one implication of the reality that all theology serves particular human interests is that all theology is practical and political, even when we think it is “above the fray” and dealing with “foundational issues” only. For example, a theology that does not directly challenge the social status quo is implicitly supporting that status quo. To talk about the human destiny as leaving this fallen world and going to heaven is still, ironically, affirming that the ways of this world will remain intact. The God we affirm will either subvert the way things are in our social world or accept (even affirm) them; it’s either one or the other.

Here, we recognize the importance of considering the social location and (implicit or explicit) political interests of those who have constructed central theological doctrines from the past. The great creeds and confessions all have political agendas (even if not stated) that need to be considered along with the explicit theological content of those statements.

In face of the human origins of all theology, must we then resign ourselves to infinite subjectivism and relativism when it comes to theology? In a sense, our beliefs about human nature will be crucial to how we think about this question. Do we believe that by nature we tend to be competitive, autonomous, doomed to everlasting conflict and selfish struggles unless wrestled into order by some external authority (be it those wielding the sword or those wielding the dogma)? Or do we believe that by nature we tend to be affiliating, communal, cooperative, and engaged in mutual aid? If the latter, the unsettled nature of theology is not a threat to chaos but an invitation to conversation, give and take, offering and receiving counsel.

As I tend toward the latter, more optimistic view, I can affirm that it is indeed possible to argue for better or worse theological convictions. We have two general sources of guidance that by their nature lend themselves to conversational processes more than to orderly control by centralized ecclesial authority. These two sources are the Bible and the human experience of wholeness. I am also optimistic in affirming that these two sources closely adhere—the overall message of the Bible is a message affirming human wholeness and the experience of finding and abiding in wholeness confirms the overall message of the Bible.

As I look back at my 1996 sermon on convictions about God, I am happy to conclude that by and large what I had to say fit well with what I now believe both about the content of the Bible and the aspects of actual human living that enhance human wholeness (which by definition involves wholeness in relation to God and to nature).

The basic message I tried to convey fifteen years ago was a message that our core conviction about God must be that God is love—and that this must determine everything else we say about God. We know this from the Bible certainly in the four texts I discussed. Exodus 20 speaks of God as known to Israel first through God’s gracious (and unearned) deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt and second through God’s gracious provision of Torah for guiding the community in the ways of wholeness. Hosea 11 powerfully portrays a God who, in face of Israel’s misdeeds, turns from retaliation toward compassion. Luke 11 then gives us the gospel in a short parable. The wayward son welcomed home without condition—once he turned back (repented). And, in Romans 5 the affirmation of God as a God who loves enemies.

I remain convinced that these four texts are excellent reflections of the overall biblical message. If I had to choose again, limited once more to only four biblical passages, I am pretty sure I would again pick the Exodus, Hosea, and Luke ones. Instead of Romans 5, I might now go with Revelation 5. What I think Revelation 5 adds (to some extent the main message of Romans 5 echoes Hosea and Luke) is an affirmation of Jesus as the definitive revelation of God. In his self-sacrificial love (which Revelation clearly presents as the model for all people of good will), Jesus reveals as nothing else could the character and will of God.

I would definitely not be so sanguine about the Mennonite Confession of Faith’s opening words today. I simply reported without comment these words: “We believe that God exists and is pleased with all who draw near by faith.  We worship the one holy and loving God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally.  We believe that God has created all things visible and invisible, has brought salvation and new life to humanity through Jesus Christ, and continues to sustain the church and all things until the end of the age.”

As I read this now, I am struck as if with a slap in the face, with how unengaged this statement is. The five biblical texts I have just mentioned all take a dramatically different approach to representing God. In the Bible, God is never “above the fray” but instead enters into human life with all its messiness as a partisan, a liberator in the face of oppression, showing compassion in face of brokenness, welcome in the face of alienation, love in the face of disrespect, self-giving love in the face of violence.

In contrast to these vivid biblical images, the Confession of Faith at its very beginning gives us an essentially contentless picture of God. A God above the fray. A general God whose central attribute is to “exist.” Now, certainly when we bring to the words of the Confession a pre-reading awareness of God we can see some hints of the God of the Bible. But now I would want to insist that we start with God’s politics—”We believe in the God of the exodus, who frees slaves; we believe in the God of the exile, who sustains community life even after failures; we believe in the God of Jesus, who resists Empire and conquers through self-sacrificial love that the powers cannot squelch. We believe in a God who is revealed in care for the vulnerable, in opposition to domination, in human beings who hunger and thirst for justice and who devote their lives to making peace.”

These points are pretty clearly stated in the body of my 1996 sermon. If I were to do it over, though, I would challenge the disengaged message that the Confession of Faith begins with. And I wouldn’t tell the story of my own beginning of awareness of God being in the quiet of the funeral of my friend—rather I would tell the story of my emerging sense of horror at the violence of America’s war (especially Vietnam as I was coming of age) and the message I began to learn of Jesus’ counter politics.

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4 thoughts on “Changing Convictions About God? 1996/2011 (2)

  1. 1. “Are we by nature competitive, autonomous, doomed to everlasting conflict and selfish struggles unless wrestled into order by some external authority (be it those wielding the sword or those wielding the dogma)? Or are we by nature affiliating, communal, cooperative, and engaged in mutual aid?…As I tend toward the latter, more optimistic view, I can affirm that it is indeed possible to argue for better or worse theological convictions. ”
    What if a person tends toward both in equal measure, the both/and rather than the either/or? What then are the sources for guidance? Perhaps still the Bible, but human wholeness?Not sure I know what that is. Leonard Cohen comes to mind: “ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”
    2. Engaged/disengaged nature of confessions of faith, including Mennonite Confession of Faith: I’m unclear how your reporting on what constitutes the Biblical core stories is any more engaged than the confessions.

    1. Thanks for the good questions, David.

      You ask, “what if a person tends toward both in equal measure…?” I guess then you are up shit creek!

      Actually, your comment moved me to qualify the “either/or” just a tad. I corrected what I wrote to read, that we tend toward one direction or the other. I think I stated the either/or too starkly.

      However, I don’t think it’s possible to “tend toward both in equal measure.” I think someone who thinks one is doing that is actually tending toward the more pessimistic view. Your comment about “human wholeness” would seem to reflect that. I am talking about getting guidance from the experiences of human wholeness that we do have amidst the brokenness, not a claim that these experiences are about unalloyed perfection. Your comment seems to imply that such experiences are not substantial enough to draw guidance from.

      On the “engaged/disengaged nature of confessions of faith” I am talking about what the content of confession is about. The Bible, I am claiming, is about affirming concrete action in life as reflecting the character of God; the Mennonite Confession is about (at least in its very first words) statements about God’s existence.

      Certainly, talking about what the Bible is says is not itself much different than talking about what the Confession says. But I am implying here that talking about God primarily as a liberator will lead the believer to engagement, whereas talking about God primarily as existing will not be so likely to do so.

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