Positive theology

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the third in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the second in the series, “What is justice? Love with claws”]

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2017

Now that I am not teaching anymore, I am more grateful than ever to have the chance to speak from time to time here at Shalom. As I read and think and write and talk with a few people, but don’t have any bigger public outlet for “thinking aloud” I look forward to having this opportunity to share.

Thinking about “sin”

One of the big things that I been thinking about that I’ve wanted to talk about is “sin.” Not mine, or any of yours, but the general theological theme of “sin.” A lot of my energy these days is going into reading and writing about a huge new book, 1,400 pages, written by megachurch pastor, new Anabaptist, preaching theologian Greg Boyd, called Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. Boyd, who is a strongly committed pacifist, makes a lot of controversial points in this book.I have wondered about the wisdom of trying to take it on because if feels a bit like a black hole—once one starts reading it and gets hooked, it’s hard to get out.

But there is so much that is refreshing and helpful in this book that I find worthy of attention. Boyd, as I said, is a pacifist, and that conviction governs his approach to what he calls the “Old Testament’s violent portraits of God.” That is, he wants to provide Christians with resources for understanding those difficult Old Testament texts as being fully compatible with the message of Jesus. I’m not sure he succeeds fully, but I find it so refreshing to read someone who takes these issues head on.

There is one big theme, though, that troubles me. Actually more than one, but one I want to talk about now. Boyd has a pretty thick view of sin. He shares the common Christian sense that humanity as a whole is under the power of sin. That sin defines the human condition. That the Bible is basically an account for how God deals with the sin problem—that sin matters more than anything else when we think about humanity.

I don’t agree with that view—though it would take me several more sermons to explain fully why and what my alternative view is. Right now, I’ll just say that I think we should have a more positive view of our human condition. Before I get into that more, though, I want to illustrate how the Bible itself gives us mixed messages. Let me read two passages. As I read, please think of a word or a few that strike you about the human condition—words from the passages or words the passages trigger for you. Then we’ll talk a bit. I will first read from Psalm 8 and then from Romans 3:9-18.

O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of us, mortals that you care for us? Yet you have made us only a little lower than yourself, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have given us dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)

All people, Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin: There is no one who is just, not even one; no one who has understanding; no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together we have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one. Our throats are opened graves; we use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under our lips. Our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Our feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in our paths, and the way of peace we have not known. There is no fear of God before our eyes. (Romans 3:9-18)

So, what thoughts came to mind as I read? …. I want to start with a story that will show why I think this issue of the human condition is pretty important.

A story about the human condition

It was a beautiful sunny day in Eugene, Oregon in 1991. As I rode along one of Eugene’s great bike paths, I started to realize that I felt happy, I mean, really happy. I had to stop my bike and let the feeling wash over me—and figure out why I felt that way. And I realized that I felt safer than I could ever remember feeling. The Cold War was ending, apartheid was ending, various dictatorships in Latin America were ending—all without the expected bloodbaths. Especially, the shadow of nuclear war seemed much, much smaller. It was almost a physical sense of a burden lifted, and it surprised me because I wasn’t conscious of carrying that weight around. But it makes sense that I did.

I grew up fearful about nuclear war. In grade school, we did regular “civil defense drills,” you know, down on the floor and hide under your table, run to “safe” areas. The idea was to reassure us that we’d be okay, but the actual impact was to remind us how close we were to disaster. That fear went pretty deep.

Several nuclear scientists who helped create the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had second thoughts about nuclear weapons. In 1947 they created a magazine called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Bulletin’s main agenda was to oppose nuclear weapons. The founders came up with a brilliant idea. On the cover each month they put a little clock that showed how many minutes we would be from nuclear disaster. We’ve always been way, way too close.

When I was born, in 1954, the clock was 2 minutes from midnight, the closest to the end it has ever been. This was right after the U.S. made the decision to create hydrogen bombs and greatly increase the destructive firepower of nukes—and almost immediately was followed by the Soviet Union. The clock has since moved farther away from midnight and then closer again. For many years it was between 7 and 12 minutes, though it got down to 3 minutes from midnight in the 1980s. When I was on my 1991 bike ride, the clock had just been moved to 17 minutes from midnight—the farthest ever. A remarkable change. Sadly, that proved to be the safest we were ever to be in these past 70 years. The trajectory of the clock since grimly reminds us that our world’s leaders failed to take advantage of the Cold War’s end. The clock has steadily moved closer to midnight. It is now 2½ minutes away, the closest it has been since 1954. This is to say, we live in pretty grim times now. How do we deal with that reality?

For people of faith, I think the answer is to find ways to embrace life. To find ways, as Bruce Cockburn sang, to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” We may be called to direct resistance, to work for reform within the system, or to create alternatives. We’re all called to create beauty, to help to heal wherever we can. And we ask how we do these things—strategies, skills, practices, organizing.

I believe there is also another dimension of work—spirituality, metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, general disposition toward life. This is where theology becomes important. How do we see the world? How do we see ourselves?

Imagine that Psalm 8 describes us

So, let’s turn back to our biblical texts and imagine a kind of thought experiment. What if we assume that Psalm 8 is our true condition and look at the world as if that’s our norm? What if we think of the world as if we human beings are indeed “crowned with glory and honor”? What if we enter life with a “yes!” echoing in our ears. The big issue we face, in this circumstance, is how to express our creativity, how to cultivate joy, how to enjoy good things we are given—it’s not to be burdened with the sin problem.

I hope to talk, in future sermons, about the biblical source for what I call “positive theology,” a theology of life, of growth and learning, of compassion and community. Psalm 8 is not an outlier, it is not a kind of small voice at the edge of a bigger and stronger message of sin, a message of salvation only through violent sacrifices, and of human failings and limitations. Psalm 8 sets the tone for the whole thing, from the creation story down to Jesus, who insisted that the kingdom of God is here, right now.

In fact, even a text that seems to give voice to “negative theology,” such as Romans 3, has a different point than what we might think. Paul’s cacophony of negativity about sin here is actually just a bunch of quotes he used for rhetorical purpose. They are not his own voice. And his concern is not about each individual being a hopeless sinner. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Romans 2:14, Paul says non-Jews “instinctively [do] what the law requires.” He’s actually pretty hopeful about our potential to be faithful.

His point in chapter 3 is that he rejects any idea that ethnicity means superiority. Both Jews and non-Jews need God’s mercy. Paul challenges his opponents who thought that simply being a Jew-by-birth insured that one was on the inside track to God’s favor. Some of these self-righteous zealots, such as Paul himself before he met Jesus, actually committed violence against those they thought threatened their special status. Those religious insiders were just as far from God as the worst pagan sinners when their feet were so swift to shed blood, even if they claimed to act in God’s name.

The antidote to such blasphemy was simple, though. God does love us all; we can see that in the life of Jesus. Simply turn from our trust in idols and turn toward God, who wants nothing more from us than that we love our neighbors. God loves each of us even as we set ourselves up to be God’s enemies with our hurtful thoughts and deeds. And this love stamps us as creatures made just a little lower than God.

Is positive theology naive?

Still it will be asked, does not such a positive theology mean we will be way too light on sin? Will we not be naïve, overly optimistic, and leave the world to the bad guys? I remember an on-line conversation a number of years ago when a friend called me panglossian. That comment stopped me for a moment. Was that bad? So I looked Pangloss up—and sure enough, I was being insulted. A panglossian is “a person who is optimistic regardless of circumstances.” The term comes from the 18th century satire, Candide, by the French philosopher Voltaire.

Well, I actually believe that positive theology is realistic. It might well provide us with the best perspective as we respond creatively and effectively to our present proximity to the midnight of total destruction. Positive theology can protect us from fatalism and despair because it denies that greed, imperialism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and domination define the human soul. Human beings are, by nature, creatures of love and compassion and solidarity—and we can live that way.

Restorative justice as a model

Let me talk briefly about one movement in our world today that draws on positive theology. I’m thinking of restorative justice. Now, r.j., as it has grown in influence and application, has moved further from its roots in religious faith and traditional practices. So it can mean many different things to many different people. But I still find it theologically inspiring.

I don’t mean to speak about r.j. beyond simply how it has inspired me. But let me suggest a few things about how I see it as a vindication of positive theology. At the core of r.j. is a trust that human beings at our center, even “hardened killers,” have the potential to respond to possibilities for the restoration of relationships. All of us, at least potentially, want to be whole, to be connected to other people, to take responsibility for our actions. R.j. provides skills and contexts to help damaged people reach out, express vulnerability, ask for forgiveness, take accountability. And, at times at least, it works. At times it facilitates healing for those who have been hurt and healing for those who have done the hurting.

I came across a story some time ago about the era when Australia was a penal colony for the British Empire, a bit of hell to send the worst offenders to experience the worst punishments. And the worst bit of hell was Norfolk Island, some ways off the Australian mainland where the worst of the worst would be sent. And it was a pit of despair. Prisoners would scheme together and draw straws. The lucky one would be designated as the person to be murdered by the others. The idea was that the murderers would then be sentenced to die. They had to be sent back to the mainland to be executed. They might escape along the way, or at the worst they would have the relief of their lives being ended. That was how miserable life was.

Amazingly, though, a reformer who believed in something like restorative justice became the warden of Norfolk Island. He believed if humanizing policies would be followed, the prisoners would show that they were not hopeless sinners but actually capable of rehabilitation. And it proved to be true. Tragically, the British penal system valued having a pit of despair as the ultimate punishment to hold over prisoners’ heads. The warden was removed from his position and the Island sank back into its pit.

But the story survived as evidence that restorative practices actually show themselves to be the best way to deal with brokenness. And as I have studied the Bible with r.j. in mind, I have found that the Bible is actually a source for what we could call the deep reality, the metaphysics of restorative justice as well as a practical guidebook.

The book of Genesis as positive theology

It’s fascinating to notice what comes right after the terrible story of the disrupting of paradise in the book of Genesis that led to the overwhelming retribution of the great flood. Remember, the flood story ends with God’s promise never to punish in that way again, as if God now resolves to deal with the sin problem with persevering love. Next, God calls Abraham and Sarah to parent a people that would, through their knowledge of God’s ways of peace, bless all the families of the earth. And then we get several lessons in restorative justice. Abraham pleads with God not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah and models what it means to be the father of a people of blessing.

And we have two detailed stories of restorative justice practices. First, the reconciliation of the brothers Jacob and Esau, where Jacob very carefully returns home after having defrauded Esau of his birthright and seeks reconciliation—and Esau shows how much he valued the restoration of his relationship with his brother.

And we have Joseph, sold into slavery by his older brothers. He manages through a series of adventures to land on his feet—and then some. He rises to power in the Egyptian Empire and during a time of severe famine, he finds himself in a position to determine the fate of those same brothers. And he restores the relationships rather then exercises the retribution he surely was entitled to.

Ironically, all too many Christians—including, sadly, Greg Boyd in his massive and extremely helpful book—tend to see the Old Testament mainly as a problem, a book of retribution and judgment. There are elements of that kind of dynamic, certainly. But we have these brother stories, stories of healing, stories of positive theology. Fundamentally the Old Testament, like the New Testament, is a book that gives us enormously useful guidance for healing.

The biblical message, I believe, may be seen as follows: Maybe we are only 2 ½ minutes from midnight. If so, make the most of those 2 ½ minutes and love life! That is the only way to help bless all the families of the earth—and maybe move the minute hand back. Amen!

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9 thoughts on “Positive theology

  1. Ted,

    At some point you may want to have a conversation with John Toews. In his BCBC commentary on Romans, he has bold faced every time the word sin appears. Evidently he perceives sin was a major issue for Paul.-Dan Hertzler

    1. Good to hear from you, Dan. It could there’s not as much distance between John and me as it may appear.

      My main problem is how sin is individualized and internalized. I think John may agree about that. I have liked what I’ve read in his commentary but haven’t looked at for some time.

  2. Well said, Ted.

    It is really a theology of extremes out there. We have this total depravity theory which really does take things to extremes, and makes sin so victorious and and us so guilty, by birth even, through the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind.

    Then we have the extreme of God’s wrath, as in God pouring out his wrath against sin by punishing his own son. Our guilt is supposedly imputed to Christ, and his innocence to us in this cosmic financial transaction in the ledgers of heaven, which constitutes and is the means of our salvation, although not for all of us, just the elect.

    Then we have this futurist and other-worldly eschatology where Satan still rules the earth, and the earth is still in the grip of sin, pending the end of time, the burning up of the planet and a future so pure and wonderful it is more than we can think or imagine.

    Now Boyd isn’t a Calvinist and he doesn’t accept the penal substitution view of the atonement, so we might hope he could identify the source and the nature of the theology of extremes that is at least part of the problem here, but perhaps he doesn’t put his finger on this and makes the issues he addresses more difficult than necessary and provides solutions that are less adequate than he might have.

    Most of the sin theology is the theology of social sin. The oppression and the violence our institutions engender and foster. This is the sin that God’s salvation is from. And the form of that salvation is the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells. If we care to study the actual teaching on the new heavens and the new earth it isn’t quite so otherworldly as popular theology holds. We still have people being born and people dying (Is 65:20). There is still sin outside the new Jerusalem (Rev 22:15). This new world came at the fall of the Old Jerusalem.

  3. Wow! Great sermon. Thanks. Though I think we end up in a very similar place, my personal* take is that in the Mennonite congregations that I have been a part of—and probably in “progressive” North American Mennonite circles generally—we talk about sin, too little. Much too little!
    The key for me is in how we define sin. I define it extremely broadly. Yes sin includes our deliberate violation of God’s laws. But it also includes our participation in injustice and unjust structures (which is often not just less than willful, but even less than willing). My operational definition of sin also includes our fear, our incompleteness, our pettiness, our natural imperfection, our physical, mental and spiritual weakness, our sickness,** our very humanness.***
    Of course defining something to mean too much risks rendering the concept meaningless. I am open to that criticism, and to critiques of my definition’s “biblicalness,”**** but personally I find it very helpful and I think/suspect/hope(??) it is fairly sound.
    When we much more broadly define sin, and get it out in the open, we can open ourselves so much more to God’s healing, to our salvation (also very broadly defined)!
    Perhaps it is the very binariness of our approach to sin that I find unhelpful. I suspect a non-binary lens could profitably be used to critique your whole sermon, but I am getting WAY out of my depth with that and probably latching on to a current trend. Do we HAVE to see the OT as either negative (as you so ably critique here) OR as positive? Can it not be both?
    When I have time I hope to read much more on your blog about this topic, and about sin.
    Thanks so much for sharing this inspiring sermon.

    *I am now a Canadian Menno but was formerly an American Pietist Evangelical heavily influenced by Lutheranism. I use “pietist” here and always, not as a pejorative at all, but as a descriptive of a legitimate constructive movement in Xn history. JHYoder, in keeping with his initial academic background, does likewise (in PofJ).
    **I recall once thinking that alcoholism was a sin, but then learning that it was a sickness. For a while that described a significant change for me. Then as my theology—particularly my understanding of sin—evolved, I came to now see it as wholly both. If I were ever asked whether I see alcoholism as a sin or as an illness I could simply say, “Yes,” rather than giving a long explanation.
    ***Patriarchal European theology has often strongly linked sin and pride. Feminist and Liberation theologies have critiqued this. Cannot pride also be seen as both a potentially very positive human attribute and as often linked to our participation in sin?
    ****I sometimes wonder if my extremely broad interpretation MAY be at variance with a biblical definition. I once did a whole 6 part adult Sunday School series on this but am currently half a world away from that documentation including a bibliography of a few resources I found extremely helpful.

    1. Thanks, Craig. Very interesting thoughts! Just a couple of quick comments.

      I agree that we could stand to talk about “sin” more—but only if we talk about it in helpful ways. What you say about what sin means seems good; I would say something pretty similar, I think. [See my chapter on “theological anthropology”]. My big concern in the sermon is with how a notion of sin that stems from the original sin idea treats sin as something endemic and pervasive in ways that undermine human creativity and aspiration.

      I’d say the OT is wholly good—but good in its inclusion of both good parts and bad parts. The bad parts are “good” in that they play a necessary part in the telling of the whole story.

  4. Hey Ted, I enjoyed reading this. But I’m wondering, since I haven’t come across the term before: how would you concisely explain/sum up the notion of “positive theology”?

    1. Thanks, Rob. Yes, as far as I know “positive theology” is a term I invented. I actually intended when I started to think about the sermon to elaborate in some depth what I meant by it. But as the rest of the sermon got bigger, I thought that it might be okay at this point just to use the term in a non-technical sense of theology that helps us affirm life, our creativity, and aspirations.

      But I do want to think some more about whether this could be a more serious term to name a specific theological category or agenda. I’d be interested in how the term strikes you.

      I first thought of it when I very superficially encountered the term “positive psychology” of a school, perhaps linked most famously with Carl Rogers. But as I read a bit more, I realized that what I have in mind is in key ways different from Rogers-type psychology.

      The common concern would be that just as “positive psychology” wanted to provide an alternative to starting with assumptions of human negativity (as with Freud or the starting point of “abnormal psychology”), perhaps we could use “positive theology” for an alternative to starting with human sinfulness as the center-point for Christian theology.

      1. Thanks for responding, Ted. That helps.

        I certainly think it’s true that many/most prevailing western theological paradigms are still predicated on Augustinian notions of inherent sinfulness, and as long as that foundation is in place, it’s very hard to get people to think seriously about a theology that is non-sacrificial. That being the case, something like “positive theology”, properly defined, could perhaps be a useful tool.

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