Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019
I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?
Where does this question come from?
Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.
My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.
As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.
My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them.
It has been a very gradual process over the course of most of my adult life, and I am not yet at the point of rejecting that primary loyalty to Christianity altogether. But I ask: Is it actually the case, when we factor in everything, that Christianity is more a part of the problem than part of the solution? Is it actually the case, when we factor in everything, that the authentic healing work that Christians due is in spite of their religious affiliation and not because of it? I don’t know….
How Christianity counters healing
When I think of Christianity as a problem, I think about the current dynamics in the United States of America, known to many as a “Christian nation” and also the creator of the most powerful and destructive military apparatus that the world has ever known. According to surveys (and my personal observations), in the US belief in the Christian God correlates with support for American warism and nationalism. It would appear that being a Christian makes a person more likely to endorse the violence and injustices of the American empire (this was actually also my personal experience immediately following my Christian conversion).
And it is easy to see how this might work when one looks both at the Christian theological tradition historically and at the theological motives currently articulated by many American Christians. These are some examples of what I believe are deeply problematic assumptions that characterize most of Christianity:
(1) The universe is portrayed in hierarchical terms. We have an all-powerful and autonomous (that is, separate from the creation) God on top, with various representatives of God mediating authority on God’s behalf in between, and the masses down below. A sense of divine hierarchy tends to translate to a sense of hierarchy among human beings—with the accompanying sensibility that our main purpose as human beings is to obey authority and accept God’s will as expressed by God’s representatives who are at the top of human hierarchies. This understanding tends to enhance militarism and the centralized power of the state and of large corporations (the entities that profit the most from militarism).
(2) Moral life rests on the foundation of retribution. When the harmony of God’s good order is violated by human wrongdoing, the morally necessary response is that there must be a payment in punishment and retribution. It would violate the very moral character of the universe to respond to wrongdoing with simple forgiveness. Whatever forgiveness might be gained must be paid for through punitive retribution. Such a perspective has had an obvious impact on criminal justice practices and more broadly in justifying wars and the preparation for war.
(3) A more general dynamic connects with the retributive sense of payback for wrongdoing—the sense of reciprocity where good deeds must lead to good deeds in response and bad deeds must lead to retaliation. One aspect of this dynamic is the sense that for God to be merciful we must earn it and that when we sin we must be punished. In this framework, God is not so much a God of generous love and compassion but a God who simply pays back what is deserved, for good or ill. This sense of God encourages a sense of human interaction that leads to an endless dynamic of a violation/retaliation spiral of violence.
(4) The churches and the theological tradition tend to reside, we could say, in a “house of authority.” This “house” presents Christianity as mainly a matter of obedience to the authority of the One in charge. Such a framework actually gives tremendous power to the human structures that mediate the will of the One. God’s authority requires authoritative revelation that is interpreted by human leaders who then enforce their interpretation by sanctioning any who violate the boundary lines of the church’s theology. This often punitive “house of authority” is the major way that the hierarchies mentioned above retain their power—power that is often coercive and generally supportive of the ecclesial and political status quo.
(5) One of the main consequences of Christianity’s close link with human institutions and strictly policed traditions is that it tends thereby to be tribalistic. A sense of identity that centers on one’s religious status can be empowering for healing work when it leads to compassion and a welcoming disposition toward outsiders (which seems to be one of Jesus’s main emphases). However, all too often, the sense of a particular religiously defined identity leads to seeing those outside the circle created by that identity as lesser, even less than fully human—often a prerequisite for violence against the “other.”
(6) The final example of how Christianity is part of the problem is the way Christians have tended toward a material/spiritual dualism that has objectified nature and underwritten an exploitative approach. If the material world is essentially inert, it has less inherent value. Christians have all too often taken the creation mandate in Genesis one as a call to exercise “dominion” in the sense of domination and possessive use.
One certainly may argue (as I would) that each of these problematic assumptions is based on a misunderstanding of the actual message of Jesus and biblical faith—and that at its best the Christian moral and theological tradition has recognized this. However, surely the dominant and often only visible approach of Christians and their religious and political institutions has been in line with these assumptions. At some point, we must face this question: Would the world have been better off without a religious system that has taken such a destructive shape in the world? Is the answer, then, to move ahead without Christianity or belief in the Christian God?
How Christianity supports healing
There is, though, a powerful counter-testimony within the Christian tradition, one that may claim a great deal of support from the Bible. Let me counter the six points mentioned above as problems with a list of six Christian themes that indeed do support healing. While rarely, if ever, the majority positions among actual Christians, these themes point to a lot of good that has come from professing Christians over the years.
(1) One source for an understanding of the purpose of human life being devotion to healing the world and resisting idols is the Bible itself. Though Bible readers have not always emphasized the healing message of the Bible, it is present from the beginning (see my book, God’s Healing Strategy). From the story of creation through the story of the trials and tribulations of God’s people down to the life and teaching of Jesus, the centrality of the love of neighbor shines strongly in the Bible—and, at times, in the teachings and practices of Christian communities. Christian faith has strong and clear bases to assert that love is our central calling in life—a message with perennial relevance both as a call to accountability for professing Christians who don’t live with love as central and as an unambiguous message to offer the wider world.
(2) At the heart of the biblical portrayal of the character of God is that God is bigger than the idols and that trust in God subverts the tendency to trust in idols. This sense of God vs. idols requires clarity about God’s character as a God of love, or else the god-who-is-not-loving simply becomes another idol that underwrites domination and violence. However, a clear and strong argument for the ultimate God as distinct from the various penultimate idols is indeed made in the Bible, centering on the story of Jesus that makes the true character of God clear.
(3) The story of Jesus is indeed the most powerful and influential healing story in human history. It is no accident that the only way Christianity could evolve into a religion that is part of the problem and has had an alienating and not healing influence is by marginalizing that story of Jesus. I call the dynamic of placing doctrines, creeds, and confessions at the center of faith the “christological evasion of Jesus” (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, chapter 2). As Walter Wink asserts in Engaging the Powers, “if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him” (p. 136)—his life and teaching point us to the true God like nothing else. We have a difficult time getting through the history of Christianity to the actual story of Jesus, but when we do we have an unmatched resource for healing.
(4) The Bible, though, does not give us the story of Jesus in isolation from other stories. Jesus culminates and embodies the story of Torah and the prophets. This older story is also a powerful resource for healing—and Jesus’s message makes no sense without it (which is why the history of Christian anti-Judaism has had such tragic consequences linked with a fundamental distortion of the Jewish Jesus’s own life and teaching). Torah teaches the centrality of people of faith taking with utmost seriousness their calling to bless all the families of the earth, to take responsibility for the work of healing. And the prophets, in reinforcing that calling provide a blueprint for resistance to the various idols that turn people from the trust in God that is required for healing work. Idolatry and injustice go hand in hand, according to Torah and the prophets, and they must constantly and actively be resisted.
(5) Jesus seems to have had an overtly political agenda, in continuity with the agenda of the Old Testament—empowering countercultural communities that would be devoted to shaping human social life in ways compatible with prophetic justice and compassion and contrasting with the domination dynamics of the world’s kingdoms. Throughout the past 2,000 years, various such communities have taken inspiration from the biblical story and embodied a kind of political practice that rejects the tyrannies of the world’s kings and places at the center the empowerment of the vulnerable. That such communities have all too often been treated with hostility by institutional Christianity does not mean that they should be seen as contrary to the way of Jesus. They likely are the most authentic expression of the faith of Jesus that humans have experienced.
(6) A final example of how Christianity has managed to be an influence for healing the world is how Christian theology has in its sources some important resources for constructing an integrated understanding of reality that counters the destructive spiritual/material dualism mentioned above. When God is understood more in line with the biblical picture than with the picture given in some Greek philosophy, we can understand God as both transcendent and imminent (a “panentheistic” view) in a way that encourages us to value nature and see our responsibilities toward the natural world in line with the biblical sensibility of stewardship and mutuality. Spirituality then becomes a call to, in Martin Buber’s words, “love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but love it in all its terror, but dare to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it” (I and Thou, p. 143).
We have a choice without a certain answer—to decide whether if, in our vocation of seeking healing in the world, we are better off without God and Christianity. I tend to think that for those without a Christian background or those who have been profoundly wounded by Christianity, it may be possible that they are better off without God and Christianity. At least, I find such a choice understandable and respectable. For those of us who have had a reasonably non-abusive relationship with the churches and with Christians, perhaps a better choice is to say that we want to work to cultivate the ways mentioned above of how Christianity has been and can be part of the solution rather than the problem.
That is, our choice is to recognize that God is a God of love and that anything that limits love is an idol. Such a recognition has plenty of warrant in the biblical and theological traditions. With such a recognition, what matters then is not a definitive answer about whether or not we believe in God or whether or not we will self-identify as Christian or whether or not we will be active in a Christian church. Rather, what will matter most is finding whatever ways we can to practice love and to resist idols.
We will recognize that it is indeed possible to find such empowerment without belief in God and without involvement in formal religion. And we will recognize that belief in God and involvement in a religious community may be crucial sources of empowerment. In either case, we should support and learn from all the allies we can find.