The Unholy Divine

Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 9/8/2014. 

holy  adjective\ˈhō-lē\: exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness

I don’t feel that I’m going too far outside the realm of reasonable generalizations in saying that most people of faith probably associate their respective conceptions of the Divine with a word similar to the one defined above. At least, in my experience, having attended a Christian college and two seminaries, plus a significant number of houses of worship and faith communities, this word certainly seems to make a regular appearance.

I, however, am not prone to using it. That is, unless it’s followed by an expletive of some form.

The way I see it, if this is what it means to be holy, then the Divine is far from holy.

“Holy” implies separation. In something or someone being holy, there is the tacit understanding that this holiness is in comparison to unholiness. God is holy (and we are not). God is great (and we are not). God is worthy of devotion (and we are not). And I am not okay with this.

The Divine is inherently relational. Relationships–and here I refer to healthy ones–do not divide or separate based on value. There is no room for “better than” language.

Granted, yes, we as humans have done some truly terrible things. I would like to believe that the Divine has not. But, in my mind, the fact that I have screwed up more than another being does not make me any better or worse than that being. As soon as a hierarchy of better and worse begins, we have the license to distance ourselves from other beings. This is how things like racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, lack of concern for the planet or animal welfare, and so many more awful things begin.

The Divine does not distance herself. She draws herself nearer.

When I think of holy, I think of angels and altars and hallelujah choruses and shiny things and fancy words and sobriety and solemnity and that time when I went to my friend’s very high-church church and felt like I dare not even move because I might offend someone.

When I think of the Divine, I think of that scene at the end of Dogma when Alanis Morissette plays in the grass and boops Linda Florentino on the nose. I think of a being who is messy and imminent and makes it up as she goes along.

I don’t want a god on a throne. I want a Divine who is living every moment just as fully and really as we are. I don’t want a god from without, but a Divine from within.

The Divine is not holy. Holy implies separate. The Divine is anything but.

A Different Desert Story

Hi all. Again, sorry for having been gone for so long. This is another repurposing of an essay I wrote, and I thought it might be fitting here. Again, anything that seems out of place is probably a relic of the prompt. I’m happy to explain further or answer any questions as you find necessary. Enjoy.

It seems both aptly fitting and horribly out of place for me to write about the presence of God right now, while I am in the midst of searching and yearning for any taste of the presence of God in my own life. On the one hand, I feel so much more connected to the Israelites in this moment than I ever have before; on the other hand, I sense a good deal of cynicism and loathing in the way I think, and thus write, about God. It is a very interesting and perplexing dichotomy in which I find myself. Given the choice, I am not sure that I would write about the presence of God in this season; actually, I am quite convinced my choice would be to run fast and far from it. However, I somehow feel called deeper in, as though I have my own wandering in the desert to do. That, and the small matter of its necessity for a decent grade in this class, is why I will continue to search for the presence of God, both through this essay and throughout this season, despite the warnings of my better nature.

Truth be told, I have been writing about the Exodus for quite some time, but only just realized it minutes before I sat down to write this essay. I run a personal blog entitled “Wandering the Desert” in which I explore issues of theology, ecclesiology, and sociology. I initially titled it this way after two different stories, the first being the many times in which Jesus found himself in the desert (or wilderness, but “Wandering the Wilderness” sounds far too much like the name of a poorly written teen adventure novel), the second being that of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These stories, and the framework for my blog, were always about leaving the world (or in my case, western Christianity) behind and exploring and growing in a place that, despite its threats, is somehow safer for this activity. I am beginning to think a third desert archetype needs to be incorporated, and is perhaps the most fitting of all in this season, namely, the Exodus story. I am not leaving “civilization” in strength, but in weakness; I am not boldly pursuing God, but waiting for God to find me and lead me through a place much too far from home.

I am aware that the prompt for this essay has instructed me to explore many different episodes of the presence of God, or, rather, to not limit this exploration to one episode. Rather than looking at many short episodes, however, I find it more compelling to look at the presence of God through the book of Exodus as a whole. Where might God be found in the wandering of the Israelites through the desert? How might God be present in their pain, anger, and hopelessness? Are they pursuing God, or is God leading them? Where does God show up when they cannot, and perhaps do not want to, see God?

It appears, at first glance, that this story is a triumphant one. God, in all God’s sovereignty and power, delivers the Israelites from the evil empire of the Egyptians. This would line up with Brueggemann’s first motif, that of deliverance. This reading has merit, yes, and certainly has its place, but it is (in my opinion) overused, and also not the lens through which I would like to view this story in this moment. Right now, this is not a triumphant story, but one of fear, of sadness, of desperation. God is found not with the mighty scepter of a king, leading the Israelites into glory, but with the comforting, outstretched arms of a mother consoling her child who has just woken up from a nightmare. The worst may be over, but the night still looms, and the morning seems to be a distant, even impossible, future. God makes Her presence known, comforts Her child, and leads this child through the darkness.

Perhaps, then, one ought to read this story as the establishment of the Israelites as God’s covenant people. God has joined with the Israelites and has made a covenant with them. Brueggemann highlights Exodus 6:7, “I will be your God and you shall be My people.”[1] The Israelites are a claimed people in relationship with a God. Again, this reading has much merit, but does not speak to me in the same way. Continuing with the earlier metaphor of mother and child, God’s action is not so much of establishing and reminding the Israelites of a relationship, but merely being present in the midst of incredible hopelessness. This story is not only about God saying to her child, “I am your Mother, and you are my child,” but more about simply being the arms that hold the Israelites as they wander aimlessly through the desert.

It would then appear that Brueggemann’s third motif—presence—would be the one with which I resonate most. However much I like the idea of God’s presence, I do not understand it or feel it in the Exodus story in the same way. Brueggemann notes the need for the Israelites’ holiness in order to experience the presence of God.[2] Again, this is not untrue, nor is it without its place, but I would read it differently. This perhaps stems from my belief that the Law was not divine in origin, but this is a different discussion for a different time. God breaks in to a world and to a people who need to be comforted and loved, to know that there is someone who is genuinely concerned with their well-being and desires to care for them. If I were a terrified child, I would not want my mother to remind me that she is my mother, but simply to hold and console me as I struggle to find hope.

So what then does this mean for us? How does the comforting and consoling presence of God impact 21st century western Christians who do not often find themselves wandering around in the desert, searching for basic necessities for survival?

Truth be told, I do not have a good answer to these questions. Perhaps, though, this can be a message about fear and hope. Perhaps we need to learn to be comfortable with tension, even to throw ourselves into it. Perhaps it is time for us to go deeper and broader, to allow ourselves to reckon with our hopelessness and fear, to wander our own deserts, and give God space to make God’s presence known, not only in joy and beauty, but in pain and suffering as well.

If God is only present in the light of the morning, I do not want a relationship with that God. Luckily for me, and for us, our God is present throughout the night. Now we must begin our own exodus, go out into the night, and let God find us there.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 65.

[2] Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 66.

God in the Garden

Hey all. I know it’s been ages since I last wrote–school and a significant health issue have eaten up all my free time, and then some. I’m back, but only sort of. Today, I’m posting a section from a paper I just wrote concerning the Trinity. Since I’m not a huge fan of classical theology, and I bet a lot of you aren’t either, I decided to give you a taste of a different understanding of the Trinity. Enjoy!

As a person who has a deep theological persuasion towards connection to the created world, it seems rather natural (at least to me) that my understanding of the Trinity would utilize an agricultural metaphor. Instead of using terms like “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” which I find to be somewhat restricting, arcane, and oppressive, I have chosen the terms “Creator,” “Gardener,” and “Harvester,” respectively. One may think of the plant being tended by this Trinity as many things, from the broad—all life—to the specific—a given individual or, perhaps (for the purposes of this response), congregation. I will address them in this order based on functional chronological process, not any form of hierarchy or preference.

The first of these, the Creator, is the one who builds the environment in which life may flourish. In this metaphor, the Creator articulates the rhythms of the Sun and Moon, sets in motion the patterns of the weather, providing essential sunshine, rain, temperature, and the like, and tills the soil and fills it with nutrients. Though one could make these claims literally of God, I intend them metaphorically. The Creator is about origins, or, to put it differently, is the source of life and the provider of the necessary elements by which such life may be sustained.

The second person in this Trinity is the Gardener, who cultivates life in the environment crafted by the Creator. The Gardener plants the seeds, tends to the sprouts, waters and fertilizes them, weeds the garden, provides stakes and trellises when necessary, and, overall, helps the plants to grow to their full potential. This role requires intimate connection with the plants. This means that the Gardener is, essentially, the one who teaches and guides the plants and provides them with the sustenance they need.

The Harvester, then, is the third person in this Trinity. I am sure this appears to be quite an odd title for such a being, and thus I must clarify, the act of harvesting in this metaphor is not an entirely accurate mirror image of the act of harvesting completed by actual farmers. The Harvester is not taking the fruit of the plants and selling it for a profit, or even using it as personal sustenance, but is rather helping it to fulfill its purpose. Fruit that stays on the vine is not doing much good, and will eventually rot without ever having nourished a single being. The Harvester takes that which has been cultivated by the Gardener and puts it to work in the world, or, rather, the Harvester is about commission, sending that which has been brought to fruition in the plants out to where it will be of the best use.

I am aware that this appears to be rather modalistic, but I would counter this critique by stating that it is not really possible to explain Trinitarian mathematics in any way that does not push the bounds of modalism, subordinationism, or Unitarianism. Thus, I have made my best attempt to develop some semblance of a working theology, a process that is by no means complete. The picture given here is a snapshot of where I am in this process, flaws and problems included. As a final note in this train of thought, I would like to press the point that while these three roles are distinct, I have yet to meet a farmer or gardener who does not fill each of these roles at some point in the fertile season. The three roles are indeed one person.

Please note that any phrases that seem out of place are likely connected to other parts of the paper or the class itself. I am happy to clarify if necessary.

God of the Open Door.

January is always a hard month for me.

I’m not sure why. It just always has been. There’s a number of different factors that play in to it, but none of them are enough on their own for me to actually despise the month. Yet, I do.

One day a couple weeks ago, though, instead of being angry for an entire month, I decided to try something different. I decided to pray. For hope, specifically. That’s all I wanted, all I needed to get me through the month. Hope.

The day after I did this, my husband came up to me and said that he’d been doing some math, and had come to the realization that we could save about $1500 over the next five months if we moved closer to where we work and go to school. We currently live in East St. Paul, and work in South Minneapolis, which means we spend about an hour total every day driving between cities–not from one destination to another, just the freeway driving between the two cities–if traffic is good. This equates to an unnecessary 300+ miles per week. Our ’96 Toyota Avalon gets about 20 mpg and we have a 15 gallon tank, so we’re wasting roughly an entire tank of gas every week. If we moved to Minneapolis, we would save essentially that much. Even if we broke our lease early and forfeited our security deposit, we’d still end up with something like $1000 or so saved by the time our lease would expire on its own (5/31). Furthermore, I hate the place we currently live, so I’ve been wanting to move out since day one. So, when he presented this to me, with the suggestion that we move, and quickly, I began to think that, perhaps, this was the answer to my prayer.

We asked our church community that night, both in person and on our community website, if anyone was looking for housemates or had a mother-in-law apartment to rent out, and got an email back the next day from a couple of friends who were looking to rent out their basement in exchange for childcare. We also checked Craigslist and found an amazing apartment that was twice the size of ours for $100 more per month, in the perfect location, and the building is a co-op. We posted our apartment on Craigslist and had a flood of people looking to sublease.

Hope continued to abound.

However, quickly, that hope gave way to anxiety. What if our friends’ basement didn’t work out? What if we didn’t get the apartment? What if none of the potential tenants’ applications were accepted? What if? What if? What if?

Depending on what I’m doing with my life, I have panic attacks somewhere between once or twice a month to nearly every day. This season has been more on the side of the latter.

So I kept praying. There was little else I could do.

But I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, I wanted to pray that God would just make all of this happen–a bit foolish, I know, but to my credit, I wasn’t exactly rational in the moment–that we would find the perfect person to take our apartment, that our friends’ basement would be a great in-between place, that we would get this particular apartment. On the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to pray this knowing that, should these prayers come to fruition, God would be taking away someone else’s free will in order to serve my desire.

I pondered this for a few days.

Finally, I came to the realization that I had missed a big chunk in the spectrum of prayer. I had created a dichotomy between praying for specific outcomes and not praying at all. That’s how I had been taught to pray, and those outcomes happening was how I was taught to judge a person’s holiness. If what they prayed for came true, God must be on their side.

Oh, how wrong this is.

Because the beautiful thing about God is that She is not the God of outcomes, but the God of the open door. She does not determine the future for us, but carves out new opportunities. Their fruition still requires certain responses from creation, responses creation has the free will to deny. She is ever the Creator, birthing new possibilities, new opportunities, new realities by the the second. She opens the doors; we, by our own volition, choose to go through certain ones, and to not go through others.

In some ways, my prayers changed. In other ways they were quite the same. I stopped praying for specifics, and instead asked for gracious hearts from my faith communities–for people willing to help, to search, to lend. I asked to be shown the doors that were already open–to have the living communities we want to be a part of put on my radar. I asked to be comforted, to be granted a spirit of patience (something I am truly in great need of).

Let hope abound. And oh, how it has. Because I no longer worry about specific outcomes. I trust that, as creation progresses, God is opening new doors, and leading us to those already in place, as we find our way by Her guidance.

I will leave you with this, a blessing we use at the Porch as a benediction, one we say as a community, to one another:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

When Hope Dwelled Among Us.

So, yesterday, Tony Jones began progGod round two. This time (in the spirit of Advent), it’s on the Incarnation. As a progressive and a theologian-in-training, I’m providing my thoughts. If you fit the same description, you should too.

I have to admit, I’ve never really heard a good theology of the Incarnation. The one that was most familiar to me in my time at my evangelical-Baptist college had something to do with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but since I (and many progressives) don’t hold to that Atonement theory, that Incarnation theory doesn’t work well. So we need something else.

When I read the Incarnation story, and the story of Jesus in general, I find five main reasons for Jesus’ coming (versus a divine act from on high without physical presence):

  1. Jesus came to restore creation to even more than its former glory, beauty, and fullness. In this, Jesus breathed new life into a creation in turmoil, giving it a new beginning and a new hope. Jesus did not come to “fix a problem,” but to completely undo and renew the whole of creation. This was a cosmological shift in reality. Not backwards to some previous perfection, not forwards to a coming utopia, but an altogether different direction.
  2. Jesus came to bring hope to the broken. By coming and changing the formerly unchangeable, Jesus stands as a beacon of hope for all who are broken and suffering, to say that better things are coming. This is where the “firstfruits” metaphor becomes relevant: Jesus sets in motion the beginning of a new age of hope and blessing.
  3. Jesus came to fight for the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus stood on the side of the outcasts of society, the otherwise unloved, and turned the whole system around to put them on top. We hear this one quite often, so I don’t feel the need to expound on this one much, I will say this: read the Sermon on the Mount if you have any question that this is true.
  4. Jesus came to issue a “revolutionary threat” to systems that produce injustice. Jesus stood up to those in power and called them into a new order; by submitting in a revolutionary way to their injustice, Jesus exposed it for exactly what it was and threatened its livelihood.
  5. Jesus came to teach followers how to reflect the divine to the world, and vice versa. Jesus came as both physical and divine, perfectly mirroring each realm to the other, and called us to do likewise. As the divine in the midst of humans, Jesus made love and all its compatriots abound. As a human uniquely and wholly intertwined in the divine, Jesus brought the world into relationship with the Creator in a way not previously possible.

All of this requires a physical existence:

  1. At the dawn of creation (however you choose to view it), God had to intervene in a physical way by creating existent matter. Jesus, in bringing about not simply repair, but restoration, must likewise intervene physically. A new beginning requires a new creation, and a new creation requires intervention.
  2. Jesus comes and does physical acts–feedings, healings, et cetera–as a promise that a new day is dawning. Without the physical presence of Christ, this promise is empty. Jesus is, as a human, the light in the midst of great darkness. Verbal or, more deeply, spiritual promises from God mean nothing if reality stays the same. Jesus broke through the wall separating God and creation and wove the promises into reality–physical healing and spiritual freedom, et cetera.
  3. Jesus cannot become one with the oppressed and marginalized without becoming oppressed and marginalized. Empathy and solidarity are two very different postures. Without Jesus’ suffering, we would not be able to confidently claim that God is on our side. Instead, it would appear quite the opposite.
  4. Holy texts have been used since their penning to justify horrible things. A physical Jesus cannot, while still present, be twisted in such a way. The “Word incarnate” language is relevant in this, that Jesus is a self-sent decree from on high which cannot be mangled when it can respond, dialogue, and critique.
  5. God cannot adequately teach humanity how to have a relationship simultaneously with the divine and the world if Jesus had not first modeled this. God cannot call us to this level of responsibility without modeling it first. If we are to be doing as Jesus did, Jesus has to have done this at some point.

All of this can be fairly well summed up to say that Jesus, in coming as both human and divine, was hope embodied. Hope for a creation groaning for restoration, hope for the broken waiting for a light to shine in their darkness, hope for the oppressed and marginalized in desperate need of a revolution, hope for leaders who have lost concern for justice, hope for all, that in this moment, the divine is being woven into the earthly. Hope that there is a God who is love and who desires for that very love to abound. When Jesus came, incarnate, hope dwelled among us. And the world was never the same.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The Nature of God, or Why I Don’t Care About Conversions

First of all, sorry for the break. We’ve had an interesting summer. And by interesting, I mean…challenging. Which means this hasn’t been a priority. Anyway.

Tony Jones recently posted a challenge to “progressive theo-bloggers” (I think that includes me) to write one post about God–not politics, or Jesus, or anything else, just God. Incidentally, the husband and I have been discussing the nature of God as we try to figure out how to lovingly, gently contend with his nearly-fundamentalist brother who has made it his mission to tell us we are wrong. About everything.

Super.

I had been trying to think of what to write about next, what was on my mind enough to warrant a post, but not too chaotic and emotionally charged to make sense. I have about ten drafts waiting to be finished. I don’t know if they ever will be. Tony’s challenge, then, came at a perfect time.

My husband was a reconciliation major, which means that his niche is social justice. This passion has spilled over to me as well. His brother recently sent him a facebook message that essentially said social justice is only good if God is being exalted, which, in his terms, means that justice is only good if people are being converted directly by you.*

It was at that point in reading his message that I realized: our disagreements with him are so much deeper than whether a certain issue is right or wrong. Our disagreements are about the nature of God and of faith themselves.

When you look at what he has said, you can see that what he values most is getting people to believe in God. If this does not happen, unbelievers will be sent to hell by this God, without concern for whether they were good or bad people. Thus, if you have the option of feeding a hungry person with food or with the Bible, you should always pick the Bible, because feeding them mere food won’t “get them saved.”

Beyond the plethora of theological flaws with that way of thinking, there is a bigger issue here: isn’t there more to God than that?

I would like to think that God is at least a little more intricate than your average nightclub bouncer.

There is this fantastic quote by which I form my life: “Do good works, and there you will find God.” I don’t have any clue who said it; I thought it was Mother Teresa for a long time, but when I googled it, her name and the quote were in no correlation with each other. If anyone knows, I’d love to pin down who said it. But, yes, the point. I believe, and have found it to be truthful, that God doesn’t always show up in sermons, or in church, or when someone asks me what I believe in. But God always shows up when good works are being done.

God is exalted when a hungry person is fed. God is exalted when a lonely person finds a friend. God is exalted when a homeless person has a place to stay. God is exalted when a poor person has a way to make ends meet.

God is exalted when all people join hands to serve each other, regardless of their religion.

Because God is bigger than a nightclub bouncer with a list of names; you’re in, you’re out. God does not focus on our words, but our hearts. God understands that our religion is more often a product of our culture and our geographical and historical location than it is our choice of beliefs. God understands that we don’t always get the right representation of love. God knows that it is more important for a person to choose to do good over evil than for them to choose the Bible over any other holy book.

Because God has welcomed all of us–every last one–to the table. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, black, white, male, female, queer, straight–doesn’t matter.

I’m sure God rejoices when Christ is shared and accepted. But I think God rejoices even more when love is shared and accepted.

And if God is willing to forgive our sins time and time again, I think God is willing to look past our religion and see who we truly are.

Do we care most about getting people to believe what we believe, making them like us? Or do we care most about giving love to all people, making ourselves like them?

I think the God who became a person, and a poor, homeless, socially unacceptable rebel at that, would want us to do the latter.

Because God is not confined to religion. God is, however, love.

 

 

*He did go on to explain it this way; I’m not putting words in his mouth, er, hands?